Missouri parks have numbers going back 80 years but determining how many fish to put into the stream each day in season, the hatchery uses five years of daily permit numbers.

In 2018, Bennett Spring State Park, west of Lebanon, attracted 136,000 documented trout anglers between March 1st and October 31st, the regular harvest trout season. Each angler purchases a daily trout tag for $3.00, a modest amount helping to fund one of Missouri’s most popular recreations: fishing.The $3.00 daily permit does not guarantee success. It only guarantees opportunity. 

Taking part in the catch-and-release winter season are additional, uncounted anglers. These anglers are not required to purchase day-use tags. According to numbers from the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), the overall economic impact from these fishermen across the state tops $100 million annually. All these anglers bring tourist dollars from across the continent into our local economies because of Missouri’s four State Trout Parks.

In 2018, Ben Havens, Fish Hatchery Manager at Bennett Spring State Park, documented auto license tags from 49 of the 50 states, including Hawaii and all the Canadian provinces. According to Havens, overall state tourism declined in 2018 by about 2%. However, tourism in Laclede County increased about 2% in the same period. He believes the 136,000 anglers at Bennett Spring Trout Park can be credited with the local increase. 

Missouri parks have numbers going back 80 years but determining how many fish to put into the stream each day in season, the hatchery uses five years of daily permit numbers. Over the last five years, Bennett Spring Trout Park has averaged 136,000 anglers per year. Based on the permissible daily limit, the hatchery needs to stock 2.25 fish per angler each day. In order to allow for natural mortality, they place 2.5 fish per angler. On opening day, the hatcheries place 3 fish per expected angler. A slight overstocking guarantees the best experience for each angler according to Havens.

How Trout Came to Bennett Spring

Beginning with the earliest settlers of the Ozarks, running water powered the agricultural industry of milling. Grist mills ground the grain used to feed the families and the livestock. Springs abound in Missouri and the free energy of flowing creeks spun the water wheels and the grind stones. As families gathered at the mills with wagons full of grain, some waited days for their turn. Thus, the mill locations became social events at harvest time. The location we now know as Bennett Spring was the site of milling operations drawing large numbers of farmers each harvest. 

The cold, running water would power another industry, too. Westward expansion of a young nation, settlers passing through the gateway of St. Louis and ending up in the mountains of the Pacific coast discovered Rainbow Trout in those cold, flowing mountain streams. Enterprising men brought trout back to the streams of the Ozarks and scattered the fingerlings along the railroad routes stretching through southern Missouri with the hope of the new fish breeding and swimming through the waters to populate the entire region. That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, but the fish caught the attention of the locals. The spring branch west of Lebanon turning those grinding stones was stocked with trout providing the farm families with a recreational opportunity, as well as fish for the table, as they camped waiting for their turn at the mills of Bennett Spring.

Managing Missouri’s Trout

The Missouri Department of Conservation operates three fish hatcheries dedicated to rearing and stocking high quality Rainbow and Brown Trout in our waters. A fourth hatchery is operated by a private foundation. These hatcheries benefit from another program unique to Missouri, the state’s constitutionally mandated conservation tax, 1/8 of a cent. This is a dedicated tax funding both the state park system and the rich game and fish harvest traditions. Recognized nation-wide for excellence, Missouri’s parks are always completely free for visitors because of this funding mechanism. Our trout parks and the hatcheries that stock them are made possible by this tax.

Ben Havens grew up in central Illinois and received his degree in Environmental Biology from Eastern Illinois University. As a youth, Havens was familiar with Missouri trout used to stock Illinois waters. After internships in Missouri, Ben found hatcheries to be his true calling and Missouri to be his home. 

According to Havens, trout hatcheries demand intensive effort, compared to warm water species hatcheries that are extensive. A warm water species starts life the same, but at some point, the fingerlings are put into a pond or lake, and they are on their own. 

Trout require long-term care of about 18 months to reach a 10-inch length. The fish gain less than an inch in length per month, and the water quality and habitat must be maintained perfectly for the young fish as they grow and are sorted and separated into different runs. Ultimately the fish will be removed and counted for the nightly stocking based on the number of permits expected to be sold the next day.

The main enemy of trout is stress resulting from overcrowding, disease, handling, or predators. The main job for personnel is managing stress through the entire growth process. 

Future Trends

Havens says the two big trends he sees in Missouri’s trout fisheries’ program are expansion of the Urban Fishing Program stocking trout into lakes for cities and the need to invest in fisheries’ infrastructure. Missouri cities, both large and small, are recognizing how easy it is to have a high-quality trout location for their citizens. The department actually has a 50/50 program. If the city lake can safely handle 2,000 trout, the department will provide 1,000, and the city will pay for the other 1,000. That program is growing rapidly, Havens reports.

As for the second trending need, infrastructure, Havens points to the Bennett Spring facility as an example. Even though the fish hatchery building was completed in 2012, most of the other facilities in the park are older. The runs and many of the buildings date from the 1950s and 1960s. 

In Closing

Missouri stands uniquely alone in the breadth and depth of the State Trout Park program. Trout are not native to Missouri waters. Even though Missouri’s many springs provide moving water, the temperature is a few degrees warmer than most trout waters so a strain had to be found that could adapt to the temperature, and Missouri found it.

A few other states offer abundant trout waters, and some stock waters that flow through a park, but only Missouri has created trout parks with attached hatcheries and daily stocking for the anglers. These hatcheries have the capacity to also stock some waters outside of their specific parks. Even those in Illinois as Havens learned.

Bennett Spring hatchery works with two distinct strains of Rainbow trout. They are differentiated as Spring strain and Fall strain meaning they spawn in different seasons, allowing the hatchery to provide a year-round flow of high-quality trout of proper length and weight for the anglers in the harvest season. 

From the hundreds of thousands of anglers drawn from far and wide, to the nationwide message about Missouri citizen’s commitment to our natural resources, Missouri Trout Parks, and Bennett Spring locally, are both a magnet and megaphone benefiting the people of Missouri.