Andrew Branson takes seriously his responsibility of teaching Missourians about a popular summertime activity — fishing.
Growing up in the Springfield area, Branson was introduced to fishing at an early age, spending time at Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake. Branson, along with his parents and sister, would go canoeing regularly. His parents gifted him an aquarium when he was 8 years old, and his life has always been a little bit fishy.
"It just seemed that I always had an interest in the water, always had an interest in fish," Branson said.
For nearly five years, Branson has served as the fisheries program specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). In the role, he promotes fishing in Missouri — a state he said has the best freshwater fishing in the country.
"Fishing is a great wholesome activity for the family," Branson said. "It builds tradition and fun memories for families and friends. It's a great way for parents to connect with their kids, and it's a way for people to connect with nature. Fishing is a good gateway outdoors activity."
Most Missourians, Branson said, live about 20 minutes or less from a fishing spot.
"All it takes is that first catch to literally get someone hooked onto fishing," Branson said.
To get families on the water, the Missouri Department of Conservation operates its Discover Nature Fishing program, which provides basic fishing courses for children and families for free. Regional staff runs the classes throughout the state.
"The classes are to teach the parents along with the kids on how to fish, where to fish and give them the confidence they need to go fishing on their own," Branson said. "We give them the basics, and then they can go fishing on their own — ultimately, that's what we want."
He also oversees the state record fish program, which tracks Missouri anglers who catch the largest fish on record, and the Master Angler program, which awards fishermen and women who catch trophy-sized fish. Branson is a master angler himself, catching an award-worthy largemouth bass.
Branson first came to the MDC in 2005, working as the mobile aquarium operator. He traveled with a 40-foot aquarium across the state, teaching the public about Missouri's native fish at the state fair in Sedalia, county fairs and more. When that program concluded, Branson went on to become the stream team coordinator, collaborating with volunteers to clean up Missouri's rivers.
Earlier in his career, Branson, who earned a biology degree from Drury University, worked outside the state. For 13 years, he was the curator of the aquarium department at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, zoo, where tropical and exotic fish were on display.
After years of living elsewhere, Branson felt compelled to return to his home state. His roots are deep in Missouri, especially the Ozark area. The city of Branson was named after his third great uncle, Ruben Branson. When the town was without a name, Ruben Branson owned the general store. A post office came later and the town needed an official title, so it was decided to use the Branson last name.
The MDC was a draw for Branson to come back home as he had a desire to teach fellow Missourians the joys of fishing.
"Living in other states made me realize how special Missouri is and what great natural resources we have," Branson said.
For more on Missouri fishing, go to huntfish.mdc.mo.gov/fishing.