April 13th, 2009

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Stocked Trout and Lessons Learned
By Dave Steele, Floris, LA (Bowmaker1)

What is lowlier to a master trout fisherman than those almost tame and nearly worthless hatchery raised stocked trout? I would guess perhaps, those inexperienced people who fish for them. I count myself among those inexperienced fishermen. Allow me to explain myself and my love of these fish.

I consider myself a fly fisherman and tied my first flies from an old stuffed parrot, which my father dragged home from a rummage sale, when I was about 12. I just took a couple of those green feathers and tied them around a hook with thread, sort of like I had read about in Sports Afield. We must have had some of the dumbest bluegills in Iowa, because they would hit those ugly flies tied onto 10lb line and cast from a Zebco 202. I really do remember that summer well, but that ended my fly fishing experience for about the next 30 years.

I was a die hard fisherman for all of that time but wasn't terribly interested in fly fishing until I picked up a Berkley Cherrywood fly rod on sale and thought it might be fun to try it again. I bought a few poppers and spiders and caught pan fish and bass off and on for several years, but that was about it. I never really thought about trout fishing much, mainly because there aren't any trout in Southern Iowa. I do remember catching my first rainbow trout in 1982 down at Lake Tanycomo in Missouri. I caught it and about a hundred more just like I caught catfish, on a spinning rod with a slip sinker and a little hook with either worms or whole kernel corn as bait. I had fun but really wasn't very impressed.

Now let's fast forward to the year 2000, when my wife and I bought our first real camper. We bought a 26 foot Trail Lite in January because it was a great deal at that time of year, but now we had to find a place for a vacation in April, while my wife, a college teacher, was on spring break. She wanted to go some where south of Iowa and warm. Her father had told me several years before about a crazy place where they blew a whistle and every one splashed into a stream to fish for trout. A little internet research later and I found that wonderful place called Bennett Springs, a trout park in southern Missouri. The more I read the more this place sounded like a hoot. After convincing the wife that we should stop there for a day or two on our way to Geers Ferry Lake in Arkansas, I started collecting gear and information to try to catch those wascally trouts. I ordered a Three Forks 8 foot 5wt fly rod combo from Cabela's, along with a few flies, whose names I had never heard of, and a really cheap pair of hip boots.

We arrived there in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, after a six plus hour drive from Iowa. For those who have never been there on a spring Saturday you just can't imagine how crowded it was and we wondered if this was a really big mistake. After we set up camp, we drove around the park and just watched the show. There were people all over the stream catching fish, and people dragging two or three fish around on a stringer, and every one seemed to be having fun. I couldn't believe it, the water was so clear and fish were cruising every where. I bought a license and tag at the store and when I asked what to fish with the young man there sold me a couple each of #14 Renegades and #12 Cracklebacks, and told me to see which worked best and then I could get more. I watched a guy catch several rainbows just above the stone bridge and asked a few questions so that maybe I wouldn't look like a complete fool the next day.

Sunday morning I missed the whistle spectacle, but was soon standing on the jetty just above the damn. I managed a so so cast with a Crackleback into the big pool there. The fly was small and I lost sight of it as it drifted toward the damn. I turned to watch a guy land a fish and all of a sudden, WHAM! On my first cast a viscous 10 inch rainbow hammered that fly on the surface at about 9:30 in the morning, something which I learned much later was pretty unusual. Both that little rainbow and I were hooked! Over the next hour I managed to catch two more fish and loose all 4 of the flies that I had bought at the store. I moved down to the spot just above the stone bridge where I had watched the fisherman Saturday afternoon. I tied on a bead head red squirrel nymph that I had gotten from Cabela's and a float like the other guy had and caught another 6 trout. I thought "this place is great." That afternoon I grilled the limit of trout in foil over a campfire and we thought they were fantastic.

Since we intended to go farther south, we packed up the next morning and headed for Arkansas. Here I just have to say HWY 65 south from Branson, must be one of the, if not THE, worst curvy bendy hilly highway in the country. I don't think there was much more than a quarter mile section that wasn't up or down hill with sharp bends and cutbacks, and with semis trying to pass me, while I was towing the camper. After several hours of this punishment we arrived at Geers Ferry Lake and the Little Red River that runs below the damn. My wife took one look at that damn, from the bottom campgrounds and said "I am NOT camping below that huge dam and that lake up there." So after a little discussion, we turned around and retraced out torturous route back up HWY 65 and back to our same camp site at Bennett Springs, just as if we had never left at all. It turns out, that that was a very good decision! We spent the rest of our vacation there and have made from 2 to 5 trips back every year since.

