An Annual Fishing Trip at a Missouri State Park Sets the Stage for Rituals on the River
My friend Dean plopped a steak onto my plate. I moved to the buffet prepared by Steve and shoveled on mashed potatoes, asparagus, and trout that had been caught by the assembled 10 men over the previous two days. I found a seat at a picnic table away from the campfire and tucked into the feast, which also included a biscuit soaked in honey from Nate's hives.
This was the Saturday night dinner at our annual fishing trip to Montauk State Park in south-central Missouri, the can't-miss event on a weekend that I sometimes think should be called an eating trip during which we fish, if we get around to it, in the scant minutes between meals. The Saturday ritual has grown and morphed over the years—this year for the first time Steve used Sterno to keep the food in serving trays warm—but it has never been skipped.
Nor will it be. Indeed, rituals like that make trips special. You tell and retell the same stories even though you've heard them a thousand times, and you keep up the rituals in hopes of creating another story worth telling. Rituals serve as a rite of passage for newbies and provide continuity for veterans—engagement which is not to be overlooked considering our lack of it in the last three pandemic years.
Each member of our fishing crew has his own rituals. Steve and Dean cook the Saturday feast. Nate of the honey disappears for midday naps. Another Nate uses every camping gadget you can think of, and more you can't. His twin Aaron fits a full kitchen into a trailer the size of a duffel bag.
My ritual is, unfortunately, not catching many fish. It's watching people not fish.
On my first Montauk trip, I took a walk by the Current River and noticed people standing hip deep in it, not fishing, because it was not yet the official start time of 7 a.m. That scene struck me as delightfully odd and also telling about the passion of the thousands of Montauk faithful who flock there in pursuit of the rainbow trout stocked into the river every day.
The first time I observed this practice, a person caught a trout before the siren that signals the opening of the day's fishing was done ringing. I liked the ritual because it gave me an excuse to make a cup of coffee and walk from my tent to the park lodge to buy my required pass for the day ($4, cash only). But eventually I grew bored of watching people not fish and decided to join them.
With help from howling coyotes, I rose before the sun and drove to the headwaters of the Current River. Five deer scampered across the gravel road. Minutes later I inched into the gently flowing river running clear against and around my legs. My waders protected my lower body from the cold water, and a hat, multiple layers and gloves protected the rest of me from the frigid wind.
As I stood there not fishing, I immediately understood the allure of being in the river with nothing to do, which is to say I understood the allure of having nothing to do and this happened to be a beautiful place for it. Leafless branches blown by the wind scratched the sky. Mist rose off the river and disappeared faster than Saturday's dinner. The gurgling river tickled my ears like a radio set to permanent static.
The siren halted my reverie and created another one. I completed two casts before it was done. Both came back fishless, but who cares? A new ritual was born.
The Best Time to Go
To avoid weekend crowds, opt for weekdays in the spring and fall.
What to Pack
A few essentials to ensure your weekend plans remain comfortable and on track.
Your cell phone, and therefore your GPS, will go in and out of coverage multiple times on the hilly, twisty, turn-filled route. Print out directions in advance (or take screenshots of the route on your phone) to cover your bases.
Every day, you need to buy a $4 trout pass—cash only—to fish in Montauk State Park.
Imagine a marble, only instead of a smooth, glassy surface, it's fluffy and trout think it's food. Known as glo balls, glow balls and glow beads, these lures are available in a rainbow of colors at the lodge. On our most recent trip, the rainbow trout liked pink, which is fitting; the fish with the pink stripe eats pink things. Last year, green was all the rage. The lodge also sells a brown lure called "the Montauk special," which has a reputation as a fish magnet. Bottom line? It's a guess as to what, if anything, the fish will nibble on any given day. (But if you knew what they were going to bite, it wouldn't be as much fun.)
If you sleep in a tent versus a cabin or RV, or if you're a light sleeper, you'll need earplugs to muffle the noise at night—whether it's campers staying up late, coyotes howling or the person two sites down who arrives in a diesel-powered pickup truck at 2 a.m. and spends (seemingly) hours backing it in.
Layers of Clothing
Early one April morning the temperature dipped into the 20s, and at 7 a.m, water froze in one of my pole's eyelets. Later that day the temperature reached the 70s, a swing of roughly 50 degrees. "We've had all four seasons today," Steve cracked.
To combat drastic temperature fluctuations, especially in spring and fall, dress in light layers of clothing that breathe well and dry quickly.