Little Fish Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83P/8
Lat / Long51.3666667, -112.2333333
51°22'N, 112°13'W
Area7.09 km2
Max depth3 m
Mean depth1.76 m
Dr. Basin Area157 km2
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinRed Deer River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishYellow Perch
Trophic StatusHyper-eutrohpic
TP x876 µg/L
CHLORO x77.1 µg/L
TDS x1168 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Little Fish Lake lies among rolling, grassy hills in the dry, wind-swept prairies of southern Alberta. The lake is located on the western edge of Special Area No. 2, about 185 km northeast of the city of Calgary. To reach the lake from the city of Drumheller, take Highway 10 south for 15 km and continue east along Secondary Road 573 for 25 km to Little Fish Lake Provincial Park (FIGURE 1). An alternate route is to follow Secondary Road 576 east from the city for 35 km, turn south on Secondary Road 851 and continue for 10.5 km to the provincial park. The closest population centre is the hamlet of East Coulee, about 15 km east of the lake.

The original name of Little Fish Lake was Lake of Little Fishes (Roen 1972). Native people dried and smoked fish from the lake for a winter food supply. Settlers also caught fish from the lake as an important food supplement. In early historic times the Blackfoot and Crow people both claimed the nearby Hand Hills area as a favorite buffalo-hunting ground, and territorial disputes were frequent. An old Indian trail that crossed the mouth of Willow Creek and led to Little Fish Lake still existed in 1972 (Roen 1972). The mixed-grass vegetation made the region ideal for cattle ranching and cattle grazed on the open range at the turn of the century. In 1909, the area was opened to homesteaders and the range land was fenced. In 1989, cattle grazing remained the primary land use in the region.

In 1934, land around Little Fish Lake was reserved for a park (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.[a]). A local organization built Fish Lake Hall shortly after, and the hall and lake were used by local residents for a number of years. Interest in the park revived in the 1950s, and in 1957, Little Fish Lake Provincial Park was established. Activities enjoyed at the park are camping, picnicking, power boating and wind surfing. The park covers 0.61 km2, and its facilities consist of 100 random campsites, picnic sites, a playground, a beach, a boat launch and tap water. In posted areas, all vessels are prohibited or power boats are restricted to maximum speeds of 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). There are no sport fishing regulations specific to Little Fish Lake, but Fish Creek and its tributaries are closed to sport fishing from 1 November to 15 June each year (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989[b]).

Little Fish Lake is an important staging area for waterfowl during fall migration. The lake is shallow, slightly saline, and very productive; algal blooms flourish in summer. Since the early 1980s, declining water levels and poor water quality have had a detrimental effect on recreational use of the lake (Monenco Consult. Ltd. 1987). Swimming in Little Fish Lake is not recommended because algal blooms occasionally become toxic during late summer (Charlton and Brennan 1986). Also, the yellow perch population has decreased considerably and, as of 1988, Fish and Wildlife Division suspended the perch stocking program (Lowe 1988). In 1987, Alberta Environment investigated the possibility of diverting water into the lake to regulate water levels and improve water quality (Monenco Consult. Ltd. 1987). However, the study suggested that additional water quality data should be collected to augment the available baseline information and that the current low water levels were a natural extreme. Water diversion into Little Fish Lake was not recommended.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Little Fish Lake is located on the southern edge of the Hand Hills, an ancient plateau that rises 225 m above the surrounding prairie (Thormin 1980). The terrain consists of rolling hills and steep-sided coulees (TABLE 1). Ground moraine and gravelly/sandy glaciofluvial materials are the major surficial deposits (Wallis and Wershler 1985); a commercial gravel pit operates south of the lake.

Water flows into Little Fish Lake primarily from the north via Fish Creek and several intermittent streams (FIGURE 1). The outflow is a tributary of Willow Creek, which eventually flows into the Red Deer River, but since the early 1960s, there has been no surface outflow from the lake (Monenco Consult. Ltd. 1987).

