The first reference I heard about St. James involved trout. I attended the University of Missouri-Columbia at the time, while pursuing a master’s in outdoor education.
By happenstance, I bumped into Dr. Ken Chilman, a forestry professor at Mizzou. I had taken an outdoor recreation course under him in forestry school while in undergraduate school. We hit it off and occasionally visited with one another.
Dr. Chilman quizzed me about my graduate research project. I had not started one. Chilman had the perfect solution.
“How about I take you to St. James, to Maramec Spring Park, one of the four trout parks,” Chilman said. “I’ve got an idea for a research project concerning anglers perceptions of trout fishing as an outdoor recreation pursuit. You and Ford Hughes, the regional manager of the James Foundation, will like one another and you are the perfect fit for the project.”
Dr. Chilman and I arrived at Maramec Spring Park for opening day in 1970. I experienced trout fishing for the first time.
I had been reared in the swamps of southeast Missouri where I enjoyed spectacular fishing for behemoth largemouth bass, slap crappies and bluegills that covered a dinner plate. I seldom encountered another fisherman as I paddled my grandpa Cooper’s homemade cypress plank boat along the bayous and through ancient cypress trees older than our nation.
Shock swept over me as Dr. Chilman explained to me that the hundreds of people lining a ribbon of a creek, called Maramec Spring Branch, were there to catch rainbow trout which had been stocked the night before.
Really? Stocked fish? I had never heard of such a thing.
“That’s how we raise chickens on the farm,” I told Dr. Chilman. “But, the chickens do get a chance to roam free some. Do these rainbow trout live their entire lives in a concrete pen?”
The concept of fish raised in a pen didn’t sit well with me.
I found St. James to be a quaint, beautiful, small town, due in large part to the efforts of the James Foundation.
Once back to school, I began telling my buddies about my experiences in St. James and Maramec spring Park. “Yeah, that’s the trout place.” Many of them knew St. James via trout fishing.
I pondered Dr. Chilman’s proposal that I conduct a research project about factors affecting the quality of the trout fishing recreation experience for anglers at Maramec Spring Park. The idea of quality fishing perplexed me. How could people enjoy fishing under such crowded conditions. Stress levels of trout fishermen appeared to be through the roof.
Dr. Chilman introduced me to Ford Hughes. The meeting went well. Hughes offered me a job in park maintenance for the summer, while I worked on my research project. I jumped at the chance and killed two birds with one stone.
The work experience would cover a class I needed in field work. The money I saved would cover my next semester’s expenses. I neared completion of my college career without borrowing one cent. Work and scholarships paid for my education.
As my research project began, I quickly discovered that almost 70 percent of the people coming to Maramec Spring Park came from the St. Louis area. I began to understand. Few people had the opportunity to enjoy fishing as I had in the wilds of the swamps.
Many of the anglers I interviewed referred to St. James as “the trout town.” Never in my life had I heard references to town and fish in the same sentence. It didn’t make much sense to me. I grew up 15 miles from the nearest town and still went deeper into the swamps to go fishing. The solitude, peace and quiet and the marvels of nature were as important as the fish I pursued.
It troubled me deeply that people had the mindset that fishing merely involved showing up, paying a fee and flinging all manner of baits at fish, which only hours earlier had been contained in concrete raceways.
As I continued my research, I began to understand these strange trout fishermen. When asked what most influenced their enjoyment of trout fishing, the most common responses were: being in the wilderness, being in open spaces, the fresh air, the colors and the freedom.
Wilderness? Really, I thought. It slowly dawned on me that it was all a matter of perception. People who spent most of their lives on concrete and asphalt perceived Maramec Spring Park and trout fishing as an escape from their suburban jungle of fast-paced living with all of the stresses of working and traveling in the city and not having close contact with nature every day.
I began to empathize and try trout fishing for myself. I felt guilty at first. It seemed too easy and angry anglers upset my peaceful bubble. Fish get off, they break lines, and in the trout fishing instance, other anglers cast across your line and tangle you up. Stress created from fishing. It became a whole new dimension for me.
Unbelievably, I became the superintendent of Maramec Spring Park. I met thousands of trout anglers and made some good friends over the six years I worked there. I expended a great deal of time and effort visiting with people and trying to dispense a sense of awe for the beauty of the park, respect for the resource and a willingness to share the bounty with fellow fishermen.
At every chance, I lived the idea among fishermen that attitude was everything and that being positive in an outdoor setting was important.
Patience, I taught, is important while dealing with fish and fishermen. Hundreds of individual sessions, group sessions, special fishing days, clinics, seminars and events have helped me over the decades to better understand trout fishermen.
With over 1,500 fishing articles under my belt, the majority of which have been trout fishing articles, I feel I have a handle on understanding and appreciating trout fishermen.
Too, I am now proud to be called a member of that trout town, St. James.
By Bill Cooper
(Bill Cooper can be reached at 573-263-4918 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Maramec Spring Park is one of four trout parks in Missouri. St. James is inexplicably tied to Maramec Spring. Many refer to it as “the trout town.”