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Milling about in the Ozarks

By Doug Davison

Having heard several people talk about it over the years, I have for quite a while thought that checking out Rockbridge Rainbow Trout and Game Ranch would be pretty cool.

Being the globe trekking canine he is, Jamie wasn’t about to miss out when my wife Wendy and I went there last weekend. But he had his concerns.

“Great, another place with fish,” he said. “What about pork chops? Why not pork chops?”

While the answers didn’t come easy to the big ‘ol Corgi, and he apparently didn’t understand what Rockbridge was all about, I had done some homework online and was aware it was a historic location left over from where a grist mill had been built in the 1800s by on the banks of Spring Creek in northern Ozark County.

The early history of the place includes the story of a group of families that late in the summer of 1871 left central Kentucky and made a difficult 500-mile trip in a handful of wagons pulled by oxen and horses. Led by Captain Kim Amyx, they were on a quest to begin a new life in the Ozarks wilderness, and would end their journey at the junction of Spring Creek and Bryant Creek, near present day Hodgson Mill.

After their original settlement – complete with dam and mill – was destroyed in a Civil War battle, Ozarks pioneer B.V. Morris built a new dam and mill in the late 1860s not far away at the current Rockbridge location.

Since then, several generations of the Amyx family have lived and worked in the area. And who could blame them? It’s an absolutely beautiful setting, surrounded by bluffs and high, forested ridges, and dissected by a clear, cool-running stream.

Although much of the history of Rockbridge is preserved in the form of stories, photos, and old buildings, the current set up is worthy of a visit by both long-time area residents and out-of-area travelers. It’s a resort, but one that’s chock full of Ozarks charm and beauty. There’s lodging for both people who like rustic simplicity and modern luxury. The architecture of the buildings is a mix of old-timey, period-correct stuff from the 1800s, and newer log cabin stylings.

There’s a riding stable operation, a whole bunch of hiking trails, and a giant, 3,000-plus acre hunting preserve.

But there’s one other thing that only a scant few Midwest destinations can offer (whether run by public of private entities): trout. The cold, spring-fed waters of Spring Creek are perfect for rainbows, and Rockbridge even has its own hatchery and fishery, started in the 1950s by some Amyx family members.

Jamie was mildly impressed.

“There ought to be a place like this that raises pork chops instead of fish,” he said. “Too bad there isn’t a big pool where you can toss in a line and hook a stocked pork chop.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Too bad.”

The horse stables were closed when we were there, I think because of some sort of renovation. Jamie lives where horses roam, and didn’t need to see any to know what they’re like. Or at least to think he knows.

“Those are some big animals,” he said. “I’ll bet they eat a lot of pork chops.”

“Maybe more grass and grain than pork, big man,” I said. “Their teeth aren’t designed for ripping and tearing, but for pulling and grinding instead.”

“Wow, I feel sorry for them,” Jamie said. “I’m glad I can rip, tear, pull and grind – and chew and swallow, too.”

“Right,” I said. “Only you could turn a place like Rockbridge into a pork-fest.”

“What’s your point?” Jamie said.

In Rockbridge’s fledgling days, a trip to the mill represented a chance to visit with friends and neighbors, utilize the post office, vote, or simply hear word from the outside world. It was also the spot where residents of the area could obtain meal and flour.

“What about pork chops?” Jamie said. “Where did people get those?”

“Um, from their own or their neighbor’s pigs and hogs?” I said.

“Man, that’s mean,” Jamie said. “I suppose one day I’ll be the source of a Corgi chops meal.”

“Doubtful,” I said.

Nowadays, the mill and dam on Spring Creek make up one of those must-photograph landscapes unique to southern Missouri. But, of course, the main attraction at Rockbridge is trout. And not surprisingly, the restaurant serves it in several forms.

Wendy and I had some incredible smoked rainbow served cold with wheat crackers and a cream cheese/dill dip, a plate of deep fried trout nuggets that basically went “poof” in your mouth, and a sandwich with batter-fried trout fillets.

Yum. Top notch eats.

Jamie and his “little sister” Gertie each got to munch a few bites.

“That’s not half bad,” Jamie said. “But they probably have some serious pork chops in there. Mmm, that’s the good stuff.”

“Yeah, probably,” I said. “But I’m guessing you have to have thumbs to go in there and eat them.”

“Aw, man,” Jamie said.

Toward the end of our visit, as we were walking back to the car, Jamie asked one of those questions only a Welsh Corgi could.

“So, why again can’t we move here?” he said.

“Uh, that would be the fact that we really like where we live now,” I said. “Not to mention several other factors, like horses, chickens, cats, a donkey, and, um, dogs.”

“Oh yeah,” Jamie said. “I guess there is that.”

On our way out of Rockbridge, we stopped the car right next to a tree on the creek bank where a big bald eagle was perched on a branch only about 35 feet away. But as luck would have it, the majestic bird flew away just as Wendy was about to snap what would have undoubtedly been a keeper photo.

I watched as the eagle cruised effortlessly in an upstream direction for hundreds of yards before disappearing from view.

“I’ll bet he’s going to where they keep the pork chops,” Jamie said.

“Maybe, big man,” I said. “Maybe.”

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Jamie is a big ol’ Welsh Corgi. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Jamie and his sidekick Doug Davison hang out next to the waterfall adjacent to the old mill on Spring Creek at Rockbridge in northern Ozark County. (Photo by Wendy Davison)

Jamie and his sidekick Doug Davison hang out next to the waterfall adjacent to the old mill on Spring Creek at Rockbridge in northern Ozark County. (Photo by Wendy Davison)

With his baloney tongue flapping on a warm December afternoon, Jamie ponders a trip down a slide in a play area at Rockbridge Rainbow Trout and Game Ranch in Ozark County, Mo.

With his baloney tongue flapping on a warm December afternoon, Jamie ponders a trip down a slide in a play area at Rockbridge Rainbow Trout and Game Ranch in Ozark County, Mo.

Jamie cracks up at a funny joke during his trek to Rockbridge.

Jamie cracks up at a funny joke during his trek to Rockbridge.

The main building at Rockbridge, Mo., housing the restaurant, store, post office and more.

The main building at Rockbridge, Mo., housing the restaurant, store, post office and more.

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.

Doug Davison

“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:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Jamie and his leash-handler Doug Davison hang out next to a rearing pond full of rainbow trout at Montauk State Park.

Jamie’s buddy Oggie Murillo rubs some cool Current River water on his head.

Along with his leash-holder Doug Davison, Jamie enjoys a day at Montauk State Park.