Pigeon Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83A/13, 83B/16, 83G/1, 83H/4
Lat / Long53.0166667, -114.0333333
53°1'N, 114°1'W
Area96.7 km2
Max depth9.1 m
Mean depth6.2 m
Dr. Basin Area187 km2
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinBattle River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishNorthern Pike, Lake Whitefish, Walleye, Yellow Perch
Trophic StatusEutrophic
TP x32 µg/L
CHLORO x12.8 µg/L
TDS x164 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Pigeon Lake is a large, very popular recreational lake located in the counties of Wetaskiwin and Leduc, within easy driving distance from the cities of Edmonton, Leduc and Wetaskiwin. It is located about 60 km southwest of Edmonton and can be reached by taking Highway 2 south of the city, then following Highway 13 west to Ma-Me-O Beach on the south end of the lake. Several secondary roads provide good access to most of the lakeshore (FIGURE 1).

The lake was once known as "Woodpecker Lake", a translation from the Cree name Hmi-hmoo, but by 1858, the name Pigeon Lake was in use (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). The name probably originates from the huge flocks of Passenger Pigeons that once ranged over the area (Falun Hist. Soc. 1974). In 1847, Reverend Robert Rundle established Rundle Mission on the northwest shore; this agricultural settlement, which was Alberta's first Protestant mission, is commemorated by a cairn at Mission Beach (Warburg Dist. Hist. Soc. 1977). A Hudson's Bay Company trading post was built on the west shore in 1868, but operated only until 1875 (Falun Hist. Soc. 1974). In 1896, Pigeon Lake Indian Reserve was established on the southeast shore. Later, the summer village of Ma-Me-O Beach was developed at the south end of the lake on land obtained from the Indian reserve in 1924. Ma-Me-O is a Cree word meaning "white pigeon". Logging, commercial fishing and farming were important livelihoods of residents of the area in the early 1900s. Near the hamlet of Mulhurst, a sawmill operated year-round, and a fish-packing plant operated during winter (Millet Dist. Hist. Soc. 1978).

At present, Pigeon Lake is one of the most intensively used recreational lakes in Alberta. There are over 2,300 private cottage lots in 10 summer villages and 9 unincorporated subdivisions (FIGURE 2) (Battle R. Reg. Plan. Commis. 1985). Approximately 10% of the cottages are permanent homes. In 1985, the hamlet of Mulhurst on the northeast shore had a population of 295 people and the hamlet of Westerose on the southeast shore had a population of 87 people (Co. Wetaskiwin 1988). As well, there are about 200 people living on the Pigeon Lake Indian Reserve (Four Bands Admin. 1988). They are members of the Louis Bull, Ermineskin, Samson and Montana bands.

Two provincial parks are located on Pigeon Lake. Ma-Me-O Beach Provincial Park, located within the summer village, was established in 1957 (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). It is the smallest provincial park in Alberta (area of 0.016 km2). The park is open from the Victoria Day weekend to 15 September and provides day-use services only. Facilities include a picnic shelter, a playground, toilets and pump water. A sandy beach is nearby. Pigeon Lake Provincial Park was established on the west side of the lake in 1967 (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). Alberta Recreation and Parks acquired nearby Zeiner Park (formerly operated by the County of Leduc) in 1981 and incorporated it into the provincial park (FIGURE 2). There are 180 campsites in the main campground and 116 sites at Zeiner Campground; facilities include beaches, boat launches, change houses, docks, flush and vault toilets, picnic shelters, a concession, group camping, sewage disposal, tap water, walking trails, a telephone and playgrounds. The park offers camping from early May to mid-October, and is open for day-use activities year-round (Wilson 1988).

Another public recreational facility at Pigeon Lake is the Mission Beach Campground at Mission Beach. It is operated by Alberta Transportation and has nine campsites, picnic tables, one picnic shelter and a water pump (Danchuk 1988). Additional public access points, with boat launches, are available at Mulhurst and at the summer village of Ma-Me-O Beach. Commercial recreational facilities at the lake include two campgrounds located in the Indian reserve at either side of the summer village of Ma-Me-O Beach and golf courses located at Mulhurst and near Westerose. Institutional facilities consist of eight youth and church group camps situated along the lakeshore.

