The Lure of Missouri Trout

By Mike Kruse | May 2, 1999
From Missouri Conservationist: May 1999

What makes a great day of trout fishing? The answer depends on what you like. For some, catching a limit of fish from a freshly-stocked, easily accessible stream in the company of family and friends is a perfect day. To others, being alone on a remote stream catching and releasing wild trout is the stuff of dreams. If you see yourself in either of these settings, or somewhere in between, you will find a place to your liking in Missouri.

But first, you've got some choosing to do. Some 350 miles of spring-fed streams in the Ozarks are potential trout water. All the rest of our streams get too warm in the summer for trout. The Conservation Department now manages about 150 miles of the best streams for public trout fishing. While many states can boast of more trout streams, few can match us for the wide diversity of quality trout fishing opportunities.

For instance, if you like a stream with easy access, pleasant scenery and a variety of nearby campgrounds and visitor services, one of our four trout parks may be a perfect match for you. Large spring branches flowing through three state parks and one private park are stocked with rainbow trout daily from March 1 through October 31. For a modest daily fee, anglers have access to large numbers of good-size trout in clear, cold streams.

These are good places to try your hand at trout fishing if you are new to the sport. They also make great places for family vacations. The parks include Bennett Spring, Montauk, Roaring River and the James Foundation's Maramec Spring Park.

But they are not just for neophytes. Heavy fishing pressure sometimes gives these trout lockjaw, and considerable angling skill may be needed to catch them. As a result, each stream has a dedicated following of serious anglers who know every rock, riffle and lunker hole. Watch one of these experts and you will learn lessons that will help you catch more trout wherever they swim. But be careful, you may contract a life-long case of trout fishing fever-it happened to me!

The fishing experience in the trout parks changes with the seasons. The parks are open to catch-and-release fishing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from the second Friday in November through the second Sunday in February. Because few trout are stocked in the winter, the fishing depends mostly on holdover fish that have survived from the open season.

To further ensure survival of the trout, all fishing is restricted to flies and single-hook artificial lures. Soft plastic, natural and scented baits are prohibited because they tend to hook trout deeply, causing serious injuries. While cold air may keep many anglers away, the spring-fed waters stay relatively warm and the trout are active even on the coldest days. Winter can be the perfect time to visit a trout park.

But even in the winter, trout parks may be too popular for anglers who want plenty of elbow room when they fish. If that includes you, don't despair. There are many other trout fishing opportunities in Missouri.

A number of spring-fed streams are stocked less frequently than the trout parks and offer much less crowded fishing and a more natural trout fishing experience. These Trout Management Areas are scattered throughout the Ozarks, and some are near trout parks, making them the perfect escape from crowding. Many of these streams are stocked with rainbow trout from February through October. Some of them also contain brown trout, as well as wild, naturally-reproducing rainbow trout. Trout management areas include Capps Creek, Current River, Eleven Point River, Little Piney Creek, Roubidoux Creek and Stone Mill Spring.

Special Trout Management Areas provide an even more natural fishing experience. The Conservation Department stocks brown trout annually in these streams, and protective fishing regulations allow many of them to grow older, larger and wiser.

The fishing in these areas is challenging and revolves around the cycles of nature. Here, on a balmy spring day, stream-wise trout will rise to hatching mayflies or caddisflies. Summer finds them sipping ants or snatching grasshoppers off the surface. In the fall, spawning brown trout take on the colors of the autumn woods, and a well-placed streamer or lure may provoke an aggressive strike from the biggest trout in the river.

In the cold days of winter, fish slow and deep with sculpin or minnow imitations or hope for a brief mid-day hatch of tiny midges to draw a few trout to the surface. True to their name, these are Special Trout Management Areas. They include portions of the Current, Meramec, North Fork and Niangua rivers and Roubidoux Creek.

Even more special, at least to some anglers, are the Wild Trout Management Areas. These are streams that are not stocked at all but contain wild, naturally-reproducing rainbow trout. To protect these trout, and ensure that they remain self-sustaining, fishing regulations are strict, and you are required to release most, if not all, of the trout you catch. You'll also have to leave the soft plastic, natural and scented baits at home and stick to flies and artificial lures.

I remember the first time I fished a Wild Trout Management Area. It was pristine wild trout fishing at its finest, and in every fast pocket a brightly-colored rainbow would snatch the Royal Wulff fly from the surface. I remember playing those spirited wild trout in the little stream. In their zeal to escape, they would leap clear of the water, sometimes landing high and dry on a gravel bar! Those little streams are still gems, but now you can hook wild trout in stretches of large rivers specially managed for them, where they have plenty of room to run, jump and really put on a show.

Wild trout areas include portions of Barren Fork Creek, Blue Springs Creek, Crane Creek, Eleven Point River, Mill Creek, North Fork of the White River and Spring Creek.

You can also catch trout in a number of streams that are not actively managed by the Conservation Department. The trout come from a variety of sources-private stockings, escapement from hatcheries or even wild, self-sustaining populations. These are often small streams with only a few trout, and nearly all of them are on private land. Limit your harvest in such areas, and always make sure you have got the landowner's permission.

Missouri trout fishing isn't limited to remote streams in the wilds of the Ozarks. If you are a city-dweller, you can find plenty of winter trout fishing in ponds and lakes around St. Louis and Kansas City. Trout stocking begins in November and good fishing lasts until March or April. In most of these impoundments, there are no length limits, and any type of bait, lure or fly is permitted.

A few are managed as delayed harvest fisheries, where only catch-and releing with flies and artificial lures is allowed through the fall and winter and harvest is delayed until spring. The trout are recycled in these lakes and not removed as quickly after stocking so the fishing is more consistent. If you are an urbanite, trout fishing does not have to mean a long drive reserved for special weekends or family vacations. Give the winter trout lakes a try.

Although not in a city, Missouri's largest cold water fishery, Lake Taneycomo, skirts the edges of Branson, one of the busiest towns in the state. Through the years, Branson has changed from a sleepy little town on the banks of the White River to one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. Lake Taneycomo has seen its share of changes as well.

In 1958, cold water releases from Table Rock Dam transformed Taneycomo from a bass, crappie and catfish lake to a nationally-known trophy trout fishery. Stocked rainbows grew fast on a rich diet of freshwater shrimp, and stringers of 3- to 5-pound fish were common. But the big rainbows disappeared with increased fishing pressure and fewer freshwater shrimp. Brown trout then took center stage, and the lake has produced a steady string of new state records and is known to contain browns of world record proportions.

In 1997, the Conservation Department placed special fishing regulations on the upper 3 miles of Lake Taneycomo to protect rainbow trout from excessive harvest and allow them to grow larger. The upper lake is now a great place to catch and release nice rainbows. The lower 20 miles is still stocked heavily, all types of bait, lures and flies are legal, and you can keep the first five rainbow trout you catch, if you wish. Lake Taneycomo is now a good example of Missouri trout fishing-there is something for everyone.

Whether you are a novice or a seasoned pro, a gregarious trout park angler or solitary trout predator, Missouri's spring branches, cold rivers, lakes and ponds can provide you with a quality trout fishing trip. See you on the water!

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer