By Bill Cooper
Wild trout are a rarity in the Missouri Ozarks, but they do exist. I’m beginning a new personal quest in 2022 to catch wild trout in a number of Missouri’s finest and wildest trout streams.
Prior to 1880, trout were non-existent in the state of Missouri. That very year, however, the Missouri Fish Commission stocked rainbow trout fry in numerous spring branches along the railroad line between St. Louis, Springfield, and Joplin. Some of those streams included the Maramec Spring branch, Spring River and Crane Creek. As early as 1882, anglers reported spawning rainbows in Crane Creek and Spring River.
Evidence became available to the fish commission that several spring creeks in the Missouri Ozarks could support trout without stocking, but they chose to develop trout hatcheries and state fishing areas in state trout parks. Trout programs began in Bennett Spring, Roaring River, and Montauk in the 1920s and ‘30s. The James Foundation’s Maramec Spring Park was added in the 1960s. The put-and-take trout program was also extended to a few steams outside the parks.
By the early 1970s, biologists, including the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Trout Biologist Spencer Turner, had begun to question the established trout program, after having discovered several small wild trout populations in spring branches including, Mill Creek, Spring Creek, Crane Creek, Little Piney River, Blue Spring Creek, and the Eleven Point River.
I came to Maramec Spring Park as superintendent in the early ‘70s and vividly remember many long conversations with Turner about trout and the possibilities of expanding trout fishing opportunities in the state. The Meramec River became one of the first of several streams to receive stockings of brown trout in hopes of creating a trout fishery where anglers could catch larger trout than in the trout parks or the put-and-take streams.
Rather quickly, biologists discovered that brown trout could not reproduce in most of the streams where they had been stocked, with the exception of Lake Taneycomo. Consequently brown trout would have to be stocked in streams to maintain a fishery.
Today Missouri’s trout programs include 165 miles of cold-water streams associated with spring branches managed for trout and the tailwaters of Lake Taneycomo. The programs also boast four trout parks, put-and-take trout streams managed and stocked several times a year by MDC, known as White Ribbon Areas. There are also streams supporting wild rainbow populations with either no stocking or limited brown trout stocking, Blue Ribbon areas, and streams receiving stockings of brown trout, Red Ribbon Areas. Each class has differing regulations, with the Blue Ribbon Areas being the most restrictive.
Missouri now maintains nine wild trout streams in the Blue Ribbon Areas, including Mill Creek, Spring Creek, Little Piney River, Current River, Eleven Point River, North Fork of the White, Blue Spring Creek, Crane Creek, and Barren Fork Creek. All contain wild populations of rainbow trout, and the larger streams hold populations of brown trout. All trout under 18-inches must be released unharmed, and only artificial lure and flies may be used to thwart catch-and-release mortality. Because of the restrictive regulations, all of these streams have the potential to grow large fish, although they are rare in the smaller streams.
In February of 2020, the Missouri Department of Conservation and Trout Unlimited cooperated to establish the Missouri Blue Ribbon Trout Slam, a program aimed at attracting anglers to experience the excitement of catching wild, stream-bred trout. The Trout Slam recognizes anglers for various stages of achievement. Catching trout from five of the nine streams entitles the angler to the Bronze Level, seven the Silver Level, and all nine the Gold Level. A pin and certificate are issued at each level after the angler completes the appropriate forms through MDC.
Prior to the establishment of the Missouri Blue Ribbon Trout Slam, I had caught rainbows from eight of the nine areas over the last 40 years. Crane Creek is the only Blue Ribbon Trout Area I have not fished. I’ve published stories and photographs of all of my adventures. For the Missouri Trout Slam, however, my past efforts do not count. If I want to participate in the program, I must start all over. I do not see that as a particular problem. It merely gives me a viable excuse to revisit all of these spectacular trout fisheries.
I want to catch wild trout from all nine of the Blue Ribbon Streams. I will most likely begin with streams closest to my home. Little Piney River is the newest and longest of the wild trout streams. It supports an excellent population of rainbows from the USFS Lane Springs Campground downstream to the MDC Access, all which is in the boundaries of the Mark Twain National Forest. Excellent fishing is found here for trout up to 15 inches, with the occasional larger fish.
Mill Creek is west of Rolla and south of Newburg off of highway P. A gorgeous small trout stream, Mill Creek has suffered from low-water conditions in the last decade. As a result trout populations have suffered, but they are still present. The likelihood of catching a big trout is minimal.
Current River is an hour south of my home in St. James. In my mind, it is the best wild trout fishery in the state of Missouri. A few years ago, I would have voted for the North Fork of the White, but the floods of several years ago allowed striped bass to enter the river system, wreaking havoc on wild trout populations there. The Blue Ribbon area on the Current extends from Montauk State Park boundary downriver about six miles to the Cedar Grove Access. This entire stretch is within the boundaries of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
These streams will provide the beginnings of my new quest for wild trout in 2022. I’ll keep you posted.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at www.facebook.com/ outsidealways.