Mastering Missouri’s Trout in the Wild

By Mark Van Patten, photographs by David Stonner | March 18, 2016
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2016

Mention Missouri’s four trout parks and stand back. Trout park fans love them — they can’t wait for the March 1 opener, and they love getting together with friends and family to catch some big fish.

Trout parks are excellent places to practice landing lunkers, but if you’re longing for something a bit more solitary, you might be ready to cast a fly for Missouri’s trout in the wild. These trout have been stocked but have been in the river long enough to reestablish their wild trout behavior or were actually spawned in the river instead of being stocked. Their coloring and adaptive behavior is different than those freshly stocked trout in the trout parks.

Our state is blessed with 15 spring-fed trout streams that never close. Gear up and give one a try. It’s a different trout-fishing experience, one that will test your skills and bring you close to the heart of wild Missouri.

Learn to Read the Water

You’ll need a few new skills to make the transition from park fishing to wild trout fishing. The first is learning to read the water. This is because you won’t often be able to see fish in the wild the way you can in the parks. Reading the water will help you know where the fish are, even if you can’t see them.

Aside from cold, highly oxygenated water, trout have three fundamental needs: security, a break in the current velocity, and food supply. Since trout are not the top predators in the food chain, security is their first concern. Through natural instinct, fish sense the need for protection from predators. Places where they find protection are often undercut banks, drop-offs, fallen trees, rocks, and other underwater structures.

A fish must find habitat where the current is not too strong so it can rest between feedings. Fish will watch debris drift by and then dart out when food appears. The ideal spot for resting and feeding is a protected area along the edge of the current. Anglers call these spots “holding lies,” and they can be found in several locations in almost any river, depending on flow. A successful angler will learn to recognize them: riffles, runs, pools, and eddies/ pocket water.

Very shallow runs are called flats, which are wide with even flow and low-to-moderate velocities and little or no surface turbulence. Flats often form a transition from the pool to the upper end of a riffle. They are shallow and generally the same depth from side to side. These areas are excellent places for fish to feed when an insect hatch is underway and fish can easily locate the insects without using much energy. However, with the shallow, slower moving water, fooling these fish into taking your fly can be difficult. The fish have more time to scrutinize your dry fly. Careful casting and proper presentation with a fly that matches the hatching insects on the surface of the water will improve your dry-fly fishing success. This is called “matching the hatch.”

An important characteristic of stream flow is the transverse current. This is where two currents of different velocity meet and form a visible line of foam or debris known as a seam. More loosely defined, almost any place a trout feeds is a seam because trout almost always hold in slow water and feed in faster adjacent currents. But seams formed by two currents of different velocity are especially useful because they can help you find trout where no bottom obstructions break the current, or where you can’t see the bottom. When two currents meet, there is always a pocket of relative calm within the turbulence, and often it is enough to form a place where trout can lie and feed, even when there are no rocks, logs, or other structure.

Practice Mending for a Natural Presentation

When you cast your fly to the water, you are making a presentation to the fish. Keep in mind that the fish lives there and knows what its food should act like. Try to make your fly act like a natural insect. A dry fly needs to rest on the surface of the water, so you will need to be proficient at mending your line to allow for a longer, drag-free float. The insects the fish feed on are small and light, and they don’t cut a “V” through the stream. The insect floats naturally with the current.

If the fish sees the fly drag on the surface, it will turn away or just completely ignore the offering. If you present a wet fly or nymph, you need to know that the water will be moving more slowly along the bottom than it does near the surface. This is because of the friction created by the rocks and logs. You will need to “mend your line” to let the fly move along the bottom at a speed the fish are accustomed to seeing.

Mending the line is using the last part of the cast to throw a belly of line upstream of the fly. This will allow a wet fly or nymph to sink and drift at the same speed as the water at the bottom of the stream, mimicking the natural speed and behavior of real insects. You can use mending when fishing a dry fly, too. If your dry fly needs to land along the far bank where the water is moving more slowly than the water in the middle of the stream, the fly will quickly begin to drag as the faster current drags the line downstream.

Mending the line upstream gives the dry fly a longer, drag-free float time. Mastering the various styles of mending the line to deal with different current speeds and tricky cross currents will increase your fishing success, whether you are fishing in a park setting or in the trout streams outside of the parks.

Practice the Art of Stealth

Not too many years ago I was fishing one of my favorite small trout streams, where an ancient sycamore treehangs out over the water. I sneaked up and leaned down on the tree to watch from above. A nice-sized rainbow trout slipped in and out of the foam line, feeding on various insects, when suddenly it disappeared. I knew it hadn’t seen me because I hadn’t moved. Suddenly, something 75 yards upstream caught my eye — another angler.

