Something’s fishy in the Ozarks
By DOUG DAVISON
Trout aren’t native to the relatively warm waters of Missouri’s rivers, but years ago they were discovered to do well in areas where springs rise from the ground and form stretches of cold running water.
Over time, several state-run “trout parks” appeared, including Montauk State Park, which sits on a tract between Houston and Salem acquired by the state in 1926. A series of springs within Montauk’s boundaries form the headwaters of the Current River, and the Department of Conservation’s on-site fish hatchery produces thousands of rainbow and brown trout, some of which are stocked in the Current every night.
Basically, Montauk has been effectively designed as a place dedicated to offering visitors the option of catching trout. And its success as a fish park is well documented; most local residents have seen at least a photo or two of anglers literally lining the river shoulder-to-shoulder, a tradition that can be counted on to happen each March on opening day of trout season.
Having always had an appreciation for fish (especially the kind coated with beer batter), Jamie was excited from the get-go when we embarked on a trip to Montauk about a week ago. In an effort to help us avoid getting into any fishy situations, I felt led to make sure he understood the deal before we left.
“Now, we’re going to see a whole lot of fish in the same place at same time, big man,” I said. “It would be easy for you to get into a bit of mischief.”
“OK,” Jamie said. “I promise I’ll try to be good, but I can’t help it if one accidentally jumps into my mouth.”
When we got to Montauk, along with a family friend and my wife’s 15-year-old nephew Alex, we soon found ourselves face-to-face with thousands upon thousands of trout of varying sizes that were sharing space in the hatchery’s numerous rectangular concrete rearing ponds. No matter how many times I see a zillion trout in a hatchery pond, I always find it to be pretty cool.
Jamie never had before, and was obviously fascinated. But as usual, the thing that’s most often on his mind took control.
“Man, look at them all!” he said. “I should have brought some malt vinegar and tartar sauce.”
“Those are trout, not cod,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe bread crumbs and almonds would have been better,” Jamie said.
“It’s probably best that you didn’t bring any of that,” I said.
“Well, what good are a bunch of fish if you can’t eat at least some of ‘em?” Jamie said. “And what the heck are they all doing in there, anyway?”
Those of us with thumbs put some quarters in the handy dispensers adjacent to the ponds and got a few handfuls of fish food pellets. As might be expected, the result was probably the highlight of the day. Every time a pellet met the water, the somewhat peaceful and orderly movement of trout below the surface was suddenly replaced by a swarming cloud of frenetic fish, each one determined to be the victor in a no-holds-barred competition to secure the floating snack.
The aquatic battle repeated each time a pellet aroused the submerged crowd, always to the amazement of Alex – and of course Jamie.
“That’s crazy – they’re crazy,” Jamie said. “Those little pebble thingies can’t be that tasty, can they?”
“Probably not,” I said. “I think it’s more about simply getting to eat and preventing rivals from eating something you think should be yours.”
“Now that I can understand,” Jamie said. “It’s like, ‘I’m getting mine, and you’re not.’ Sounds like me when there’s scraps of chicken skin around.”
After we had done a pass or two up and down a couple of the lengthy ponds, Jamie noticed two young girls kneeling down to get a closer look at some medium-sized rainbows. He butted in – but then, he always seems to get away with it.
“I know those fish are pretty cool, but check out the awesome Corgi right here,” Jamie said.
“Come on now Jamie,” I said.
“Hey, just trying to get in a little hand time over here,” he said.
“Is it OK if we pet him?” one of the girls asked.
I didn’t have to answer.
“What, are you kidding? The furry frame you see before you was meant for that,” Jamie said. “And just think how bad you’d feel later if you missed out on this opportunity.”
The temperature was in the low 90s on the day we went trout watching, so after taking in the fishy sites, we all figured a visit to the shaded banks of the Current River was in order. Jamie concurred, and was in Corgi heaven when my friend dripped and rubbed cool water on his head.
“Now this is what I’m talking about,” Jamie said. “Make sure to get a little behind my ears, and try not to get any in my eyes.”
A few men wearing hip waders were fishing with spinning reel rigs a few yards from where we were standing (and Jamie was lounging). One decided to exit the water, and smiled at Jamie as he went by.
The gentleman must not have hooked a lunker.
“No fewer fish in there than before I got here,” he said. “The only bite I got was from a horsefly.”
As we headed back to the car, Jamie just had to ask a silly question.
“Is it OK if I go take a quick dip in one of those fish ponds?” he said. “It’ll only take a minute.”
“No Jamie,” I said. “I don’t think the park rangers would appreciate that.”
“Can we go to Captain D’s?” Jamie said. “I feel like fish.”
“I think it’s canned food and crunchies for you tonight, big guy,” I said.
“That’s OK,” Jamie said. “I was just hoping for some of the good stuff.”
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Jamie is a big ol’ Welsh Corgi. Email: email@example.com.