If you happen to find yourself anywhere in the Blue Ribbon Circuit of Missouri’s wild trout waters, keep your gaze low as that gravel crunches underfoot. If you look long and hard there is a good chance you will run across little fragments of my dental records speckled along the hallowed hollows of the Ozarks. Countless sessions of getting my teeth kicked in by fickle finned trout built up my angling foundation. Ladies and Gents, this is where it all started. This is where I cut my teeth. Ground zero of the occasional outing with friends and family turned into a fiery passion and borderline obsession. Clocking in dawn til dusk sessions became a regular occurrence no matter the season. Come to think of it, the Ozarks are the exact reason I am typing and you are reading (very meta). When I pass, I pray Valhalla is a gravel bar and a sunny sky somewhere in the Ozarks. If only to take a deep breath of humid summer air and relive boyhood memories one trout at a time. I will forever hold Missouri and her wild trout streams so very close to my heart no matter where I end up.
In a trout devoid region of the United States, aka the Midwest (relatively), fishy folks from Missouri should count their rainbow blessings. From unpredictable tailwaters in the south to wild blue ribbon gems tucked away in the hills marked “Twain”. The Ozark Plateau has some great trout fishing for any angler interested and willing. AND YES even trout parks… the most unholy and unnatural form of trout fishing.. But hey.. I shouldn't call the kettle black.. because I spent many years of my young life dodging dough bait and searching the cement for stockers. Everyone starts somewhere. So each kind of trout water has their time and each has their place.
But for this excerpt I am going to stay focused on the blue ribbon trout streams that I frequented as a young man. I have tussled on the tailwater and partied in the parks.. But it has been more than a minute since I have been back and my limited info would surely be outdated. Plus in an effort to remain as transparent as possible, I have no intention of ever going back to places like Taney Como or Meramec Springs. (for nostalgia's sake you might catch me at Montauk but that's another story). Once you find and experience wild trout streams in Missouri it is hard to ever look back.
Now I must mention that I do not make it out on my “home” streams as much as I once did. I have consistently been on the move over the past few years, bouncing all over the lower 48. Whenever I do make the pilgrimage back to the “Show Me State” it is usually for holidays or family events. So taking a day trip to my favorite Ozark stream is usually out of the question during those times. Now even though I am no longer a regular on the ribbons, don’t get it twisted folks, the knowledge and experiences from the literal years of cold feet in the water does not fade. The rivers and streams undoubtedly shift and change but as long as the fish are still there, I will know how to fish for them. So let’s get into this.
Humidity will cling to the air making it heavy and almost tangible. All will go still just before you start to hear the low rumbles echo through the hollows. No sooner will you count off a few distant thunder claps, the front will undoubtedly punch the treetops. You can feel it in your spine and you can feel it all around. It’s about to get wet.
The true power of a spring time thunderstorm in the Midwest is something to behold (especially in and around the tornado belt) Smoke, mountain runoff, heat waves, forest fires, polar vortexes, and snow storms are all forces of nature that are seldom experienced in a place like Missouri. But in my cross country adventures, experiencing each of these forces of nature has shocked me to my core. Y’all ever heard the expression about the boiling of the frog? This is more of a thought experiment/ expression. No frogs were boiled in the making of this saying. BUT.. You plop that theoretical frog in the lukewarm pot of water and slowly turn that burner up. It wont happen all at once.. Without realizing it the poor frog is belly up in a rolling boil.
This one might be a stretch folks but just bear with me here.. Slowly the water will warm. Sometimes when you are around something enough, it just becomes “normal”. Leaving Missouri and then coming back I was blown away at the force of these hellish storms. Walls of rain, gnashing winds, and thunderclaps that rattle your teeth. I’m spinning a long one here…I KNOW.. What I am getting at is that Spring in Missouri is wet. Thunderstorms are common and have a tendency to absolutely blow out your favorite rivers and streams (in a very violent and scary way). This will have a significant effect on where and when you can fish throughout the state.
This is one of the many examples of a good angler needing to stretch your knowledge across many disciplines. The lesson for a Missouri spring is meteorology/hydrology. You need to be well aware of any storms that have happened, are happening, and will happen on the day or days you plan on fishing. Showing up to a blown out river can super suck.. But getting surprised by a colossal thunder storm mid session can be downright dangerous. When you walk the creeks and rivers in central and southern Missouri you will notice a trend. Around 10’-15’ past the bank you will spot clusters of miscellaneous forest debris and meth lab explosions piled up in the tree branches and underbrush. The untrained eye might pay little to no attention to this occurrence.
