Urban trout programs deliver great fishing close to home
ST. CHARLES COUNTY, Mo. — Steve Ehlmann snugged the zipper to his parka, adjusted his sunglasses and tugged at his cap against the windy, 28-degree December day.
Ehlmann is used to the elements. He works in construction. Only he wasn’t on the job site. He was at the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area’s Lake 21, stringing up his Orvis fly rod and grinning like a kid on Christmas morning.
“I had the day off and thought I’d come out for an hour or so,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. Two fishermen were perched along the east shore of the small lake, which floods about 3 acres. Each man had landed and released a couple of trout.
Ehlmann surveyed the landscape and started toward the low, sloping bank that fronts the parking area.
“It’s really more of an afternoon or evening bite,” he said, sounding relieved at the lack a crowd. “And usually better with a breeze and some cloud cover. I come out a couple of times a week.”
Ehlmann then shared more local knowledge.
“The best spot is really over there,” he added, nodding to where a guy wrapped in an orange coat — his hood pulled up against the wind — was battling another trout, quickly adding, “where that man is catching a fish!”
Lake 27 is one of five waters on the Busch Conservation Area, along with 12 city and county park waters in the St. Louis metropolitan area, that are managed as winter trout fisheries by the Missouri Department of Conservation. It’s a seasonal offshoot of the DOC’s urban fisheries program, which began in 1969.
The St. Louis Area Winter Trout Program was launched in 1989, according to Kevin Meneau, a veteran fisheries biologist with the state conservation agency.
Stockings begin in November and continue through most of the winter season. The trout usually last until late spring as these waters are too warm to support trout year-round. Most of the lakes are managed as catch-and-release early during the winter season. Then later — usually beginning in February — anglers are allowed and urged to catch and keep trout.
“The program is amazingly popular,” Meneau said. “I’ve been here 33 years and it’s the most popular aquatic program I’ve ever been involved in.”
It’s easy to understand why: Good fishing close to home. The urban fisheries program is available year-round. Sunfish, catfish and bass are stocked part of the year. But trout are the glamour species and available only in winter, when water temperatures support the cold-water critters.
Meneau said the DOC has expanded the winter trout program to several other Missouri cities, including Kansas City.
Stocking rates are generous and stockings continue periodically throughout the winter. In the St. Louis-area program, more than 38,000 11-to-13-inch rainbow trout go into the 17 area lakes between November and February. (Occasionally a few brown trout are stocked, along with a sprinkling of larger hatchery brood stock.)
That’s about 2,300 trout per lake. These are not large watersheds. Of the five stocked waters at the Busch Conservation Area, the largest is about 6 acres. Also, no boats are allowed. Anglers are limited to what they can reach from shore, Meneau said. All of the lakes have good shoreline access.
“Most of our lakes are small,” he said. “And boats can cause a lot of casting conflicts.”
One way biologists measure fishing pressure on public waters is fishing hours per acre per year. By that formula, this is an incredibly popular fishing spot.
“The urban trout waters get about 1,800 fishing hours per acre per year,” Meneau explained. “In some of our rural waters it’s hundreds of hours per acre per year. The Lake of the Ozarks is one of our most popular (recreation) lakes. The urban trout lakes get about 18 times the fishing pressure as the Lake of the Ozarks does.”
The brisk weekday weather didn’t stop the fishermen. A handful of hardy anglers were working at each of the five Busch CA urban trout waters. At Lake 28, which is located in the southwest corner of the property and is the largest of the five, most of the action was near the northeast rip-rap-lined bank, which was bathed in early afternoon sunshine. I worked the upper end, which was laced with shadows from the flanking timber, which also helped break the wind.
I strung up a 9-foot 5-weight. A dozen fruitless casts then a jolting strike, which I messed. The No. 22 black and silver midge stuck the next time, however. A fat, 12-inch rainbow came to hand but threw the hook before I could remove it. It was a pale-colored fish, an indication of being fresh from the hatchery.
“We stocked early in the week,” concluded Meneau. “There are no holdovers.”
More urban trout
Many states offer seasonal/winter/urban trout fishing programs, including:
Check your state’s conservation agency for local information.
Gary Garth writes a monthly outdoors column for USA TODAY.