Trout Fishing in Cassville, Missouri

Featured Article, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal
on February 19, 2006

Students in Cassville, Mo., don’t need to play hooky to go fishing on the opening day of trout season. School is officially closed every March 1 so residents can grab a fishing pole and reel in a lively rainbow trout from nearby Roaring River.

Opening day has been declared a school holiday in the Ozarks town of 2,890 for as long as anyone can remember.

“It’s a big event,” says Cassville School District Superintendent Jim Orrell, flanked on the river by his three children: Tim, 16, Emily, 13 and Kimberly, 10. Orrell doesn’t know of any other school district that honors the trout opener as a holiday, but he points out that lessons can be learned on the river.

“Fishing certainly teaches patience,” Orrell says. “And it’s a good opportunity to get out and enjoy nature.”

Cassville Police Chief Lonnie McCullough also supports the town’s official fishing holiday and believes in the merits of the sport. “Fishing gives kids something to do and channels their energy,” says McCullough, who teaches kids how to fish in the Hooked on Fishing Club at Cassville Middle School.

Neighbors Thomas Ashwell, 15, and Jeremy Thomas, 12, have fished together on opening day for three years. “It’s fun. Half our friends are here,” Ashwell says.

Cassville has a historical link with the crystal clear spring-fed waters of Roaring River. Settlers built their first gristmill along the water in 1836, and the first trout hatchery was built there in 1910. In 1928, about 3,400 acres of limestone bluffs and valleys became Roaring River State Park, which today draws more than 800,000 visitors annually.

Yet March 1 means more than just the beginning of the eight-month trout season in Cassville. It’s a time for 4,000 anglers—gathered shoulder-to-shoulder on the riverbank—to visit with friends and neighbors.

Elmer Hancock, 82, has reeled in trout every opening day at Roaring River since moving to nearby Purdy, Mo. (pop. 1,103), in 1957. “The crowds were half as big then,” he recalls. “The roads weren’t paved and people didn’t have cars to go and no way to get around.”

Weather on opening day has held constant through the years—unpredictable. Hancock shrugged off last year’s 20-degree temperatures, recalling previous years when he’s stood knee-deep in snow to fish.

“Nothing stops us,” he says, standing alongside his son, Floyd, 55, and grandson Mikel, 28. “Those fish don’t know what the weather is up here.”

Long before sunrise, members of the Cassville Chamber of Commerce serve hot coffee to fishermen who visit in the dark with their empty stringers. The chamber also sponsors a fishing contest and provides trophies for prize catches.

Some fishermen spend the night along the stream bank to secure a good spot. “Some of these people have been standing on the same rock for 30 years and they’re not giving it up,” says Park Superintendent Kevin Bolling. “They get here early.”

Last year, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan fired a pistol to signal the official 6:30 a.m. start of trout season, which sent fishing lines up and down the river whipping in the air.

“Reeling them in is the best part,” says Emily Orrell, who caught a trout on her second cast.

The biggest challenge on opening day, says her brother Tim, is “not casting in other lines.” Neighborliness is another lesson learned.

Wendy Lueckenhoff relaxes in a folding chair, while keeping a close eye on her young fishermen—Jordan, 12, Jessica, 11, and Bradley, 8. “Fishing gets kids away from TV and video games,” she says. “It brings them back to a simple life here.”

At 11:58 a.m., two minutes before the weigh-in deadline for the morning’s biggest fish, Chad Epperson races to the scales with his winning 9.45-pound trout. “I was fishing by the dam and he came out of nowhere,” says Epperson, 32.

In the children’s contest, Keifer Schmueser, 4, clutches his 3.2-pound prize-winning trout along with a trophy nearly as tall as he is.

“He sure beat me,” says proud father Keith Schmueser. “It was worth it.”

Humility. Just one more lesson learned on opening day of trout season in Cassville.

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