1969 One Small Step
Gas was 35 cents a gallon, and a home, $15,000. That summer, 40,000 flower children bloomed on an upstate New York dairy farm during an epic festival of music and love. An American astronaut became history’s first human to plant foot on the soil of another world.
America was also still reeling from a violent 1968. That year’s assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew the passions of thousands, and it provoked outbursts in some that erupted into violence in 11 major cities. War was escalating in Vietnam and young men ages 18–26 were bracing for the December ’69 draft lottery.
Tension in the nation’s cities was wound taut. Even as Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind, the U.S. government was taking the first step in an experiment to see if the fishing pole could prove mightier than the sword.
Could bringing fishing to troubled urban areas help steer energies in a more productive direction? That’s what an untried initiative created by the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) set out to answer. It was the Urban Fishing Program.
Just six U.S. cities were selected to be part of a pilot program that would involve stocking urban lakes with fish to provide close-to-home angling opportunities for city dwellers. One of those cities would be St. Louis, with cooperation from MDC and the St. Louis Parks and Recreation Department.
Hardy, nongame fish, such as common carp, bullheads, and bowfin, were gathered in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Federal staff trucked the fish to lakes in the program cities. The lakes in St. Louis were originally built in the early 1900s, mainly to decorate city parks. Sustaining healthy fish populations was never part of their design.
“These lakes weren’t good habitat, so they had to get tough fish,” said Kevin Meneau, MDC Fisheries management biologist. Meneau has supervised the Urban Fishing Program for St. Louis City and County since 1986. He said despite the odds stacked against it, the program proved popular with city residents right from the start, and the fish were usually caught quickly.
Of all the pilot cities, the nascent Urban Fishing Program found by far its greatest success in the Gateway City.
The first step had been taken. The time was right for a giant leap.
1972 Changing of the Guard
In 1972, a significant change took place with the Urban Fishing Program. The federal government handed the reins over completely to MDC.
Despite the initial success, MDC’s Fisheries staff recognized the need for changes. Fish stocking schedules had previously been inconsistent, sometimes at intervals of three months or more. During these longer stretches, fish would typically be caught within the first 10 days, leaving anglers long periods with little fishing success.
MDC Fisheries biologists sought commercial channel catfish hatcheries to increase the supply and consistency of fish stock in the urban lakes.
“Since the commercial hatcheries raise those fish on-site, you can determine the sizes and amounts you want and have that lined out on a regular schedule,” Meneau said. Fish stockings began taking place on a more consistent rotation.
Biologists began to eventually transition out the wild caught, nonsport fish and shift more emphasis to hatchery-produced channel catfish. This provided better control over the process, making it much easier to keep quality and quantity of fish at the level required by ever-growing angler demand.
With better quality and consistency achieved, it was now time to grow.
1976 A Design for Expansion
It was a landmark year for the Missouri Department of Conservation. The citizens of the state passed by popular vote the Design for Conservation, a one-eighth-of-one-percent sales tax creating dedicated funding to support conservation efforts in Missouri. It provided the boost needed to help grow the Urban MDC Fisheries staff now had the resources to expand the program into St. Louis County. The cities of Ferguson and Ballwin, and several parks in the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department, came forward to participate.
Eventually, the Urban Fishing Program would total 17 lakes in the St. Louis area. Starting in 1978, MDC added Kansas City to the program, ultimately developing 11 lakes in that city as well. Now, metro anglers in both of Missouri’s largest municipalities had an urban fishing program of their own.
1989 The Trout Transformation
The urban fishing lakes were enthusiastically used by St. Louis City and County residents every spring through fall, but there was a distinct drop in interest during the winter months. In fact, fishing from November through February was practically dead. Meneau, who by this time was overseeing the St. Louis program, came up with an idea.
“I thought, why don’t we just bring in some trout,” Meneau said. He reasoned that being coldwater fish, rainbow trout should survive winter temperatures with no problem, and anglers would catch them as quickly as they had other fish before the weather warmed up again.
To test the idea’s potential, Meneau proposed and was granted a pilot program for St. Louis City’s Wilmore Park and Suson Park in St. Louis County. Would urban anglers embrace the chance to catch trout? The answer came in no uncertain terms during the first rainbow trout stocking at Wilmore Lake.
“When we showed up that morning, there were so many people we couldn’t even get the hatchery truck into the park,” recalled Meneau. “Vehicles were parked on both sides throughout the entire park, from the lake all the way out to Chippewa Street.”
After finally getting enough vehicles moved to pull the truck through, anglers crowded in shoulder to shoulder, two persons deep, to have their chance at the newly stocked rainbows.
