Lake Taneycomo is a spooky place at night. Nightly blankets of fog create thick shadows and swirls that would make a Hollywood special effects artist envious. Quiet settles over certain sections of this narrow lake after sunset, creating a ghostly arena for monsters.
Phil Lilley of Branson and I were hunting for these "monsters" as we slipped through the darkness armed with flyrods tipped with black woolly buggers. My glow-in-the-dark watch read midnight, the witching hour. Even without current surging through the generators at Table Rock Dam, navigating the shallow riffles and shoals was treacherous, requiring us to choose our steps very carefully. A misplaced foot meant a cold bath.
When we finally reached our spot, we fed out line into the void. Darkness mixed with fog made our eyes useless. To keep from spooking trout from this black hole, we only used a tiny light to change flies.
I was fumbling with tangled line when Lilley set his hook into one of the monsters. His opponent immediately started a series of deep lunges, sweeping from side to side with relentless force and determination, like a bull trying to throw a cowboy. Occasionally we heard dull, hollow splashes resounding through the darkness as the monster broke the surface.
Soon Lilley won the fight and gently hand-landed a 14-inch brown trout. I carefully stepped over, turned on my light and savored my first look at a Missouri brown trout. Golden yellow hues and black spots twinkled in the flashlight beam like jewels under a lit glass counter. Lilley gently unhooked his beauty and let it slip back to dark depths for a period of sulking.
We caught several rainbow trout that night without hooking another brown. Lilley's 14-incher was remarkably small compared to what we sought. After all, Taneycomo is one of America's premier brown trout trophy lakes. The state record, caught in Bull Shoals Lake, just below Lake Taneycomo's Powersite Dam on November 10, 1997, by Rob Caudel of Springfield, weighed 26 pounds, 13 ounces.
Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologists and experienced brown trout anglers know that bigger browns exist in Taneycomo. During a sampling expedition, MDC staff captured and quickly released a male brown trout that weighed about 37 pounds. Brown trout obviously thrive in Taneycomo, but where do they come from?
"Brown trout are not native to Missouri," said Chris Vitello, a fisheries management biologist for the Conservation Department. He said programs to establish fishing opportunities for this brown trout date back more than a century. Fry were first reared in the Neosho National Federal Fish hatchery in 1890. This program stocked southwest Missouri rivers until 1936, but was discontinued because rainbow trout offered anglers more opportunities for less expense.
Before Table Rock Dam was completed in 1958, Lake Taneycomo was managed for warm water fishing. Crappie comprised 48 percent of the catch. Table Rock Dam funnels cold water to Taneycomo through hydroelectric turbines from depths of 140 feet. This water maintains a constant temperature in the 50-degree range, which is too cold for most fish species except trout. To offset the loss of the native warm-water fishery, the Missouri Conservation Commission authorized the construction of the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery in 1958 to provide trout for Taneycomo.
"The Shepherd of the Hills hatchery was built in 1958 as a 200,000-pound trout production facility," said James Civiello, Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery manager for the Conservation Department. He said the hatchery area covered 301 acres and cost the Department $201,581 to construct. This project came with a very reliable water supply, and brown trout were raised in single-pass, earthen raceways.
A need for more trout for stocking prompted a 1975 renovation of the facility. The new design, which included re-circulating concrete raceways, enabled the hatchery to produce 400,000 pounds of trout annually.
The renovation was funded through federal and state allowances. About 75 percent came from funding provided by the Dingell-Johnson Act, which is better known as the Sport Fish Restoration Act. The remainder came from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. The Sport Fish Restoration Act is funded by a 10 percent excise tax on fishing equipment. An amendment to this law, known as the Wallop-Breaux Act, extends the excise tax to marine fuel. Together, they have been instrumental in mitigating the loss of native fisheries and improving fish habitat throughout Missouri.
The Missouri Department of Conservation introduced brown trout experimentally in the Current River and North Fork of the White River in 1966. MDC fisheries biologists wanted to know if browns could reach trophy sizes in the fishing-pressured areas of Missouri's trout streams. However, most were caught and removed before reaching their growth potential, highlighting the need for special management of trophy areas.
The first trophy brown trout fisheries in Missouri's Meramec River were established in 1973. Anglers in these zones were allowed to keep three browns per day, with a minimum length limit of 16 inches. By 1977, anglers and conservation agents requested similar regulations for brown trout in the Current River and the North Fork of the White River. In 1978, the MDC Fisheries Division effected a 15-inch minimum length limit for all three special management areas.
