"How's your week going," he asked.
"Pretty busy ... we have some new employees at work and I've been spending a lot of time getting them started and lined out on their duties," I replied.
"Well be sure and get it all done before you know what," he answered.
Oh, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Only 26 days and counting until March 1 ... the opening of catch-and-keep trout fishing in Missouri's four trout parks.
As you’ve no doubt figured out if you're a regular reader, most of these weekly columns are born out of conversations I’ve had during the previous week, things I intend to do outdoors over the weekend, or some season which is upcoming.
Trout ... it’s what’s for dinner, or at least on March 1. We’re only four short weeks away from one of the most exciting, elaborate spectacles that occur in the Ozark outdoors annually.
We Missourians don’t even get too excited about the sighting of another mountain lion or black bear these days. But let that first whistle blow on March 1 and we’re quickly whipped into a fishing frenzy.
If you’ve never taken in a “trout opener” at one of the state’s four managed trout parks — Bennett Springs, Roaring Rivers, Montauk or Meramec Spring — you’ve missed out on a real treat.
Don’t show up that morning thinking you’re going to see a couple guys going all “A River Runs Through It” on a quiet pristine stream with fly rods flailing in perfect figure-8s above their heads and little brook trout rising to the water’s surface to slurp in perfectly-formed imitations of midges made from feathers and thread.
Missouri's trout opener is more akin to a “fishing circus," but one you’ll want to return to be a part of time after time. Thousands of anglers turn out on the morning of March 1 to christen the new year’s trout park fishing season.
Many of these guys and gals may not visit a trout park but once or twice the rest of the eight month long season. And if the season opener falls on a Friday or weekend day, as it will this year, the crowds are just that much larger and the activity that much more frenzied.
Opening morning of trout season is the Black Friday shopping equivalent of the angling world. Competition bass anglers know all about the morning gunshot or whistle start and the ensuing race to the honey hole to fish. But with trout anglers most of them will already be standing in the stream crotch-deep in frigid ice water (wearing neoprene waders, of course) and ready to cast when that siren sounds to signal the start of fishing.
Then, in an instant, the whistle blows and four thousand anglers make that first cast ... all at the same time and from opposing sides of the narrow stream.
What happens next can best be described as a half-mile long backlash, or knot, of lightweight monofilament. Those lucky enough to have their baited hook actually reach the water without coming in contact with another angler’s line will likely catch a fish.
But the problem isn’t over, because now you must use a flimsy fly rod or ultralight rod to gingerly and skillfully maneuver a powerful, hungry rainbow trout with a sharp hook gouged deep in its throat or bony lip through a maze of thousands of hooks, sinkers, bobbers, line and cussing and overly-excited anglers who have not been so lucky as to get a bite on their first cast.
I remember one year on opening morning when I made that all-important first cast only to have a gnarly-looking woman on the other side of the stream cast her line across mine a second later and quickly get the lines knotted together. In the ensuing frenzy the woman yanked back on her line for no apparent reason, I suspect she figured she’d get a bite instantly and wanted to land whatever grabbed her bait, and quickly started reeling in my line.
My first reaction was to attempt to reel my line in. But when the woman felt a goodly tug on the end of her line, she started whooping and hollering and reared back to “set the hook”. She nearly yanked the fishing rod out of my hands.
I quickly stopped reeling and let my reel’s drag take over and start slipping line out as she began cranking on her reel with a renewed fervor. As the people on either side of me realized what was going on, as well as a couple people on her side of the stream, they began to smile as I stood there holding my rod and reel and my diminishing spool of line.
Eventually I arched back on my rod a little bit, to hopefully get her attention and let her know our two hooks and a few feet of monofilament were now tied in an imperfect bow and dangling some four feet above the water’s surface in a taut line.
But in her excitement she had developed tunnel vision, and nothing mattered to her but landing that “lunker” trout on the other end of her line. The people who had arrived with and were now fishing on either side of her quickly noticed what was happening. For a few seconds they let her continue the epic battle between (wo)man and fish. It’s was a slow motion, real-life reenactment of Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea” unfolding before our very eyes.
Finally a friend or relative, whichever it was, I’m sure he would have rather denied knowing her at that very moment, politely tapped her on the shoulder enough times to momentarily get her attention. He directed her eyes down the length of her fishing pole and beyond the furthermost eyelet, down the tight line of clear plastic twine to me standing on the other side of the stream.
Snap! The light came on and the wind left her sail. She stopped reeling and let the line go slack before allowing me to reel the entanglement in to my side of the stream and cut the two lines apart.
While it sounds like a nightmare, you just have to realize that opening day of trout season is an event ... and not indicative of what fishing in the state’s parks is like once the initial crowds fade away.
I’ve fished all of the state’s trout parks multiple times, and while it’s not the pristine and pure experience of serenely plying a hand-tied fly up and down a babbling glacier-fed Colorado or spring-sourced Appalachian mountain stream, it is a good time on the water most days - but not opening day, then it's just a circus game where the prize is a few trout for supper.
I began trout fishing in late summer one year and went my first opening morning the following March strictly as a spectator and photographer. Although I hate crowds, I returned the next year and many years since to fish right in the middle of the fray with the rest of the nuts. Is it relaxing fishing? No! Is it always a productive use of my time and gas money? Rarely! Do I love the excitement of the opening morning frenzy? You betcha!
So go ahead and put in your notice to your boss that you’ll need to be off work March 1, and plan to join me and a few thousand of my closest friends at a trout park near you. It’s late winter, toe-numbing, eyelet ice-freezing, finger-tingling Ozark fishing at its best.
Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat (... and add to that neoprene waders and wool fingerless fishing gloves come the March 1 trout opener.)
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