Bob Mitchell: Nearly 9 decades of Opening Days

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Roaring River State Park’s opening this year will mark nearly nine decades since the first official opening when the park property became a part of Missouri’s system of public facilities in 1928.

When the opening gun and whistle awakens the river hollow on March 1, it will be No. 89 in the books. There has always been the question, at least in some minds, what would have happened to the park had St. Louis soap-maker Dr. Thomas Sayman held onto the property.

Mrs. Sayman, who was living on Lindall Blvd. in St. Louis in the mid-1940s, asked that question the couple of times I came in contact with her just before starting my freshman year in high school.

Area’s big attraction

Next Wednesday morning will find Highway 112 leading out of Cassville getting warmer than usual, with traffic heading to Roaring River. The traffic numbers might not peak with anglers, since the mid-week openings haven’t produced any record numbers in past years. About 1,500 parked elbow to elbow is probably a good estimate, with the weather having a lot to do with the total tag sales. Some will cross the counter later in the day, taking their favorite location at the stream long before the sun peaks over the hills to the east. They have likely scouted the stream on the afternoon of the last day of February to determine those baffle areas most heavily stocked with rainbow trout. After catching a quick limit of rainbows, these anglers will either head for breakfast at the lodge or possibly head back up the hill and subsequently on to their jobs.

There is that first limit competition. Once, you could see those catching their limit virtually running over each other to get to the check-in locations. This is no longer rewarded, but there are those who like to lay claim to their ability to fill their nets or stringers first.

Advance preparations

If today’s Opening Day participants are anything like my late father-in-law K.E. Brown, getting ready for the opening wasn’t a day-before activity. After all, there were hooks to sharpen, favorite flies to make and lines to dress, depending on the type fishing intended. Preparations could include underwater lures or dry flies. And he always carried two reels in his fishing bag.

Another preparation that was his favorite was tying tapered leaders, attached to favorite flies and placed in a spectacle case with a leader wrapped around the outside, should a replacement be required. On Opening Day, that possibility was high, due to entanglement of lines or snagging on rocks on the back cast. This was long before of the days of spin casters, which can reach from one end of a baffle to another and retrieve several lines in his process of fishing.

After selling his jewelry business to Wayne Tomblin, K.E. worked at Roaring River for then concessionaire Norman Chaney, where some of his best memories and long-time friendships were formed. Often, so long as his sight permitted, he tied some of his favorite flies, including the red rear end wooly worm for the park trays.

Those purist days of fly rods no longer exist at Roaring River.

Streamside service

A one-time superintendent of schools in Cassville, Ralph Hamilton, was among the park’s most dedicated boosters, who might have taken the job here to be near Roaring River. As a purist, he was a fly rod angler, always choosing the same stream-side spot, year after year. He could be found there on opening day for several years after he moved along into the Springfield system. In his later years, he made the jaunt back to Barry County, as long as his health and eyesight permitted.

Hamilton always jested that he considered the Cassville Chamber of Commerce volunteers making their way up and down the stream in the pre-opening hours as one of the civic group’s most worthwhile projects. Their warming service of free coffee was seldom refused.

Favorite openings

My favorite openings were the years that Secretary of State Jim Kirkpatrick attended the opening, many years firing the opening gun. Annually, about this time, he would call to make a reservation at the Hillbilly Hilton in Chinquapin Woods, where the latchstring was always on the outside.

His remarks at various interviews found him praising Roaring River as the state’s top park. When asked how he could make that statement without hurting feelings elsewhere, he’d comment, “Because it’s true.”

When he was quizzed concerning why he came here 20 years, he would respond, “Because they ask me!”

Once he learned of the hospitality here, one-time Gov. Joe Teasdale would be in the state’s party. After the opening, they both would fish the Shell Knob-Cassville Tournament on Table Rock Lake.

Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat.

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