As I walked back to my car and packed away my gear, I reflected on the afternoon's fishing. The little stream, high and murky from spring rains, had produced a dozen wild rainbow trout. Two were 16 inches and one measured 19.
Even the small trout impressed me with their superior strength, stamina and beauty. What made all this so unusual was where I fished. I didn't travel to Montana, New Zealand or any other far away place. It all happened here in Missouri.
Most anglers don't know that rainbow trout have spawned naturally in our state for well over 100 years. The Missouri Fish Commission first obtained rainbow trout eggs in 1880 from a hatchery on California's McCloud River. Later, the young fish were stocked along the "Frisco" railroad in the Ozarks. Some Missouri wild trout trace their ancestry to those early stockings. Today, you can find wild rainbow trout in about 100 miles of streams in at least 14 south Missouri counties.
Trout require cold water but can tolerate water temperatures in the upper 70s for a few hours a day. Missouri's wild trout are normally restricted to spring branches or the first few miles downstream of a large spring. In the Missouri Ozarks, springs maintain a fairly constant temperature of about 56 to 59 degrees, so trout can survive through the summer. In hot, dry years, as spring flows decrease, populations in some streams decrease to only a few fish living near the coldest water. If the survivors are protected, they can reproduce, and the population can increase when cooler, wetter conditions return.
Wild rainbow trout spawn from the first week of December to mid-March. A female selects a site at the tail of a pool or riffle. She digs a pit or "redd" in the gravel with her tail. The male joins her and, remaining by her side, fertilizes the eggs as she lays them. Then, the female digs another pit immediately upstream, burying the eggs under the clean gravel. The pair may repeat this process several times. Unlike many other fish, neither the male or female trout guards the nest and developing eggs.
Eggs hatch in about 23-days, if not destroyed by a winter flood or eaten by burrowing insects or sculpins. They hatch with their own 20 day food supply, in the form of a yolk sac. After the yolk sac is absorbed, the fish swim to the surface and begin to feed on their own. Their life-long struggle to find enough food to survive, without becoming food themselves, now begins.
The newly emerged trout find shelter in slow moving water along stream edges, often behind rocks or near aquatic plants. As they grow and become stronger, they move to deeper and swifter areas, taking refuge from the current behind large rocks, logs or rootwads. Trout can save energy in these areas, and can easily catch drifting prey. These areas also provide a good view of potential predators - kingfishers, herons, larger fish and humans. Adult trout seldom venture far from cover of deep water, undercut banks, logjams, rootwads or the turbulent waters of a riffle.
Cold water streams harbor a rich variety of aquatic insects, crayfish and small fishes. Thanks to abundant food and moderate stream temperatures, Missouri trout grow rapidly, reaching 5 to 7 inches by the end of their first year. Two-year-old fish reach 7 to 10 inches and by the end of their third year some approach 14 inches - spawning size.
Their constant struggle against the current keeps wild stream trout in top physical condition. Hatchery trout lead a comparatively easy life in placid waters, growing fat on fish pellets. Wild trout, however, must find, capture and kill all their food. "It's like comparing timber wolves to lap dogs" says a friend. Anglers accustomed to hatchery trout will be amazed at the strength and fighting ability of small 8- or 9-inch wild rainbows and thrilled by the power of larger fish.
Wild trout are also barometers of environmental health. They survive only in the coldest, cleanest waters of our state. Pollution from municipal, agricultural or industrial sources and stream disturbances from gravel mining, livestock
grazing and removal of streamside trees threaten wild trout and their habitat.
If you've never fished for wild trout, be ready to change tactics. First, don't expect to walk up to the edge of a pool and see trout as you would in a trout park. On a wild trout stream, all you may see is fish darting to the nearest rootwad! Remember, only shy and cautious trout survive in the wild.
Approach a wild trout like you'd approach any wild animal, slowly and cautiously. Stay low and out of sight as much as possible. Approach from behind (downstream), and keep your casts to a minimum. Learn to read the water so you'll know where the trout are without actually seeing them.
