Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bennett Springs State Park - An Anglers Ozark Paradise in Missouri

Just off I-44 in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains lies a little state park with a big fishing problem.  And that’s a good thing!  Bennett Springs State Park is actually designated as one of Missouri’s “Trout Parks” and is so serious about their fishing they even have a trout cam so you can watch other anglers testing their skills.  As one of Missouri's oldest state parks (established in 1924), Bennett Springs has transformed from an ideal spot for grist and flour mills in the mid-19th century to an angler and outdoor enthusiast's paradise. 

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The cornerstone of the park is the natural spring that delivers over 100 million gallons of crystal clear, cool water each day.  Here, natural beauty and ecological resources combined with recreation opportunities are plentiful.  We came to camp, fish, and hike but there is also canoeing, floating, a nature center and museum, trout hatchery, dining facilities, a church, Olympic-size swimming pool, and much more. 

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the catalyst behind many of the improvements to the park and provides it’s historical character.  They built a dam, arched bridge, cabins and shelters, dining lodge, roads, and trails.  The CCC influence is obvious when looking at the dining lodge with its stone and wood exterior and post and beam interior that stands the test of time and emits rustic charm.  The dining lodge still performs its original function and is popular among visitors.  Especially those who want to have their freshly-caught trout prepared for them. 

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When we pulled into the campground and picked out a super sweet paved full hook-up site we let out a sigh of approval and knew we were going to really like it there for a few days.  The park has 143 campsites comprised of five loops ranging from reserveable full hook-up to first come, first serve basic campsites.  There are wooded sites and those in the open where you are close enough to the fishing action to watch anglers from your RV.  In addition to camping, there are 65 other lodging units which are cabins, duplex/fourplexes, and motel rooms.

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Let’s move on to what really got us jazzed about staying at this park . . . fly fishing.  (It has been a couple of years since we were out west where productive and scenic trout streams greeted us around every bend.)  I was all too happy to rummage through the basement and dig out my fly rod and waders.  The area surrounding the park has long been popular for hunting and fishing among farmers who were waiting to have their grain ground at the mill.  But a real transformation in fishing popularity occurred in 1900 when the Missouri Fish Commissioner introduced 40,000 mountain trout into the spring-fed stream. 

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Trout had to be introduced because the natural conditions were not favorable for trout to spawn in but those that were introduced survived.  Rearing ponds and a fish hatchery were built to go about the business of keeping a constant supply of trout.  Today, approximately 3,000 females and 500-600 males are kept for brood stock.  Females are injected with a small amount of air that causes the release of their eggs.  Eggs are then mixed with milt (a.k.a., fish semen) which is hand-extracted from males.  Fertilized eggs are moved into large tubes where the movement of a stream's current is simulated.  After 21 days moving in the tubes, tiny fish emerge.  The 15-20 percent of fry that survive are moved into troughs where they are reared until they are three inches long.  After six months the fish (referred to as fingerlings because they are finger-length in size) are moved outside into one of the hatchery’s many raceways.  The fish will continue to be reared in these outside raceways for 18 - 24 months (approximately 12 inches) before being released into the park where they await anxious anglers.

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You might think that catching fish here is a sure thing, but not so fast.  While I saw hundreds, if not thousands of fish swimming by, it is still a test to get one on your line.  One must enter the mind of a trout or at least figure out a few basic questions.  What do they want to eat – is it a nymph, egg, streamer, worm, dry fly, wet fly, etc.  How do they want the fly or lure delivered – smoothly floating by or slapped down on the water.  I was successful in catching plenty of fish to get my hands wet but I found it more interesting to watch the fish’s reactions to my casting and fly choice.  Some would swim over to take a close look before passing on my $2.59 offering.  It is a lot like watching people at a buffet.  Some go all in hard for the shrimp cocktail while others head to the beef carving station.  It’s just a matter of figuring out what they want. 

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When I wasn’t wading in the water, we were walking through the woods.  The park has over twenty miles of hiking trails meandering through its 3,216 acres.  Trails range from a leisurely walk along the stream to that of rigorous mountain trails that reward hikers with great picturesque views of the Ozark Mountains.  Guided ranger-led tours are also available for those wanting a little more information on your walk.

Some state parks are remote and have a quiet and tranquil feel.  This park has a lot going on so that is probably not the case in the busy summer season.  When we were there in early April the park’s campgrounds were pretty empty and quiet and while we really liked that we also liked that there was a lot to do.  Our three days passed quickly and we would definitely come back. 

After we left Bennett Springs we stayed in St. Louis for a family visit.  When I told my parents about the awesome state park we stayed at they told me that we took a summer vacation there as kids many moons ago.  While I don’t particularly remember that vacation to Bennett Springs I do have plenty of fond memories of lots of camping and fishing trips.  It is nice to know that state parks stand the test of time and apeal to people throughout their lives.



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