Outside magazine, April 1992
Wade into the cool, steady current of south-central Missouri's Bennett Spring on the first weekend in March and you'll feel like you peeked into the wrong circus tent. All around you, 3,000 hooting anglers splash to their lucky fishing holes while an honest-to-God air-raid siren rattles the valley. Just another opening day of the Ozarks' own full-service trout-fishing extravaganza.
Bennett Spring State Park may have taken user-friendliness too far--streamside parking, a fishermen's buffet in the dining lodge, and parking-lots-turned-campgrounds--but the stream itself is beautiful and offers dang good fishing. Wadable and always right around 52 degrees, Bennett Spring is stocked nightly with herds of farm-fed rainbows. At its source, a hundred million gallons of water a day--the runoff of some 180 square miles of Ozark terrain--surges up through a network of underground caves into a clear, blue pool the size of a farm pond, then rolls 1.5 miles through the woods to its confluence with the Niangua River.
Late mornings in April and May, after the "whistle fishers" head home with their legal limits, the prime bends are yours. Wade in beneath the towering trees and dogwood blooms at Sycamore Hole, Dam Hole, or Wheelchair Point, or skirt the 40-foot-deep spring itself, where divers have spotted trout the size of basset hounds. If you avoid the opening-day spectacle and the morning rush, there's nothing hokey about Bennett Spring fishing. "The fish that survive that mayhem are smart," says angler Gene Mildfelt, who regularly makes the four-hour drive from his Kansas home. "If you can catch fish at Bennett Spring, you can catch fish anywhere in the world."
Getting there. The park is 180 miles southwest of St. Louis and 50 miles northeast of Springfield off Interstate 44 (old Route 66). From Lebanon, drive west 12 miles on Route 64.
Outfitters and accommodations. The park store (417-532-4338) can fix you up with bait, tackle, a Missouri fishing license ($8 for three days), and a park trout tag ($2 per day). The park also rents out 60 cabins ($48-$75 per night) and 200 campsites ($5 per night) scattered throughout its 3,100 acres. Call 800-334-6946 for reservations. And don't miss the barbecue at H & J's, on Route 64 east of Lebanon--it's messy and good.