Despite a tornado touching down in the Bennett Spring area early Wednesday morning, hundreds of anglers lined the banks of the trout park in anticipation of the sounding of the 2012 opening siren.
While a campground near the park on Missouri 32 was devastated by the twister, the park itself received no damage. Park officials said today that a temporary loss of electricity was the only glitch in last-minute preparations for the 6:30 a.m. opening of the season.
It was business as usual in the hatchery office at 6 a.m. today as park officials and representatives of the state's Conservation and Natural Resources departments gathered to watch Ray Thomas of Quincy, Ill., sound the opening siren.
Thomas, who has been coming to Bennett Spring State Park since 1969, was selected as the park's honorary whistle blower. Thomas said he was excited about opening the season. He has been coming to Bennett for Opening Day since 1997, after his retirement, so this was a new experience at the trout park for him.
"It is really exciting," he said. "I was surprised (to be selected as the whistle blower)."
Thomas was surrounded by two generations of his family in the park office, who were all just as excited as he was about Opening Day and the honor that had been bestowed to him.
His daughter, Jenifer Burwinkel, actually sent in a letter to the Bennett hatchery two years ago nominating her father, but after he wasn't selected, she didn't think much more about it. When they received notification that Thomas was picked to open the 2012 season, it was a surprise for the family.
Thomas recalled how Bennett Spring State Park had changed over the years, pointing to the former location of the park store and fireworks displays around the Fourth of July.
"The stream is pretty well the same, but the rest of it has changed," he said.
When asked what the best asset of Bennett Spring State Park was, other than the trout, Thomas' eyes filled with tears and gestured toward his onlooking family.
"It's all about them," Thomas said.
Burwinkel said her family has many fond memories of camping and fishing at the spring.
"We always like to camp and socialize," Thomas said. "There were usually two or three other families down here at the same time and really had a lot of fun. At our campground over there at Peaceful Valley, there is probably about a half-dozen families that we know."
Burwinkel added that those families might not have ever come to Bennett Spring if it weren't for her father introducing them to the area.
"That was back in the 1970s," she said.
His daughter Lisa Senator recalled spending her first 18 birthdays at Bennett Spring.
"We always joked that this was our Disney World," she said.
While excited about his duty for the morning, Thomas admitted to being a little nervous, but he thought he was up to the task.
He planned on hitting the stream himself following the festivities with hopes of landing a lunker.
Thomas recalled his first Opening Day.
"A friend came in a little early and put our chairs out and we stood around the fire barrels," he said. "It was a nice warm day, kind of like this one. It was about 40 degrees. We were all talking and having a good time. The limit was five then. Me and my buddy made six casts, caught five fish and got out. We didn't get tangled up with anyone, got in and got out. We were lucky... In 1996, we drove down for Opening Day, but not for the whistle, and there were snow flurries. We didn't get here until mid-morning, so we fished through the afternoon with the snow flurries, then went to them barrels to thaw out our hands."
Like most anglers, Thomas has a favorite spot — near the Whistle Bridge in Zone 2. But he actually caught his prized-mount, a nearly 3-pound rainbow, in Zone 3.
After he caught his lunker, he called his wife, Jeannie, and told her he needed some money. It costs about $10 an inch to mount a fish, he said, and he did not have enough cash to over the expense.
"We'd discussed before he left if he had enough money," Jeannie recalled. "So when he called and said he was going to need some more money, the first thing I thought was that he had gotten arrested or something."
She said she was relieved to hear that he'd caught a lunker.
Just prior to the sounding of the siren, Hatchery Manager Mike Mitchell said 2012 was going to be another great year at Bennett Spring. He said tag sales Wednesday night were upwards of 800, and he expected sales to increase as the day went on with the warm temperatures that were expected in the afternoon.
"I think we will hit that 1,800, 1,900 mark, and we stocked accordingly." he said. "Mr. Thomas seems excited and ready to go."
Mitchell said 6,000 rainbow trout measuring about 12 1/2 inches long, and about 75 lunkers weighing 3 pounds or more were also stocked.
"There are some nice fish out there and this should be a good Opening Day and a good season."
Mitchell said Wednesday's tornado didn't stop the fishing.
"You know, a few years ago we had what was possibly a tornado on Opening Day," he said. "Luckily nothing happened. We're open for business as usual."
As the clock ticked down to 6:30 a.m., Mitchell presented Thomas with his complementary trout tag. As with tradition, the tag number was 0001.
Mitchell gave Thomas a few last minute instructions, and commented that a rich family tradition was what Bennett Spring was about, and Thomas represented that tradition.
Thomas' excitement about the start of the season may have gotten the better of him when he actually sounded the siren a few seconds before 6:30 a.m., causing laugher to ring through the office.
Thomas simply smiled.
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