Water sports such as swimming, power boating, sailing, windsurfing, water skiing and sport fishing are popular. In posted areas of the lake, all boats are prohibited or subject to a maximum speed of 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

The water quality of Pigeon Lake is typical of large, shallow lakes in central Alberta. The water is green for much of the summer, but nuisance algal blooms are rare. The lake supports active commercial and domestic fisheries, and sport fishing for yellow perch, walleye and northern pike is popular year-round. A portion of Pigeon Lake Creek downstream from the lake is closed to fishing during designated periods in spring (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Pigeon Lake has a relatively small watershed that is only twice the size of the lake (Tables 1, 2; FIGURE 1). Water flows into the lake through several intermittent streams that drain the western and northwestern portions of the drainage basin. The outlet is Pigeon Lake Creek, which flows from the south end of the lake in a southeasterly direction to the Battle River.

The relief in the drainage basin is fairly low; most areas range from level to undulating (0 to 5% slope) particularly near the lake, to gently rolling (5 to 9% slope) (Lindsay et al. 1968). Surficial deposits in the drainage basin are predominantly glacial till that originated from the Paskapoo bedrock formation underlying the area. The dominant soils are Orthic Gray Luvisols, which are present throughout the drainage basin. These are moderately well-drained soils developed on glacial till. Soils to the north and west have moderately severe limitations for crop production (Can. Dept. Reg. Econ. Expansion 1972). Pockets of Organic soil formed from undifferentiated moss and sedge parent material are scattered throughout the watershed and along the lakeshore. At the southeast end of the lake, in the region of Pigeon Lake Creek and Ma-Me-O Beach, Eluviated Black Chernozemic soils have developed on alluvial-aeolian material (Bowser et al. 1947).

The forest cover in the drainage basin is dominated by trembling aspen. Balsam poplar grows in poorly drained locations, such as along some areas of the lakeshore. Approximately 50% of the drainage basin is forest-covered, 46% is cleared for agriculture and 4% is developed for cottage and residential use (FIGURE 1). Crops on cultivated land are mainly feed grains and hay. There are a number of cow-calf operations in the watershed and several small feed lots, but there is little cattle grazing within 3 km of the lake (Pinkoski 1988). There are two oil fields adjacent to Pigeon Lake: the Pembina Field covers the northwestern region of the drainage basin and the Bonnie Glen Field is located in the southeastern portion (Pigeon L. Study Group 1975).

The only Crown land around the lake is in the two provincial parks and in a quarter section west of the lake. The latter has the status of Protective Notation and is reserved for recreation (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987).

Lake Basin Characteristics

Pigeon Lake is large and roughly oval, with one simple basin that is fairly shallow. The lake bottom slopes gently to a maximum depth of about 9 m near the centre (FIGURE 2). The littoral zone extends to a depth of 4.5 m (Haag and Noton 1981) and occupies 25% of the surface area of the lake. A large proportion of the sediments in the littoral zone are coarse-textured (Haag and Noton 1981; FIGURE 3). Wave-deposited sand occurs at the southeast end, offshore from Ma-Me-O Beach.

Wide, sandy beaches occur along 28% of the shoreline, such as at Ma-Me-O Beach, Zeiner Park, Itaska Beach and between Silver Beach and Argentia Beach (Pigeon L. Study Group 1975). About 42% of the shoreline has a gentle gradient, but lacks a sandy beach. Low-lying regions of wetland with very gentle slopes occur along 19% of the shore, such as at the northwest end near Zeiner Campground. The remaining 11% consists of a steeply sloping backshore with no beach area, as is found in the area of Crystal Springs.

