September 30, 2010
Whether you want rainbows for the table or just a good fight with a big brown, these destinations can satisfy any Show Me State trout angler.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Bryan Hendricks
In retrospect, I could have picked a better time than Memorial Day weekend to take my kids fishing on the Niangua River. That's one of the busiest holidays for all of Missouri's lakes and streams, and the 14-mile stretch of the Niangua from Bennett Spring State Park to Prosperine Access is reputedly one of the state's rowdiest playgrounds.
People tried to warn me, but I didn't believe them. Anglers are the world's worst about exaggerating the intensity of minor inconveniences. They visit rivers and streams seeking peace and solitude. If they encounter more than one or two canoes, they make it sound like the place is overrun with pirates and brigands. I suspect they do it to scare others away from the best fishing spots, so I've learned to ignore them.
"At least don't take your kids," they warned.
Nope. My boys wanted to go, and I wasn't going to tell them no.
When we arrived at Bennett Spring Access, just downstream from the park, the campgrounds along the river were full. The river itself appeared to have more canoes in it than water. At some of the narrow riffles, there were places where you could have walked across boats from one bank to the other without getting your feet wet. The festivities featured a wide range of behavior, but there were lighter moments, such as when an entire flotilla of canoes and their drunken pilots tried to negotiate narrow, twisting, willow-lined runs all at once. The wrecks that ensued were spectacular.
My second miscalculation was to target smallmouth bass. Bennett Spring State Park is one of Missouri's four trout parks, and the waters within the park are stocked with brown and rainbow trout, as are the waters below the park. Also, many of the park trout escape downstream, augmenting an already abundant population. Since most anglers on that part of the river focus entirely on trout, I reasoned that the smallmouths probably don't get much pressure.
With so many boats and so much commotion in the water, I deduced that not much fishing of any kind goes on in this part of the river - at least, not in the summer. We paddled hard until finally, just a few miles above Barclay Access, we got away from the biggest part of the crowd. The boys wanted to play in the water, so we beached on a gravel bar bordering a twisting, narrow run that ran beside a steep hill. There were small logjams both in the middle of the run and at its end, as well as a big rootwad wedged into the mud downstream of the last logjam. The current had scoured deep holes behind these structures, creating perfect ambush lairs for smallmouth bass.
With my 5-foot ultralight rod and 6-pound-test line, I cast a silver/black floating minnow into the current behind the last logjam and twitched it upstream into the swirling eddy. Instead of the mushy, chomping bite of a smallmouth, I felt the lightning-strike throb of a trout. I set the hook, and a big brown rocketed skyward, furiously shaking its entire body. It splashed back into the water and raced into the current. Stripping line off the drag with a reedy squeal, it fled downstream toward the rootwad. I moved to the side of the logs and tightened the drag so that it released slowly when the fish surged.
After four strong runs, the trout finally came to hand. It was an impressive fish, 15 inches long with a sleek, muscular body. Its color was a brilliant hue of burnished gold. His black spots sparkled like polished onyx, and the red rings surrounding the spots were radiant, almost three-dimensional. This was a true river trout, with a physique sculpted from living wild in a freestone current and a complexion reflecting a healthy diet of tasty bugs, fish and other natural morsels.
I caught a few smaller fish and some goggle-eyes over the next couple of hours. As we came within sight of Barclay Access, we encountered a long, serpentine run that emptied into the deep pool in front of the access ramp. As the boys splashed and wrestled in a side channel, I cast my floating minnow at the tail of the rapid and let it wash downstream about 20 yards. I clicked the bail, jerked the lure underwater and began retrieving it with a frantic, darting motion. Again, another big trout, almost identical to the first one, hammered the lure. He had more room to run, so he fought harder and longer. When I brought him to hand, he radiated the same sublime beauty that the first fish had exhibited. There were certainly more fish in the trout park, but none could have been any prettier than these were.