I watched her wade and fish her way down the middle of the stream until she disappeared around a bend. As soon as she was out of sight, the trout reappeared and began feeding. I had observed a very good lesson: the big fish are big because they’re sensitive and smart. The lateral line, a system of sensory structures that lies along each side of a fish’s body, detects movement and vibration. Once the trout sensed vibrations of the angler’s approach, its superior survival instincts drove it to cover.

In small streams approximately 10 to 15 feet wide, it is best to approach a prospective lie from the bank and not by wading in the stream. Keep a low profile and hide behind bushes. This is because refraction makes you appear about 33 percent bigger than you are. A 6-foot angler on the bank will appear 9 feet tall to a trout. Fish are nearsighted, so they don’t perceive detail, but they can detect sudden movement, especially from a casting line.

On larger streams, it is better to wade. Objects observed at a lower angle to the fish, such as a wading angler, appear distorted and movement is not as easily observed. The nearsighted fish isn’t sure what it is seeing. Trout see color, too. If you show up at streamside wearing a brightly colored fishing hat and T-shirt, your chances of catching fish in natural settings are reduced exponentially. Earth-tone colors are always a good bet for clothing and gear.

Wild Trout Fight Harder

Trout in the wild fight harder and longer than the freshly stocked park trout. Knowing this will help you land these flashes of lightning. Let them run and don’t be surprised when they leap from the water several times. Don’t give them any slack line, or they will shake your hook loose. But don’t horse them. They will break your line faster than you can say, “He broke me off!”

Missouri’s trout parks are great places to fish with family and friends, and the odds of actually catching and landing a fish are high. But if you’re ready to match wits with a master survivor, take a trip to one of Missouri’s wild trout streams and let the adventure begin.

Browse Missouri’s Trout Areas Online

Missouri has a wealth of trout waters, including red, white, and blue ribbon streams. Our Trout Areas Web page also includes listings for Lake Taneycomo, all four trout parks, winter trout areas, and links to area regulations, brochures, and maps. Visit

Riffles are the fast, shallow, and choppy parts of the stream. The choppy action is actually dissolving oxygen into the water. Trout like highly oxygenated water and many of the macroinvertebrates (water bugs, also known as fish food) also prefer that habitat. So for the trout, choppy water is a perfect environment — lots of oxygen, and food, too. In addition, the choppy surface water makes it difficult for a heron or other predator to see them.

Runs are shallow to somewhat-deep stream habitats with swift-to-moderate velocities and minor surface turbulence below the riffles. A deeper run is an excellent place to fish with a sinking fly like a nymph or a streamer.

Pools are the deepest parts of the stream. These are great for fish to hold in. Food flows in and out of the pool continually. The narrow, downstream end of the pool is called the tail, and the upper end is the head. Larger trout generally feed at the head of the pool. All the other fish find suitable habitat throughout the pool and at the tail, where the channel narrows and food concentrates.

Eddies are pockets of slower water that form just behind and downstream of rocks. This pocket of slower water provides a break in the stream current and delivers a smorgasbord of food. Eddies are ideal areas for holding fish.

Monofilament Recycling Saves Wildlife

As responsible anglers, we all need to do what we can to protect our sport and Missouri’s waters. Always pack out more than you pack in, and use the monofilament recycling bins scattered throughout our trout parks. Go a step farther, and adopt a bin to install and monitor on one of our wild trout stream accesses. Visit the Missouri Stream Team website at to find and fill out the Volunteer Agreement form. Return it, and we will provide you with the number of fully assembled bins you request. For more information, email Mark Van Patten at, or call 573-522-4115, ext. 3892.

Don’t Spread Didymo

If you’re a trout angler, you probably know that didymo, also known as ”rock snot,” is bad news for fishing. Not only does this invasive algae’s stringy threads snag tackle, it smothers aquatic insects and fish eggs. The nearest infestation is in the White River just south of the Missouri- Arkansas border. Be sure to check, clean, or dry all wading gear and fishing equipment before entering any of Missouri’s trout streams. Once rock snot infests a trout stream, there is no treatment.

Free Missouri Trout Fishing Map

Order your easy-to-carry guide with general information, maps, and regulations for all of Missouri’s trout fishing areas. Write to MDC, Missouri Trout Fishing Map, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or email with your request.

Also In This Issue

Grandpa and Grandson Fishing
If you have grandchildren, you may be the perfect mentor to nurture their interest in the outdoors
caged squirrel
Use a cage-type trap to harvest rabbits, squirrels, and groundhogs with ease.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler