Steelhead in Missouri

By Bob Randall on Sunday, January 12th, 2020 in Fishing reports, Nature, No Comments

Kim Schultz recommended a program topic of “Best Steelhead Waters in Missouri”. I thought he was kidding or maybe testing me to see if I really read the program topic suggestions on the membership applications. I emailed him a message that was something like, “What are ya, nuts?” and “The closest place for steelhead to here is Michigan City, Indiana. The only place that you can find steelhead in Missouri, to my knowledge, is in the seafood display case at Sam’s”. The back and forth conversation included the following from Kim: “Actually, they planted steelhead in Taneycomo the first years after Table Rock dam was finished. I heard stories but never saw one…. according to Paul Henry” and “The steelhead did not last long but Paul did mention you knew when one was on with excellent fighting and jumping.” I found a post on Ozark Anglers of another fisher talking about catching a steelhead many years back in Taneycomo. Doing a little more research I found from a report from MDC about the White River Watershed officially verifying the stocking, “Steelhead trout (migratory strains of rainbow trout) were stocked from 1971 to 1974, but stockings were discontinued because of the possibility of disease introductions (Kruse 1996).” Other interesting facts gleaned from this report are as follows: “The first documented release of non-native fishes into the [White River] watershed was during 1903-04, when brook trout and grayling were released into the White River.”, “Brown trout were first introduced to Lake Taneycomo in 1980.”, and “Kokanee salmon were stocked in Lake Taneycomo from 1963 to 1968. Survival and catch rates of kokanee were low, and the stocking was discontinued.”

A steelhead is genetically a rainbow trout that behaves differently than other rainbow populations by moving downstream relatively soon after birth (hatching) and spending its adult life in a large body of water where there is a plentiful food source. They grow really big and when it comes time to spawn, they move back up to the stream of their origin. Frequently, they lose their “rainbow” color due to a change in physiology associated with processing saltwater, thus the description implying a steely color. You can find arguments in fishing blogs over whether a great lakes steelhead is truly anadromous since they live in fresh water.

Where in Missouri could steelhead exist other than Lake Taneycomo? … Bennett Spring? Roaring River? One of the other big springs? The Current River? I doubt it. In order for our rainbow steelhead wannabe to migrate downstream to a large body of water, it would have to have a long, long stretch of cold water leading into a cold-water lake. Hey, this is Missouri. One wild and crazy rainbow that gets an itch to move away from its birth-stream, does not a steelhead make. So, imagine a “wild-hatched” rainbow trout from the Bennett Spring creek that moved downstream into the Niangua River. Let’s also imagine a large proportion of the Bennett Spring creek trout with the same instinctive mindset. As they swim downstream from the spring, the water warms enough that the population would be entirely unsustainable, especially in Lake Niangua, about 30 miles downstream from the spring. Play this mind game with any other Missouri river with a trout population and I think you’ll find the trout near a spring. If anyone else has some ideas, knowledge, or stories about steelheads, let us know. Thanks for the tip and the thought process, Kim.

My steelhead story is summed up as follows: “As I took out the slack in preparation for another roll cast, a fair size steelhead mouthed my black wooly bugger. He took off, jumped out of the water, gave me the evil eye, and spat out my fly. That lasted about half a second, but it was a thrill.” You can read the whole story here.

Bob Randall

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