DENT COUNTY, Mo. — I arrived too late to fish so I did the next best thing: I scouted for fish.
There were plenty to be found, even in the fading light of a late winter afternoon. A half-dozen rainbow trout idled in the gently swirling currents of the Blue Hole, a spot not far from the spring from which Montauk State Park takes its name. The spring pumps out about 50 million gallons of 57-degree water daily. This spot also marks the beginning of the 184-mile-long Current River, the first 105 miles of which form the core of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
A couple hundred yards downstream from the Blue Hole, Hudson Corner harbored another handful of trout. A few trout were rising at the Mill Dam Hole, where the river widens and slows before spilling across the ancient stone structure.
Johnson Cabin Hole, a rich run of water just upstream from the lodge, seemed especially promising; I counted a dozen trout, including one rainbow close to 20 inches, holding steady in a long, narrow pool flanked by a tongue of seam water that boiled around a scattering of basketball-size boulders.
Near the campground, a couple of wader-clad anglers who had exited the river were enjoying a cigar and beverage. They offered a friendly nod and wave, the universal sign that fishing had been better than they would probably care to admit. Trout fishermen often play their angling successes close to the vest.
At the camp store, Gregg Mendenhall emerged from behind the counter to answer the same question he’s been asked countless times from thousands of fishermen.
He reached into a wooden case that held dozens of flies in a rainbow of colors, from black and silver pea-size midges to gaudy, thumb-size streamers.
“I’d try this,” he said, offering a No. 8 olive, bead head wooly bugger. It was a safe choice. You could travel to any water in the world where trout are caught and the local tackle shop would sell, and likely recommend, this fly — or the local version of it. “No, wait,” he said. He dropped the plain olive bugger back in the rack and plucked out one with some bluish/green tinsel. “Might do better with something with a little flash.
“Better use a light tippet, too,” he added. “A 6X or even 7(X). When the water’s low and clear like it is now fish can be a little spooky.”
Fishermen flock here
Montauk State Park is a rolling, heavily wooded 2,400-acre slice of the Missouri Ozarks about 150 miles southwest of St. Louis and 250 miles southeast of Kansas City. About 3.5 miles of water flows through the park, including 2.7 that are managed for and stocked with trout.
Fishermen flock here, although during the four-day-a-week, Friday-through-Monday winter season that runs from mid-November to mid-February, solitude can be found.
Fish can also be caught.
“It’s great,” said Bob Anderson, who said he makes the trip from his Chesterfield, Mo., home, 25 miles west of St. Louis, to the park several times a year. "I come in the winter and summer. In the summer, you can have some good dry fly action. But the fishing’s good in the winter, too.”
Anderson had been fly fishing from atop the Mill Dam but after hooking a tree with an errant backcast retreated to shore to untangle his tackle. There were about 20 other fishermen within sight, most upstream from the dam and no doubt attracted by a rare sunny, 60-degree January day.
“You usually don’t have this many people in the winter,” said Anderson.
The Mill Dam is a popular spot. Trout were easy to see in the clear water over a gravel and rock bed. Anderson turned his attention to turquoise shallow marking a deep hole but didn’t cast. A guy with a spinning rod had tossed a single hook spinner into the spot.
“There’s a monster fish in that hole,” said Anderson, who turned and cast downstream while seeming to wait his turn to take a shot at the monster fish. It’s a park courtesy apparently not planned or discussed but somehow understood that anglers will rotate through the sweetest spots.
A couple hundred yards downstream at the White Oak Hole I sifted through a handful of flies before deciding on a No. 14 blueback scud I’d used successfully for trout on a couple of Arkansas tailwaters. Fishing a foamy patch of fast water just upstream from the Highway 119 bridge that dissects the park I missed the first strike but hooked the second, bringing a brightly color 13-inch rainbow to the net.
Tim Comerford, who was fishing a neighboring strip of foaming fast water that nearly reached to a bridge piling, look on, approvingly.
“I fish here a couple of times a month winter and summer,” said Comerford, who moved his consulting business to nearby Rolla, Mo., from Cincinnati in 2004. “I really enjoy the park. The fishing’s been a little slow today but it’s usually good; sometimes really good. The fishing might be a little better in the summer, maybe because they stock more fish. But I enjoy the winter season. There’s not many people.”
