Better Fishing at Lake Taneycomo

By Mike Kruse | November 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 1996

"The best rainbow trout fishing in America." That's how writers for major fishing magazines described Lake Taneycomo in the early 70s.They were right. Three- to five-pound trout were common. Anglers regularly harvested stringers of five trout weighing 20 pounds or more. Rainbows grew faster on the lake's rich diet of "freshwater shrimp" than they could in a hatchery, and trout fishing attracted millions of anglers to Branson.

But Taneycomo is no longer the Midwest's premier trout-fishing spot. As Branson's fame grew, rainbow trout fishing declined. No one was quite sure why. Anglers and fisheries biologists alike began to wonder if the spreading urbanization around Branson was behind the decline.

Certainly the numbers of freshwater shrimp had declined. Some blamed the decline on the increased number of trout stocked. Others believed the growing population of white suckers was to blame. And there were many other theories. However, one thing was certain: the big rainbows of the '70s were gone.

To determine what was really happening at Lake Taneycomo, the Conservation Department began a study in 1993. As project biologist, I reviewed previous studies and records on the fishery since the first trout were stocked in 1958. Several important facts became obvious.

First, the number of rainbow trout stocked annually had increased dramatically from only about 250,000 trout in 1960 to a high of 1.6 million in 1984! Also, 10,000 to 60,000 brown trout were stocked annually since 1980. Early studies showed that rainbow trout grew rapidly from about a half-inch to almost three-quarters of an inch monthly, depending on size.

Historically, harvest of trout was high, but enough trout escaped anglers long enough to grow large. Recent studies suggest that in winter, when trout densities increase from lower fishing pressure, rainbow trout eat less than needed to maintain their body weight.

To learn about what was going on and how to make it better, the Conservation Department marked rainbow trout with tags. The tagged trout were stocked from April 1993 to January 1995. Rewards were offered for each tag returned. The tagging study really opened our eyes.

Tag return was good - 54 percent. Most rainbows lived for 30 days or less before anglers caught them. In the summer, this decreased to only about 20 days. Anglers obviously were catching most trout quickly after stocking, and the fish had little chance to grow. However, those few that did avoid anglers, grew almost a half-inch per month, the same rate as in the early '70s.

The problem with Lake Taneycomo was overfishing. Because fishing had increased over the years, more and more trout were stocked each year. Although fishing for stocked-size rainbow trout was still good at Taneycomo, few were surviving to the larger sizes preferred by many. The rainbow fishery had become "put-and-take," in contrast to the "put-grow and-take" fishery of the 1970s.

In response to this new information, the Conservation Department changed management strategies at Lake Taneycomo. Because Lake Taneycomo can still grow large trout, the Conservation Department is enhancing the "put grow-and-take" portion of the fishery. To improve rainbow trout growth, we reduced the number stocked to 750,000 yearly, and now stock more trout during the heavily fished summer months and fewer in the winter. This new stocking schedule should prevent trout from "overgrazing" the lake's food supply during the winter. However, for fishing to improve, trout must have a chance to grow.

Changes in fishing regulations at Lake Taneycomo should help fish survive longer.

  • Beginning March 1, 1997 anglers fishing between the mouth of Fall Creek and Table Rock Dam must release all 12- to 20-inch rainbow trout and use artificial lures and flies only.
  • Natural and prepared baits, including soft plastic lures, will be specifically prohibited in this zone.
  • The lake-wide 20-inch length limit on brown trout and the current rainbow trout regulations downlake from Fall Creek will remain unchanged.

The elimination of natural and prepared baits in the new regulation zone is necessary to make the program work. Studies show that trout caught on natural and prepared baits and then released are about five times more likely to die than those caught on artificials and released. In other words, one trout out of every five you catch and release using bait will die.

These deaths would multiply in the new regulation zone where we expect each trout will be caught and released several times as it grows to 20 inches. Anglers fishing this zone should also practice good fish handling techniques, so these fish have the best chance to survive and grow larger.

What can anglers expect?

Anglers interested in catching a limit of 10- to 12-inch stocked-size trout can still fish throughout the lake. Those who like to pit their skills against larger rainbow trout can fish the zone from Fall Creek to Table Rock Dam. Also, big browns will still be available throughout the lake. All this means more and better trout fishing.

The future for Lake Taneycomo trout fishing looks exciting. Wouldn't it be great if anglers once again called Lake Taneycomo "The Best Rainbow Trout Fishing in America." triangle

Trout Treats

Freshwater shrimp, scuds or sideswimmers are common names for the small animals that biologists call amphipods. They are crustaceans and are distant relatives of shrimp, lobsters, crayfish and a variety of other aquatic animals. Adult amphipods reach a maximum size of about a half inch. They are common in spring branches and in the cold waters of upper Lake Taneycomo.

Catch-and-release Guidelines for Trout

  • Minimize the time that you play a fish. Select the heaviest tackle appropriate for the prevailing conditions.
  • Handle trout gently and release them as quickly as possible. Holding fish out of the water reduces their survival rate. If you must handle the trout, gently cradle the fish upside down to reduce struggling while the hook is quickly removed.
  • Use hemostats or needlenose pliers to back the hook out from its point of entry in the jaw of a trout. Single, barbless hooks are easier to remove. If a fish is deeply hooked in the throat or gills, cut the line and leave the hook in the fish. Do not try to remove a deeply embedded hook from a fish you intend to release. The hook will soon rust away.
  • If the fish appears exhausted, hold it in the water facing upstream until it swims out of your hands. Pumping a fish back and forth in the water does not help.

Bait Fishing and Trout Survival

Trout, like many fish, use sight, smell and taste to locate food. Trout will bite on sticks and leaves - and even rocks - but quickly reject them. However they will swallow earthworms, insects or other natural foods.

Natural, prepared and scented baits all contain scents and tastes to stimulate trout to feed and swallow quickly. Trout caught using these kinds of baits often are hooked in the gills, esophagus or heart, which is located just under the rear part of the mouth. Also, anglers often still fish bait on the bottom or suspended below a float and allow fish to swallow the bait deeply before setting the hook. Such fish are frequently hooked deeply in vital areas and, even if released, die.

Artificial lures and flies lack scents and tastes that stimulate trout to feed, and trout reject them more quickly than natural, prepared or scented baits. Anglers must strike quickly and, consequently, hook most trout in the lip or edge of the mouth in a nonsensitive area. Such fish, once released, survive catch and release and grow to be caught again.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Patrick Kipp
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Block
Circulation - Laura Scheuler