A License to Fish

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

In 1804, when the Lewis and Clark expedition began its ascent up the Missouri River, the group's fishing tackle for the two-year trip included about 10 pounds of fish hooks and fishing line. Nowadays, most Missouri anglers pack more tackle than that for a day of bass or crappie fishing!

Lewis and Clark didn't pack any fishing lures, and they didn't worry about fishing regulations or fishing licenses during their expedition. That's because artificial fishing lures and fishing regulations were not used until the late 1800s, and fishing licenses weren't required in Missouri until the early 1900s.

From 1816 to 1877, a number of game laws were in effect in Missouri, but Missouri's first official fisheries action occurred in 1878, when the first State Fish Commissioner, Col. John Reid, was appointed. The next year, the Missouri Fish Commission was formed when two additional commissioners were appointed.

In the early years, the primary function of the Fish Commission was to oversee the distribution of fish received from federal hatcheries and the construction of Missouri's first state hatcheries. In 1882, the Fish Commission obtained the first Missouri Fish Car--a specially outfitted, used railroad car. Between 1880 and 1887, the Commission stocked the first rainbow trout in Missouri, plus many bass, crappie, and other species.

Around 1890, the Missouri Legislature enacted two of our state's first fisheries regulations. One banned gillnetting and seining during the month of April, and the other stipulated that no person was allowed to prevent the free passage of fish in Missouri rivers and streams.

In 1895, Fish Commissioner J.T. Crisp wrote: "Let it be known and appreciated that if we would have our glorious rivers and streams and creeks swarm once more, as in the earlier days, when the crappie, bass, and channel cat were as common upon the tables of all as beef now is, that planting (fish stocking) and protection must go hand in hand." Commissioner Crisp also lamented the woes caused by the "trammel-netters and dynamiters."

Around this same time, sport fishing was becoming much more popular throughout the country. The fishing tackle industry was set to supply the needs of a burgeoning sport fishing market, while jewelers in Kentucky and Missouri were making some of the finest fishing reels ever made.

The period from 1905 through 1937 was one of the most interesting from a fishing standpoint. Missouri's first comprehensive game and fish law was enacted in 1905. The Walmsley Game and Fish Law established Missouri's first hunting licenses. The licenses were good statewide at a cost of $1 for residents and $15 for non-residents. No license was required for fishing. The Walmsley Law banned the use of dynamite for fishing. It also banned gillnetting, fish trapping, gigging and trotlines from July through March in all waters except the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Perhaps this was one of the reasons anglers began to buy more artificial lures available from companies like Heddon and Shakespeare!

The Walmsley Law also incorporated the earliest length-limit regulations for fish. To be sold in commercial markets, crappie and trout had to be at least 8 inches. Bass and jack salmon (walleye) had to be at least 11 inches.

In April 1907, the General Assembly enacted a revised game law that was more lenient toward the use of trotlines and gigs. It was also much more restrictive toward non-residents, requiring a $15 license in each county where they desired to hunt or fish. The non-resident licenses, which included fishing, were issued only until August 1909 because of public and political pressure. These 1907-1909 non-resident hunting and fishing licenses are extremely rare. Not even the Missouri State Archives has one. During this same period, James Heddon was selling his famous Dowagiac "150" Minnow in well made wooden boxes. These lures and their boxes are rare today.

In 1909, the Missouri Game and Fish Commission was appointed, and it submitted its first annual report in 1910. The unique Charmer Minnow was being made in Springfield, and by 1913 it was probably being used on newly impounded Lake Taneycomo. Lake Taneycomo did not become a coldwater lake suitable for trout until 1959, when Table Rock Lake was built above it.

In its Biennial Report to the Governor for 1917-1918, the Missouri State Fish Commission recommended that fishing licenses be required for all male residents and non-residents who fish in public waters. The Commission also recommended that the law should exempt all male residents under 21 years of age. The Commission justified this recommendation with the following statement: "The absolute justice of compelling male residents and non residents who fish in public waters to contribute a small sum towards perpetuating the supply cannot be questioned, . . . a small fee for residents and a larger one for non-residents cannot be considered excessive or burdensome. Practically without exception anglers throughout the state are anxious and willing to pay a license fee to help stock the state waters with fish."

In 1919, the Missouri Fish Commission was abolished, and the Game and Fish Commission assumed responsibility for all game and fish regulations and fish stocking. Licenses were again required for non-resident anglers. For the first time, licenses were required for residents to hunt and fish. All residents could continue to fish without a license within the boundaries of the county in which they resided. However, male anglers age 21 or over were required to buy the $1 County License to fish (and hunt) in the counties which adjoined their county of residence, or a $2.50 State License to fish (and hunt) anywhere in the state. For the cost of a County License, an angler could have bought one of several Heddon fishing lures, such as the Spin Diver.

An interesting addition to the 1919 fishing regulations was the ban on "logging" or "hand fishing," which was intended to stop unsportsmanlike harvest of fish.

The Missouri Game and Fish News was the forerunner to the Missouri Conservationist. When the Game and Fish News began publication in 1925, Heddon was already selling its famous Vamp and jointed Game Fisher lures, and the Creek Chub Pikie was getting popular. During the next few years, Bennett Spring, Montauk, and Roaring River became state parks.

From 1927, when the first seasons and creel limits for sport fish were enacted, through 1931, when Lake of the Ozarks was impounded, the unusual Heddon Luny Frog was being sold. By 1932, the Springfield Novelty Company was producing the Reel Lure.

In 1935, the Conservation Federation of Missouri was established. The new organization started a petition drive to establish non-political administration of Missouri's fish, wildlife and forestry resources.

On November 3, 1936, voters passed Constitutional Amendment 4, creating the present day Conservation Commission. It's mission was "to make adequate and effective the control, management, restoration, conservation and regulation of bird, fish, game, forestry, and all wildlife resources of the state." The first meeting of the new Conservation Committee was on July 2, 1937.

The newly formed Missouri Department of Conservation hired their first fisheries biologist, Albert E. Weyer, in 1939. Many of the anglers he talked to on Lake of the Ozarks were probably trying the new plastic Zara Spook, and other Heddon "spook" lures.

In 1940 the new Wildlife and Forestry Code included many new statewide fishing regulations, such as:

Crappie 12 per day 7-inch minimum
Black Bass 8 per day 10-inch minimum
Catfish 8 per day 13-inch minimum
Jack Salmon (walleye) 4 per day 13-inch minimum

At that time, Paw-Paw lures like the Caster and Wotta-Frog were gaining popularity. Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, plastic lures became more common, while many of the classic wooden lures faded out of production.

From 1937 to 1939, the Conservation Commission continued to sell fishing and hunting "licenses," but when the new Wildlife and Forestry Code of the State of Missouri went into effect on January 1, 1940, the terminology was changed to require fishing and hunting "permits." For the first time, all residents, male and female, age 17 or older were required to have a permit to hunt or fish.

No matter whether they purchased licenses or permits, anglers and hunters provided the bulk of the funding for the Conservation Commission from 1937 until 1976, when voters increased funding for the Missouri Conservation Commission through the Design for Conservation sales tax. Income from permit sales is still essential for the operation of the Department of Conservation and is still a vital component in providing the world-class fishing that has helped make Missouri famous.

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