“Hmm that's odd.. How did all that misc junk get up there? Are the birds practicing their modern art skills? Or are they on meth too??”
Stop playing. That is from flash floods ripping through the hollows and blowing out the banks. These kinds of torrents can and WILL go feet outside of their familiar paths. Getting caught downriver of something like this is no joke and can happen in a matter of minutes. I wouldn’t say this if I hadn’t experienced it myself. Keep your eyes on the sky and constantly watch the USGS streamflow reports above and below the section you are wanting to fish. Use any and all data available to make the best and safest decision for yourself and your assorted fishing pals.
Now that all the doom and gloom is out of the way.. I should note.. Some of my best days fly fishing in Missouri have come either right before those flash floods or directly after. If you can catch those water levels right, it can result in high yield outings. I’m talking 20-30 fish days folks. I have found this to be best as the water is rising before the chocolate milk and right after while the water is returning to lower levels. In my very anecdotal experience I would argue there are two reasons why the fishing is so good.
First and foremost is the tint in the water. The normally crystal clear or deep aqua marine water picks up a bit more beige and can even be a deep green tinge. This is extremely beneficial for us anglers. First of all the fish visibility is about as good as yours (give or take). So if you can't see them they certainly cannot see you. You can get a little more up close and personal and really work those drifts as efficiently as possible. I tend to work a bit faster with accurate/short casts, constantly punching my rig into the juicy spots. This tint also makes everything around the trout a bit more fuzzy. So when your nymph or streamer is passing by them, they don't have time to inspect the flaws in your fly tying skills. They just MUNCH. Speaking of eating, the second reason.
Think of your favorite stream. For real stop reading this for a second and imagine you are standing knee deep in the middle of the creek. I can guess you saw blankets of trees and thick underbrush all the way up to the bank and in every direction. Do you have any idea how many critters live in and around the stream? The biomass hardwood forests are kind of insane if you stop and think for a second. Frogs, spiders, crickets, worms, beetles, grasshoppers, need I go on? Then think of everything IN the stream itself. Various nymph larvae, tadpoles, crawfish, forge fish, leeches, AGAIN need I go on? When those rains come down hard EVERYTHING in and around the streams/rivers are being affected. They are getting swept away or knocked into the water and are now left to the fate of the current. With trout being one of nature's super athletes, the high and fast water is just another day in the office. So what does that mean? Hoover time baby. Translation: It means the trout in these systems get an all you can eat, every flavor, and every size buffet for as long as the high water lasts. They are aggressive, they are hungry, and they do not care what your damn fly looks like. Chances are they are going to eat it.
On these high water adventures I love to upsize all my gear a bit. I would keep the 3wts at home and scoop up a cheeky 5wt (at least). This is a perfect time to sling meat or bobber slap all damn day. These wild trout, on average, are not all that big. But I wholeheartedly believe that a 6” wild rainbow will fight harder than anything stocked in a trout park. With that said, the rain tends to bring the bigger fish out to play and makes them much more eager to eat. Getting on a 14”-18” wild rainbow will knock your wader socks off and make you WORK. So take all of that and add in throwing streamers or using big nymphs? This has resulted in some of my best and most fun Missouri trips in recent memory.
Ice cold water against your skin is the perfect contrast to the Midwest summer sun beating down on your back. The hug of humidity and hum of mid summer cicadas will wrap your senses up in a blanket of summertime magic. The sharp green of trees and underbrush sway in the breeze like one long curtain hung across the stream. Everything is alive. Everything is moving. You are surrounded at all times but if you hike far enough you can find great solitude. This is the weather dependent season of plenty and could be my favorite time to be fishing for wild trout in Missouri. This is the scene and setting of a lot of my adventures and some of my best memories as a young man discovering a passion.
Now that spring has sprung, a lot of these streams are a little harder to access. Well.. actually.. A LOT HARDER. The cold weather romps free of underbrush are now a distant memory. Ivy encroaches on your game paths while thorns pick at your clothes.. Walls of green obstruct your view down the trail in every direction. With fields of sting needle blocking all your favorite put in spots, I would suggest hiking down the creek. It will save your delicate legs from little scrapes and you will most likely steer clear of any spider web to the face freak outs. Normally I would never recommend walking downstream and fishing downstream but this is a slight exception. Here’s a cheeky little tip for you more adventurous anglers looking to avoid the crowds.
