I waded into cold water on a winter’s day many years ago when most sane people were sitting next to a roaring fireplace. Bennett Spring Trout Park was deserted that day except for Dr. Andrew Cline and I, a rare occurrence.
Dry flies disappeared in Bennett’s swirling mix of cold water and colder air creating a fog-like mist, so we used wet flies with floats. An occasional quick dip in the water cleaned ice out of rod guides, but our rods had to frequently be submerged as ice reformed. Very little wind mixed with 19-degree air temperature reached Missouri’s most popular trout park where thousands of rainbow and brown trout prowled for food morsels in crystal-clear water.
We purposely used barbless hooks to avoid injuring the trout. Catch and release is the law on Bennett Spring after Oct. 1 and until March 1 when fishermen celebrate a new season, shoulder to shoulder and without me. But this day the place was ours.
I cautiously waded over the slick submerged rocks, finally making it to the famous concrete bridge, close to a deep drop-off. My fly rod, a six weight had been pre-rigged on the bank. I started stripping fly line while observing about a thousand trout in the clear water. A couple swam by my wader boots as line slipped back and forth through the air until enough fed out to make a desirable presentation.
My fly gently landed close to a big submerged rock. I focused on the spot where my size 18 poison Tung occasionally twitched in the current. I could place four of the tiny flies on my thumbnail, meaning in the water it was invisible to human eyes, but the highly visible float bounced freely in the current. A slight twitch must have made my fly more enticing as the float moved slightly sideways, sign that a trout took the bait. I raised my rod to set the hook – nothing!
That rainbow trout attacked my fly quicker than any human mind could register and I missed the hook set. Another trout struck – same result. The trout were just too fast that cold morning. I slipped more line out to a different spot, making sure my line was tight in the fast-moving water and waited. The next strike cropped up quick as a flash of lightning, but this time my barbless hook drove into flesh.
My six weight fly rod took a deep bend as this rainbow trout dove for the safety of rocks. I clearly had hooked a good fish that was maybe over four pounds. I mentally surmised it while picking up the line whenever possible. Finally, the trout was close, and I looked down to see what might have been a pound fish that fought like a lunker in the strong current. The darned fish would not give up.
The little trout used up his allotted energy minutes later. I admired it in my net, with vivid colors of pink and salmon that rivaled most fish species for beauty. I released the fighter and was splashed with cold water by a departing tail flip.
Dr. Cline soon connected with a fine rainbow trout. The beautiful fish barely touched net before being released to swim away and sulk on the bottom.
I moved to a calm pool out of the current and switched to a dry fly, a Royal Coachman with enticing red, black and white feathers that disappeared after my first light twitch. The fight lasted a few minutes before the rainbow slid into my waiting net for an easy release.
Dr. Cline decided to change tactics by mid morning and tied on a wet fly he had created with pheasant feathers suspended under a float. He moved downstream and soon his presentation was drifting through swift currents that carried his fly over weed beds and rocky strips.
His float slightly twitched prompting a hook set and the fight was on. The scrappy rainbow made several good lunges before giving up to his net. I watched as the veteran trout fisherman caught two more before he gave me a matching fly. My bobber soon slipped under the surface, and I was enjoying another fine fight.
Our time was limited that day and we caught and released several rainbow trout each. But we would return many more days when the crowds were thin, although we have never again had the area to ourselves.
We silently drove out of the park a few minutes later after peeling off waders and securing our equipment. The pickup heater brought our body temperatures back to normal and only thoughts remained of fishing Bennett Spring when trout were attacking our flies and we were alone.
Trout caught through the years from Bennett Springs are prodigies of an aggressive Missouri Department of Conservation’s fishery programs. Few states can boast of better fly fishing.
Trout are not native to Missouri, yet it was discovered that rainbow and brown trout could survive in natural streams scattered throughout the state’s southern end. Bennett Spring’s trout are stocked from the state hatchery located in the park. Fishermen annually catch more than 400 rainbow and brown trout that weigh three pounds or more. Both species occasionally are caught over seven pounds on exceptionally light tackle.
Trout have sharp eyes, so experienced anglers use one- to two-pound tapered leaders. Lower, clearer water means using lighter leaders. Fly fishermen use a variety of dry and wet flies on Bennett. The most popular seem to be kapoks, carcass flies, scuds, zebra midges, soft hackles, mohair leeches, small brown nymphs, fur bugs and woolly worms with spinners.
I generally include royal coachman, black gnats, poison Tung or light Cahill flies with great success. Try experimenting with flies that match each insect hatch. I often visit Weaver’s Tackle Store located about a mile from the park’s entrance. They always have excellent advice on what flies to use.
Fly rod sizes vary. Lightweight rods are more than adequate for most rainbow trout. However, many anglers use medium-weight rods, anticipating the possibility of hooking a lunker.
I advise that you dress warmly, but with lightweight garments that allow you to move in the ever-present currents. Well-insulated waders are always comfortable on Bennett, even in the summer.
Bennett Spring, located close to Lebanon, Missouri, is an excellent place to spend quality time, especially when the crowds have cleared out. Winter hours and eligible days to fish change during this off season, so make sure you contact the park for winter hours and regulations.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.