Missouri's Wild And Wilder Trout Streams
September 30, 2010
Whether you're just looking to get away from the crowds or want a truly remote fishing experience, the Show Me State's trout streams have something to offer you. (June 2006)
I first learned about Missouri's trout program from a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Steven's Point in the late 1960s. (And, yes, I said "1960s" -- that's no misprint.)
Many instructors use Missouri's four trout parks as an example of a conservation agency using hatchery-reared trout economically: Trout-park trout anglers pay for the trout -- ponying up, in other words, both to the Missouri Department of Conservation for producing and stocking the trout and to the state's Department of Natural Resources for operating Missouri's four trout parks. A great program -- but is it really trout fishing in the traditional sense?
The short answer is no; the long answer is rooted in the history of Missouri modern trout program.
Before 1880, Missouri had no trout, but in that year, the Missouri Fish Commission first stocked rainbow fry in spring branches along the railroad line between St Louis, Springfield, and Joplin. Some streams stocked included Maramec Spring branch, Spring River, and Crane Creek. By 1882, anglers reported rainbows spawning in Spring River and Crane Creek.
Although the commission had evidence that some spring branches could support wild rainbow trout without stocking, they established hatcheries and state fishing areas -- read "trout parks" -- at Bennett Spring, Roaring River, and Montauk in the 1920s and '30s; there, the state raised and stocked trout for anglers.
This early trout program morphed into a bigger deal in the '60s, the trout parks becoming a quartet with the addition of Maramec Spring Trout Park and a put-and-take trout stocking program being instituted in a few streams outside the parks.
By the '70s, biologists began to question this approach, having discovered several small wild trout populations in spring branches such as Mill Creek, Spring Creek, Crane Creek, Little Piney River, Blue Spring Creek, and the Eleven Point River. They also began stocking brown trout in a few streams to create a trout fishery at which anglers could expect to catch trout larger than those normally found in the trout parks or the put-and-take streams.
Unfortunately, they also discovered that brown trout couldn't reproduce successfully in Missouri's spring branches; the exception to this was Lake Taneycomo. Consequently, the brown trout fisheries would have to be maintained by annual brown trout releases.
Missouri's modern trout program includes about 165 miles of coldwater streams associated with springs managed for trout and one tailwater at Lake Taneycomo. The trout program has four trout parks, put-and-take streams that the MDC stocks several times annually (White Ribbon Areas), streams supporting wild rainbow populations with either no stocking or limited brown trout stocking (Blue Ribbon Areas), and streams into which the department stocks brown trout (Red Ribbon Areas).
This history, as you might realize, is much more complicated than what I've depicted here. Let's focus on spring branches and trout streams outside Missouri's trout parks -- streams at which trout anglers can expect to fish over large wild rainbows and browns, some exceeding 10 pounds. I'll recommend trout streams to fish this year, areas of those in which to fish, and techniques that work, and provide phone numbers for obtaining additional information about each of the trout streams.
BLUE RIBBON TROUT STREAMS
Streams designated Blue Ribbon Areas include Missouri's best and most productive trout streams, all supporting wild rainbow trout populations and, in a few larger streams, large brown trout. In these special streams, all trout must be 18 inches or larger before you can take one home, and anglers must use artificial lures and flies only to reduce catch-and-release mortality. These streams all have the potential to grow large individuals. The restrictive regulations allow this to happen while providing great catch and release trout fishing.
Am I biased? You bet. My favorite Missouri trout streams are all under Blue Ribbon or Red Ribbon management options. I enjoy catching wild trout -- trout born in the streams I fish. The beauty of these wild athletes, caught in a wild setting, takes trout fishing to a new level of enjoyment for me; the Purina Chow trout stocked in our trout parks and White Ribbon Areas pale by comparison.
North Fork Of The White River
Let me start with my No. 1 all-time favorite among Missouri trout streams: the North Fork of the White River in Ozark County.