Ok, so much for background. Now let's move on to why I enjoy those stocked trout and the trout parks of Missouri so much. The Park itself is very nice and well cared for and a nice break for us, especially in the spring time, after a nasty Iowa winter. The second thing is that the stream is absolutely full of trout. There are so many fish that even a complete novice, like myself, can be successful with several different flies and techniques. This gives me the chance to experiment with things like dry flies, nymphs, swinging wet flies, stripping Cracklebacks, even drifting mini-jigs or the hated glow balls, to see which method I enjoy most. I read a lot in magazines and on the internet about fly fishing and this is my well stocked lab, and I have learned a lot over the last 8 years. Even though many fly fishermen on the stream aren't very talkative, I can usually find one who is and who will answer questions and share information with me.

These stocked trout have shown me how to drift a mostly drag-free #22 cream midge or Renegade to fish that I can see and interpret their reaction, or lack of, to the fly. When I see them begin to rise as the fly approaches, my heart begins to beat harder and I start to hold my breath. I am thrilled if that trout continues upward and inhales that fly, and I am disappointed if that fish thumbs its nose at my fly and retreats to its feeding zone. I pickup the fly, false cast to dry it and make another hopefully better presentation to the same fish, which I can still see and try it all again. These trout have also given me a reason to learn to tie a better #22 cream midge, and great satisfaction when they finally do slurp it in instead of the natural floating in the same seam. They have taught me what a seam even is, how to fish it, and with what. They have shown me how to consistently catch them in 12 inches of water flowing through a riffle that is clearer than my tap water, or in 8 feet of dark green water above the damn, or in 3 feet of fast muddy water in the hatchery outlet creek. They have made me learn what fly, or mini-jig, or what color glow ball to use in any of those situations, and have taught me to love the lessons.

All of these things have contributed to my feelings about these near worthless hatchery stocked trout, but allow me to tell you about the primary reason that I love these wonderful stocked trout. They allow my wife to catch them! She used to fish with me years ago when we were young but not now that we are approaching our 60s. During our second year of traveling to Bennett Springs she decided that maybe she would like to try trout fishing. I bought her a new ultra-lite spinning outfit for her birthday, and during our next trip down we spent almost a whole afternoon at the Park Store there picking out a set of breathable waders and wading boots. The poor young man who was trying to help us deserved a medal for his efforts and good humor that day. You have to understand that my wife and I are both over weight and she wasn't about to look like a sausage stuffed into a pair of neoprene waders, so she had to try on several different brands of breathables and at least 2 sizes of each before settling on just the right pair. I will remember that fun for a long long time.

Two mornings later she decided that we should both go down for the morning whistle. We marched down to the beach just above the big stone bridge and stood in the water waiting for the whistle. I remember well, I had rigged her with a tri-colored glow ball with a float about 2 feet above it, and had shown her how to cast and let it drift down stream a little before casting again. I stood just upstream a little to help give her some room from all the other fishermen. The whistle blew and every one cast at the same time. I was working some line off of my fly reel when I hear her laugh and say "I think I've got one." Well I net if for her and unhook it, and start to put it on a stringer, because we planned to eat fish for supper. Next thing I know, even before I can get that fish on the stringer, I hear "Wow I've got another." So now I have two trout in the same net and am trying to get them strung and again I hear laughter and look up to see her reeling in about a 15 inch rainbow and smiling like she had just been visited by Jesus and the whistle was still blowing! God bless those hatchery trout!

We have had several more memorable experiences on that stream and at each of the other Missouri trout parks, including the day she got too brave wading around watching the trout swarming around her feet, and slipped and took a dunking. I had no idea that waders could hold that much water, and of course there was no wading belt, because "I don't look good in belts!" The point is that hatchery raised stocked trout have already supplied enough wonderful memories to carry us both over the next twenty or so years to end of our earthly lives.

To date, I have caught exactly 4 very small "maybe" wild trout from the fabled Bear Trap canyon region of the Madison River in Montana, and literally hundreds of stocked trout in Missouri and North East Iowa, and a couple in Minnesota. As a result, I can say with out all the stocked trout, I would have six trout to my credit and wouldn't even know how eat them, much less catch them. For all the extremely lucky fishermen who live where abundant wild trout are the norm, please say thanks. For those of us who must travel several hundred miles to even have the chance to catch "stockers," we are grateful to the hatcheries that supply them for us, but I'll bet I can teach some of you Montana boys a few things about catching two pound bluegills and six pound catfish from a farm pond on a 3wt fly rod, mostly because of lessons learned from hatchery stocked trout. ~ Dave


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