Here's the play.. Get to whatever stream you desire at the crack ass of dawn and be ready to rip before sun up. Summer temps will never dip below 60s, so don't wait on the sun for your fishing day to begin. Start hiking downstream as the sun is coming up and fishing the juicy as hell spots closer to the easy access points (so you have the first looks of the day). This is a great opportunity to capitalize on hatches and pick off fish as you move downstream. Plus for the first few hours, your impractical downstream march will be balanced by the relative low light. Maintain this pace and by midday you will no doubt be at the end of your public land. So just like that, turn your butt around and fish all the way back upstream until that golden ball sinks over the Ozark hills. This kind of strategy will help to avoid “crowds” and give you the best shot at catching unpressured fish. IMO.. You just have to be willing to get up earlier and go further. Early bird gets the worm kinda thing.
But like I had mentioned earlier, summer is truly the time of plenty for these wild rainbows. Us anglers know that and so do the fish. From both land and water comes a non stop flow of tasty little trout treats all damn day. Again think of the “hum”. The hills are alive. This is the time of year to be throwing big bushy dry flies and hopper droppers alike. Terrestrial life coming from the banks is a major source of food and they stay keyed in. Grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, spiders, crane flies, frogs, cicadas, and ants are all on the menu. You can be fishing a sizable pool and still see a red lightning strike flash through the emerald water and crush your pathetic fly. Trust me, they like to look up. With longer days there is a slight lul during the afternoons. Capitalize on the morning bite and evening bite. Save the afternoon for a cold beer and maybe a swim, because these summer days are a marathon not a sprint.
You can have a lot of fun throwing hopper droppers, double dries, or even steamers! They will all produce and no doubt be a boatload of fun. The only thing I would suggest to prepare for would be the morning hatch. If you can get your sorry ass out of bed and make it to the river to see that smoke rise.. There is a good chance you’ll be rewarded with clouds of dancing bugs. I have come across seemingly endless pods of fish giving the surface of the water a gentle morning kiss as the summer sun starts to graze the treetops. I cannot say with certainty that I know EXACTLY what the hatch is.. However my best guess would be a trico or Pale morning dunn. (Not an entomologist, just some guy). But I have been able to trick more than a few fish with simple mayfly patterns, be it emergers or adult phases. Hell I’ve had luck on midge patterns! That is, if I offer up a pretty drift. They don’t get too picky especially when the hatch is thicc as heck. So if you had to start your day early, it might not be too bad to start it with a cheeky dry fly munch.
The last thing I want to mention about summer time fishing in the Ozarks is to watch the weather. Normally the storms don't come crashing down as hard as a spring deluge.. But they can still be nasty. One of the tough parts about these Ozark streams, is that the canopy is thicc as hell. You can barely see to the next bend of the river, let alone far off into the horizon. A simple check of weather patterns before you head out can save you a lot of hassle. More often than not you will hear a summer storm before you can see it. The ominous pressure change followed by darkening skies is enough to spook any unprepared angler. Now I am never one to advise fishing in a full scale storm.. There is always a risk of lightning and flash floods depending on when and where the storm hits. Just use your noggin and don't be afraid to toss in a poncho or rain jacket. In my experience posting up under a big cottonwood and watching the storm pass from the safety of my poncho is a solid play. The time you lose hiding from the rain will usually be paid back in full once the storm resides.
**Limited Data Logged**
Hmm.. What to say about fall.. Fall seems to be a tough season no matter where I go in the country.. But ESPECIALLY in Missouri. I have traditionally struggled with this fickle shoulder season. This mostly has to do with the weather patterns (or lack thereof). It is almost a regional trope about how much folks in the Midwest like to scoff at the wild shifts in the weather. The murmurs of ill timed warm/cold fronts seem to get a lot more attention and fanfare during the fall. One thing that you can normally count on is a lack of precipitation. Compared to Spring and even Summer, the overall rainfall will dramatically drop. Now at this point in the excerpt you might be asking yourself, “Mike, are you a farmer or a fisher?” I know I talk about the weather way too much, but rain is a good thang. So the absence of said rain is a bad thang.. For us anglers.
This does not make fishing impossible by any means. In fact I have still had some pretty incredible days out and about while those leaves are falling. Something to keep in mind is that the wild rainbow trout will begin to spawn in the early winter. So fall is a perfect time to try and throw more aggressive nymph patterns and streamers alike. These fish will need to start munching hard before they get their freak on for the next few months. In theory this is fun, but getting close enough to present these offerings is a whole different story.
