Thursday, July 28, 2016

Wet Wading at Westover Farms

Back in June, Emily's side of the family organized a camping/cabin trip for all of the cousins at Bass River Resort near Steelville, Missouri. It was a packed weekend of lounging in the river, grilling all meals over a fire, drinking cheap domestic beers, and wrangling a bunch of children. Between my and Emily's siblings, we have 13 nieces and nephews as a couple, ranging from 8 months old to 8 years old. The oldest, Johnny, and I get along great, not in small part due to the fact, as Emily likes to point out, that we are on similar maturity levels. The great thing about Johnny though is that the kid is obsessed with fishing. I am not throwing out the term "obsessed" lightly either. I've fished with him and his dad, Steve, before, and he doesn't whine, complain, or say he's bored. He bates his own hooks and reels in his own fish, and he's been bugging me for years now to take him trout fishing.

Our Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-San relationship started out small. I would bring my fly rod along to a trip to Emily's parents and we would practice false casting in the field across the street. He handled the 8.5 foot pole as well as a person who was less than half that tall could be expected to. He was desperate though to get out on the stream and try the real thing.

Johnny Casting

Luckily for us, Bass River Resort was only a 20-minute drive from Westover Farms, a private catch-and-release trout club and fish farm outside of Steelville. I've known about the club for a while, but had never made my way out there, mostly because of their pricey admission fee. I looked at their website ahead of time, planning to sneak off for a day of fishing anyway, and discovered that kids under 12 fish for free. The stars seemed to align pretty well, and I checked with Johnny's parents if he'd want to tag along. It's difficult to describe the pure enthusiasm of an eight-year-old future trout bum once you tell him you'll take him fly-fishing. His mom, Krista, says he set out all of his clothing and gear the night before, ready to hit the stream hard.

The plan was for Johnny's parents to drop him off at Westover Farms on their way to Bass River at about 10:00. We would fish for half a day and head back to the resort, hopefully to regale his cousins with tales of his triumphs over the elusive rainbow trout. A half-day of fishing at Westover Farms will set you back $37.00, and I have to say, the price is well worth it. First of all, the grounds there are absolutely gorgeous. I parked in front of their fly shop near a cross looking rooster whom I didn't what to mess with. The streams crisscrossed around the fly shop and were clearly full of large, colorful fish. I crossed a wooden footbridge and went inside the rustic building to pay my dues. The staff were some of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I've met. I was given a dime tour of the grounds, shown some spots where we might get into some trout, and was even given some fly suggestions. Johnny's family arrived, and while he and I geared up, his parents and younger siblings were also shown around and got to feed the fish. I was incredibly impressed how far out of their way the staff went to make sure we felt welcome and that we would have a good time.

While this wasn't the first time I've tried teaching someone to fly-fish on the stream (recall the time I got my friend Jeff to catch his first trout), it was the first time attempting to teach a child. That day, Johnny reaffirmed my opinion that he's a fishing prodigy. He took instruction well and showed a lot of patience. We had a two rod system where he and I would both fish, and if/when he got tangled up, we would trade so he could keep fishing while I tied on a new tippet or leader. Before the trip, I tied up a selection of flies for Johnny for the day, and hopefully got him somewhat interested in fly-tying as well as fly-fishing. He seemed pretty pumped about having a fly box of his own, so here's hoping.

We made our way upstream initially, casting nymphs into the slow stream and watched as a good number of trout rejected our flies. Eventually, the growth around the stream became impassible, so we headed back towards the fly shop. Closer to the shop, there was a series of cascading pools leading to a shallower, wide stream bed. We played around in the pools for a while, dipping in our nymphs and even getting a couple of strikes.

Rainbow Trout - Westover Farms

The most noticeable difference I found between the fishing at Westover Farms and the state parks in Missouri is that being a catch-and-release only stream, most of these fish at Westover have been hooked before in the past, and they know how to put up a fight. Rather than just be dragged out of the water once their head breach the surface, they knew to dart perpendicular to where I was standing. I have never lost more fish after setting a strike than in that single day. But what fun it was. Fights would last minutes, with the trout consistently changing direction and tangling the line in underwater grass, fighting me the entire time and making it difficult to get the rod under control.

Behind the fly shop, the stream was much wider and deeper, and there was a school of trout hanging out about 20 feet from the bank - a perfect distance for an eight-year-old to roll cast to. It wasn't long before Johnny and I had both landed a couple of good sized rainbows. Johnny was incredibly excited to catch his first trout on a fly, but that excitement was dwarfed by my own feeling of pride of what he accomplished. I could not be prouder that I actually managed to teach him successfully to land a trout on a fly rod. I was a very proud uncle, so much so that I think I embarrassed him a bit. Oh well. It didn't matter. The boy had succeeded where many (especially me) have failed so often in the past.

Netted Trout Johnnys Trout

Where we were fishing, there was a pretty steep bank, and Johnny was only in rain-boots. Every time we got a fish on the line, I had to jump down and wade into the water to net the trout. Even with the cold spring fed water temperature, I was more than happy to get into the water. Not only was it pretty hot that mid-June day, but I wanted to try out the new wading socks Emily got me for Christmas. I'm happy to report they worked very well. With the sun beating down on us, it was nice to feel the water on my pale legs. I was wearing just normal, cotton shorts so I didn't want to get too soaked, but more than once I had to go a bit deeper in order to revive the trout we caught. With the steep bank and an inexperienced angler reeling them in, they were out of the water for a decent length of time, especially with all of the pictures we took. I'm happy to say though that after a bit of waving them through the stream to get the water flowing over their gills, each trout did spruce back up and swim on to fight another day.

We had a quick and easy shore lunch and fished for a little while longer. Eventually, we wrapped up fishing and tore down all of our gear. After a quick self-guided tour around the parts of the farm we didn't cover that day, we headed to the resort to tell our fishing tales and show off all of the pictures of the trout we caught that day. My hope is that Johnny had a good time, and I will have a fishing buddy for life. He has four more years of free admission at Westover Farms, so I'm looking to take advantage of that for as long as possible.

Pizza Sandwich
A Pizza-Sandwich. Johnny's own invention.
My final review of Westover Farms is that even with the steep price tag, the friendly staff, beautiful grounds, and cunning fish make the trip well worth it. Even on a sunny, summer Saturday, Johnny and I had plenty of space to fish. Though it's probably not feasible to fish there often, it's a good spot to have in my back pocket for special occasions. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a solid day of fishing in Missouri.

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