The gin clear, free-flowing waters of Barren Fork, deep in the hills of Shannon County, Mo., tumble and twist on the downhill journey to Sinking Creek and on to the nearby Current River. The surrounding scenery of towering bluffs, forest covered hillsides and stream-side wildflowers is breathtaking.
I step into the crystalline waters quietly. Barren Fork, one of only six wild trout streams in the state, is less than 20 feet wide where I begin at Twin Springs. The wild rainbow trout found here are notoriously spooky. Remnants of trout stockings by railroad crews in the late 1880s, these gorgeous fish have survived, with little notice by the public, for almost 140 years.
I spot a sizable fish actively feeding in a shallow riffle. The trophy-sized trout senses something is not right and slowly slips sideways and disappears into a hole of deeper water. I move on and fish downstream for the next hour, giving the fish ample time to settle down.
I walk the bank to approach the wild trout of my dreams to avoid splashing sounds and casting shadows. Only stealth and a healthy dose of good luck will allow me one cast at this mystical fish. I inhale deeply and make a couple of false casts to gain the distance I need to land my #12 Pheasant Tail beadhead nymph at the head of the pool. Perfect. Six feet into the drift, my Sage fly rod jolts in my hands. Minutes later, I slide my hand underneath the largest, most beautiful wild rainbow trout of my 50-year fly fishing career.
The Lure of Fly Fishing
Anyone who has watched the legendary fly fishing movie “A River Runs Through It” gets it. People are attracted to fly fishing because of the romance surrounding the beautiful and fulfilling sport. The movie, featuring Brad Pitt, grasped the hearts of adventurous people and stimulated a 70-percent growth of participants in fly fishing over the next few years.
Fly fishing is a connection, says renowned fly fisherman Mark Van Patten, a retired Missouri Department of Conservation streams coordinator biologist and former host of the popular TV show, “The Tying Bench.”
“Fly fishing connects us to nature in a very real way,” Van Patten said. “Trout live in the most gorgeous places in Missouri, the wild rivers and streams that course their way through the Ozark Mountains. Those that pursue them understand, appreciate and value these incredible resources. They become personally connected.”
Fly fishermen are special people who have a desire to immerse themselves in the beauty of their surroundings, while pitching their skills with rod and fly to dupe a fish into striking. They admire the fish they catch and are great conservationists. Most release fish to fight another day.
Fly fishermen constantly study and learn about the watery world of trout and in the process develop physical, mental and spiritual connections to the grand scheme of life that envelopes them while casting a fly.
Fly fishing is a thrilling sport. However, a plethora of information surrounds fly fishing that can be quite intimidating to a beginner. If you know a fly angler, ask them to give you a few pointers or a simple demonstration. Everyone likes to show off their skills.
Before purchasing equipment, it is wise to visit a fly shop. Owners are professionals and passionate about the sport. They will gladly provide you an education about the basics and help you get started.
St. Louisians need look no further than Manchester Avenue. Both Feather-Craft Fly Fishing and T. Hargrove Fly Fishing, Inc. are located there in the 8000 and 9000 blocks, respectively. Both are superb fly fishing shops, with an aura that is spell binding.
Mike Jackson of Feather-Craft Fly Fishing encourages beginners to watch their spending. “There is an abundance of quality fly fishing gear and gadgets out there today,” he stated. “We recommend that newcomers purchase a good all-round rod that is useful for several applications. If a newbie then decides they like the sport, he can spend more to acquire rods and gear for specific types of fly fishing.”
The same holds true to fly tying, according to Jackson. First timers often want to buy all kinds of fly tying materials, when just the basics for a few fly patterns will suffice in the beginning.
Craig Stephens of T. Hargrove Fly Fishing Inc. offers sound advice to beginning fly fishermen. “Folks just getting into fly fishing should buy a decent fly fishing outfit from the get go. It will make entry into the sport a great deal smoother,” he said. “There are some very good outfits available these days for reasonable prices.”
Hargrove’s offers fly fishing lessons, but Stephens says, “the best advice for improving skills is to get out there and fish.”
