LEBANON, Mo. – It was a special moment for grandfather or granddaughter, shared at a place that’s their favorite in the world when together.
Gary Madole spoke softly as he coached 12-year-old Nikki on landing her first trout on a fly rod at Bennett Springs State Park. After netting the fish, her mouth hung open as she turned to her grandfather. For a few seconds there was silence as the Madoles looked at each and smiled.
A few yards away Durke Dickey was far from silent, showing off his limit of four trout and joking loudly with buddies on a guys weekend.
This 1 1/2-mile stretch of clear, cold steam in the Missouri Ozarks has provided plenty of angling successfor the last 90 years.
“A lot of memories have been made here, for lots of generations,” said Jim Rogers, concessionaire at the park for more than 30 years.
In the 1830s, the first of several grist mills were built on the stream where an average of 100 million gallons of water gushes from the ground daily. The state has owned the spring, stream and now surrounding 3,200 acres since 1923. Much has changed since.
Rogers said 185 wooded campsites hold everything from $10 tents to $100,000 RVs. The park has 47 cabins and a motel, restaurant and store.
There are playgrounds, picnic tables and about 17 miles of hiking trails that lace through the steep forests. Fleets of canoes and kayaks are launched on the nearby Niangua River. But the park’s main attractions swim beneath the surface of the stream.
Rogers expects about 140,000 angler days at Bennett Springs this year. There won’t be a shortage of trout.
Mother Nature had already constructed a nearly ideal place for non-native rainbow and brown trout to be stocked and thrive. With plenty of clear, mid 50-degree water at hand, the Missouri Department of Conservation constructed a hatchery on site to insure the trout fishing holds strong.
During the regular trout season that runs March 1 to mid-November, biologists add fresh schools of trout to the water nightly, based on angling pressure. Look down from any bridge over the stream and you’ll see trout, sometimes clouds of trout, from impressive stocking rates that should have 350,000 new trout added annually. Such fish average 10 to 14 inches.
“We counted once and still had 8- to 9,000 trout per zone at the end of the fishing season,” said Warren Valenti of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “That’s pretty good fishing in a half-mile.” The stream’s three half-mile zones are designated per angling techniques of bait, spin and fly fishing. Wading is allowed and commonly done to get anglers closer to schools of fish.
Fishing at Bennett Springs is a far cry from the wide-open spaces of some western U.S. trout waters. Anglers are usually lined along the banks or along mid-stream fishing holes when a morning horn signals the start of a new fishing day. Privacy is rare and interaction is common, and encouraged.
At a fly-fishing school at the park last weekend, Rogers encouraged Bennett Springs newcomers to look for the crowds and maybe find a way to politely fish the same pool. At the very least, talk to the guy who’s catching the most fish.
“If you ask that guy what he’s using, he’s probably going to show you,” said Rogers, himself a fly-fishing guru. “There’s a 50-50 chance if he has an extra he’ll give it to you or he may cut it off his line and tie it on to yours. It’s no big deal, there will be plenty of trout the next day, too.”
Dickey, from the Kansas City area, said the social side of angling is one thing that draws him and friends to the stream several times per year.
“We’ve gotten to know a lot of the regulars down here and become friends with them,” Dickey said. “Everybody seems to get along and that is as much of the experience as the fishing.”
Madole said a stream-side encounter with a St. Louis fly fisherman about 50 years ago got him addicted to the sport that led to him retiring to the region. Sunday morning, he saw his granddaughter benefit from the social side of fishing Bennett Springs.
Below a popular riffle, the Madoles met a 12 year-old boy who also had his first fly-caught trout that day, and shared the girl’s passion for fishing, archery, birding and all things nature. Soon they were netting each others fish, and talking about birds.
Madole said he’d like to bring Nikki back to the stream the next time her new friend is at the park.
“Looking over there, watching her talk and have fun with a nice kid like that, who liked the same things she does, really warmed my heart,” Madole said. “I just had to watch and smile.”
So it will probably continue for generations at Bennett Springs.