Branson, Missouri is a bit of a field trip for me. Driving three hours into the Ozarks to trout fish really requires an extended stay of at least a couple days to make it worthwhile. So, when the email arrived inviting me to this year’s 3-day media camp hosted by the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM) at Lake Taneycomo, excuses vanished, and my RSVP was immediate. Media camp is a grateful thanks by CFM to some of the outdoor writers who regularly contribute to its magazine. For me it would also be an opportunity to rub shoulders with a few top-notch communicators and personalities, and to selfishly observe and experience more closely the Taneycomo fishing culture.
Lake Taneycomo is a tailwater fishery beginning at the dam below Table Rock Lake where you can catch some pretty spectacular trout, including some hefty browns. And while you can fish this water in any number of ways, some of the simplest methods are the most productive, so there’s no need to stare too deeply into your fly box for solutions to piscatorial puzzles.
Camp would be held at Lilley’s Landing Resort and Marina, a family-owned resort I had heard much about over the years but, for one reason or another, never got around to visiting. Not too far off the beaten path, the resort did not disappoint. Sitting on the water, the accommodations were cozy and immaculate. But most notable were friendly resort owners, Phil and Marsha, and the staff/family dedicated to providing an incredibly enjoyable experience. I’m sure there are many other places you could go on the lake for similar reasons, but I’m quite sure I’ll not need to search further.
Arriving late on Super Bowl Sunday, a room was set up for watching the big game, complete with tailgate suitable cuisine catered by Brandon Butler, Driftwood Outdoors, and Roeslein Alternative Energy. A win by the Chiefs left everyone feeling pretty good, setting a great tone for the days ahead.
On day one, attendees, fishing guides, and the Lilley clan packed the morning assembly for a country breakfast, casual introductions, and guide assignments. In a room filled with faces known and unknown, everyone was relaxed and excited for the day, as Phil Lilley and CFM Executive Director Tyler Schwartz reviewed the fishing assignments for the morning. I would be paired with the notorious radio personality of KCMQ Nathan “Shags” McLeod, a self-proclaimed “tree-huggin’ hippie” and a fish-until-you-drop angler. Having that special blend of enthusiasm and garrulous energy necessary for the radio business, the Zen of fishing quickly converts him to a man of focus, calmness, and singular purpose.
Tracy Frenzel, Fishing Branson, would be our unflappable captain and guide. Fishing guides intrigue me. Independent, passionate anglers with the patience to share the fishing adventure with complete strangers (aka the client). Riding in a guide’s boat using a guide’s equipment, having a guide tend my bait and unhook my fish is odd to me; takes me back to my childhood. If heaven exists, fishing guides should be assigned personal angels, they’ve earned it.
The morning strategy would be a quick chilly boat ride up to the dam, and to drag and an egg and scud downstream off the bottom. On the first cast I had a 12-inch rainbow, and in the next 15 minutes I’d add two more. In the category “guides are people too” Tracy discovered he forgot his landing net and his trolling motor malfunctioned. Not to be deterred, we fished on, landing at least 15 healthy colorful rainbows and Shags getting the prize, a 20-inch brown. Lunch break brought everyone back to camp for an hour where we ate, compared notes, told stories, and got new assignments.
My afternoon guide would be Tony Weldele, another well-known local fisherman and part of the Sqwincher Outdoors Team. My fishing partner would be Kenny Kieser, a Missouri outdoor writer with an impressive collection of accolades associated with his name and career, including being inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. I have crossed paths with Kenny a few times in recent years and always enjoy his stories and sense of humor.
The afternoon strategy would be similar to the morning, dragging scuds down current. Bright, high sun slowed down the bite a bit, but fish were still willing. And again, in the category of “guides are people too” Tony’s new trolling motor failed; however, after some tinkering and an on-the-water service call, we were back in business. A thirty second fix revealed batteries inserted backwards and the beginning of a conspiracy theory. Apparently, a prank between guides is not outside the realm of possibilities.
The afternoon did not yield any big fish for us, but Kenny did have a substantial, sudden hit. He reeled it in as the dead weight it actually was, a rock. After admiring his catch with the enthusiasm and praise of a geologist, I stopped him as he prepared to pitch it back.
“Don’t throw it back,” I said. “The lake gods gave it to you for a reason. You’re a writer. There’s a story in that rock if you look hard enough.” I’m waiting to see if he rises to the challenge, but I suspect he snuck the rock back into the lake.
The day two forecast did not look good. Torrential rain. Thunderstorms. The guides looked skeptical but undiscouraged.
“No such thing as bad weather, only bad gear,” someone commented with a “damn the torpedoes” attitude.
Tyler informed Phil a few anglers would not be going out this morning. “Line ‘em up and shoot ‘em,” snapped Phil.
I raised my hands for the execution and confessed, “Two things I don’t do. I don’t hunt ducks in the rain, and I don’t fish in the rain. There’s always a better day.”
Second guessing my decision, I checked the weather one more time. The forecast was still bleak. A drizzle is fine, but no need to sit in frog-choking downpours. I was content with my decision in spite of the mild shaming delivered by our host. The failure in my calculus – overcast skies would relax the brown trout. Several nice fish were caught, the big fish of the morning pushed 23-inches, and I caught zero.
During lunch I told Tyler I’d fish in the afternoon. Weather radar predicted the rain would clear out. Phil glanced out the window at the steady rain. “Dan won’t fish in the rain,” he said giving me a side-eye look with a smirk.
I surrendered, “Okay, I’m a big boy. Dish it out. I can take it.”
My assigned guide for the second afternoon would be Captain Duane Doty, Ozark Trout Runners, another Taney legend. Visit Lilley’s shop and you can take home some Doty, hand-painted signature jerk baits. I now have four.
We walked to the dock in a light steady rain. No turning back now, I was going to fish in the rain. At least I wore good gear. As Duane backed away from the dock and the skies opened up with a downpour. Fifteen minutes later, it was over and sunny skies gradually returned.
Fishing Doty’s jerk baits, we floated downstream from the dam. Tick, tick, tick the bait cruised over the bottom rocks and debris. In the current, the feel of rock and fish can be pretty similar and it’s best to assume fish. And so it was, the bump seemed ever so slightly different, and I tugged back with prejudice. A brown trout of 20-inches or so responded, breaking water three times before darting toward the boat and into the trolling motor. Fun while it lasted, the line was cut, and I howled in despair.
Overall, camp was a big success – writers found numerous story options, Brandon landed several podcast interviews, and evenings were filled with good food and comradery supported by partners Bass Pro Shops, Branson Convention and Visitors Center, MO Conservation Heritage Foundation, and the Missouri Department of Conservation.
For a look at Taneycomo fishing, check out Lilley’s One Cast and the other links in this story for more information on the Taneycomo experience. Happy fishing!