By Dave Woods
Digital market development manager
BRANSON, Mo. —
Leah Eden gets excited when she talks about the way children react to Shepherd of the Hills trout hatchery.
"Kids will come in the front door and stop in their tracks," said Eden, public information officer for the 211-acre Department of Conservation hatchery. "Their jaws drop, and you will hear them scream. We have snakes and turtles and frogs and spiders. There are native fish like bass and sunfish to look at, and we have our 3,500-gallon aquarium where you can get eyeball to eyeball with large trout."
While visitors to the education center get a through-the-glass peek at many of Missouri's native fish, reptiles and other animals inside, outside visitors get a hands-on experience feeding the hatchery's main attraction, the trout.
"The No. 1 thing that kids like to do when they are here is feed the fish," she said. "They love something that's hands on, and they get a lot of enjoyment from watching the fish eat."
The hatchery's open-air, outdoor concrete pools, called raceways, contain more than 700,000 rainbow and brown trout of varying sizes and maturity at any given time. Visitors are encouraged to walk around the complex and feed handfuls of special trout feed to the hatchery's growing inhabitants.
More than 250,000 visitors make the trek to the 55-year-old hatchery -- the state's largest -- every year. The Shepherd facility is the centerpiece of Missouri's trout production program. The complex also offers a view of Table Rock Dam and has fishing and boating access to Lake Taneycomo.
Eden said that one of the hatchery staff's missions is to educate adults and children alike.
"One of the main messages we want to get across is that kids are our future conservationists," she said. "We want to get them connected with nature. So many people live in town now. We want to make sure that they realize where their food comes from."
The key to understanding the food chain and its importance is education, Eden said. The programs at the hatchery are geared toward helping visitors reconnect with nature and understanding the importance of protecting natural resources.
Eden said that understanding the life cycle of trout and their importance to Missouri's food chain and economy is important, and at the end of the day, fishing is just fun, too.
"We stock a lot of fish into Taneycomo," she said. "When we have people say that they are not catching any fish, I ask them, ÔWhat are you using?' Sometimes if the generators are running, that can make the fishing a little tougher. But we stock a lot of fish. They are out there."
On the trail
While the mission of the hatchery focuses on the production of trout in Missouri's rivers, lakes and streams, the Department of Conservation's Forestry Division offers several areas for outdoors enthusiasts who are in search of trails to hike and places to camp.
The Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area is a popular destination for Branson-area visitors seeking an outdoor adventure.
"The Henning Conservation Area is actually a wildlife preserve," Eden said. "One of the trails has an old 40-foot fire tower that you can climb. It gives you a bird's eye view of the Branson area."
The conservation area is named after the creator of the 1960s television comedies "Beverly Hillbillies," "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction." The Hennings donated much of the conservation area's land to the state in order to preserve it for future generations. The 1,500-acre area can be accessed from Highway 76 between the strip and Silver Dollar City.
"It has unique glade habitat that's kind of like a miniature desert," said Eden. "Glades will have really dry, rocky conditions, and you can see many different species including lizards, tarantulas and road runners. The tarantulas are a nocturnal species, and they will be out there. Typically, (they're) not moving around during the day, but if you move around some logs or rocks you will find them."
Visitors to the area will find a variety of trails and flora, as well.
"The one trail is paved, and it goes to the fire tower," she said. "The others are partially wood-chipped or natural surface. There are some uneven, rocky steps, and when you get out to the glade there are a lot of wildflowers and lots of different birds at the Henning area."