Little Fish Lake is part of the Mixed Grass Ecoregion (Strong and Leggat 1981). The natural vegetation mainly consists of several species of grasses, including grama, spear, June and wheat grasses, which are underlain by Orthic Dark Brown Chernozemic soils, the dominant soils in the region. The grasslands are very productive and well adapted to grazing. Agricultural land use in the area is primarily cattle grazing and secondarily hay production (Wallis and Wershler 1985). Shrub communities grow in depressions, coulees and seepage sites, and include clumps of snowberry, wild rose, sage, willow, buckbrush and saskatoon (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.). A small area in the north-central region of the watershed is part of the Hand Hills Ecological Reserve. Ecological reserves are maintained in their natural state and are used for nature appreciation, photography and wildlife viewing (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.[b]). The Hand Hills reserve is representative of natural prairie grasslands and is part of the largest area of northern fescue grassland left in the world. Rough fescue is the dominant grass and oat grass and bluegrass are secondary species. The forb community is lush, and is composed of Hedysarum spp., lily and Indian paint-brush (Wallis and Wershler 1985). Sedges grow around the lake.

Shoreline development at Little Fish Lake is limited to a small group of summer cottages on the south shore and the provincial park on the east shore. Most of the land adjacent to the lake is Crown land (FIGURE 2) and is leased for cattle grazing. Cattle have access to the lake on the north and west shores, and in these areas, the shoreline is heavily grazed (Hammer 1988).

Lake Basin Characteristics

The surface area of Little Fish Lake occupies about 5% of the drainage basin area (TABLE 2). The lake is 5.3-km long and 2.7-km wide. The oval-shaped basin slopes gently to the deepest areas (3 m), which are located offshore of the provincial park (FIGURE 2). The west and central areas of the lake are no deeper than 2 m. The lake sediments are sandy near the eastern shore, with mud, gravel and rock in other regions (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

In 1939, the elevation of Little Fish Lake, reported to be 897.3 m, appeared to have declined since the topographic survey of the lake area in 1920 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In the mid-1960s, water levels were high and outflow caused erosion at the lake's outlet. Consequently, in 1966, Ducks Unlimited (Canada) constructed a 27.4-m-long, fixed-crest earthfill weir with a natural spillway (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.). The structure was intended to prevent further reductions in water level and to create shallow bays to enhance waterfowl production. The level of the lake, however, has decreased continuously since it was first monitored in 1973 (FIGURE 3). Between 1975 and 1989, the surface elevation declined by about 3.4 m. The historic maximum water level, recorded on 11 June 1975, is 895.98 m, and the historic minimum water level, recorded on 26 July 1989, is 892.54 m. Figure 4 illustrates changes in the lake's area and capacity as the water level changes (up to an elevation of 893.87 m). The current low water levels should not be considered permanent, but rather a natural extreme brought about by the climatic conditions that have prevailed over the past few years. Surface runoff and precipitation have decreased while evaporation losses have increased, resulting in lowered lake levels. Alberta Environment studied the feasibility of diverting water into Little Fish Lake from either the Red Deer River or the Sheerness pipeline water supply, but the project benefit:cost ratio did not warrant lake regulation (Monenco Consult. Ltd. 1987). There is insufficient information to determine the role that groundwater plays in the lake's water balance.

Water Quality

Little Fish Lake was studied by Alberta Environment in 1983 as part of a preliminary investigation of water quality in southern Alberta lakes and reservoirs (Charlton and Brennan 1986) and again in 1985 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). The lake is alkaline and slightly saline, and the dominant ions are bicarbonate, carbonate and sodium (TABLE 3). The salinity may be increasing because of evaporative concentration as water levels decline (Monenco Consult. Ltd. 1987).

The entire water column mixed fairly continuously during the summer of 1983. Consequently, the water temperature was uniform throughout the lake, except for July when the water column was weakly thermally stratified (FIGURE 5). Dissolved oxygen levels remained high during the summer although the lake was weakly stratified from June through August (FIGURE 6). In winter, dissolved oxygen concentrations vary considerably from year to year (Lowe 1988). Levels were relatively high in March 1986 (8.5 to 10.0 mg/L at a depth of 3 m), but considerably lower in February 1987 (1.1 to 2.3 mg/L at a depth of 1.8 m). In March 1980 the water column was almost anoxic (0.8 mg/L).

Little Fish Lake is hyper-eutrophic; concentrations of phosphorus and chlorophyll a are among the highest reported in studies on other lakes in the province (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). In 1983, the midsummer and late fall maxima of chlorophyll a and total phosphorus (TABLE 4; FIGURE 7) may have resulted from phosphorus recycling from bottom sediments. However, little is known about internal loading of phosphorus in saline as compared with freshwater lakes. Because algal concentrations were high, the water was very murky throughout the open-water period, and Secchi depths were low. Even so, salinity may have depressed algal production to some extent (Bierhuizen and Prepas 1985).

