By Wes Johnson
It might not seem like a significant change — replacing a tired old bridge with a new one over a small Missouri creek. But lifelong fly fisherman Tim Homesley likes the look of it, especially where the cool, clear water flows underneath.
"Look at all those small pebbles down there," he says, eyeing the gravel bottom through sparkling water. "That's just what these rainbows need to lay their eggs when they do their spawning run."
He's talking about the fascinating McCloud rainbow trout that thrive in Stone County's Crane Creek, having been put there in the late 1800s by a train crew carrying the live fish from California's McCloud River.
Spring-fed Crane Creek remains cool enough, and the habitat provides just the right kind of food, for the fish to survive year-round and more significantly to also reproduce, laying their eggs in gravel deposits. It's one of the few places in Missouri where wild trout are able to reproduce naturally.
The trout that anglers typically catch at Bennett Spring, Lake Taneycomo, Roaring River or other Missouri trout parks are hatchery-raised fish. But an eight-mile section of Crane Creek has been designated a Blue Ribbon Trout Area by the Missouri Department of Conservation to celebrate the wild McCloud rainbow fishery. And that brings us back to the new bridge.
Because of the stream's special designation, the $240,000 bridge replacement project was able to tap some money from the Stream Stewardship Trust Fund, administrated through the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation. The Stream Stewardship money helps restore, enhance, and protect stream systems and associated habitats.
The previous bridge in the trout spawning areas on upper Crane Creek had a concrete floor, which trout couldn't use to lay their eggs. The new bridge spans the entire creek and has a natural bottom that according to MDC will improve the habitat for McCloud rainbows and other aquatic species.
The new bridge will also be less likely to flood because more water can pass beneath it during heavy rain events, a benefit to motorists who need to cross Crane Creek at its upper end.
Shane Bush, an MDC fisheries biologist, said he snorkels Crane Creek in the fall every three years to physically count the McCloud rainbows and gauge their health. He snorkels in the fall after the weather turns cold because Crane Creek has an unusually high population of venomous cottonmouth snakes, which disappear when the temperature falls.
"We'd prefer not to run into any of those when we're counting trout," Bush quipped. In the clear water, the rainbows are easy to spot. This spring's massive flooding didn't seem to harm the Crane Creek trout. The fish can take cover in deep pools and ride out the surging water. Bush said floods can even help the trout stream by allowing fish to move upstream or downstream and populate new areas of the creek.
"I've heard of fishermen catching them all the way down to the mouth of the James River, where Crane Creek flows into it," Bush said.
Although a lot of fish are in Crane Creek, catching them on lightweight fly rods can test even the most avid angler, both Bush and Homesley — the veteran fly fisherman — agreed.
"I fish 'em like I'm squirrel hunting — you have to sneak up on them because they're really spooky," Homesley said. "They'll move if they see you. And the creek is a difficult place to fish. Just look at all the trees and bushes along the edge. If you haven't lost six or eight flies down here you haven't fished Crane Creek."
During a recent fishing trip to inspect the new bridge, Homesley cautioned a reporter and photographer to stay back while he stalked some wary McClouds in a likely looking pool. He moved with stealth to the creek's edge and flipped a nymph fly into a small gurgling waterfall.
A few casts later — and somewhat to his surprise — he connected with an 8-inch McCloud that glowed with rainbow hues.
"I started fishing down here in 1981," Homesley said. "I had read stories about it and fished here 11 times before I even caught a trout. Every little pool usually holds at least one fish. But some of the best fishing is actually right there in town, where the creek goes through Crane."
Among trout die-hard anglers, Crane Creek has gained a reputation as being an unusual, out-of-the-way place that offers a challenging venue for catching truly wild trout in Missouri.
Homesley became so smitten with trout fishing that he opened his own fly-fishing business — Tim's Fly Shop — in Cassville, where most of his customers stop before going after the hatchery-raised rainbows at nearby Roaring River State Park. Homesley, who has fished for trout around the world, said he still enjoys stalking his brightly-colored quarry in Crane Creek.
"This is the only creek in Missouri, well, there's actually two, that has a pure strain of McCloud River rainbows, or at least as pure a strain as there is anywhere in the world," he said. "They need to be protected. They're a lot of fun to catch and they're a beautiful fish. They've overcome an awful lot of things over the years and kept up and made a home for themselves here in the Ozarks."