As soon O’Kelley and I turned into Bennett Spring State Park, we were in a foreign land. We had gone to the park with great hopes, having heard accounts of the place’s beauty, tales of strong trout jumping from the spring river at well-cast dry flies, and of the relaxing opportunities the park afforded. But in the middle of Ozark hills covered with thick stands of hardwood, the Bennett Springs State Park was like a suburb without a city nearby. It lie in the middle of trimmed and tended fields that contrasted with the forest floor crawling, writhing in humid and dappled shade laced with the musty fug of decaying leaves.
The spring itself was a giant blue mystery welling up from rocky ground in the middle of a cropped field surrounded with trees. A giant water ladder ran from the mouth of Bennett Springs into a more natural stream that fell into the Niangua, a broad, warm river a mile away. A hundred million gallons of water rose from depths of the springs’ source every day. The orderliness of the path around the spring and the grounds surrounding them was as immense as the spring itself.
The trout park came out of a 1920s idea of an outdoors good time for city folk. Sepia photos of the place showed happy white men standing in evenly spaced six-foot intervals up and down the stream. Each stood near the bumper of his car in waders and vest, flailing a fly rod—posing in a stance that he might have thought came off a remote mountain stream. After their foray into the trout world, the motoranglers drove to richly appointed lodges and cabins to rest their tired arms, sooth sunburned noses, cook their fish and make believe that roughing it was satisfyingly hard work.
The park still accommodated the driving public handsomely. Parking areas lined the river from the spring to the Niangua, allowing anglers to step to the stream without fear of getting their waders muddy. Cabins and lodges surrounded a fish hatchery, flanked with gift, bait and fly shops, and a restaurant.
Parking the car in a long line of others, O’Kelley and I made our way past rows of casting anglers to the fly and bait shop to buy a day permit to fish. Anglers neither looked askance at each other nor spoke to one another as we passed. Each mechanically cast and recast as if wound with a key in the back. Women were barely distinguishable from the men. Nearly everyone wore top-of-the-line waders, stylish vests, and the same floppy hat.
O’Kelley and I paused on our way to see what the anglers were casting. They cast and picked their flies from the water so fast, we couldn’t really see much but little bits of white fluff snatched from the water as soon as they landed.
We milled around the fly and bait shop, stunned . . . fish out of water. Both of us had spent time fishing trout in Ozark spring rivers—Jack’s Fork, Eleven Point, North Fork of the White. We had seen the ethereal blue that exists only in the heart of cold springs. But neither of us had seen such a congregation of anglers, never been involved in something so much like an amusement park attraction. Anglers infested every pool, corner and arm of the stream. They gathered like detritus around the abutments and pilings of the road bridge over the stream. They formed a cordon between parking areas and stream bank.
“You think we ought to stay?” I asked O’Kelley, whispering. The faux split-log interior of the bait shop rose over us into darkness. Fly rods, ultralight and medium-weight poles stood in military-like rows above banks of flies and tackle.
“We might as well give it a try,” he said. “I’ve been to other trout parks, and it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t as crowded, either. We should start at the fly-only area and work our way down. We’ll find our niche. If things really are as bad as they look, we can fish the Niangua outside the park where there will probably be trout-gone-wild and none of these meat fisherman.”
“Amen,” I said, perking up a bit.
“You boys look like you need a permit,” the clerk said unenthusiastically. She wore a park employee uniform and chewed on the end of a candy bar.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “We need what it takes. We have flies, but what do you recommend?”
“Driver’s license,” she said. As she began to fill in the permit, she said, “These are hatchery fish and the best thing to use is something that looks like the food they get in the hatchery. These things here work like gangbusters.”
I looked at the rack of tiny white fluffy balls affixed to hooks. “That’s it? That’s the secret to success?”
“When it comes to these trout, it is. You want’ny?”
O’Kelley grinned and retreated into the soda aisle.
I signed the permit and walked out front while O’Kelley bought his license. The lawns ran down to the stream and into the tangle of woods beyond. It would be like fishing on a golf course.
“You get any of those fluffs?” I asked O’Kelley when he came out.
“Nah, it’d be like using dynamite. What’s the fun in that?”
We walked up to the spring to look over the hatchery. Concrete troughs of traced the life of a trout from egg to adulthood. In each tough, hundreds of uniform-sized hungry fish swam against a constant flow of spring water. A flick of the wrist, imitating a toss of food, brought the water to a boil. A few football fish swam in their own trough. Some were wounded, with furry white patches on their heads and sides. Most had worn their fins and tails down against the concrete. In trout prison, there didn’t seem much to do but pick on other inmates.
