Better Fishing at Lake Taneycomo

"The best rainbow trout fishing in America." That's how writers for major fishing magazines described Lake Taneycomo in the early 70s.They were right. Three- to five-pound trout were common. Anglers regularly harvested stringers of five trout weighing 20 pounds or more. Rainbows grew faster on the lake's rich diet of "freshwater shrimp" than they could in a hatchery, and trout fishing attracted millions of anglers to Branson.

But Taneycomo is no longer the Midwest's premier trout-fishing spot. As Branson's fame grew, rainbow trout fishing declined. No one was quite sure why. Anglers and fisheries biologists alike began to wonder if the spreading urbanization around Branson was behind the decline.

Certainly the numbers of freshwater shrimp had declined. Some blamed the decline on the increased number of trout stocked. Others believed the growing population of white suckers was to blame. And there were many other theories. However, one thing was certain: the big rainbows of the '70s were gone.

To determine what was really happening at Lake Taneycomo, the Conservation Department began a study in 1993. As project biologist, I reviewed previous studies and records on the fishery since the first trout were stocked in 1958. Several important facts became obvious.

First, the number of rainbow trout stocked annually had increased dramatically from only about 250,000 trout in 1960 to a high of 1.6 million in 1984! Also, 10,000 to 60,000 brown trout were stocked annually since 1980. Early studies showed that rainbow trout grew rapidly from about a half-inch to almost three-quarters of an inch monthly, depending on size.

Historically, harvest of trout was high, but enough trout escaped anglers long enough to grow large. Recent studies suggest that in winter, when trout densities increase from lower fishing pressure, rainbow trout eat less than needed to maintain their body weight.

To learn about what was going on and how to make it better, the Conservation Department marked rainbow trout with tags. The tagged trout were stocked from April 1993 to January 1995. Rewards were offered for each tag returned. The tagging study really opened our eyes.

Tag return was good - 54 percent. Most rainbows lived for 30 days or less before anglers caught them. In the summer, this decreased to only about 20 days. Anglers obviously were catching most trout quickly after stocking, and the fish had little chance to grow. However, those few that did avoid anglers, grew almost a half-inch per month, the same rate