MONTAUK — The trout were a little confused.
Wendy McElfresh opened the drains of her truck’s fish tank, releasing the remaining one hundred or so trout she was carrying into the clear, cold water of the Roubidoux.
The problem for the fish, though, was the drain created a current of water flowing out the back of the truck. So, instead of reaching freedom for the first time, some of the fish decided to swim upstream in the truck bed.
The energy spent fighting the current must have seemed worthless to the fish once they slipped into the river. Luckily, they had some time to recharge before they would be fighting things more dangerous than currents: people.
Missouri’s trout fishing season opens Tuesday, and this trip to the Roubidoux was part of the routine the Montauk Fish Hatchery will be going through every day through the end of the season on Oct. 31.
Located inside Montauk State Park, the hatchery is home to more than 400,000 mostly rainbow trout that will eventually be released into Missouri’s streams and rivers.
Hatchery manager Tom Whelan and McElfresh, a resource assistant, will be responsible for getting most of those fish to where they are supposed to be.
Montauk primarily stocks the Current River, 11 Point River, Stone Mill Spring and the Little Piney River in addition to the Roubidoux. It also provides fish to Maramec Spring Trout Park and other hatcheries as needed.
Those responsibilities, and keeping their own park full of trout, should keep Whelan and McElfresh busy.
Spring-fed streams and rivers like the Roubidoux provide ideal conditions for trout survival, but are not conducive to trout reproduction. This requires the state’s five hatcheries to produce more than 2 million trout each year, most of which are caught and eaten and need to be replaced the next year.
According to Whelan, there are about 50 miles of stream water in southern counties where trout reproduce naturally. Their limited number, though, would not be enough to satisfy Missouri’s 400,000 to 500,000 fishermen who will try their luck this season, and is one reason Whelan and McElfresh have jobs.
Stocking the Roubidoux prior to open season requires an early wake-up call. By 7:30 a.m., the truck is usually loaded and ready to go.
Although the stocking process is not complex, it requires hard work.
Fish used for stocking are kept in 12 pools that resemble a canal system. Each pool is 20 feet wide and 150 feet long, and it is impossible to see the bottom of some because of the concentration of fish.
The pools hold 300,000 fish total, and the dense population leads to about 40-50 dead fish every day. That leaves plenty to round up for stocking.
The fish are gathered into cages the day before, and when employees are ready to stock they simply grab a net, open the cage and load hundreds of fish into tanks one netful at a time.
It takes about 10 minutes to load 500 fish into the tank, which keeps water flowing in its two chambers with a pump system powered by the truck’s engine.
Releasing the fish into the wild is trickier.
McElfresh has to ease the back of the truck up to different holes along the Roubidoux. Stocking different spots ensures the fish are spread out, but it is a task made more difficult by muddy river banks infamous for ensnaring heavy vehicles.
Once McElfresh is in position, the process is the reverse of loading the truck. Trout are gathered in the net and slung out the back of the truck into the stream.
Some react right away and swim as deep as they can go, testing out their new home. Others take their time and wiggle around the murky bank before going full speed.
Fishing in a barrel
It does not take long before hundreds of trout have scattered out of sight and settled in for a season of being hunted.
Trout are not taken from the hatchery until they are about 14-18 months old, and they average about 12 inches in length when they are put in the wild.
Whelan said the hatchery trout are a little easier to catch at first than a wild trout would be, but after being caught and released a few times they become more instinctive.
“It’s not like fishing in a barrel,” Whelan said.
It may not be a barrel, but Whelan and McElfresh will have to restock Montauk State Park every night once the season opens. Whelan said he anticipates stocking 400 to 800 fish every night during the week and 1,500 to 2,000 fish on Friday and Saturday nights.
Trout were first introduced to Missouri in the 1880s, and have been able to grow naturally in the limited streams protected by the state. While rainbow trout make up the majority of the state’s population, brown trout are stocked in special trout management areas and can grow large in the wild.
The state record for brown trout is more than 26 pounds, and the record for a rainbow trout is more than 18 pounds.
Whelan and McElfresh said the more time a trout is in the wild the more color it will have, and McElfresh has heard of people who throw fish back because they think so much color means there is a problem with a fish.
“That’s the best eating fish in the river,” McElfresh said.
Whelan said he expects around 1,800 people to come to Montauk on opening day. The number of fishermen should be less than normal because of a Tuesday start instead of a weekend start.
McElfresh said her tradition of being on the stream on opening day will end this year because she will have to work.
Whelan said he has not made it out to fish on opening day since he started working for the department of conservation, but that it used to be a big event for him to get out and fish as soon as possible.
“As soon as I got old enough to drive I would skip school and come down here and fish on opening day,” Whelan said.