Between May and October, the park staff stocked 1,500 ten-inch trout a day into the stream, with football fish placed into the stream randomly like sweepstakes prizes for lucky entrants.
O’Kelley and I found a relatively angler-free spot in the fly-only section of the water ladder. Trout swam everywhere, like insects swarming. I tied on an Adams on a number 16 hook. O’Kelley chose a Pale Blue Dun. We cast across the stream, landing the flies under trees hanging over the river on the other side. Letting the flies drift, we could see fish watch and sometimes follow them. Once in a while, we had strikes, but no more than if we were fishing for wild trout.
I stepped into the stream after a while. The boots of my hip waders slid over rocks and caught in sand. I let my fly drift and watched brown and rainbow trout school around my legs. They were lazy fish, unimpressed with the great mass of humanity. I could have noodled a trout with my bare hands.
But the day was good and warm, the sky clear except for a few marshmallow clouds. O’Kelley and I worked away from each other in the stream. I hooked a brown of about ten inches. O’Kelley landed a brown later about the same size. Tuning out the people and the cars, the manicured lawns and picnic benches, I found the trout park wasn’t so bad.
After we’d been there about an hour, a woman pulled up in a large, loud pickup with a camper. She had new gear, fashionable vest and waders, flannel shirt and the floppy hat everyone else was wearing. She didn’t acknowledge us as she pulled line from her fly reel and began to roll cast a white fluff. She didn’t looked like she was having a good time.
It wasn’t long before I had a fine, splashy strike under the trees. I lost the fish, but the feeling was electric. I cast back to try again in the same spot, but the woman beat me to it. Every time I had a strike, she would cast into the same spot. I even tried to move downstream. She followed and cast into a spot where I pulled out rainbow. When I was strikeless, she invaded O’Kelley’s space.
Few anglers in the park seemed to have a sense of personal space. They fished like they parked, right next to each other. I didn’t mind when willows or weeds hemmed me in but I really didn’t take anglers crawling over my shoulders. I felt like I was fishing in a shopping mall.
“Say, can you give me a little room to cast?” I asked next time her lure went over my head into the rings left where a trout had just struck my fly. “I’d hate to get you in the ear or the nose.”
“So why don’t you learn to roll cast like everyone else?” she said without looking at me.
She pulled her line slowly from the water and whipped it out so the line rolled like a big wheel and eased her lure out at the end. I looked at the long line of anglers up the stream toward the spring and toward the river. Only occasionally a line would whip out in a long swath behind an angler. Otherwise, everyone was roll casting.
The woman caught bigger fish than O’Kelley and I, and more frequently. She consistently landed twelve-inch trout. She used an expensive net to retrieve the fish and placed them to writhe around on each other in a finely woven creel on her waist. After twenty joyless minutes, she’d caught her limit of six trout and packed the creel and rod in the back door of the camper and sped away.
O’Kelley and I fished for a while longer before we sat down on the packed gravel for a cup of coffee from my thermos bottle.
“What was she about?” I asked, more for the sake of asking than finding out.
“Meat fishing,” O’Kelley said. “It’s about how much she can get out of here. Many people’re like that. Some would complain like hell if they ever let this place go a week without mowing, or if the mosquitoes were worse, or if the campground didn’t have electricity and water hookups.
“She’s probably been down here six times today,” he said. “Each time she catches the limit and goes back to her cabin or one of the private campgrounds and puts them in a fridge or cooler. Then she comes back for more. If she ever gets caught, she can argue that she didn’t catch the fish here but at the nearby fish farm.”
“How do you know?”
“My father and brother used to do it when I was little,” he said. “I’d forgotten about it until that woman came down here.”
Except for the woman, anglers let us be, like they knew we needed the space. Maybe we looked defensive or angry. In any case, they stayed distant. The closest angler to us in the line was fifty feet away. We watched the stream in silence for a long time.
The woman drove back up a while later when O’Kelley and I fished a little farther down toward the Niangua. She readied her fly line and began to come toward us.
“I guess you’re right,” I said after she quickly pulled another 12-inch rainbow from the water and placed it in her creel.
“I remember now,” O’Kelley said. “Bunches of people did just the same thing.
“Private trout ponds around here charge by the pound. The state fines are stiff, but you have to get caught. So if she doesn’t get caught, and she pulls just twelve trout out of the stream, twice the limit, she pays about 35 cents a pound for trout on her $6 permit.”
There wasn’t much currency in that, I thought as I cast. Everyone has something they want for free and will do more work to get it than if they just earned it. Trout was this woman’s freebie. I wanted some peace and time in the woods. But cutting corners wasn’t doing me any good. It was just too much work.