Some stream sections that have reproducing wild trout are designated Wild Trout Management Areas. The fishing regulations in these areas are specifically designed to protect and enhance the wild trout populations. The regulations include length limits, creel (bag) limits, no harvest regulations and gear restrictions that reduce harvest and decrease mortality.
As a result, several trout streams now provide excellent wild trout fishing through natural reproduction and no stocking is needed. Streams and the trout they support can also be conserved by putting them into public ownership. The Conservation Department cooperates with conservation groups to purchase land along trout streams, and we plan to acquire more from willing sellers.
Heavy spring rains and the easy fishing they brought were a distant memory by October. Through the summer, I'd watched streams steadily shrink to a mere ribbon of transparent water. So, on a sunny fall day, my expectations were modest. "I'll be happy with a few little ones today," I thought.
But even my most careful casts over those still pools sent spooky wild rainbows racing for cover. They had seen their share of clumsy anglers through the low, clear water of a long, hot summer. My expectations sank even further.
I cast to the top of the pool, letting the riffle float the big dry fly under the overhanging bushes. "Now that's a tempting morsel for some trout," but before I could finish the thought, the fly disappeared in a swirl. I tightened, and the rainbow leapt into the branches, threading my line through them. I waded in, freed the line and still felt the pull of a good trout. The hook held through two more jumps before I eventually eased the fat 16-incher into shallow water. After a quick photo I released the fish, none the worse for our brief encounter.
It was my way of ensuring that we would continue to have wild trout in Missouri.
The Conservation Department manages the Wild Trout Management areas listed here. Except where noted, all trout less than 18 inches must be released unharmed immediately after being caught. Fishing is restricted to artificial lures and flies only. Synthetic eggs and soft plastic lures are specifically prohibited. The daily limit is one 18-inch or larger trout.
What does catch-and-release fishing mean to you? Should you release every fish caught, fish you don't intend to eat or all fish of a certain species? Ask ten anglers and you'll probably get ten different answers - some with heartfelt conviction.
Strong catch-and-release proponents feel all fish deserve release. Others feel mandatory catch-and-release is not needed and infringes on their rights. However, under normal circumstances some catch-and-release and some harvest is the best way to manage most fish populations and ensure the continuation of sport fishing.
Harvesting some fish is often a good idea. It ties sport fishing to our ancestors through the pursuit and use of fish as food. Most people understand the logic of fishing for something that is nutritious and delicious. Most also realize fish are a renewable resource. In some situations, the harvest of small, slow-growing fish from overcrowded populations (sunfish, bass, etc.) is necessary to improve the growth rate of the remaining fish.
Voluntary catch-and-release is a good idea in many situations. If fish are properly handled and not deeply hooked, they'll survive being caught and perhaps give other anglers the enjoyment of catching them. As fishing holes get more crowded, catch-and-release helps ensure quality fishing. In some instances, mandatory catch-and-release is needed to allow a fish population to replenish itself or to protect an outstanding fishery from overharvest.
Espousing one philosophy (mandatory catch-and-release or intensive harvest) over the other drives a wedge into the angling community and does the sport of fishing a disservice. Fishing is a great pastime. Let's not let our enthusiasm for any particular philosophy of fishing create the mistaken impression in the minds of non-anglers that fishing may not be a legitimate recreational opportunity and wise use of our renewable natural resources.
In the movie The Lion King we heard about "the circle of life." The phrase suggests the interaction of everything in our natural environment (including us); everything relates to everything else. Fish need bugs. Bugs need plants. Plants need water and so on. When part of the circle is lost, the system is damaged and risks extinction.
So it is with sport fishing. Throughout history, humans have been predators in the circle of life. And we still are. To deny it is to deny our existence within the natural environment and our rightful place within the circle of life. We could lose track of how natural systems function and make poor decisions on how to maintain them.
Fishing is a wonderful sport. It allows for personal choices on many fronts (tackle, methods, etc.) including catch-and-release and harvest philosophies. Understanding both strengthens angling and helps anglers better appreciate our sport.
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