By Bill Cooper
Toss your favorite fly at a map of southern Missouri and you will most likely strike a cold, clearwater, spring-fed Ozark stream. The rough, rugged region known as the Ozark highlands is laced with a myriad of streams which serve as homes to brilliantly colored rainbow trout.
Mill Creek, in Phelps County, just south of the I-44 corridor, is one of six diminutive spring fed creeks in the region labeled as Wild Trout Streams, and one of nine streams in the Blue Ribbon category as designated by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Blue Ribbon Area streams include Missouri’s best and most productive trout streams, all of which support wild rainbow trout populations. A few of the larger streams support big brown trout as well.
Mill Creek, like the others, has the potential to grow large fish. The highly restrictive one-fish, 18-inch length limit helps maintain the possibility of catching a large trout. Too, the mandatory use of artificial flies and lures only reduces catch-and-release mortality. The result is some great catch-and-release fishing that any fly fisherman will enjoy.
The storied history of Mill Creek trout is extraordinarily fascinating to trout fishing buffs. There were no trout in Missouri prior to 1880. That year, 140 years ago, the Missouri Fish Commission first stocked rainbow trout fry in a handful of spring branches along the railroad line between St. Louis, Springfield, and Joplin. Railroad crews are said to have carried the fry overland in milk cans, stopping at stream crossings just long enough to dump the tiny fish into the streams.
Many thousands of trout anglers have enjoyed fishing the waters of Mill Creek for over a century. Most of the streams length remained in private ownership until recent decades, when the U.S. Forest Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation acquired much of the length of Mill Creek, including the most recent purchase to form the Bohigian Conservation Area.
The eight-mile flow of Mill creek carries with it a fascinating geologic and cultural history, which contributes to the enjoyment of a day of fishing this meandering creek. Mill Creek is ancient, running through some of the oldest mountains and foothills in the world. Remnants of rippled sandstone, indicative of inland seas, can be found 150 feet up the ridge from the stream bed. Millenniums of seeping groundwater created a Karst topography, riddled with caves and springs. Stone tools from Archaic people of 10,000 years ago have been found in the area, as well as stone points from the more recent Woodland tribes.
Trappers, including Daniel Boone, and prospectors entered the region in the late 1700s. The area was still Indian Territory when Lewis and Clark passed nearby in 1805. The first white settlers, from the Appalachians, were building log cabins in the 1820s near what is now Newburg. Some of the early family names may still be seen on mailboxes along rural roads, including Yeltons and Hudgens.
Evidence of man’s hand can still be seen along Mill Creek, although it diminishes with each passing year. An old rock foundation, rusted barbed wire fences and the telltale growth of jonquils, honeysuckle and flowering almond around ancient homestead sites still remain. They offer present day anglers a pleasant place to pause and reflect on the past.
The quality of trout fishing at Mill Creek is directly linked to rainfall. Don Forester spent his childhood along Mill Creek and remembers when the creek ran flush most of the year. “As a kid, I fished Mill Creek from one end to the other. It had lots or water and the fishing was really good at times.”
Forester created quite a stir in the valley once when he pulled a trout from Mill Creek pushing 12 pounds. Such fish are unheard of today. However, rumors flowed a few years back about a guest of Outcast Inn, a quaint lodge along Mill creek, catching a nine-pound rainbow.
Droughts over the years have reduced Mill Creek’s flow dramatically. Trout populations rise and fall with the water level. In recent years, water flow has returned somewhat. Anglers can reasonably expect to catch a lot of four to seven-inch fish. Each is a delight, beautifully colored McCloud strain rainbows, or a strain thereof.
Mill Creek is a twisting, winding little creek offering every imaginable challenge to the fly fisherman. Numerous gravel bars allow ample casting room, while tight turns and bank side runs make short roll casts mandatory.
Short rods, six and one-half to eight feet, offer specific advantages for fishing Mill Creek. These lengths allow an angler to cover all the available water with relative success.
The Blue Ribbon Trout Area from Yelton Spring to Wilkins Spring has problems during the heat of summer months. Some years the water flow remains acceptable, allowing for decent fishing. During periods of low flow, the best area of Mill Creek is usually below Wilkins Springs. Wilkins and Yelton Springs dump an estimated three million gallons of water daily into Mill Creek.
Dry fly enthusiasts may readily catch dozens of smaller rainbows with their favorite patterns. Generally speaking, to catch the larger rainbows found in Mill Creek, you will have to fish deeper, which increases the difficulty of working a fly.
Favorite flies for Mill Creek include a Mohair Leech, size 10 in olive color, Crackleback size 16 in sulphur or PMD, elk hair Caddis, size 18, natural, Tungsten BH WoolyBugger, size 8 in black, olive, or brown, and the Tungsten Flashback BH Hare’s Ear Nymph, size 16 in natural color. My personal favorite is a number 14 BH pheasant-tailed nymph.
Mill Creek may be reached by taking Highway P south of Newburg. Watch for the Outcast Inn sign five miles out of town.
Deceased Missouri trout biologist Spencer Turner, a personal friend, was largely responsible for the quality of Missouri trout fishing. The Conservation Federation of Missouri released a film in his honor a few years back, “A Life Well Cast.” Every trout angler owes it to himself to see this video.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award-winning outdoor writer and member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and lives in rural St. James. He is host of “Outside Again Adventures TV-Online” and “Wild at Heart” on ESPN 107.3FM in Rolla. You can follow Cooper at www.facebook.com/OutsideAlways, www.aoutdoorstv.com and www.espn1073.com.