The North Fork in Missouri is a classic Ozark stream, heading up in Douglas County and then flowing south through Ozark County, ultimately joining the White River in Arkansas. Trout water extends from Rainbow or Double Springs downstream to Dawt Mill Dam. It's Missouri's only Western-style trout fishery. The Blue Ribbon Area extends from the spring downstream four miles to Blair Bridge, the Red Ribbon Area from Blair to Dawt.
The North Fork supports the largest wild rainbow population in the Midwest, with numerous 14- to 20-inch trout and a few very large brown trout, stocked downstream in the Red Ribbon Area. Brown trout approaching 20 pounds have been caught from this river.
It's a big brawling river on bedrock, furnished with shallow pools and rocky riffles that lend themselves to fly-fishing with all of the classic insect hatches, and to spin-fishing with small artificial lures representing small fish or crayfish. The trout water features public accesses for wading anglers and for launching canoes, boats, or small float-boats about every four miles beginning at Kelly Shoal, just east of the junction of Highway 181 and H and downstream from Rainbow Springs.
It's an easy river to float -- both an advantage for trout anglers, and a curse. A canoe or small float-boat allows easy access to the entire trout stream, and it's my favorite way to fish the area; that said, however, it needs to be noted that the North Fork is one of Missouri's most popular summer float destinations, with hundreds of recreational floaters using the trout water daily.
During the summer, fish early in the morning before the canoe hatch reaches trout water, usually about 10 a.m., and late in the evening after the floaters leave the water. This timeframe also increases the likelihood of your catching one of the large brown trout that move out of sheltered areas used during the day to more-accessibly open positions to feed.
For more information, call the regional MDC office at West Plains at (417) 256-7161
In my mind, the Current River Blue Ribbon Area ranks second to the North Fork by only a few points. It's smaller, easier to access, and closer to St. Louis, Columbia, Rolla, and Kansas City. It supports an excellent -- if not the best -- brown trout population in any of Missouri's trout areas, and a developing wild rainbow population as well.
The Blue Ribbon Area extends from Montauk State Trout Park boundary downstream about six miles to Cedar Grove access, all within Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri's only national park. It's easily accessed by wading anglers as well as by anglers floating through using a canoe or small johnboat. I don't recommend using float tubes or float-boats: The upper Current River is small, with shallow riffles; most floaters drag. With a small johnboat or canoe, you can wade through the riffles and then use the boat to access the deep pools.
The upper Current River is small enough that I hesitate even to recommend where to fish -- so as not to reveal my secret spots. Let's put it this way: Several years ago, a friend from Maryland called and wanted information on where to fish while attending a meeting in Montauk. I drew him a map starting in St. Louis, ending at the river with an arrow and note saying "Fish here." When I caught up with him at the meeting, he was bragging about the note -- and about the largest brown trout he'd ever caught.
I guess I'll break down and tell you that the arrow ended on what Tom Shipley, part of the singing duo of Brewer and Shipley, named the "Million Dollar Mile" -- his favorite fishing area. He fished just downstream from Montauk State Park near Tan Vat access. The stream here is shallow; it's strictly a wade-fishing situation, with lots of overhead cover, rocks and undercut banks extending about a half-mile down to Baptist Camp Access. It's great brown trout water, and full of fish.
Downstream from Baptist Camp access we enter the canoe hatch zone. During spring, summer and fall, the Current River, like the North Fork, plays host to thousands of recreational floaters. During the summer, fish early in the morning or late in the evening from any access. Or, for a different experience, backpack or canoe in from Baptist Camp; set up a base camp a couple of miles downstream and fish after the canoe hatch subsides. This is brown trout water --maybe the best brown trout stream in Missouri.
Eleven Point River
The Eleven Point River Blue Ribbon Area from Greer Spring downstream to Turner's Mill access is a sleeper; supporting both wild and stocked rainbows, it's the most lightly-fished wild trout stream in Missouri. In Oregon County, the trout area receives cold water from Greer Spring, one of Missouri's largest.
