The Lure of Fishing

By Brett Dufur | February 14, 2012
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2012

This year, MDC celebrates the 75th anniversary of putting the state’s citizen-led conservation efforts into action. In this issue, we highlight the Department’s diverse sportfishing management efforts that conserve and enhance Missouri’s world-class fishing.

Great fishing is at the heart of enjoying Missouri’s outdoors. From farm ponds, streams and lakes, to the nation’s largest rivers, Missouri offers an abundance of sport-fishing opportunities to connect anglers with the thrill of a lifetime.

Since the Department was established in 1937, it has led efforts to ensure that the legacy of great fishing in the Show-Me State will only get better. Enhancing Missouri’s sport fishing takes many forms: hatcheries and stocking, broad partnerships for habitat-improvement projects, refining fishing regulations, watershed conservation, and improving fisheries and fishing access through federal programs.

Hatcheries and Stocking

In 1878, the Missouri Legislature authorized Missouri’s first Fish Commission, which began the state’s restocking efforts. The early Fish Commission’s greatest achievement was to begin the development of a fish-hatchery system that is still important today.

“Back then, fisheries workers would stop a train at a river crossing and pour fish out of milk cans to stock the local streams,” says Chris Vitello, MDC Fisheries Division chief. “At that time, restocking was the only tool in the toolbox. But it was soon apparent that improvements needed to be made to regulations and to the stream itself to support those fish and to allow them to thrive.”

Today’s hatcheries and stocking efforts continue to be a major focus of the Department. MDC’s hatcheries produce almost 9 million fish each year, including largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish, walleye, sturgeon, hybrid striped bass, paddlefish and both rainbow and brown trout. The Department’s hatchery system includes four warm-water and five cold-water hatcheries. MDC’s warm-water hatcheries produce enough fish to meet stocking needs in Missouri and also provide fish for occasional trades with other states. The Department’s cold-water hatcheries produce millions of trout to stock four trout parks, Lake Taneycomo and selected coldwater streams designated as trout waters.

Over the past decade, MDC’s hatcheries have undergone extensive renovations to improve the Department’s ability to raise a variety of warm- and cold-water fish species. These improvements ensure that MDC will continue to efficiently produce the millions of sport fish needed for stocking. MDC hatcheries also participate in research and breeding of rare or threatened species, such as Topeka shiners and Ozark hellbenders, further benefiting the aquatic resources of the state.

Partners in Habitat Improvement

Public input and involvement are both essential for improving the state’s fisheries. MDC works with anglers, communities and fishing groups as the Department develops management plans for each unique sport fish. Citizen input has been instrumental in many management plans to allow fish populations to be maintained naturally and to allow anglers to catch more and bigger fish.

MDC works with many groups to sustain healthy fisheries throughout the state. “Good fishing requires good water quality, and that depends on conserving the land around it,” says Andrew Branson, a fisheries programs specialist for the Department. “Preventing erosion and conserving habitat along streams is also good for the streams themselves. Many groups working together for conservation can make that happen.”

Some of MDC’s partners include private landowners, the Conservation Federation of Missouri, Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Many cities, towns and corporations also partner with MDC to improve fishing and fishing access through MDC’s Community Assistance Program and the closely related Corporate and Agency Partnership Program.

The Department is also working with Bass Pro Shops and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to improve fish habitat in Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo through the National Fish Habitat Initiative. This partnership has improved habitat by adding brush piles, stumps and rock structures to the reservoirs using a specially made pontoon barge (see Missouri Conservationist, November 2011). The initiative will also improve water quality by reducing inputs from failing septic systems and stabilizing stream banks in the Table Rock Lake watershed. Similar efforts are ongoing in other parts of the state through the National Fish Habitat Partnership.

The efforts of many volunteer groups continue to benefit the waterways of the state, including Stream Teams, angling groups, such as Missouri Smallmouth Alliance and Muskies, Inc., and local nonprofits, such as the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks and the James River Basin Partnership. Last year, more than 4,000 Stream Teams donated 146,000 hours in stream improvement projects.

Fishing Regulations and Sport-fish Management

Monitoring fish populations and subsequently adjusting limits and seasons are important aspects of sport-fish management. For example, groundbreaking research conducted by MDC in the 1980s found that crappie populations in many of Missouri’s large reservoirs were being overfished. Higher quality and more consistent crappie fishing resulted by setting minimum length limits and reducing the daily limit from 30 to 15 in appropriate lakes. MDC improved bass fishing by creating stream black bass special management areas. Beginning in 1989, MDC fishery managers and researchers began to evaluate the impacts of special fishing regulations on stream black bass. Surveys showed that special regulations helped anglers catch more and larger smallmouth bass in selected waters.

Today, these stream black bass special management areas total 2,091 miles of water. To determine bass harvests, MDC conducted a statewide smallmouth bass angler opinion survey, performed smallmouth bass radio telemetry movement studies, and studied angler harvest rates on five streams. The results will be used to better understand and manage Missouri’s smallmouth bass.

Since the 1990s, MDC has also enhanced and diversified walleye-angling opportunities across the state. Hatcheries increased production of fingerling walleye, and stocking expanded. Reward-tagging studies show these stockings were successful and that walleye are growing to harvestable size (15 inches) in two years. Every year, up to 25 percent of these tagged, legal-size fish are harvested, reflecting the rising popularity of walleye fishing.

In 2010, MDC held a series of public meetings to gather input as part of a blue catfish management and evaluation project for Truman Lake and Lake Ozark. Fisheries staff continue to monitor the status of blue catfish populations in Missouri’s big reservoirs to ensure that these large fish are abundant for future generations to enjoy.

On the Missouri River, the Department stopped commercial harvest of catfish in 1992. Since then, sport anglers have taken many catfish in the 80- to 100-pound range. Our stretch of Missouri River is now among the nation’s top trophy catfish waters.

“Having two state-record catfish caught in 2010 proves the wisdom of past management decisions,” says Vitello. “The Missouri River is one of several fisheries in the state with the potential to produce huge catfish. Given a chance to grow, blue and flathead cats can reach sizes that make even the most experienced angler’s heart race.”

Fishing also should continue to get better on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers as state and federal agencies work together to minimize habitat loss and to improve fisheries habitat. MDC biologists have completed population evaluations on flathead catfish and sauger to help determine appropriate harvest regulations for improving these important big-river fisheries.

Also known as the “fish of 10,000 casts,” muskie remain one of Missouri’s most elusive sport fish. MDC stocks muskies at Fellows Lake, Hazel Creek Lake, Pomme de Terre Lake and August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area. In 2009, anglers reported catching a 36-inch or longer muskie for every 25 hours of effort—a big reward for perseverance. Recently, the first Missouri muskie to break the 50-inch threshold was caught by MDC fisheries biologists at Fellows Lake—proving that muskies are well suited for selected reservoirs in the Show-Me State.

The Department also has enhanced trout angling. With input from a number of trout-fishing organizations and citizens, the Conservation Commission approved A Plan for Missouri Trout Fishing in 2003. This plan, as well as other trout studies and scientifically based stocking, have greatly expanded the quantity and quality of trout fishing in Missouri.

Today, Missouri’s trout-fishing opportunities include four trout parks: Montauk, Roaring River, and Bennett and Maramec springs. The Department also manages 120 miles of spring-fed, cold-water trout streams, Lake Taneycomo, and winter trout areas in Columbia, Kirksville, Jackson, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Mexico, Sedalia, St. Joseph and St. Louis. Nearly 2 million trout, produced by Department hatcheries and the Neosho National Fish Hatchery, are stocked each year. Learn more about these trout areas at

Watershed Conservation Benefits Sport Fish

MDC’s sport-fish management continues in the same tradition as it began—with the Department working with Missourians and for Missourians to ensure the state’s diverse fisheries only get better. More than 75 years ago, those early conservation efforts involved milk cans and determination—the only tools in the toolbox. Today, state-of-the-art hatcheries, solid science, public involvement and broad partnerships continue to improve Missouri’s world-class fishing.

“Science-based research is allowing us to learn more than ever before about the impacts of all sorts of things on Missouri’s sport fish,” says Vitello. “You can’t have quality smallmouth bass, for example, if the crayfish (their favorite food) don’t thrive. You can’t have healthy sport fish if the prey fish that support them, like shad, can’t make it. By studying the whole system, we learn more about what supports the entire web of life.”

MDC’s fisheries biologists continue to connect the dots between sport-fish management and watershed conservation. What is good for the land and the stream ultimately is good for Missouri’s most sought-after fish.

Trout Unlimited

Trout Unlimited has been a key partner in conservation since the 1970s. Trout Unlimited is a national organization with about 400 chapters, totaling 140,000 members. More than 1,900 members in three Missouri chapters work to enhance trout fishing and cold-water habitat throughout the state.

“Trout Unlimited was one of the stakeholder groups the Department worked with to create a trout-fishing management plan,” says Mike Kruse, MDC Resource Science Division chief, and past Department trout plan coordinator. “Trout Unlimited has played a key role in helping to implement that plan, particularly in leading a group of partners that pooled their resources to make some important land acquisitions along our trout streams possible. Those partners included the Ozark Fly Fishers and fishing clubs affiliated with the Federation of Fly Fishers and the Missouri Trout Fishermen’s Association. The contributions of these groups really make Missouri trout fishing what it is today.”