A wooden control structure, with a sill elevation of about 850 m, was first built by the federal government on the outlet of Pigeon Lake at Pigeon Lake Creek in 1914 (Alta. Envir. 1982). It was rebuilt in 1939/40 and had a fixed-sill level of 849.78 m. The purpose of the weir was to regulate the flow through Pigeon Lake Creek during late summer to prevent the flooding of hay fields. By 1980, lakeshore residents expressed concerns about high lake levels (FIGURE 4). In 1981, the lake level fell from 850.65 m to 850.21 m after the outlet structure and creek channel were cleared and maintained. In 1986, Alberta Environment replaced the old weir with a new two-bay structure with two stop logs and a Denil II fish ladder (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). The weir is usually operated with one stop log in place to maintain the lake level at an elevation of 849.95 m. Between 1972 and 1987, the water level fluctuated over a range of about 1 m, which is a typical fluctuation for many lakes in central Alberta. The area and volume of the lake would change relatively little as a result of this fluctuation (FIGURE 5).

Water Quality

The water quality of Pigeon Lake was studied by the University of Alberta between 1973 and 1975 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]), and since 1983 there has been an ongoing monitoring program conducted jointly by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]; 1989). The lake was also sampled by Alberta Environment in 1988 as part of a pilot project using cottage owners to collect water samples (Nelson and Mitchell 1988). In 1982, a water quality study was commissioned by the Battle River Regional Planning Commission (Hardy Assoc. (1978) Ltd. 1983).

Pigeon Lake is a well-buffered, freshwater lake; bicarbonate and calcium are the dominant ions (TABLE 3).

The water mixes from the lake surface to the bottom on windy days during most of the open-water period, and the temperature is usually uniform. Dissolved oxygen concentrations remain high throughout the water column (FIGURE 6). By late winter, dissolved oxygen may be depleted near the bottom, but winterkill of fish is unlikely because there is sufficient dissolved oxygen in the upper portion of the water column.

Pigeon Lake is mildly eutrophic (TABLE 4). There is considerable year-to-year variation in the average levels of total phosphorus and chlorophyll a. Total phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations increase during summer to peak levels in late August (FIGURE 7). This pattern is typical of shallow lakes in Alberta and is probably caused by a recycling of phosphorus into the water column from the bottom sediments. This internal supply of phosphorus may be very significant in maintaining summer algal populations in Pigeon Lake. Precipitation and dustfall onto the lake surface provide a large part (38%) of the total external phosphorus supply, but the largest portion is derived from various types of land-use in the watershed (TABLE 5).

Biological Characteristics


There are no data on the phytoplankton in Pigeon Lake.

The distribution of aquatic macrophytes was surveyed in 1981 as part of an Alberta Environment study to determine the effects of lake level stabilization (FIGURE 8). Plant cover was generally low along most of the shoreline at depths less than 1.5 m and was highest where fine sediments accumulated. The most frequently occurring species were northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens), stonewort (Chara sp.), and Richardson pondweed (Potamogeton richardsonii).

Northern watermilfoil tended to grow in areas of low turbulence, and was found at slightly greater depths than Richardson pondweed. Cottage owners consider Richardson pondweed a nuisance because of its high density in shallow water. Also abundant was widgeon grass (Ruppia occidentalis). The high frequency of widgeon grass was surprising, because it is usually found in saline water. The dominant emergent species was common great bulrush (Scirpus validus). It was found in shoreline areas without lakefront cottages; its distribution is limited by substrate type and cutting by cottage-owners.


A graduate student at the University of Alberta examined the zooplankton and benthic invertebrate fauna of Pigeon Lake (Bidgood 1972). The standing crop of zooplankton was examined monthly at one station from June 1970 to June 1971. Copepods were abundant throughout the open-water period, particularly in May and June. The most common copepod was Diacyclops bicuspidatus thomasi. Diaptomus sp. was also common. Cladocerans were less numerous; the highest numbers occurred in midsummer. One species of Daphnia was dominant, and another cladoceran, the large Leptodora kindtii, was also present.

Sand, silt and rubble substrates in Pigeon Lake were sampled monthly for benthic invertebrates between July 1970 and June 1971 with a 15-cm Ekman dredge. The highest number of invertebrates was observed in March; the dominant organism was Hyalella azteca, an amphipod, which was found mainly on sandy substrates (3-m deep). Midge larvae (Chironomidae) were abundant on silt substrates in August.


Pigeon Lake is managed for commercial, domestic and recreational fisheries. Species of fish in the lake include lake whitefish, white sucker, burbot, yellow perch, walleye, northern pike, spottail shiner, emerald shiner, trout-perch and Iowa darter (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Bidgood 1972). Walleye were present in commercial catches prior to 1963/64, but subsequently the population died out. They were stocked in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983 and 1984 and a small population has become established once again (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Important spawning areas for lake whitefish are on boulder, rubble and sand substrate, particularly at the southeast end of the lake offshore from the Indian reserve (Bidgood 1972). Partial summerkills of yellow perch have been recorded, such as in May 1965. The cause of mortality was not determined, although both disease and temperature shock were suggested (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Pigeon Lake has been fished commercially for lake whitefish since 1918. The fishery averaged 81,194 kg of fish annually between 1918 and 1939. Between 1939 and 1946, an unlimited catch was allowed, to determine the effects of over-exploitation of the whitefish population (Miller 1947; 1956). The annual harvest exceeded 181,400 kg until 1946, after which the fishery collapsed. After several seasons with restricted quotas, normal quotas were restored in 1951/52. The population apparently recovered, but following large harvests (averaging 141,515 kg annually) between 1954/55 and 1960/61, yields began to decline. A reduction in mesh size resulted in increased yields, but in the 1960s many of the lake whitefish harvested were below the minimum allowable commercial size of 0.7 kg (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Between 1968 and 1972 a researcher at the University of Alberta conducted a study to identify factors causing a decrease in size-at-age of lake whitefish since 1956 (Bidgood 1972). The size of six age-classes of fish collected from Pigeon Lake were significantly lower than those of similarly collected fish from Buck Lake (30 specimens for each age class from each lake). It was concluded that growth rates of Pigeon Lake whitefish declined as their abundance increased because the populations of their main predators, northern pike and walleye, had declined. It was thought that competition for food directly affected the size-at-age of the whitefish. It was further speculated that aquatic vegetation removal by cottage owners reduced predator populations. No significant improvement in the size-at-age of lake whitefish has occurred since that time (Buchwald 1988).

Between 1968/69 and 1987/88, the average annual commercial harvests were 89,844 kg of lake whitefish, 54 kg of walleye (captured in 5 years only) and 3,463 kg of northern pike. Burbot and white suckers are a small part of the commercial catch. The yield of northern pike has increased considerably since 1974/75 and walleye have been present in the catch since 1983/84. The commercial fishery is prohibited in waters within 800 m of the lakeshore to protect northern pike, and from the northwest corner of the lake to reduce conflict with the popular winter sport fishery (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Buchwald 1988). The Indian domestic fishery is fairly active on Pigeon Lake. In 1987/88 there were 33 domestic licences issued, but there are no catch statistics available (Stenton 1989).

The winter recreational fishery has become very popular since the 1960s (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In 1972/73, 9,244 kg of lake whitefish were caught by anglers between January and April, a catch rate of 0.50 fish/angler-hour. In 1973/74, 4,940 kg were caught from December to April, a catch rate of 0.34 fish/angler-hour. Lake whitefish accounted for over 95% of the total number of fish caught. The most popular location for angling was the north end near Gilwood Beach (Kraft and Shirvell 1975).


Pigeon Lake does not provide good waterfowl habitat because shalow, marshy areas are scarce, but the lake is important as a staging area during fall migration (Hardy Assoc. (1978) Ltd. 1983). Nesting colonies of gulls and terns have been reported; a Great Blue Heron colony in Pigeon Lake Provincial Park contained 16 active nests in 1987 (Buchwald 1988).

L. Hart Buckland-Nicks and P.A. Mitchell


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