Outside of that I don't know if I have all that much else to say about the Fall in the Ozarks. She can be fickle…
Skeleton armies stand stiff and sad. The clatter of limbs will occasionally catch your ear, but otherwise it is silent. Days are short and grey. The season of the crow. If the deciduous summertime hum is the siren song, then winter in the Ozarks is truly Hades. You listened to that song too long and before you could sail away your boat was hurled into sharp rocks. Now you're dead.. Inside.. Too dramatic? Maybe.. But thats how I feel, and I hear feelings mean a lot these days.. All jokes aside, this is another tough season in Missouri. By no means impossible! Just tough..
Let me explain..
The first thing working against us anglers this time of year is the rainbow trout spawn. For whatever reason, be it water temperature or strain of rainbow, they are winter spawners. I have seen redds as early as November and well into February. So if we start playing the numbers game here, things aren't looking too hot. When the spawn is on, there is a certain portion of the population that has ZERO interest in your silly fly. They are busy getting their freak on and aren’t doing much eating when they are on the redds. So automatically during the winter months you are fishing for LESS fish. Now I should say, the ethics around spawning fish are a bit.. Muddy.. And they get even more strange when it comes to our beloved trout. A good rule of thumb for any of these wild trout streams in Missouri is to just leave them be. I know it can be tempting to toss a fly in their direction. Usually you are looking at big ass fish just chilling right out in the open, easy money right? Wrong. You have let these big mommas do their thing if you want to see a population last the test of time. I am going to do my best at maneuvering this ethical minefield while keeping this short. Anglers add a certain amount of stress on fish just as a rule. But when the fish are spawning they are exposed. They aren't eating (normally). Getting yanked out by some dingus and potentially mishandled is the last thing they need. Let these true survivors pass their genetics along and you can mishandle them all you want every other season. (joking of course) There are plenty of pre and post spawners in the system to target that are more than willing to eat your fly. I personally get just as much enjoyment out of watching spawning fish as I would fishing for them.
SO on top of having a limited pool of fish to actually target, the days are short as heck.. Insult to injury.. By the time you factor in the sun getting up and over the hills, temperatures getting above freezing, and then the sun setting up and over the hills again.. Your bite window has been significantly narrowed down. Now this isn't always the case, you can catch some nice days every now and then. But for the most part actual productive hours on the water can be counted on one hand. You have to make the most of your time out there and hammer down when the fish are munching (if they’re munching).
The third and final nail in this cold coffin would be the water levels and then subsequent water clarity. A Missouri winter can be dreadfully devoid of downfalls. So through these winter months you may not even recognize some of your favorite streams. Missouri Blue Ribbon streams could not be more different as you compare Spring/Summer to Fall/Winter. It is almost laughable how much things change.
Oh boy.. I have really dug myself and Missouri wild trout a deep hole when it comes to winter time fishing. All the obstacles aside, there are still a million reasons you SHOULD be out there chasing these little gems. All I suggest is that you drastically taper down your expectations and be happy with a handful of fish rather than 20+ in a day. I think the thing I enjoy the most is the contrast. The summer is so alive and everything seems to be moving in synchrony. Winter is the bitter contrast where everything is slow and dead. But when you spend enough time out there alone during this season you can find beauty. A light frost creates this amazing contrast across the hills and gives them a totally different silhouette. The gentle breeze will bite a bit harder and the echo of the crow cuts unobstructed through the hollows. But the most beautiful thing you will run across during these winter months can only be found under the surface. The rainbows, big or small, put on an incredible showing from nose to fin. The way the deep blue of their parr marks are cut by the vibrant red stripe are enough to make any dedicated fly angler respect and admire your quarry for more than just a lively fight.
Blue Ribbon Slam:
For any of you eager anglers out there that are looking for a bit of a challenge, look no further. A lot of conservation departments will offer up various fish species “slams” to raise awareness for these populations. This is extremely common for both bass and trout alike. You might be wondering, what the heck is a slam?? Great question, the conservation department will provide a list, be it species or bodies of water, and it is up to you (the angler) to go and seek out your quarry. Once you have managed to complete the list there is normally a certificate of accomplishment and if you’re lucky a cheeky pin.
For this particular “slam” the Missouri Department of Conservation launched a really cool challenge in January of 2020. The blue ribbon slam is an opportunity to test your angling ability across Missouri. The blue ribbon designation is given to a handful of streams that can support healthy populations of fish that have the ability to reproduce naturally. Each stream offers up unique challenges for anglers of any skill level. I personally have managed to secure my bronze and silver slam. If I can manage two more streams I will be able to claim my gold. Check out the video of my silver slam listed below as well as the useful links for more information on the slam.