Beauty is nice, but besides Lake Taneycomo, Missouri's trout streams don't have much to offer in the way of big fish. At least, that's what some people say. Wanna bet? In July 2003, Jeff Tiefenauer of Desloge caught a 16-pound, 15-ounce brown trout at Bennett Spring State Park. He used a No. 16 Dave's Red Fox Squirrel Nymph and a 7-foot 4- or 5-weight fly rod and a 9-foot tapered leader. That's a big trout anywhere, but there are records of anglers catching big trout at all of Missouri's streams.
That, along with my own experience, convinced me that, despite the rambunctious holiday crowds, a trout fishing trip to the Niangua is worth the time and trouble. But Missouri has many other great trout fishing destinations besides the Niangua - and here are a few of my favorites.
Many of the streams and rivers in the Ozarks are fed by massive springs that boil up from the heart of the region's karst geology. Water flows hundreds of miles underground through this fragile, porous landscape until it bursts forth at sites such as Bennett's Spring, Mammoth Spring and, of course, Maramec Spring.
Above Maramec Spring Park, the Maramec River meanders lazily through narrow riffles and rocky pools shaded by a thick canopy of hardwood trees. When you get to the park, Maramec Spring branch pours almost 90 million gallons of cold water per day into the river, increasing both its size and the speed of its current substantially. The profile and appearance of the river changes instantly, and for the next six or seven miles, it becomes prime trout water similar in many respects to the Niangua.
Last May, my boys and I accompanied a friend and his sons on our annual Rooster Fest outing. We put in at Woodson K. Woods Memorial Conservation Area and enjoyed some good smallmouth fishing, but when we reached the confluence of the spring branch, the cold water caused a noticeable drop in the air temperature. We tied on small rainbow trout and brown trout-colored floating minnows and had a blast catching and releasing stocker-sized browns and rainbows.
Anglers lined the shore at the park as well as th
e bank along the river, and everybody seemed to be catching fish. The hottest spot I saw was on the left bank at the junction of the river and the spring branch, where a man and his daughter caught trout hand over fist under a bobber. We stayed in that area for a couple of hours, but I was amazed at how many fish rose throughout the river on our way downstream.
Fishing was slow the next day for the first few hours until we stopped at a gravel bar to roast some hot dogs and enjoy some cold sodas. I eased downstream until I found a short, plunging rapid that made a sharp S-turn to the left. The rootwad of a downed tree broke the current and diverted it around a couple of big rocks. I cast my trusty silver/black floating minnow behind the eddy, jerked it under and - wham! I got sledgehammered. The lure stood still against the hookset for a moment, and then the water erupted as a big brown trout expressed its supreme displeasure. Rolling and thrashing the way brown trout do, and it had the same physical qualities as the trout I'd caught on the Niangua.
I only caught two more the rest of the trip, mainly because my beloved floating minnow divorced my line after a violent collision with a rock, but I saw enough to put the Maramec on my list of favorites.
ELEVEN POINT RIVER
Arguably, the Fourth of July weekend is a horrible time to fish a Missouri trout stream - even worse than Memorial Day weekend. Despite my better judgment, I decided on that holiday to take my family on our first trip to the Eleven Point River. We arrived at Greer Crossing Campground at the end of the day on July 3, and to our amazement, there were only a few other campers there.
I fell in love with the river at first sight. Downed logs and submerged wood cover were everywhere, as well as deep mossbeds that seemed to ooze trout. Rising fish dimpled the water everywhere, and others cruised the shoreline. I fished until dark, casting to both cruisers and risers, but I couldn't get a bite. However, we were under a new moon, and I was confident that the fish would bite during the heat of the day.
Around lunchtime the next day, I paddled and pushed my canoe upstream to the first big bend upstream of the Highway 19 bridge. Facing upstream, you meet with a short gravel bar on the left, but the current drives to the right against a low, rocky shelf. It drops into a swift rapid for the next 60-75 yards and then splits at the bridge. There are deep holes, eddies and drops throughout, and it all looks very "fishy."