It's a large river with short, fast riffles and long, deep pools; wade-fishing is limited to the riffles. To start, fish the long riffle just downstream from the confluence of Greer Spring under the Highway 19 bridge and the riffles at Turner Access. Downstream from the accesses, you need to use a boat or canoe to fish the area.
RED RIBBON TROUT STREAMS
The Meramec River from Highway 8 downstream to Scott's Ford access is Missouri's oldest special management area, and is now managed as a Red Ribbon trout area. Here, trout must be 15 inches or longer before harvest. Anglers can harvest two trout daily but must use artificial lures only. The MDC first stocked brown trout in 1974. The stream also receives stocked rainbows escaping from Maramec Spring Trout Park and has a small population of reproducing rainbows.
I list the Meramec last because, in recent years, the fishing here has declined. But it's still one of my favorite trout streams, and supports excellent brown trout fishing. Fish from the confluence of Maramec Spring downstream about two miles; access the Red Ribbon water through Maramec Spring Trout Park. Park, then walk down the spring branch to the river or from the walk-in fishing access on the Woodson K. Woods Conservation Area at the lower end of this section.
WILD TROUT STREAMS
Missouri's Blue Ribbon trout waters also include a group of small spring branches scattered throughout the Ozarks supporting wild rainbow trout. In some streams, the populations trace their ancestry back to those first trout stocked in Missouri in the 1880s. All small streams, all are accessible by wading, and are best fished using a fly rod or an ultrahigh spinning rod. During spring and summer, I usually wade wet, or use hip boots. I'm going to advise you to fish Little Piney River, Mill Creek, and Crane Creek.
Little Piney River
Little Piney River is Missouri's newest and longest wild trout fishery. It supports an excellent trout population from USFS Lane Spring Campground downstream to the MDC's access, all within the Mark Twain National Forest. Access the fishery off Highway 63 south of Rolla or from Highway T south of Newburg.
The 18-inch length limit protects most trout in the stream, while still allowing anglers to take home that occasional trophy fish. This trout stream provides anglers with excellent fishing for small rainbows up to about 15 inches, while still supporting a few larger individuals exceeding 18 inches.
Mill Creek is just west of Rolla and south of Newburg off Highway P. I've had the pleasure of fishing this wonderful little creek since the early '70s, long before it was managed as a wild rainbow trout fishery.
The last five years or so have been hard on this intimate little trout stream. It has experienced low water flows during Missouri's drought, which reduced the rainbow population -- but it's still fun to fish. Just don't expect to catch any large trout. Fish up or downstream from the U.S. Forest Service campground or access the creek at Wilkins Spring at the upper end of the spring branch. Remember that some sections are privately owned and not open to public fishing.
For more information about the Little Piney River and Mill Creek, write: MDC, P.O. Box 248, 375 S. Highway 185, Sullivan, MO 63080; or call (573) 468-3335.
Crane Creek lies in southwest Missouri, near Crane in Stone County off Highway 13. You can access the creek from Crane's city park, and from the Wire Road Conservation Area upstream and downstream from Crane.
First stocked in 1880, it has supported wild rainbows for more than 126 years, but like Mill Creek, it has experienced water-flow problems from the drought. It still supports trout, though, and as water flows increase, the population will improve; the best trout fishing today, however, is downstream from Crane.
For more information about Crane Creek, write: MDC, 2630 N. Mayfair, Springfield MO 65801; or call (417) 895-6880. And for a complete list of Missouri's Blue Ribbon trout areas and access information write: MDC, Fisheries, Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102; or call (573) 751-4115.
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I've touched on only the best of the best trout streams here in Missouri. The state manages more spring branches under the both the Blue Ribbon and the Red Ribbon management options. A
ll provide wonderful trout fishing opportunities, and with less fishing pressure than is felt by Missouri's trout parks. Although the Show Me State can't match up with those northern or Western states that have hundreds of miles of trout water, the skillful deployment of a wide array of management options has enabled Missouri streams to provide outstanding trout fishing for those anglers willing to fish outside our trout parks. Check them out this year; you'll be pleasantly surprised.