Vic Eckmann, 77, basked in his new-found celebrity status Tuesday.
Everywhere he went in Bennett Spring State Park, he was greeted with a handshake, a pat on the back or a request for a media interview. In these parts, being chosen as the honorary starter of the trout season is no small deal.
And Eckmann enjoyed every bit of it.
“I’ve fished here at Bennett for 63 years,” Eckmann said with pride. “Not many fishermen can match that. I got started when I was just a kid. I’m 77 now and I’m still here.
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“We live just outside the park and I can fish here whenever I want.”
Eckmann was mostly a spectator Tuesday. After sounding the siren at 6:30 a.m., he stood in the hatchery office and watched a chain of fishermen launch their first casts of the year.
The weather wasn’t ideal. A cold rain fell and the temperature was dropping, putting a chill in the air. But the trout were biting, and that’s all that mattered.
As the echo of the loud siren carried through the park, fishermen were already fighting healthy rainbows. For Eckmann, the fishing would come later in the day once the crowd thinned. For now, he was just enjoying the show.
“I was living in Illinois when I first came here,” Eckmann said. “A gentleman who worked with us on the farm had been here and talked us into coming with him.
“At the time, I was mostly a catfish, bass, bluegill fisherman. But I decided to give it a try.
“We were using flyrods with a homemade dough bait he had stayed up to make the night before. The trout loved that stuff. I caught my limit in an hour and a half and I was hooked.”
Years later, he’s still hooked. He fishes Bennett every chance he gets, though not with the same urgency.
“We used to drive from Illinois to get here when the siren sounded, we would fish all day long and then drive back that same day,” he said. “Now that I live right here, I just fish when I feel like it.
“I’ll come down here with my flyrod some days and just spend time with catch-and-release. I still love this place, but I don’t go at it as hard as I used to.”
Eckmann was awarded the first tag sold Tuesday morning. By 9 a.m., he was joined by almost 1,200 other fishermen.
That might sound like a lot, but it’s actually less than normal at Bennett Spring. The trout stream, managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation, attracts a crowd each March 1 when the season opens.
Josh Turner, a college student from Macon, Mo., was one of the fishermen in that crowd. He decided to participate in his first opener, and he was rewarded for his decision.
Less than an hour after the season opened, he watched as a big trout turned and engulfed the yellow-and-black jig he was using. Then the fight was on.
After a battle that took him up and down the bank, Turner finally landed the rainbow and slipped it onto a stringer, then made his way to a scale hanging in front of the Bennett Spring store.
Along the way, he attracted plenty of attention. As a half-circle of fishermen watched, Turner placed his trophy catch on the scale and watched as the needle hit 7 pounds.
Fishermen congratulated the young fisherman, and Turner told his story.
“Really, it was just the luck of the draw,” he said. “I’m going to have this one mounted.”
Ernie Bigler of Grandview also had a day to remember. He caught a 5-pound rainbow on a Rooster Tail spinner.
“We’ve been coming down to Bennett for 15 years, and this is by far the biggest trout I’ve caught,” said Bigler, who was fishing with his son, Corey. “We always have fun, but this makes it even more special.”