Comerford is a multi-faceted fisherman in that he spins and fly fishes with equal enthusiasm. He had both tools with him and used both to catch fish from the White Oak Hole, named for a towering tree that succumbed to age and decay several years ago.
“I caught a 20-inch rainbow a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “That was downstream from here. I caught that spinning fishing with a Roostertail; red with gold blade.”
The science of stocking trout
If you visit during the summer, expect crowds, particularly on weekends.
The March 1 opening day is a shoulder-to-shoulder fishing ritual.
“It a tradition for a lot of people,” said Montauk superintendent Doug Rush.
Trout are not native to Missouri, a fact that might have surprised some of the earlier settlers who found the rugged hills laced with cool, clear running streams. Some of those early settlers had migrated from Long Island in New York and brought the Montauk name with them. The Montauk Post Office was established in 1851. It closed in 1974.
Trout stocking efforts began long before the park was created in 1924. Records are sketchy but early trout introduction attempts date to 1878, when the state fish commission purchased “California salmon” eggs from the U. S. Fish Commission. Stockings of brook trout were attempted a year later and in 1880 rainbow trout eggs were obtained from the federal fish commission’s McCloud River station in California. The state’s first cold water hatchery was established in 1879 but it was short lived. Various other stocking attempts were made in 1890 (brown and lake trout), 1896 (Pacific salmon and grayling) and 1902 (Atlantic salmon). The establishment of a federal fish hatchery in 1921 put an end of the scattershot stocking approach. Montauk was established in 1928 and began operating four years later. There have been trout here since the beginning.
Stocking rates vary but according to hatchery manager Tom Whelan, daily stockings during the March to October season are generally based on the five-year average of daily permits sold for a specific date. The stocking rate is 2.25 trout stocked per permit sold. For example, if the five-year daily average for April 6 were 218 permits sold, about 490 fish would be stocked for that date. About 98,000 daily trout permits are sold annually. The daily permit is not required during the winter season. Approximately 220,000 fish are stocked from March through October in the park’s 2.7 miles of trout water. The average stocking size trout is 12.5 inches.
“You don’t want to overstock a stream,” said assistant hatchery manager Nathan Storts. “We stock every night during the regular season but for the winter we do a large stocking at the beginning of the winter. Then do some subsequent stockings during the winter if needed.”
There may be plenty of fish, but catching them is not always easy.
“It’s like fishing anywhere,” said Rush, who is an avid fly fishermen but usually concentrates his efforts in the Current River outside the park, which the state manages as blue ribbon trout water. “We have guys who will catch 30 or 40 fish a day. Then the next day they’ll catch five. There’s always a lot of fish but you have to figure out what they’re biting on.”
I worked my way downstream from the White Oak Hole and around a good-looking stretch of water known as “The Gabbions,” where a young girl was squealing against the pull and splash of a feisty trout in a shallow water riffle while her dad hovered nearby with a net. Another knot of fishermen was concentrated at the Junction Hole but downstream in an unassuming piece of flat water I hooked and landed a rainbow then lost the blue back scud with a too-aggressive hook set on the next fish. I was tying on the pinky-size, tinsel tinged olive wooly bugger Mendenhall had suggested the previous day when a rumbling, foghorn-like noise sounded through the valley. Four o’clock. End of fishing hours.
If you go
Montauk State Park is open year-round. Full-service lodging and camping are available. The catch-and-keep trout season is March 1 to Oct. 31, during which trout are stocked daily. The limit is four fish. Fishing hours vary slightly per month but generally run from daylight until dusk.
The winter catch-and-release season opens the second Friday in November and closes the second Monday in February. Fishing is permitted Friday through Monday, 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily. Spinning gear is allowed but baits are limited to artificial, single hook. Winter lodging, including the campground, is open every day.
For more information about Montauk state park go to mostateparks.com/park/montauk-state-park or call 573-548-2201.
Montauk is one of four trout parks in Missouri. The others are Bennett Spring, Roaring River and Maramec Spring. (Maramec Spring Park is privately owned and operated by The James Foundation but the Missouri Department of Conservation handles the trout stocking duties.)
A handful of other state waters, including about 20 miles of the upper Current River outside Montauk State Park, are managed as blue or white ribbon trout waters. A few urban waters, including some in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, are managed as seasonal trout fisheries. For information about the state’s other trout waters go to missouritrout.com.