“It was like a trout park,” Meneau said.
An angler creel survey taken during the 1990–1991 season confirmed this success. The winter trout lakes were getting 1,700 hours of fishing use per acre in four months. Analysis of trout permit sales by zip codes uncovered a 33 percent spike in areas with winter trout lakes during the winter stocking period.
Winter trout stocking also took hold in Kansas City shortly after St. Louis. In 1993, the winter trout program expanded to lakes in north and west St. Louis County, Forest Park, O’Fallon Park, and the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area in St. Charles. By the end of the 1990s, winter trout could be found in 10 other urban lakes throughout Missouri.
1996 Self-Sustaining Urban Fisheries are Born
As noted previously, these urban lakes were not ideal habitat to support self-sustaining fish populations. All that could survive were tough, nonsport fish, and fishing success was completely dependent on stocking hatchery-raised channel catfish. The next giant leap forward for the Urban Fishing Program was going to change that.
MDC pitched the idea of improving these lakes for the benefit of both fish and anglers. All partners were receptive to the idea but saw challenges in coming up with funding for the work. Fortunately, there was a funding source in place that could provide a solution — the Community Assistance Program, also known as CAP. These were 75/25 cost-share programs that would ease the financial pressure on urban fishing lake partners. Partners could fulfill their responsibilities with either money or in-kind services like construction or engineering expertise, as best suited their abilities.
With the help of these partners, MDC committed to funding a five-year program to complete significant renovations to urban fishing lakes. CAP agreements were negotiated, drafted, and signed with each partner, and work began. From 1996–2001, improvement projects deepened urban lakes, developed aeration systems, and installed structure to create fish habitat. Anglers would enjoy new amenities, too, such as improved parking and shoreline access, bank stabilization, and accessibility for persons with disabilities. Nearly $2 million was used to transform these urban fishing lakes.
“After those renovations were completed, several lakes had good enough habitat that fish could naturally reproduce, which never really took place before,” said Meneau. MDC biologists could now add sportfish like largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, and redear sunfish. They watched as the fish took to the new habitat and began reproducing successfully.
The Power of Close to Home
For five decades, the Urban Fishing Program has delivered and improved on its promise to bring close-to-home fishing to the people. Urban residents have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to fish in their own backyards. On a per-acre basis, use of these urban lakes is 15–20 times higher than even the most popular destination lakes like Truman Reservoir or Lake of the Ozarks.
Meneau has been an eye witness for two-thirds of the program’s existence. Ironically, he describes himself as a smalltown Wisconsin farm boy and not really an urban person at heart. He was even hesitant in the beginning to accept the position in a “big city” like St. Louis.
“When I saw what the urban fishing program meant to people and how much they love it, I quickly got turned around,” he said.
“What it means to fish urban is a lot different than what it used to. And I’m really proud of that.”
50 Years of Urban Fishing
The U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife launches the Urban Fishing Program in six U.S. cities, including St. Louis.
The federal government turns the program over to MDC. Scheduled stocking of commercial channel catfish begins, allowing for a more consistent fish supply.
The Design for Conservation passes, allowing for expansion of the Urban Fishing Program.
The Urban Fishing Program expands to more St. Louis county lakes, as well as to Kansas City.
In an effort to boost urban fishing in winter, trout stocking begins in two St. Louis City lakes and shortly after, in Kansas City.
The winter trout program continues to expand in the St. Louis area.
With outside partner help, MDC commits to a five-year lake renovation program and begins work to improve urban lake habitat and angler experience.
Some lakes begin to support and sustain sportfish populations.
Urban anglers continue to enjoy close-to-home fishing opportunities.
Celebrate Urban Fishing’s Golden Anniversary
The Urban Fishing Program is turning 50 this year, and MDC is celebrating. Urban anglers can join the fun by doing what they love best — fishing close to home. Learn more with MDC’s new Urban Fishing web page at bit.ly/2Fru9p6. You’ll find links to information on all the urban fishing lakes. There are also tips and tools to help metro area anglers catch more fish.
MDC’s got other special plans, especially for the St. Louis area, like stocking more 10-pound lunker trout this winter. There’s a competition among metro area high school angling teams called the Fish St. Louis Cup (#FISHSTLCup), and this series of fishing challenges will culminate with tournament finals this spring.
MDC invites urban anglers to share photos of their catches throughout the year on the “brag board” by posting to their favorite social media account with the hashtag #MoUrbanFishing.
Look for other special updates and announcements during 2019 as urban fishing begins its next 50 years.