The conservation agents’ camouflage Tuesday was flawless.
Unknown to most of the anglers at Maramec Spring Park, six undercover agents were keeping an eye on the proceedings on the opening day of trout season in Missouri.
They were there at the 6:30 a.m. opening siren, wearing the multi-pocket fishing vests, hip waders and daily trout tag like almost everyone else in attendance. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the 56-degree water, but their focus wasn’t on catching one of the 4,300 rainbow and brown trout released five days earlier.
“They’re looking for people who are over their limit,” said Paul Spurgeon, hatchery manager at Maramec Spring. “Some people come in for the morning and catch their limit, then come back in the afternoon and take another limit out. We’re looking for the same tag numbers, things like that.”
The Department of Conservation lowered the creel limit this year, allowing anglers to keep four trout instead of five, so the agents in the park were kept busy.
Even with the crack-of-dawn start, Spurgeon said there have been problems with intoxicated anglers in the past.
“It is opening day, and that’s like a party atmosphere for some folks,” Spurgeon said.
The brisk temperatures, which hovered in the low 20s through the morning, played a part in keeping disturbances to a minimum Tuesday. It also kept the attendance a bit lower than expected.
By 2 p.m., 1,054 daily tags had been sold at Maramec Spring.
“Last year it was on a Monday,” Spurgeon said. “It was 68 degrees for a high that day, and we had 1,455. So with the weather a little bit cooler, we expected probably about where we’re at even though that might be a bit low. With the wind, that definitely kept people away.”
Spurgeon said 50 lunkers (trout weighing more than 3 pounds) were released, in addition to 2,000 trout weighing 1 pound and 2,200 weighing 1 1/2 pounds.
The wind and temperatures didn’t keep Rusty Messex away, but he did miss out on taking home one of the prizes offered by The James Foundation, which owns and operates the park.
Less than 30 minutes after the largest-fish-of-the-day prize was given to a trout weighing slightly less than three pounds, Messex brought his lunker rainbow to the weigh-in. It tipped the scales at four-and-a-half pounds, but he was too late to claim the prize.
“My two daughters and I tied some jigs last night,” Messex said. “I usually tie them, but they like to help with things. I only tied four last night, but I used one of them and that’s what I caught it on.”
Opening day at Maramec Spring has been a ritual for 22 years for Messex, who lives in Sullivan.
“We started as rookies,” he said. “We didn’t really know how to fish, and we’d really get upset when the guys would come in and catch the big ones. Of course, now I see myself in that role. I catch the big ones, and it’s more enjoyable now.
“It started out when we were kids, as something to do. Now I see one guy once a year, and that’s why I go. To take off work to get out here in the cold is no fun, I tell you. I lose money.”