Friday was opening day of catch-and-keep trout season in Missouri’s four trout parks. For some, particularly in the Ozarks, that’s a time-honored tradition stretching back several generations.
On Governor Mike Parson's cue, the siren at Bennett Spring State Park pierced through the frigid, clear air at 6:30 AM. Immediately, rows of anglers standing above the falls and waist deep along the river’s edges cast in their lines. Almost instantly, many had to reach for their nets; the fish were biting.
Jared Minor of Marshfield snagged four rainbow trout—that’s the daily limit here—all within the first 30 minutes. Using his pocketknife, he cleaned them in the river.
“Getting them ready for the skillet,” he said, laughing.
Next to him stood 89-year-old Tom Farr, also of Marshfield, a retired mailman.
“I started 73 years ago today," Farr said.
His fingertips were bleeding slightly—“a little hook, no big deal," he said.
For Farr, the magic all began as a 16-year-old when his music teacher doubled as the sponsor for the Marshfield Wildlife and Conservation Club.
“He got a school bus and brought us all down here the last day of February. We camped out at the Suzy Hole all night – tried to sleep, nobody slept, too cold—so we could be here on opening day in 1946,” Farr said.
It was a group of 20 rowdy boys, he said; he’s one of only three men from that original group who survive.
Farr still remembers that part of park—the area locals refer to as “The Gut Hole”—was roped off.
“And Harry Truman was president. And they thought he was coming that day. So they roped it off and saved it for him. Well, we thought, ‘Hey—that’s probably the best stocked hole in the park,’ so we fished as close as we could. It’s been a happening all these years. It’s not a fishing trip; it’s a happening,” Farr said.
One of the first anglers to catch a fish Friday morning was Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, who represents Missouri’s 4th district in Congress. She says she first learned about trout season when she was a fresh-out-of-college school teacher just down the road in Lebanon.
“And I came to school one day. And there were only three kids in first hour. And there were only two kids in second hour. And I said, ‘What is going on? Is there a flu epidemic?’ And they said, ‘It’s opening day of trout season, Miss Zellmer! Don't you know that?’" she said.
Missouri’s catch-and-keep season at state trout parks runs through October 31. In addition to Bennett Spring, three other state parks operate trout hatcheries: Montauk State Park near Licking, Roaring River State Park near Cassville, and Maramec Spring Park close to St. James.
The Missouri Department of Conservation was expecting around 2,300 anglers at Bennett Spring State Park alone on opening day. And the staff here have stocked about three rainbow trout in the river per angler.
As for Tom Farr, that fisherman who’s been coming here for 73 years, he says he has no qualms with—nor embarrassment over—calling it a day after catching only one fish. After all, he says, “That’s supper.”