I am deeply proud of my home state’s conservation history. Missourians were the first in the nation to realize that forests, fish and wildlife were too precious to trust to the partisan tug-of-war that goes on in state legislatures. In response to chronic mismanagement of their wild resources, they set up a citizen-led system of conservation governance that remains a model for other states to aspire to.
The only drawback with our system is that it can only maintain and enhance resources on the 1.6 million acres that the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) owns or manages. If you add the 1.5 million acres of the Mark Twain National Forest and the relatively small holdings in state parks and national wildlife refuges, Missouri has something like 2.6 million acres under public stewardship. That sounds like a lot, but it is only 6 percent of the state’s land area. No matter how good a job government agencies do on their tiny sliver of land, efforts to maintain the state’s natural resources clearly are going to be won or lost on private land.
In spite of the wonderful conservation legacy we received from our forebears, conservation remains the job of everyday people who treasure the natural world and the physical and spiritual renewal they find outdoors. And here I finally get to today’s subject, Mill Creek.
Historically, this small stream southwest of Rolla was a little piece of Eden. The stream corridor is chockablock with springs. In fact, if you look carefully, you discover that the entire valley is one big spring. Almost every square foot has water seeping out of it. Before European settlement much of the valley was what ecologists call a muck fen – land so boggy you couldn’t walk through it. And meandering down through the middle was a cold, clear stream made to order for trout.
God neglected to include trout in Missouri’s native fauna, but humans corrected that oversight as early as the mid-1800s, stocking Mill Creek and other spring-fed streams near railroad lines with rainbow trout hauled in from the West Coast. The descendants of those first trout continue to thrive in Mill Creek. The creek also received brown trout stockings starting in the 1940s.
So far so good. But not all human endeavors in the Mill Creek watershed have been so benign. Early on, people began “improving” Mill Creek by draining its life-giving wetlands, building roads and towns and damming the creek itself. This tended to make the once free-flowing creek more sluggish and increase its water temperature. Still, the creek’s potential remained clear to see. Eventually, farsighted individuals and groups who recognized how special the creek was coalesced to form the Friends of Mill Creek (FMC).
Formed in 1997, FMC is a volunteer, community-based organization that supports landowners in rehabilitating Mill Creek. Members include landowners, government agencies and corporate sponsors. At first glance, FMC might seem to be composed of people and groups with conflicting interests. The organization’s genius lies in focusing on shared goals and values rather than differences.
One of the main ways FMC pursues its goals is the Mill Creek Stewardship Rangers. This is a group of high-school students directed by the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA). Each summer since 2003, GRCA hires students and a Crew Leaders to undertake rehabilitation projects along the creek, often on private land. The Rangers are supported by Puslinch Township, the City of Cambridge, the Optimist Club of Puslinch, and local businesses and individuals who donate their time, money and expertise for the betterment of the creek.
Past projects have ranged from trail maintenance and cattle fencing to removing ponds. One project involved an in-stream pond that raised peak summer water temperatures in the creek by as much as 7° F, a very bad thing for a trout stream. FMC created a new channel and turned the former pond was turned into a wetland. They planted cedars along the banks of the new channel to provide shade, and seeded the area with native grasses. The whole project took three years to complete, but the results were stunning. Within a year, brown trout had returned to the creek downstream of the former pond and adult, juvenile, and young-of-the-year trout had populated the new channel.
More recently, several tons of pea gravel, donated by Dufferin Aggregates, has been deposited in a tributary of Mill Creek to create Brook Trout spawning habitat. Additionally, workers have removed overhanging branches and woody debris blocking a section of the main stream and placed log structures to encourage the creek to find and follow its natural channel. One of the coolest things I saw when I visited Mill Creek in early April was trout hides created by burying untreated railroad ties along bank edges at water level. The result is recessed holes where lunker trout can lie just out of the current, waiting to ambush passing morsels. These are also great spots to drift a dry fly.
Earlier this month, FMC held its annual spring road cleanup, an important tool for keeping ugly and potentially polluting debris out of Mill Creek. This year’s event drew more than 200 volunteers who removed 7.5 tons of trash from 55 miles of roads in the Mill Creek watershed.
Ongoing efforts like these resulted in MDC’s designating Mill Creek as one of only six Blue Ribbon Trout Streams in the state. These areas are so designated because of their high potential for producing trophy-sized trout. Most of the fish you catch will be 7 to 10 inches, but this is one of the few places in Missouri where you can be sure that trout18 inches or larger are present. It isn’t easy to fool these wild fish, but the thrill of having one rise to your fly is indescribable. You can read about Blue Ribbon Trout Areas and regulations at on.mo.gov/1WDHqvB.
The Missouri Trout Hunters website (bit.ly/1K408F5) has this to say about fishing Mill Creek:
“Dry fly fishermen usually have a great time throwing highly visible patterns like Wulffs, Irresistibles, or Humpies. And throwing big dries can be quite entertaining at times. Often smaller fish will hit these larger flies so aggressively that they’ll pop straight up in the air. For a lot of reasons, the fishing here can be a wonderful experience.”
I could go on forever about Mill Creek and FMC, but I think you get the idea. The best way to understand their significance is fish the creek. To get there, take I-44 to the Doolittle exit west of Rolla and turn south on Highway T. Drive through Newburg and across Little Piney Creek, then turn right on Highway P and watch for the Mill Creek Recreation Area sign on the left. Take Phelps County Road 7550 to a picnic area.
The fishing from here on upstream is pretty good, though you will find casting space tight in some areas. If you drive on past the picnic area on CR 7550 you will come to Highway AA. Turn left and AA will take you to a sign for Pitts Pond, which is fed by Wilkins Spring. Parking is available on the left just after crossing a concrete slab bridge. Yelton Spring is upstream from here. MDC’s Bohigian Conservation Area has access points on both AA and the Forest.
The fishing begins at Yelton Spring and extends all the way down to Little Piney Creek, but the best fishing water is below Wilkins Spring, which dumps around 3 million gallons of water per day into the creek. Fishing upstream of the bridge is occasionally impossible, as Yelton Spring tends to go dry in the summer.
Localized thunderstorms can swell Mill Creek to unfishable levels pretty quickly. To save yourself a fruitless drive, check the U.S. Geological Service’s gauge at on.doi.gov/1YFsADa. It will reveal whether rainfall has caused a spike in stream flow and let you judge how quickly the water level is falling. Fishing reports are available at the Mill Creek Fishing Reports page. If you go, return the favor by sharing your experience at bit.ly/20UALxc.
After you have seen Mill Creek, you might want to be part of its continuing improvement. Visit FMC’s website – friendsofmillcreek.org/ – and find a way to contribute to their work. There’s no better way to carry on Missouri’s proud tradition of citizen conservation.