Hundreds of anglers visited Bennett Spring State Park on March 1 in search of the elusive lunker for Opening Day of trout season.
Many anglers were out early that morning despite some remaining patches of ice and temperatures in the upper 30s.
“Tradition” is what brought two fishermen from Columbia, Missouri to Bennett Spring for Opening Day.
“I like the fishing. We’ve been here several years in a row,” Shelby Nichols said. “We’ve always liked coming here. Every year you see the same people here,” the weather’s nice, should be a good day.”
Alan Nichols, who was fishing with Shelby, said that the pari have been coming to Bennett Spring every year since 1982.
The opening ceremony for Bennett’s big day included Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, Missouri Department of Conservation Director Sara Parker Pauley and local state legislators. The Opening Day siren ringer was Charlie Reading, who owns Reading’s Fly Shop on Missouri 64 near the park.
“It is an honor and it’s very nice,” he said. “I’ve been helping people and doing things here for a long time, It’s nice to have people acknowledge what you’ve done over the years, it’s a humbling thing to see that people appreciate that I’ve been there for them and helped them with a lot of stuff.”
Reading said his life is tied up in his business.
“A lot of people, they put their 40, 50 hours a week in, they have a family, they have other things they do,” he said. “What make me different is that this is a big part of my life, my business, it just happens to be here.”
Reading spent his childhood fishing for cool and warm water fish in the ponds, creeks and river of his grandfather’s farm just outside of Lebanon.
He began fly fishing when he was 15.
In 1978 he was hired to run Tony Pack’s fly shop. He worked there until he opened Reading’s Fly Shop in 1985.
From 1978 on, Reading has fished both freshwater and saltwater around the globe. He’s made many trips to New Zealand, Christmas Island, Brazil and Argentina, Russia, New Guinea, Europe, Central America, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.
Bennett Spring State Park Hatchery Manager Ben Haven said Reading “is a knowledgeable fly fisherman, great mentor to new fishermen, a strong park supporter and a huge ambassador to fly fishing in Missouri.”
Havens and his team stocks the stream with fish every day through Oct. 31, which is the end of trout season. He said that on Opening Day, the hatchery staff puts out an extra large batch of trout.
“We stock somewhere around 6,000 to 7,000 fish for Opening Day,” he said.
Numbers for some of the past Tuesday openers, which Havens said were highly variable depending on weather conditions, were 2016 – 1,328 tags, 2011 – 1,717 tags and 2005 – 1,964 tags
“On a normal March Tuesday, we’ll probably stock 700 fish, but we’ll also only have maybe 280, 300 anglers, and (on Opening Day) we expect 1,500 or better anglers,” he said.
For Opening Day, there were 1,571 total trout tags sold. Of those, 1,467 were adults and 104 were kids. Havens said the number was pretty average for a Tuesday opener. He added that it is hard to compare a weekday opener to a weekend Opening Day.
“We haven’t been below 1,571 for an opener in the last five years. If it had been this good of weather and a Saturday or Sunday, I think we would’ve had 2,500 or more,” Havens said.
According to Havens, the park has done well with attendance during the pandemic, seeing trout tag sales in numbers that the park hasn’t reached in years.
“There was a push while we were all hunkered down to get out and explore locally, I think that was definitely a boon for the local state parks,” he said. “We had great attendance last year for the season, we sold more tags last year than we have since 2010.”
He is expecting the high turnout to continue and believes 2022 will be a good year for the park.
“Weather has a lot to do with it, flooding has a lot to do with it, people make plans and want to come down and fish when the spring branch is crystal clear,” Havens said.
A major construction project for the park started last fall, according to Havens. The first phase is about to wrap up for design and exploration to look at the hatchery system, the raceways, the infrastructure and how fish are raised.
A consulting firm has done an analysis of the hatchery and the grounds and will make recommendations for improvements.
“It’s time for us to do a major overhaul and bring it update with new technology,” he said.
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