After fishing in the crowd Thursday at Bennett Spring State Park, Gary Madole took a few minutes to follow an opening-day tradition.
He and his wife Ellie walked atop an old rock bridge that crosses the trout stream that they hold dear to their hearts and dropped a dozen roses into the rushing current below.
That was their way of honoring their son, Kevin, who passed away in 1991 at age 26 after a long illness.
“We do this every opening day,” Gary said. “It’s been 27 years since we lost him, but we honor him every year on opening day.
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“He just loved this place. We would fish all the time, and he was always kidding me about how he could catch more trout than I could.”
Madole paused and added, “I miss those times.”
The site of the Madoles’ memorial is fitting. Since Gary, 75, was a youngster, the beautiful trout park in south-central Missouri has been a central part in his life.
He has fished Bennett Spring since 1957, seldom missing an opening day. He started that journey as a farm boy living in Windsor, Mo., a young man who was immediately hooked on the beauty and adventure of the trout stream when he first laid eyes on it.
Today, Gary and Ellie live just 1½ miles from Bennett and he fishes the park multiple times during the year. But no time stands out more than opening day.
He and Ellie always get swept up in the excitement that defines the opener in Missouri’s four trout parks — Bennett Spring, Roaring River, Montauk and Maramec Spring.
Ninety-nine percent of the year, he treasures the peace and quiet of the beautiful stream and tries to avoid the crowds. On opening day, he looks forward to seeing the elbow-to-elbow chain of fishermen that lines the stream.
Gary and Ellie joined 1,371 others for Bennett’s opening day Thursday. Ellie, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and requires supplemental oxygen, sat in the warmth of the truck as Gary waded out to make his first casts of the year.
He wore his waders, but he didn’t venture out far. “I’m not as stable as I used to be,” he said with a smile. “I don’t want to fall in.”
He fished a few minutes, not really intent on catching a trout, then joined his wife in the truck.
“I’ll let the others have at it,” he said. “I ‘ve caught my share of trout here over the years.”
His long journey started when he was just a boy who loved to fish.
“My family would take Sunday drives in our ’51 Chevy and I would always throw my fishing pole in the trunk,” he said. “One day, we ended up at Bennett Spring and I just had to fish.
“I told my dad we had to have a stringer. And he told me, ‘You have to catch a fish first.’”
Gary caught a trout and was on the way to a lifetime of fun at the famous state-managed park.
He remembers the early days, when he stood in the elbow-to-elbow crowd and wound up for a long cast across the stream. His lure almost hit a burly man on the other side, and that fishermen quickly snapped off the boy’s lure and ordered him to come over there.
Gary gulped, followed orders and got a surprise.
“He told me I needed to learn to fish the right way,” he said. “He told me to meet him that afternoon, and he gave me some flies that he had tied and lent me one of his fly rods.
“The next day, he took me down to the stream and showed me how to fly fish and I had a great time. We became friends and we fished together for years.”
Gary’s favorite fish story centers on a memorable birthday.
“Ellie gave me a two-piece bamboo fly rod, and I had to go to Bennett and try it out,” he said. “On my first cast, I caught a 13-pound, 4-ounce brown trout. That fish is on my wall.”
Returning to Bennett Spring is a sentimental voyage for Ellie, too. She can point to the spot where a motel once stood. “They would charge $5 a night,” she said with a laugh.
She also can pinpoint the spot where they once camped before the opener.
“We met so many great people over the years,” she said. “They would stop by our camper and we’d sit by the fire, getting to know each other. Some of them would bring their guitars and we’d sing for hours.”
Gary’s love of Bennett Spring was honored last year when he was chosen as the honorary starter. On Thursday, he returned to being just another face in the crowd. But he was happy to be there.
“This is the day we look forward to for months,” he said. “No matter what, we have to be here for the trout opener.”