Roger Terwilliger, president of the Gallatin/Madison chapter of Walleyes Unlimited, moved to Townsend in the 1990s. He came to enjoy the small-town lifestyle and to fish. And he’s kept a close watch on nearby Canyon Ferry Lake ever since.

“When I first started fishing here you could go out on the ice for the day and fill two 5 gallon buckets with yellow perch,” Terwilliger said, “but they’d all be 6 inches long.”

Today, the average size of the yellow perch in Canyon Ferry is considerably larger, but populations are at historic lows. When the new state fishing regulations are issued on March 1, the already strict limit for yellow perch will be tightened further, from 15 down to 10 fish daily and in possession.

In an effort to boost the yellow perch population in Canyon Ferry Lake, Walleyes Unlimited chapters from the Bozeman and Helena areas joined with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in the mid-1990s. The Pines for Perch program recycles used Christmas trees to create spawning habitat for yellow perch.

“We are trying to bolster the sport fishery for yellow perch and the prey base for other fish,” FWP Pines for Perch program coordinator Adam Strainer said Monday. “By placing the trees we are building a base for spawning habitat.”

Strainer said yellow perch numbers began to decline in the mid-1990s when the walleye population really took hold in Canyon Ferry. Yellow perch need shoreline vegetation to spawn. Because the lake level fluctuates as much as 12 feet due to spring runoff and dam discharge, spawning habitat for yellow perch is at a premium. That’s where the Pines for Perch program comes into play.

“We are at the very bottom of where we want to see yellow perch,” Strainer said. “Most of the perch you catch are big fish, which indicates a low juvenile population.”

Strainer said using old Christmas trees to build habitat just makes sense.

“For the cities and communities involved, it is fairly cost effective not having to chip the trees,” Strainer said. “It is less a recycle and more of an ‘upcycle’ of Christmas trees.”

Walleyes Unlimited helps defer the cost of Christmas tree collection by paying for transport of the trees to Canyon Ferry Lake. Residents of Bozeman can donate their trees to the program by dropping them off at the collection site at the BMX Park on Tamarack Street. Trees will be collected on Jan. 11. Residents of Belgrade can leave their Christmas trees curbside where they will be collected and later trucked to Canyon Ferry. Residents of other communities can donate their trees by dropping them at the tree pile near The Silos at Canyon Ferry Lake.

Strainer said volunteers pick a date in late February or early March to assemble the Christmas tree “reefs” to be dropped in the lake. The trees are strung on 75-foot lengths of cable weighted with concrete blocks. Each structure weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds. The “reefs” are then lifted by helicopter and dropped along the southern shoreline of Canyon Ferry Lake.

“We receive about 3,500 trees annually, which equates to about 40 ‘reefs,’” Strainer said. “By placing these trees, we hope to bolster the population and the forage base.”

Ben Pierce can be reached at bpierce@dailychronicle.com and 582-2625.

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