Bennett Spring State Park hatchery manager Mike Mitchell of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has been on the job nearly 10 years, and he says every year the opening day of trout season gets more exciting.
Mitchell and his crew of nine are busy getting ready for the 2,000 or so anglers they expect to show up on opening day of trout season, March 1.
"Each opening day is so busy we hardly have time to think," Mitchell said. "But it is also the most exciting and most fun day of the year for us."
When this reporter spoke with Mitchell, there was just over a week to go before opening day. Mitchell and his crew still had a lot to do. Still, he assured us the park would be ready well before the anglers start arriving.
To each a trout
Probably the most important of the hatchery's tasks in getting ready for opening is ensuring that there are enough adult rainbow trout that every angler has a good chance of catching one. So in preparation for the event, Mitchell and his crew spend the final few days of February releasing enough adult fish that there are at least three large size rainbow trout for every angler they expect to show up opening day.
That means this week the hatchery will be releasing between 6,000-7,000 fully grown rainbow trout into the stream that meanders through the park.
"But there's a lot of other things we have to do to get ready for opening day besides just releasing the fish," Mitchell said.
More than fish
In addition to making sure there are enough fully grown trout to release by March 1, Mitchell's crew is also responsible for removing excess aquatic weeds from the stream's bottom so the anglers who like to wade don't get tangled up. The crew also has to police both banks of the stream, remove any excess vegetation, clean up and make sure the shoreline is stable. And this year, they're also installing a washing station for anglers who don those waist-high waders and venture out into the stream to do their fishing.
"The wader wash station is specifically designed for anglers who use the felt-bottomed waders," Mitchell said. "They will be able to don the waders then step into the station and disinfect their boots with a special solution available before they enter the stream."
Mitchell said the reason for installing the station is because of the very real necessity of stopping the spread of an invasive algae called "rock snot."
Rock snot is a type of algae that spreads over the bottom of waterways and smothers the naturally occurring aquatic plant life and the spreading of the algae has become a real problem within the state.
Each year Mitchell's crew also has to select someone to blow the starting whistle to signal the opening of trout season. "Each year we try to select someone who has a connection to Bennett Spring and someone who has been active in the area of conservation and preferably rainbow trout fishing," Mitchell said. This year the honor of blowing that opening day whistle will go to two brothers, John and Joe Brooks, who will be honoring their late father.
"Their father was a well-known rainbow trout fisherman," Mitchell said. "He fished here at Bennett Spring all the time and never missed an opening day. He was also active in several areas of conservation and was a member of the Missouri Trout Fishermen organization."
But even when opening day finally arrives, Mitchell and his crew won't get to sit back and take it easy. For them the day will begin while it's still dark outside as the thousands of anglers start arriving to stake out their favorite spot.
Under MDC rules no one is allowed to cast a fly onto the water and catch a trout before the starting whistle blows and part of responsibility of the park's employees will be to patrol the stream's shoreline and make sure everybody follows the rules.
More than fishing
Park crew also acts as goodwill ambassadors, greeting and answering all the questions the anglers and other visitors have.
And, Mitchell said even though the park usually hosts somewhere between 1,500-2,500 anglers on opening day, a lot more people show up who have no intention of fishing.
"We have a lot of press come out on opening day, and me and my crew have to answer their questions," Mitchell said. "Plus there are usually some politicians who come around to watch the fun and interact with the anglers.
"Then we have family members of the fishermen who come along just to enjoy a day in the park."
Mitchell said there is one segment of the attendees that he particularly enjoys.
"We have several groups that have come here on every opening day for years," he said. "The members of each of the groups know the members of all the other groups and they really enjoy getting together. Each opening day is almost like a family reunion for them."
In addition to dealing with the anglers, greeting visitors, acting as host to VIPs and speaking with the media, Mitchell and his crew are also responsible for making sure all the hatchery equipment runs smoothly throughout the day.
"The largest portion of our anglers like to wade out into the water to do their fishing," he said. "That means the stream beds are stirred up and stuff floats into the hatchery filters. We spend a lot of time on opening day cleaning filters, policing the stream bed and making sure all the other equipment is operating as it should."
In addition to operating the Bennett Spring hatchery and dealing with the crowds on opening day and throughout the trout season, Mitchell's crew is also responsible for supplying many of the state's ponds and streams with fish, and not just with the rainbow trout that have been raised at Bennett Spring.
"We have a 2.2-ton truck that we use to haul fish to all parts of the state," Mitchell said. "We've taken fish everywhere in Missouri you can think of, from Cape Girardeau to Kansas City. And, we don't just deliver rainbow trout. We also haul bass, paddle fish and just about every other kind of fish the MDC raises. Basically if there is someplace in the state that needs to be stocked with fish, we're the ones that do it."
But Mitchell's main job is to oversee the breeding, raising and releasing of rainbow trout into the stream that meanders through Bennett Spring State Park. Each trout season (March 1-Oct. 31) they release between 350,000 and 400,000 fish. But Mitchell said that isn't even a drop in the bucket to how many fish they have in the hatchery at any one time.
"From fingerlings to adult size, we have hundreds of thousands of the fish in the holding ponds on any given day," he said. "We don't release any rainbow until it reaches adulthood, and that takes more than a year."
Mitchell suggests if you want to try your hand at trout fishing in Bennett Spring State Park you do one of two things - either get there very early on opening day or if you're a first timer, pick a warm quiet weekday afternoon so you'll have a little more room to practice.
"Rock snot' can be booger for Missouri fishermen
MDC to hold forums on invasive species
The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) will hold public open-house forums in March and April to help educate anglers and boaters about the dangers of "didymo" or "rock snot." This invasive algea forms large, thick mats on the bottom of lakes and streams, smothering aquatic life vital to the food chain that supports many fish species, including trout. Didymo (Didymosphenia geminata) has been found just south of the Missouri-Arkansas border in the White River.
According to MDC fisheries biologist Mark VanPatten, preventing the spread of this invasive species is critical to the health of Missouri's lakes and streams. He added that recreational equipment such as boats, lifejackets and fishing gear - particularly waders - are the most likely ways for didymo to spread to Missouri.
"In addition to educating anglers and boaters about the threats of didymo, we are considering potential regulation changes to prevent the spread of this invasive alga," said Van-Patten. "Public input in this process is very important."
Public meetings will be held at or near the following fish hatcheries:
• Montauk State Park: 6 p.m. March 15, Searcy Building.
• Bennett Spring State Park: 6 p.m. March 21, Hatchery Building.
• Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery - Lake Tanyecomo: 1 p.m. March 26, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers' Dewey Short Visitor Center at Table Rock Dam.
• Roaring River State Park: 6 p.m. April 7, Emory Melton Inn and Conference Center.
• Maramec Spring Park: 6 p.m. April 11, James Memorial Library Meeting Room, 300 W. Scioto St. in St. James, Monday.
To help reduce the spread of Didymo, remember, "Check. Clean. Dry."
• Check all gear and equipment and remove any visible algae. Do not dispose of algae by putting it down a drain or into bodies of water.
• Clean all gear and equipment with a solution of twopercent bleach, five-percent saltwater or dishwashing detergent. Allow all equipment to stay in contact with the solution for at least one minute. Soak all soft items, such as feltsoled waders and life jackets, in the solution for at least 20 minutes.
• Dry all gear and equipment for at least 48 hours by exposing it to sunlight.
VanPatten added that replacing felt-soled waders with waders that have rubber or synthetic soles could also minimize the risk of spreading rock snot and other invasive species.
For more information about the meetings, contact VanPatten at 573-751-4115 ext. 3892 or email@example.com.