Beginners will also find a great selection of books and videos on fly fishing at the store. Stephens recommends that newcomers hang out with the regulars at the Depression-era house converted to a fly shop over 30 years ago. “You can rest your laurels on our church pew, pull up to our fly tying table, which has never been cleared, and warm yourself in winter by our wood burning stove,” he invited. “If you’re lucky, there will be a pot of beans, chili or soup simmering. We’re much like the ‘Cheers’ crowd. All are willing to opine to a stranger about how to gain the advantage on a fish.”
Where to Fly Fish
There is no shortage of fly fishing waters in the Show-Me State. Following are descriptions of streams not far from St. Louis that every fly fisherman will enjoy exploring.
Blue Springs Creek is a small trout stream, just south of Bourbon on Highway N. It averages only 10 to 20 feet wide, is crystal clear and holds a good population of wild rainbow trout, particularly in the riffles and pools.
The stream is owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation, below the Salvation Army Camp, all the way to the Meramec River. Blue Springs presents a special challenge to fly fishermen, because of its clarity and small size. Rainbows will often spot you long before you see them.
If your fly doesn’t float the same speed as the current, you will have little chance of catching a fish. Good imitations of natural aquatic insects, crustaceans and small minnows will flip the balance in your favor, however.
Blue Springs Creek is one of nine Blue Ribbon Trout Areas in Missouri. Several of the streams contain rainbows that are stream bred, wild rainbow trout. A one fish 18-inch length limit is enforced.
The Meramec River, a little over an hour from St. Louis, sports a Red Ribbon Trout Area from Highway 8 to Scott’s Ford, a distance 8.2 miles. Only artificial lures may be used. This area is occasionally stocked, and a two-fish limit and 15-inch restriction are in force. The Meramec has a healthy population of brown trout.
Little Piney Creek, a few miles south of Rolla, is another Blue Ribbon Trout Area. Only flies and artificial lures may be used in the 9.9 mile area, which runs from Highway 63 Access to Milldam Hollow Access. The next 3.7 miles is a White Ribbon Trout Area. This area is particularly scenic, as it flows through U.S. Forest Service lands.
The Current River is one of the premier trout fishing destinations in the state, according to the late Spencer Turner, the former Missouri Department of Conservation trout biologist, who is largely responsible for the trout fishing programs in Missouri.
Nine miles of the river, from the lower boundary of Montauk State Park to the Cedar Grove Bridge are a Blue Ribbon Trout Area. Many large brown trout are caught in this section each year.
The stretch of Current River from Cedar Grove to Akers Ferry, 7.7 miles, is a White Ribbon Trout Area. While regulations are reduced to allow the usage of all lures and baits and the possession of up to four trout of any length, there are fantastic fly fishing opportunities in this stretch as well.
Farther south, the Eleven Point River also offers both a Blue Ribbon Trout Area and a White Ribbon Trout Area. The stretch from Greer Spring to Turner Mill Access, 5.5 miles, make up the Blue Ribbon Area, while the area downstream from Turner for 14.2 miles makes up the White Ribbon section.
The Eleven Point River is a larger system than other mentioned streams and requires that flies get down deep. Due to steep wooded banks and deep holes, the Eleven Point is most often fished from float boats and canoes.
Most fly fishermen will never attain the skills Brad Pitt exhibited in the movie, but rest assured, conquering the cast and presenting a fly to a rising trout is intoxicating.
Fly Tying & Casting Lessons
Feather-Craft Fly Fishing has been teaching fly casting for free for over 35 years at its St. Louis store. Classes (beginner through advanced) are on Saturdays; all you need to do is call the store for signup and info at 314-963-7884 (locally) or 1-800-659-1707 (nationwide). All lessons are taught by Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) Certified Casting Instructors.
Feather-Craft also offers free fly tying lessons for serious entry-level fishermen. Sign up for classes on Saturday morning year-round. Advanced and specialty classes also are available at no charge. Call for details: 314-963-7884 (locally) or 1-800-659-1707 (nationwide).
Author: Bill Cooper hails from the Missouri Ozarks. He has worked 40+ years as a park superintendent, naturalist and outdoor communicator. His credits include Cabela’s Outfitter Journal, Missouri Conservationist, Outdoor Guide Magazine and the Bass Pro Shops website.