Temperatures nearing 40 were melting the weekend snow as Charles and Cindy Maledy unloaded their fishing gear near Missouri’s premier Ozark stream on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
“You get cabin fever, and a day like this is perfect for getting out,” said Charles Maledy. “We normally fish regularly seven to 15 times a winter.”
The Maledys are retired; he was a bank vice president and she was superintendent of schools in Salem, where they live. Their home is a short drive from Montauk State Park, one of the Missouri State Parks’ three popular trout parks, and the headwaters of the sparkling Current River, which the Maledys had all to themselves on this day.
The Maledys are among the anglers who know that fishing doesn’t stop with the close of the regular season at the end of October. The catch-and-release season opens the second Friday in November and goes to the second Monday in February. Fishing is allowed on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
Winter is a good time to work on your fly fishing skills before the opening of the regular trout season on March 1, when thousands show up at the three parks and line the best fishing holes, elbow to elbow, in what has become a family tradition.
“Winter is just like the regular season,” Charles Maledy said. “Sometimes you catch fish, sometimes you get skunked.”
“But there’s nobody right beside you,” added his wife. “Out here, you can look downriver and not see another person.”
The staff at Montauk State Park, Roaring River State Park near Cassville and Bennett Spring State Park near Lebanon agreed that the three trout parks are special places in winter. All are located in deep wooded Ozark valleys where azure springs pump out millions of gallons of cold, clear water each day, creating the streams that are stocked by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“The last few weeks, we’ve had snow on the ground,” said Dusty Reid, superintendent at Roaring River. “You may be surrounded by fog. It’s like you’re in a different world, very quiet. You can hear the bald eagles calling out, it echoes up the valley.”
“It’s just a nicer time of the year,” said J.D. Muschany, superintendent at Bennett Spring. “There’s less fishing pressure. The water is usually very clear. You can see all the animals, the deer walking around. It’s a good time to be in the park.”
Steve Bost, the naturalist at Montauk, welcomed the snow that was melting when the Maledys arrived.
“It looked like a postcard,” Bost said. “It’s peaceful, relaxing. You can feel your blood pressure drop as you drive into the valley. It’s hard to put a price on something like that.”
Hungry Fish, Fewer Anglers
The park staff agree on another thing – fishing can be good in winter.
“There’s less pressure, not as many fishermen,” said Reid of Roaring River State Park, where fish stocking continues during catch and release. “They bite just the same as they do year-round, only on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The fish don’t see a hook Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”
At Bennett Spring State Park, stocking discontinues during catch and release, but Muschany, the superintendent, said that doesn’t mean fishing slows.
“It’s always good,” he said. “There’s generally in the neighborhood of 20,000 fish in the stream.”
Fish are stocked one more time at the end of the regular season at Montauk State Park, and Bost, the naturalist, said the trout settle down – and are hungry.
“They go into their normal mode of feeding, they don’t have disruptions,” Bost said. “The number of trout per anglers is significantly different than in the season. You’ve got 3.7 miles of fishable stream in the park, and it’s in the fisherman’s favor. You have to put in the effort, but they are fairly easy to catch.”
At Roaring River State Park, campground 1 remains open during winter and the Conservation Department sells fishing licenses and trout permits ($7) at the hatchery office. The park lodge, restaurant and store close.
Bennett Spring State Park keeps open a campground with a shower house and four duplexes, with two bedrooms and a kitchen in eight units, during catch and release. The store is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Montauk State Park keeps its motel and several cabins open throughout the winter season. The campground also is open seven days a week, but the shower houses are closed. The store and restaurant in the lodge are open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Rick Shults, 51, and his daughter, Rachel, 19, also were at Montauk State Park on this balmy afternoon. But Shults carried a camera with a 400-millimeter lens, rather than a fishing pole. “I got some good eagle shots this morning,” he said.
The family lives near the park and likes to visit to photograph the wildlife, especially the otters that live in the spring-fed waters of Montauk Lake.
“There are three up there this year, last year there were eight,” said Rick Shults.
“They’ll sit up on the logs and pose for you,” said his daughter.
Wildlife watching is a popular sport at the three trout parks in winter. Bald eagles are common at each park, as they visit during the cold months to take advantage of the abundant supply of fish. Montauk has a resident pair that has nested in the park for nearly a decade, producing 11 chicks in the last four years.
A wildlife check list this afternoon included not only bald eagles, but also osprey, great blue-herons, a belted kingfisher, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, turkey vultures, black vultures, plenty of deer and a flock of turkey that created a roadblock as it crossed from river to woods.
“The wildlife is a big plus,” said Bost, the Montauk naturalist. “Animal tracks outnumber people tracks, easily. And the animals are a lot more laid back in winter.”
The Maledys enjoyed both sports, they watched the wildlife show as they fished the stream.
“We saw an eagle swooping down to grab a fish over the rearing ponds,” said Cindy Maledy. “That’s the first time we’ve seen that.”
The Maledys fished until the golden glow of sunset hit the tops of the trees in the river valley. No one was counting, but Charles Maledy landed two trout, among many hits and near-misses, and his wife brought in seven. All were returned to the water to fight another time.
“Summer’s for eating fish,” Charles Maledy said. “Winter’s for catching fish.”