Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Fly-Fishing for Wild Rainbow Trout on Mill Creek, Missouri - August, 2019

It has been a busy weekend, and maybe an even busier summer. On Friday, the family and I celebrated my son, Willie, turning two. We hosted a tremendous Batman-theme birthday party complete with cardboard masks, a Batmobile cake, and Pin the Bat on the Signal, which was a game I last played at my own fifth birthday party a quarter of a century ago. Ooph. On top of Willie turning two, my wife is also expecting our second child, a daughter. The new Baby VossFish will be joining the fun this Thanksgiving, so you can imagine there's plenty to do around the house, with fishing taking its rightful spot on the back-burner. However, that doesn't mean I'm doing zero fishing. Friday night was for birthday cake and chimichangas and more Bud Selects than I probably should have, because Saturday morning was for waking up early, carting Willie off to his grandparents' house, and hightailing it in the Prius out to Rolla, Missouri to do some wild trout fishing.

Mill Creek flows north through the Mark Twain National Forest south of Rolla. From Wilkins Spring to the creek's mouth at the Little Piney River, the entire stretch of the creek within the Bohigian Conservation Area is a Blue Ribbon Trout Area. Obviously, there are no native trout species in the state of Missouri, however, the Rainbow Trout population in Mill Creek is self-sustaining, and naturally reproduce in the spring-fed creek waters that maintain a temperature of approximately 57 degrees year round.

Mill Creek
This was my first time fishing Mill Creek, and to be honest, I did not know what to expect. Though it was only a few miles off the interstate, the amount of reliable information was fairly sparse, as there was no google street view photos of the surrounding area, and looking online, I couldn't even find a reliable place where I'd be able to park. To say this area was backwoods would be an understatement. The closest town is Newburg, Missouri, which boasts a population of just over 200 people, which is about as large as your typical seat section at Busch Stadium. The roads out in the Mark Twain National Forest don't benefit from the privilege of having names. Rather they are simply designated as a Forest Road and given a 4-digit numerical designation. At one point, I missed the spot where I thought I could park, and ended up coming to a section where the double-letter highway I was driving on turned from pavement to gravel. Time to turn around. 

I eventually found a parking lot, though not the one I was aiming for, and not one I saw designated on any of the USDA or google maps I found online. Incidentally, I was just down the road from the spot on the Kaintuck Hollow Trail where Anhueser-Busch was having a Free Busch Beer For Life contest just a week before. I missed it by this much. Shame.

I parked in a small gravel lot marked with a Bohigian Conservation Area sign, and found myself surrounded on three sides by a very tall, but very beautiful field of wildflowers. (The spot was a bit difficult to find, but I marked it on my fishing and hiking map if you're interested in checking it out.) There was not a path to be seen, but I had a general idea of which direction the creek was supposed to be. Earlier in the week I had texted a few guys from Ozark Fly Fishers for advice on fishing Mill Creek, as I didn't really know what to expect. I was told that the water level would be low and the grass would be high, and I'd be smart to put on my waders in the parking lot rather than carry them to the creek bed, as the chiggers and ticks would be out in force.

Somewhere on the other side of this field was my car.
It was good advice. The quarter miles trek through the head-high wildflower field was a real pain. After twenty or so yards, I couldn't see my car anymore. I followed my general sense of direction east-ish to where I figured I'd find Mill Creek, and tried to spot landmarks along the way for my journey back later. I left myself such helpful reminder as, "Head for that middle-ish clump of trees about halfway through the field." Not to spoil the ending of the story, but these vague reminders were sufficient for me to find my car at the end of the day and I survived to make the drive back to the city.

Both pieces of advice about Mill Creek ended up being true. The grass, obviously, was very high, and the water was fairly low. I checked the USDA water guage for Little Piney Creek, and it didn't seem drastically low, but perhaps I saw Mill Creek at its regular depth. The water, aside from the deeper holes where I fished, rarely got up to knee-level height. The banks were very overgrown, so there wasn't much of a shore to walk on in many spots. This meant having to trek through the calf-high water for most of the day. This had the double-disadvantage of making my entire legs feel like they were on fire by the end of the day, but also not really cooling me off as you would expect standing in 57 degree water all day.

I decided to head upstream first towards Wilkins Spring, where the good trout water was supposed to begin. I left my blue fly rod case sticking straight up on the bank, marking the spot in the woods where I had entered. With my Prius being the only car in the parking lot, and the seemingly impenetrable forest surrounding the creek, I figured there wouldn't be anyone around to steal it.

The few holes I found weren't much deeper than five or six feet and often at the end of a twisted mess of roots of a fallen tree. There were several trees that seemed to have recently fallen across the river, many still having green leaves sprouting from their branches. Crossing these was not incredibly difficult, but I did seem to lose a larger number of flies to underwater snags than I usually do.

I was told to try throwing something furry, in an olive or brighter green color, when fishing Mill Creek. The few mohair leech patterns I had in my fly box seemed way too big for the small stream, so I settled on a smaller Size 12 John Deere Jig. Originally, I tried fishing a dry fly, but the small gravel creek bed and shallow waters made spotting the dry fly very difficult. Plus, it wasn't exactly Montauk or Bennett, where you can see about a dozen bored looking trout hanging out six inches below the surface. There wasn't a fish to be seen to cast a fly to, so I'd actually have to do some real trout water reading and cast to the spots where I figured the trout should be.

As I mentioned, it wasn't long before I snipped off the dry fly and switched to my John Deere jig. Back-casting was very tight with the overhang, so to be honest, it was one of my sloppier days of casting. I don't know if my leader and tippet were too long, or if I was just overthinking it, but I feel like I was tangled up every dozen casts or so. It was ridiculous and infuriating. I tied on somewhere around four new sets of tippet throughout the entire short day and lost about a half dozen flies. There's nothing like necessity to overcome laziness when it comes to not feeling like getting the vice out and tying some flies.

At the second or third hole I found I did end up catching a wild Rainbow trout, and it was about as big as my thumb. I read fishing reports from years' past of anglers catching 8-10 inch Rainbows along with the occasional lunker on Mill Creek. It's very possible I just didn't cover the water where those fish were hanging out. I caught another Rainbow Trout at the next hole, this one slightly larger, about the size of my index finger. Even though they were small, it was still a rush to catch a wild trout in Missouri. These weren't the farm-raised, fish-food-fed stockies of the trout parks. Rather it was a trout born in this creek, whose parents were born in this creek, and so on and so forth from when they were originally stocked decades ago. There's something magic and authentic about that - or rather as magical and authentic as a trout in Missouri can be.

I made my was back to my starting point and fished downstream for a while, but with no luck. The day was getting long and I had already eaten the banana and sleeve of graham crackers I had packed with me. In a true brilliant move, I did not pack any water, and by the time I did make it back to the Prius, the thirst was serious.

Bald Eagle's Feather
Mill Creek proved to be an incredible beautiful, untouched piece of land and water. Throughout the creek, small springs were bubbling up water producing that wonderful sound that can maybe be mimicked, but never perfected. The creek was littered with life, as I spooked a Bald Eagle when I first splashed in the water and watched as it flew away. I found a few of its massive feathers as I waded upstream. An Osprey perched on the tip of a dead tree and filled the afternoon with its repetitive call. Small blue-tailed lizards scattered as I walked across rock beds. And most importantly, a couple of baby Rainbow Trout were able to make my acquaintance. It was a great way to spend a day, and I cannot wait to go back and not get lost this time, but I might wait until the water level is a little higher.


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