The Saga of Lake Taneycomo

By Mike Kruse | April 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2001

In the last 42 years, many stories have appeared in magazines and newspapers about Lake Taneycomo, Missouri's largest trout fishery. Its transition from a warm-water lake containing bass and catfish to a cold-water lake full of big rainbow trout made big news. Later, as growth of the Branson area surrounded the lake with theaters and condominiums and brought more and more anglers, the press predicted Taneycomo's decline as an important fishery.

What a pleasant surprise then, to find that Taneycomo has met all those challenges and still is considered one of the nation's best fishing destinations. In fact, Taneycomo's trout are getting larger, not smaller, and a successful new management program is improving fishing for everyone.

Lake Taneycomo's story began in 1913. With the construction of Ozark Beach Dam at Powersite on the White River, Taneycomo became the first in a chain of four reservoirs that includes Bull Shoals, Table Rock and Beaver lakes.

For the first 38 years of Lake Taneycomo's existence, native sport fish of the White River basin sustained a popular fishery that helped create one of Missouri's first tourist areas on the shores of Rockaway Beach. A new chapter began in 1958, when Table Rock Dam was built immediately upstream.

Until then, Taneycomo was basically just a wide spot in the slow, meandering White River. After Table Rock Dam was built, Lake Taneycomo was fed by water that came from 160 feet below the surface of Table Rock Lake. The water was cold year-round and was unsuitable for most of the White River's warm-water fish. Their populations declined, as did the popular fishery they supported.

A rainbow often follows a storm, offering hope and promise for the future. In this case, hope came in the form of rainbow trout! Native to the streams of the West Coast, rainbow trout were well suited to the chilly waters that now filled Lake Taneycomo.

Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery was constructed to compensate for the loss of the native warm-water fishery that had existed before the dam was built. The hatchery provided a reliable supply of trout for stocking. Amphipods (known to anglers as freshwater shrimp) gathered from Ozark spring branches and stocked along with the trout, flourished in the cold waters. The result was fat, fast-growing trout to fuel a trophy rainbow fishery.

In the "glory years," light fishing pressure allowed many of the stocked trout to grow large. By 1969, stringers of 3- to 5-pound trout were not unusual. Outdoor writers called Lake Taneycomo the best trophy rainbow trout lake in North America.

As Taneycomo's fame grew, so did the number of anglers pursuing its big rainbows. A voluntary length limit encouraged anglers to limit their harvest to protect the big fish. It seemed to work for awhile, but eventually there were just too many anglers. Fishing pressure quadrupled from 1970 to 1990, requiring a steady increase in the number of trout stocked.

By then, the Branson boom had begun. Development claimed more and more of the landscape, and sediment entered the lake during rainstorms. In addition, white suckers suddenly became common in the lake and outnumbered trout in some surveys. In addition, the cold water from Table Rock Lake contained low levels of dissolved oxygen in the fall, stressing both fish and their food sources. Two things were certain: the big rainbow trout were gone, and freshwater shrimp were not as numerous as before.

By the early 1990s, the once-great Taneycomo trout fishery had fallen on relatively hard times. Anglers who wanted something more than stocker-size rainbow trout demanded that something be done to bring back the big rainbows. Their demands were partially met by a new brown trout fishery that produced enormous, even world-record size, brown trout. However, brown trout are harder to catch, and a few behemoth browns didn't satisfy anglers who remembered the glory years when rainbows were measured in pounds, not inches.

The Missouri Department of Conservation developed several research studies to determine what caused the decline of the big rainbows. Some of the studies suggested there simply wasn't enough food in Lake Taneycomo to grow large rainbow trout. Clearly, the lake's freshwater shrimp population had declined. Other studies showed that Taneycomo was still capable of growing rainbows, but few fish lived longer than a month before being caught and removed.

Gradually, a picture emerged of a fishery that could still produce large fish, but not without some changes. First, because there was less trout food, fewer trout could be stocked. Reduced stocking levels helped the freshwater shrimp population recover slightly. Still, rainbow trout harvest remained high, and while trout now had more to eat, most were harvested before they could grow large.

It became obvious that the rainbows needed protection from immediate harvest. So, beginning in March 1997, the Conservation Department established new fishing regulations in the upper part of the lake. These regulations were designed to protect some of the rainbows and allow them to grow larger. Fishing pressure is heavy in upper Lake Taneycomo, and the trout there needed more protection.

Studies show a trout is about five times more likely to die if caught and released on natural or prepared baits than one caught on artificial lures or flies. Because the new rules require anglers to release most of the trout they catch, it was necessary to limit fishing tackle in the upper lake to artificial lures and flies only. The new rules protected many of the rainbows from harvest and minimized losses of released fish to hooking mortality.

The new fishing regulations created an almost immediate improvement in the fishery. Before the rule change, fewer than 10 percent of the rainbow trout in the upper part of the lake exceeded 13 inches. Only five months after the regulation change, the percentage jumped to 30 percent.

In a little more than two years, there was also a ten-fold increase in the number of rainbows in the upper lake. More than half were longer than 13 inches, and 10 percent exceeded 16 inches. Bigger rainbows are back, and with one- to three-pound fish being caught daily, anglers are recalling memories of the glory days

Taneycomo still has some problems. Branson continues to grow, white suckers are still abundant, and water from Table Rock Lake still has low oxygen levels during late summer and fall. The Conservation Department is working with other agencies to protect the lake and its fishing, and to determine if it's possible to make changes in the operation of Table Rock Dam that would help the fishery.

Not everyone who fishes Lake Taneycomo is interested in catching a trophy. Many simply want to catch a few trout to eat, and the Conservation Department has devoted considerable effort to helping anglers who choose not to fish in the special regulations area of the upper lake.

Below the mouth of Fall Creek, for example, the Department heavily stocks rainbow trout. Anglers may keep any trout they catch up to the daily limit of five, regardless of size, and they may fish with any kind of bait, lure or fly. In addition, the Department has built a new access facility at Cooper Creek, and improved the access facilities in Forsyth and Rockaway Beach. These areas bring the thrill of fighting a rainbow trout to more anglers by increasing bank fishing opportunities, making boat access easier and easing access for disabled anglers.

The saga of Lake Taneycomo continues, providing plenty of grist for new stories of how the fishing in this unusual cold-water lake promises to get better and better.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
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