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Trout Day-Same Song; New Tune

March 1, 2010

March 1st is the official opening of trout season in Missouri. Every year, the drill is the same. Thousands of fishermen gather at one of Missouri’s four cold water trout parks to stand in or by the river in often sub-freezing temps in the pre-dawn hours so that they can have the experience and maybe land the much coveted lunker Rainbow Trout.

A lesser number but still impressive number of photogs jockey for spots along the elbow to elbow packed riverbanks in hopes of “landing” that one shot that will catch the critical eye of some photo editor somewhere and ultimately their readers’ attention.

It is “the groundhog day” of the Ozarks. Like Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where “Phil” being held up by some guy wearing a top hat is the shot that appears year after year, fishermen dressed in layer upon layer of  sweaters, coveralls and stocking hats are the order of the day. The challenge: How to make images of the same story different from last year’s and all the other years.

At this point I get back to the basics that got me hooked on the fascination of still images. Look for repeating patterns, converging lines and juxtaposed objects…or in this instance, people. One of my favorite places to perch myself at Bennett Spring State Park near Lebanon, Missouri is above the dam next to the hatchery.

Opening day at the dam, Bennett Spring State Park, MissouriHere, sure-footed anglers inch out along the top and bottom of the dam appearing as (to me anyway) a chorus line. At any moment…maybe following the landing of a prized lunker…I have expected the line to link arms and in sequence give a high kick. That would be a shot.

Of all the years I have covered opening day for trout fishing in Missouri, one particular shot also taken at Bennett Spring seemed to capture an unusual amount of attention from editors across the country.

I knew I had something a little different from years past when the ordinarily blase photo editor on the other end of the phone in New York said, “Oh, my gosh! Look at those…fishermen. All jammed together like that!” The next day the photo appeared above the fold on the front page of USA TODAY and later that week inside TIME Magazine and scores of other newspapers and publications.

This shot caught the eye of editors around the country and ended up on the front page of USA TODAY.

The scene is the same every year. A cliché. Why did this shot seem to grab attention? I forget that just because we who live here and have seen this scene many times doesn’t mean everyone has seen it. So, maybe the best way to approach a cliché is straight on.

In this case, “straight on” meant a short trek down the river away from the “traditional” photo spots and muscling my way in among the fishermen with my tripod sitting in the water and shooting back towards the dam. I now leave briefly from my rule of not talking equipment. I used a Canon 35-350mm lens zoomed out to about 300mm. That certainly helped to compress the elements of the photo together and give the anglers that feeling of closeness. But, it also allowed me to shoot under a bridge that would have obstructed much of the view with a shorter lens.

I wonder why I hadn’t seen the shot years before. Sometimes you just have to force your eyes out of the “normal” mode even if it is cold, your fingers are aching and the fishermen are glaring at you for taking up prime real estate along the riverbank.

John S. Stewart

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