Return of the Meramec River Brown Trout

Return of the Meramec River Brown Trout

Avid St. James, Missouri angler Lyle Staab began my love affair with brown trout over 40 years ago. In the mid-1970’s Staab’s photograph appeared on the front cover of an outdoor magazine. He held a brown trout that weighed almost 15 pounds. Staab caught the behemoth brown from the Meramec River in the Missouri Ozarks. I have been searching the cold, free-flowing Meramec for a brown trout of those proportions ever since. I’m still searching.

The Meramec River became Missouri’s first Trophy Trout area in 1974, shortly after I became superintendent of Maramec Spring Park. Maramec (note spelling) Spring is the first major tributary to flow into the Meramec River, doubling its size and lowering the temperature by several degrees. The brown trout fishery was a new and exciting idea. However, Missouri fisheries biologiosts still had much to learn about managing brown trout.

Regulations allowed for the use of live bait for those early browns. Most disappeared quickly because the fish swallowed live baits and was responsible for a high release mortality. As evidenced by Staab’s colossal catch in the mid-1970’s, a few browns from the original stocking did survive to a ripe old age. The Missouri Department of Conservation instituted a Red Ribbon Trout Area on the Meramec River in the 1980’s, with more restrictive regulations. Only lures and artificial flies could be used, increasing the number of fish which survived after being caught and released.

The Missouri Department of Conservation continued releasing brown trout from 8-to-12-inches once a year in the fall. Most fly fishermen regarded the browns as being very finicky. Regardless, competent anglers that knew how to catch brown trout, continued to catch them over the years. But none the size of Staab’s 1970’s catch was reported. During the summer of 2014, brown trout fishing in the Meramec River took a turn for the better. A one-time supply of brown trout up to 15 inches were stocked in the river as a result on an experimental program at Maramec Spring Hatchery. Brown trout were used to help control parasitic crustaceans called copepods. These parasites attach themselves to rainbow trout and thrive.

Return of the Meramec River Brown Trout

Brown trout were placed at the heads of raceways and acted as bio-filters. The copepods attached themselves to the brown trout. However, they were unable to complete their life cycle on brown trout like they could on rainbow trout. This eventually resulted in fewer parasites to attack the rainbow trout and that was great.

The brown trout were held in the pools longer than normal and as a result grew larger than the normal 8-to-12-inch trout used in stocking programs. They were subsequently stocked in the Meramec River in the summer of 2014. The stockings were a success according to biologist Jen Girondo. “Now, with Maramec Spring Hatchery supplying a limited number of brown trout, fish will be stocked in smaller increments, multiple times in the fall season.

“This will be done to maintain the appropriate number of brown trout needed in the hatchery raceways to keep parasites in check. Girondo added, upon learning about the releases of browns into the Meramec River started the in-the-field research, with my fly rod in hand.”

“I knew brown trout don’t like bright light, so I chose a dark, blustery day to fish in late November. The results were incredible. I located a deep hole and cast my weighted sculpin fly on a sinking line into the clear waters. A jolt went up my rod on my very first cast. A broad fish rolled to the surface. The sound of my 5X tapered tippet snapping echoed down the river. I thought, maybe I’m on to something. With a very good feeling, which only a lone angler on a stream full of feeding browns can feel, I tied on a heavier tippet and began catching one brown trout after another. The fish were on a feeding spree, and it didn’t seem to matter what pattern I used, as long as it presented a big profile and I could get it down deep. Sculpins, mohair leeches, crayfish, and big streamers accounted for most of the browns I caught from two deep holes over a three-hour time span.”

“On more than one occasion a second brown trout trailed the first, attempting to rob the fly from its mouth. I landed well over thirty browns before the feeding frenzy slowed. Also, I enjoyed several more hookups and two more break-offs. The fish struck with a vengeance as if they were starving. The brightly colored fish averaged 15-inches, with only two falling under 14-inches. Several fat 17-inch males were caught and I’m confident the break-offs were from bigger fish.”

“Obviously, a few browns larger than 15 inches had been released. Perhaps a few of them will survive to hit double digits in weight. I’ll keep hunting. The Red Ribbon Trout Area on the Meramec River extends for 9 miles. From the Highway 8 MDC Access, south of St. James, to the Scott’s Ford MDC Access, off Hwy 8, just west of Steelville. The 9-mile stretch contains a variety of aquatic habitats, long pools, drops, riffles, turns, rock and deep pools. Most of the bank side is in heavy vegetation, Girondo continued, with an abundance of logs and undercut banks.”

The Meramec River can also be accessed through the James Foundation’s Maramec Spring Park. Anglers should be aware of the separate regulations for fishing in the park and on the Meramec River. For further information log on to: www.mdc.mo.gov.

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About Bill Cooper 6 Articles
Bill Cooper has published over 1,500 articles and hosted TV and radio shows over a half century as an outdoor communicator. Recognized on the floor of the Missouri House of Repesentatives in 2016 for his career of promoting the outdoors, Bill has stood the test of time through his unwavering love of the outdoors.  Bill is also a member of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame and still going strong. We welcome his experiences and outdoor communicator skills to Rambling Angler Outdoors and look forward to all the remarkable stories and adventures ahead. 

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