Across from the gravel bar, next to the rocky shelf, a large tree was down in the water, and the current had gouged out a small, deep pocket in front of the rootwad. I cast a small rainbow trout-pattern floating minnow upstream of the rootwad and jerked it down through the pocket. My reward was the sharp pulse of a trout strike. I set the hook, and the water parted as a nice rainbow took to the air. This fish was a superb and tireless jumper, and I was fortunate to land him before he dislodged my hook.
My reward was to glimpse a fish of incomparable beauty. Only about 12 inches long, he was one of the few rainbows I've seen that was truly worthy of the name; his colors were as bright as neon. I've always regretted not having had a camera there at that moment, but even if I had been able to record the moment, I don't think that a mere photograph could have done that fish justice. And I caught another one just like it a couple of hours later.
I was euphoric as I floated down past the bridge into the deep pool below. From my canoe, I cast over some submerged boulders, and a big trout - it looked to be about 3 pounds - flashed at the lure, popped it for a bare instant and then vanished. I never saw him again.
Despite its name, Lake Taneycomo is still a small, very riverine impoundment of the White River, and so is still technically a stream. It's also a trout stream, and a very good one - Missouri's best for big browns and rainbows.
One of the nice things about Lake Taneycomo is you can fish it so many different ways. If the generators aren't running at Table Rock Dam, you can wade-fish the riffles, shoals and pools. You can fish from the bank anytime, or you can drift or troll from a boat. Best of all, you can catch fish with any of these methods anywhere on the river.
Because it's right on the outskirts of Branson, Taneycomo is always a busy place, and often crowded. The entire shoreline is developed with homes, cottages and lodges, so there's nothing that remotely resembles wilderness. But you don't go to Taneycomo for that, anyway - you go there to catch fish. And Taneycomo seldom disappoints.
Most wade-anglers concentrate on the extreme upper half of the lake, just below the dam near the outlet pipes below Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery. That's where the greatest concentrations of fish are, and you can drive yourself nuts trying to catch big cruisers that never appear interested in biting anything; I don't know what they eat, but they don't appear to eat lures. Nevertheless, my favorite method or catching lesser fish involves casting 1/16- or 1/32-ounce white, black or olive marabou micro-jigs into the current under casting bobbers. Sometimes fish will take the jig riding high in the water; at others, they prefer it just off the bottom, or even bouncing off the bottom.
Flyfishermen do well with scuds or wooly buggers in the same colors.
In deeper water, I always go back to my floating minnow plug in silver/black, rainbow trout or brown trout. One of my favorite experiences on Taneycomo occurred several years ago. I was fishing the rainbow trout-colored minnow near a fallen log, and a big brown trout, at least a 5-pounder, followed the lure all the way to the end of the retrieve and then waited defiantly at my knees when I pulled it out of the water. The fish almost seemed to be daring me to throw the lure back into the water.
I cast it back out a ways, and the fish dashed toward it, but didn't take it. I don't know if my motion spooked him, or if he didn't like it once he saw it up close - but it was pretty cool all the same.
Perhaps the coolest of all Missouri's trout streams is Crane Creek, in Lawrence and Stone counties. It flows through Wire Road Conservation Area near the community of Crane. In the 1880s, it was one of the first streams in Missouri stocked with rainbow trout, and they continue to thrive there.
The section of the creek flowing through the two portions of Wire Road CA contains small pools and riffles shaded by a dense hardwood canopy. That makes for pleasant wade-fishing conditions, but the dense streamside vegetation makes it hard to cast flies. Also, the water is very clear, making it even more difficult to fool these ultra-wary wild rainbows. One way to tilt the odds in your favor is to tie a nymph to 4-pound-test line on an ultralight spinning rig and pinch on a couple of small split shot a foot or so up the line. You can flick that a long way into tight cover without excessive noise or splash.
Trout cannot be harvested
at Crane Creek; they must be returned unharmed to the water immediately.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Missouri Game & Fish