Trout Unlimited, along with help from other organizations and individuals dedicated to trout fishing, helped MDC create winter trout fishing opportunities in lakes near Missouri’s urban centers, established a coldwater conservation fund with the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation dedicated to conserving key cold-water habitats, and improved access to Missouri’s trout streams, such as Mill Creek, Little Piney River, Capps Creek, Current River, North Fork of the White River and Lake Taneycomo.

“Currently, the Mid-Missouri chapter of Trout Unlimited is working with MDC to provide wader wash stations to help reduce the invasive spread of didymo (rock snot) found just south of Missouri,” says Michael Riley, president of the Mid-Missouri chapter. Missouri’s Trout Unlimited members also have helped create disabled-accessible fishing accesses and promote trout fishing with numerous fishing programs and events. Learn more at

Regulations are tailor-made for individual fisheries

Each pond, stream, river and reservoir is unique and often requires specific regulations in order to best manage its fish populations. Fishing regulations are based upon data collected from fish sampling, creel surveys and public input.

Before heading out, review the fishing regulations for your destination. The time you invest will help protect the fisheries and keep you from violating the Wildlife Code. Pick up A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations at permit vendors or review fishing regulations online at

First in Science

Since it was established in 1937, the Department has been a national leader in science-based fisheries management. Many fisheries management techniques, now widely adopted throughout the country, were developed by the Department.

  • Artificially hatched channel catfish eggs (1939).
  • Developed device to measure fish growth by measuring scale growth rings (1951).
  • Developed pelleted trout feed (1956).
  • Discovered paddlefish eggs and larvae in upper Osage River (1960).
  • Hatched paddlefish eggs at Bennett Spring Hatchery (1961).
  • Pioneered bass-, crappie- and trout-harvest management techniques (1970s–1980s).
  • Reared and released endangered pallid sturgeons in the big rivers (1994).
  • Reared and released endangered Niangua darters in the Osage River Basin (1996).
  • Established red, white and blue trout-management areas (2003).
  • Propagated and released federally endangered Ozark hellbenders (2008).
  • Propagated and released federally endangered Topeka shiners (2011).
  • Collaborated with the St. Louis Zoo to spawn and rear in captivity federally endangered Ozark hellbenders (2011).

Buying Fishing Licenses, Rods and Reels Puts Fish in the Water

If you’ve ever purchased hunting or fishing licenses, fishing lures, rods and reels, or fueled up your boat, you’re part of one of the most successful efforts to conserve sport fish in America.

Through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Program, MDC receives federal excise taxes paid by sportsmen and anglers in the state on fishing tackle, motorboat fuel, electric outboard motors and sonar equipment. These funds are returned to MDC to conserve, manage and enhance fisheries, develop motorboat accesses, and to help fund angler and aquatic-resource education. Since 1952, Missouri has received about $135 million from the Sport Fish Restoration Program.

For more than 75 years, Missourians also have helped improve Missouri’s fishing by buying fishing licenses, which fund fisheries conservation work. And in the end, every Missourian is a partner in conservation, thanks to the conservation sales tax, which allocates 1 penny for conservation efforts from every $8 of taxable items purchased. This dedicated sales tax provides consistent funding for the long term efforts required for the conservation of fish, forests and wildlife.

Reeling in the Records

Download the complete list of Missouri state-record fish at

MDC’s Master Angler Program recognizes notable catches that fall short of records. Download an entry form with qualifying lengths and weights at

It’s hard to beat the excitement of catching your first fish. Commemorate this milestone with MDC’s First Fish certificates. Fill in, print and frame the full-color certificate, available at

Some of Missouri’s World Record Fish

  • Black crappie - 5 lbs. John Horstman at a private pond on April 21, 2006
  • Green sunfish - 2 lbs. 2 oz. Paul Dilley at Stockton Lake on June 18, 1971
  • Shortnose gar - 8 lbs. 3 oz. George Pittman, Sr., at Lake Contrary on Oct. 12, 2010
  • Yellow bullhead - 6 lbs. 6 oz. John Irvin at Old Drexel Lake on May 27, 2006

Notable State Records

  • Blue catfish - 130 lbs. Greg Bernal by pole and line on the Missouri River on July 20, 2010 (a former world record)
  • Flathead catfish - 99 lbs. Robert Davidson by bank pole on the Missouri River on July 23, 2010
  • Paddlefish - 139 lbs. 4 oz. George Russell by snagging at Table Rock Lake on March 15, 2002
  • Striped bass - 60 lbs. 9 oz. James Cunningham by pole and line at Bull Shoals Lake on June 18, 2011

Also In This Issue

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fishing rod and reel
Paddlefishing is no leisure sport.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler