State’s trout program has storied history

Posted by Spence Turner on June 16th, 2008
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A fisheries biologist friend asked if I had any information about the origins of Missouri’s brown trout and rainbow trout.

After being away from the fisheries field for more than 10 years, my first thought was I didn’t have any current information. After giving his request some thought, I provided what information I had, with the caveat that I was working from memory.

Let me paraphrase what I told him and provide a short history of Missouri’s trout program.

In modern history, Missouri’s streams never supported native trout species. Historically, however, ichthyologists – people who study fish – found char bones in a road cut near Missouri’s southern boarder. They dated the bones to about 13,000 years past, during the last ice age, when Missouri’s climate was much cooler and streams supported char – a salmonid related to modern brook trout and lake trout.

The ice receded, Missouri streams warmed and the Ozarks Mountains gradually rose. Char gradually disappeared. The last refuges were major springs such as Mammoth Spring in Arkansas near where scientists discovered the bones.

Skip forward 13,000 years. The only cold waters that could support trout are branches associated with major springs.

Missouri’s modern trout program began with a shipment of rainbow trout eggs in 1880 from the McCloud River federal egg-taking station on the McCloud River in northern California. The eggs arrived at Missouri’s first fish hatchery in St. Joseph, where they hatched. The fry and fingerling trout were stocked in streams and spring branches along the railroad between St. Louis, Springfield and Joplin.

Some streams we know about: Meramec River, Spring River near Vernon and Crane Creek near Crane. Others, like Spring Creek, Little Piney River and Mill Creek, also might have been stocked.

In 1882, the Missouri Fish Commission reported Missouri rainbows spawning for the first time in Crane Creek and Spring River. Between 1880 and 1890, Missouri received several rainbow egg shipments before the St. Joseph hatchery shut down because of a declining water supply as the city grew.

This first hatchery was replaced by a carp hatchery in Forest Park in St. Louis. Emphasis shifted from stocking a few trout every couple of years to producing carp and stocking them throughout the state. The Missouri Fish Commission hired a German fish culturist and brought him to Missouri to raise carp.

Trout stocking and fishing took another large jump in 1890 when the Neosho Federal Fish Hatchery opened and began producing and stocking rainbows in Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas streams from broodstock provided from the St. Joseph hatchery. For the next few years, until the 1920s, most Missouri trout came from Neosho. They stocked primarily rainbows but also brown trout, lake trout, cutthroat trout and even Atlantic and Pacific salmon.

Stocking was indiscriminate, with little consideration given to where or what streams or ponds were stocked. In looking through the archives of the Neosho hatchery, I realized if you knew someone at the hatchery, you could probably have trout stocked in your stream or lake.

Maybe the most interesting story from the archives was of the “German Girl” and problems the hatchery manager faced. She was never named in the memoranda and letters but caused enough problems that the Kansas City Catholic bishop became involved, and the manager ultimately lost his job. However, that’s a story for another time.

Missouri’s trout program took off in the 1920s and ’30s when the state acquired Bennett Springs, Roaring River and Montauk for state parks and hatcheries and Sequeota Hatchery in Springfield. They all were private hatcheries before the state purchased them. Most rainbow trout they produced were stocked in spring branches and streams near the hatcheries. The original broodstock for the three hatcheries came from Neosho and were what became the “Missouri Strain” rainbow trout, a hatchery trout strain now recognized nationally by fish culturists.

Trout stocking in Missouri changed little between 1900 through 1937 when Missouri citizens passed a constitutional amendment establishing the Missouri Conservation Commission and Missouri Department of Conservation.

MDC restricted rainbow stocking to the three state parks and a few cold-water spring branches open to public fishing. MDC added Maramec Springs, a private trout park, in the 1960s.

Brown trout had a checkered history in Missouri’s trout program. The Neosho federal hatchery stocked brown trout first in 1892 in streams near Neosho. These fish came from Northville Federal Hatchery in Michigan, one of three hatcheries in the country to receive brown trout eggs from the Rhine River in Germany and Loch Leven in Scotland.

As near as I could determine from the hatchery logs and Missouri Fish Commission reports, those early stockings were unsuccessful. The stocked browns didn’t live long or reproduce like the early rainbow stockings. Brown trout stocking was discontinued in the 1930s until the 1960s.

Brown trout came back into Missouri’s trout program in 1967, when MDC received brown trout eggs from the federal hatchery in Decorah, Iowa. Those browns were the same strain as first stocked from Neosho. MDC hatched the eggs at Montauk Hatchery and stocked the small browns in the Current, North Fork of the White and Meramec rivers. Anglers caught a few large browns in both the Current River and North Fork of White River. Success was limited. Anglers caught only a few large browns.

The eggs proved difficult to hatch. Fry and fingerlings experienced high hatchery mortality. Brood stock experienced a chronic disease. Once stocked, the small browns quickly disappeared – likely food for smallmouth bass and other predators. Those few survivors grew large.

That’s when your humble reporter, at the time a young biologist, fresh out of graduate school, supporting a wife and three young hatchlings, received his first assignment: to evaluate the brown trout releases and what happened to them.

Along with evaluating those first brown trout stockings, hatchery managers destroyed the Montauk brood stock. MDC began looking for a disease-free brown trout replacement. Finding disease-free browns proved difficult. Our search ended at a Utah hatchery on a tributary stream to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Sheep Creek. The hatchery used wild browns, migrating each year from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the hatchery as brood stock.

We hatched the Flaming Gorge brown trout eggs at Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery in Branson and established a brood stock for future stockings. However, along the way something neat happened. Mature browns stocked in Lake Taneycomo from the wild Flaming Gorge strain, began migrating each fall upstream, back to the hatchery, not only creating one of the best brown trout fisheries in the nation, but also providing a source of brown trout eggs for the hatchery. It was a win-win for the angling public and Missouri’s hatchery system.

These brown trout were wilder than the original browns from Michigan and Iowa hatcheries and were heavier for a given body length. They lived longer after stocking and grew larger than the first browns.

We still had a problem with high egg mortality in the hatchery and understanding why Missouri browns didn’t spawn successfully in our spring branches. We learned that if they were protected from early harvest by anglers, they grew large and spawned, but unsuccessfully, in our spring branches.

I discovered our spring branches flowing from the ground at 58 degrees were too warm during October and November when browns spawned.

A blinding flash of the obvious: Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery had the capability to regulate water temperatures during brown trout egg incubation. Hatchery managers reduced water temperatures to less than 53 degrees. Egg survival increased to almost 100 percent. This allowed hatchery and fisheries managers to stock brown trout in many more trout streams in Missouri, establishing a trophy trout fishery.

Although small, Missouri’s trout program is one of the oldest in the nation and one of the most respected.

And you, the trout angler, has benefited from this program. Take time this year to visit and fish Missouri’s trout parks or special trout management streams. Enjoy one of the best-managed trout fisheries in the country. And, if you should encounter an old, rotund, fly-rod wielding, ex-fisheries biologist, tip your hat and fish on.

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