As I walked back to my car and packed away my gear, I reflected on the afternoon's fishing. The little stream, high and murky from spring rains, had produced a dozen wild rainbow trout. Two were 16 inches and one measured 19.
Even the small trout impressed me with their superior strength, stamina and beauty. What made all this so unusual was where I fished. I didn't travel to Montana, New Zealand or any other far away place. It all happened here in Missouri.
Wild Trout in Missouri?
Most anglers don't know that rainbow trout have spawned naturally in our state for well over 100 years. The Missouri Fish Commission first obtained rainbow trout eggs in 1880 from a hatchery on California's McCloud River. Later, the young fish were stocked along the "Frisco" railroad in the Ozarks. Some Missouri wild trout trace their ancestry to those early stockings. Today, you can find wild rainbow trout in about 100 miles of streams in at least 14 south Missouri counties.
Trout require cold water but can tolerate water temperatures in the upper 70s for a few hours a day. Missouri's wild trout are normally restricted to spring branches or the first few miles downstream of a large spring. In the Missouri Ozarks, springs maintain a fairly constant temperature of about 56 to 59 degrees, so trout can survive through the summer. In hot, dry years, as spring flows decrease, populations in some streams decrease to only a few fish living near the coldest water. If the survivors are protected, they can reproduce, and the population can increase when cooler, wetter conditions return.
Wild rainbow trout spawn from the first week of December to mid-March. A female selects a site at the tail of a pool or riffle. She digs a pit or "redd" in the gravel with her tail. The male joins her and, remaining by her side, fertilizes the eggs as she lays them. Then, the female digs another pit immediately upstream, burying the eggs under the clean gravel. The pair may repeat this process several times. Unlike many other fish, neither the male or female trout guards the nest and developing eggs.
Eggs hatch in about 23-days, if not destroyed by a winter flood or eaten by burrowing insects or sculpins. They hatch with their own 20 day food supply, in the form of a yolk sac. After the yolk sac