Missouri's trout management areas now are located on sections of the Current River, Meramec River, Roaring River, Bennett Spring and the Niangua River, North Fork of the White River, Roubidoux Creek and Capps Creek (Newton County.) The Eleven Point River may eventually be stocked.
"The growing interest in Missouri brown trout prompted fishery biologists to find ways of producing more and better fish," Vitello said. Brown trout don't reproduce in the wild in Missouri, so fisheries biologists began searching for the best strain of brown trout to raise in the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery. They primarily experimented with the "Plymouth Rock" and "Sheep Creek" strains of brown trout.
"The Plymouth Rock strain is a semi-domesticated brown trout used extensively in the east and in California in put-and-take fisheries where harvest is of primary importance," Civiello said. "The Sheep Creek brown trout strain originated from a wild migratory stock spawning in Sheep Creek, a tributary of Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Northern Utah."
The Sheep Creek strain soon won out over the Plymouth Rock strain because it adapted better to Missouri streams and hatchery settings. It also exhibited better post stocking survival. The Plymouth Rock strain was simply too domesticated, or not as tough. The Sheep Creek version also converts fish food to fish flesh quicker, making it more economical.
Anglers occasionally complain that Missouri's brown trout are difficult to catch. Department personnel considers this a positive comment because the Sheep Creek strain has maintained its wild integrity, even if it is somewhat challenging to raise.
By 1981, the Department began stocking the Sheep Creek strain in Lake Taneycomo at a rate of 50,000, 10-inch browns annually. Brood stock was difficult to hold in the hatchery setting because of their genetically wild disposition. After several years of stocking the Sheep Creek strain in Taneycomo, MDC personal were able to capture enough fish from the lake for eggs and milt, allowing them to phase out a standing population of brood fish in the hatchery.
The Sheep Creek strain's spawning season occurs during October and November. Hatchery staff collect adult fish from the lake until they obtain 200 ripe females and 100 males. Eggs are removed from females with an air spawning method, which involves pumping oxygen into the body cavity of each fish to push eggs out. Eggs are then fertilized, and all fish are returned to the lake.
The egg incubation period lasts 45 days. After hatching, the fish eat a commercially produced dry food. To reduce stress on the skittish Sheep Creek strain fish, they are covered and fed automatically.
"Another challenge in raising the wilder Sheep Creek strain is disease," Civiello said.
Bacterial Kidney Disease (BKD) is a chronic to acute systemic infection of salmonid fishes. This disease rarely causes problems in fish smaller than six inches in length. However, under certain conditions it can cause high mortalities. The disease can be identified by a welt or blister on the side of the fish.
Civiello considers this disease unusual because it can be transmitted from mother to youth through the egg. Of all freshwater trout, brook trout are affected most severely, followed by browns. Rainbows are least affected. BKD can kill a lot of trout in a very short time if not quickly discovered and treated.
Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery staff constantly monitor their fish for BKD. Even so, the hatchery once lost several thousand fish before an outbreak of the disease could be brought under control with antibiotics. Stress, overcrowding and water quality are contributing factors of BKD outbreaks.
Trout fishing in Missouri adds up in dollars and cents. For example, the Taneycomo fishery has an estimated combined annual economic benefit of about $13.5 million. The hatchery not only raises more than 50,000 brown trout annually, it also raises and releases 750,000 rainbow trout annually into Lake Taneycomo and other trout streams and rivers. The hatchery supplies an additional 60,000 to 100,000 9- to 10-inch rainbow trout to Roaring River hatchery annually. About 3 million trout eggs and 125,000, 3-inch, fingerling trout are transferred to other state hatcheries in Missouri.
The hatchery itself is also a popular tourist attraction. An estimated 250,000 people visit the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery annually.
"Guests are amazed at how many fish we have on station at the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery," Civiello said.
A 1988 survey of hatchery visitors indicated that most were non-Missouri families vacationing in the Branson area. Visitors can view exhibits and videos, see fish in aquariums and watch the hatchery fish being fed.
Time, hard work and conservation dollars have developed a world class brown trout fishery in Missouri. Thanks to the production of the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery, every cast in our state's trout waters brings the possibility of a thrilling battle with a bruiser-size brown trout. Who knows? It might even be a new Missouri state-record.
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