Biological Characteristics


In 1983, the algal community in Little Fish Lake was studied by Alberta Environment (Charlton and Brennan 1986). Blue-green algae reached nuisance proportions in 1983 and 1984. Also, concerns were expressed by local residents when three dogs died after ingesting thick algal scum near the shore in 1982 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). Such toxic algal blooms are rare and unpredictable, and occur when common species of blue-green algae develop a toxic strain. In 1983, blue-green algae (Cyanophyta) were numerically dominant during August and September; the most common species were Microcystis aeruginosa and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae. These species were toxic during September when they were senescing.

Macrophytes are present only in small areas of the lake; plant growth is probably limited by lack of light penetration, wave action and the sandy substrate. In 1966, the species of submergent plants observed were northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens), Sago pondweed (Potamogeton pectinatus) and Richardson pondweed (Potamogeton richardsonii). The spike rush (Eleocharis sp.), an emergent plant, was found in shallow bays. In 1982, the most prominent submergent plant was large-sheath pondweed (Potamogeton vaginatus) (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.).


There are no data available on invertebrate species in Little Fish Lake.


Early in the twentieth century, fish were reported to be plentiful in Little Fish Lake. In the 1920s, people came from as far away as 30 km to catch fish with "fish nets, hay forks and horsefly nets", and wagonloads of fish were removed from the lake each year (Roen 1972). Since then, however, the fish population has declined dramatically. For example, northern pike and white suckers were abundant in 1939 but northern pike have since disappeared (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The last sauger was netted in 1970 (Wiebe 1978). Walleye eggs were stocked in 1978 and walleye fry in 1979, but the species did not survive. As well, yellow perch were stocked in 1956, 1958, 1960 and 1981 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1978; Alta. En. Nat. Resour. 1979; 1981).

In May 1983, 42 yellow perch and 102 white suckers were caught in test nets, and in July, the lake was stocked with 2,816 yellow perch (Alta. En. Nat. Resour. 1983; Lowe 1988). In June 1985, however, only four perch and one white sucker were caught in test nets. The success of fish-planting operations in Little Fish Lake is limited by the low dissolved oxygen levels during summer and winter. Fish restocking programs will not be continued until water levels increase and stabilize (Lowe 1988).


At least 15 species of ducks and shorebirds are regular summer residents on and around Little Fish Lake and nearby ponds. Ducks include Green-winged Teal, Mallards, Pintails, Blue-winged Teal, Shovellers, Gadwall, American Widgeons, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Ducks and American Coots (Wallis and Wershler 1985; Finlay and Finlay 1987). More than 30 additional species of waterbirds have been recorded as summer visitors or migrants to Little Fish Lake (Wallis and Wershler 1985). Although the sparse growth of aquatic plants limits nesting areas, the lake is an important staging area for waterfowl during migration. Canada Geese have been seen on the lake (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.) and the northwest shore is a regular resting site for flocks of hundreds to thousands of Snow Geese during fall migration (Wallis and Wershler 1985). Ross's Geese, White Pelicans, Common Loons, Whistling Swans and Common Mergansers also use the lake (Finlay and Finlay 1987). Little Fish Lake and the region within 0.8 km of the entire lakeshore is a Restricted Wildlife Area. Hunting of game birds is prohibited until 1 November each year (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.[a]). This restriction helps to minimize the impact of hunting on migration.

Shorebirds sighted at Little Fish Lake include Spotted Sandpipers, Wilson's Phalaropes, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Killdeer, American Avocets and Piping Plovers. The latter three species are found only at the northwest end of the lake. Upland Sandpipers nest well back from the lake on the sparsely vegetated backshore, while American Avocets nest closer to the water and on the islands that form periodically; Piping Plovers nest on pebbly portions of the shoreline.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Clay-coloured and Vesper sparrows, Sprague's Pipits, Prairie Falcons, Ferruginous and Swainson's hawks, and Sharp-tailed Grouse have been seen in the area (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

Mammals sighted near Little Fish Lake include pronghorn antelope, mule deer, white-tailed jackrabbits, Richardson's ground squirrels, badgers, coyotes and long-tailed weasels. Plains and western garter snakes have been seen in the grasslands (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

L.G. McIntyre


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