Loss of a Missouri Conservation Legend

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Spencer Turner enjoys his last ride on Lake Taneycomo where he spent much time working as a trout biologist.

Spencer Turner enjoys his last ride on Lake Taneycomo where he spent much time working as a trout biologist.

Spencer Turner was a renaissance man. He was veteran who married his high school sweetheart and went on to fulfill a career in the field of conservation most could only imagine. Spence was an angler in the purist sense of the word. He was a hunter, nature lover, gifted writer and good old-fashioned storyteller. Spence passed away peacefully, at his Columbia home surrounded by family on Friday, August 26. He may be gone from this Earth, but Spencer’s legacy will live on every time a trout is caught in the State of Missouri.

Knowing his health was rapidly failing, Spence embarked on an adventurous spring and summer. He traveled to see friends and family, attended his annual turkey camp and, of course, fished a few of his old haunts one last time. I was fortunate to spend time with Spence on the water this summer, along with a number of our mutual friends. Rowing him down Current River, over the backs of the brown trout there because of him, is a memory I’ll hold close to my heart for the rest of my life.

Spence left his home state of Wisconsin for Missouri in 1969, when he joined the Missouri Department of Conservation as a fisheries biologist.

“Missouri has had trout here since the 1880s, but when I joined (MDC) in 69, that history was pretty well lost. Part of my focus was to change the Department’s focus, so we not only have the wonderful trout parks we manage, but so there was also a diversity of trout fishing opportunities for those folks that wanted something by themselves,” Turner said.

Former MDC Fisheries Division Chief, Mike Kruse said, “I’ve heard Spence described as the father of Missouri’s modern day trout program and trout fishery, and that’s a pretty good description. Because when Spence arrived on the scene there had been some quote-unquote trout biologists before him, but they hadn’t stayed long and hadn’t made quite as big of a mark as he has. And at that time trout fishing was totally, and completely about raising and stocking hatchery trout.”

Spence quickly went to work identifying rivers and streams capable of holding trout, which require cold water all year. He also set out to rediscover the streams still holding remnant populations of wild trout that had been stocked in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He found them and brought them back to life. But his real legacy is what he accomplished by creating wild trout fisheries in some of Missouri’s greatest waters – Current River, Eleven Point River, North Fork of the White River and Lake Taneycomo.

“We have a multitude of opportunities and some really high quality trout fishing in Missouri, and we owe it all to Spence Turner,” said avid fly angler, Ron Kruger.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to cruise the entire 22-mile length of Lake Taneycomo with Spence. Turns out that was the last time he saw the lake where he spent so much time turning it into one of the premiere trout fishing destinations in America.

As I ran the boat, Spence sat in the stern and reminisced.

He talked about the projects he’d completed, the people he worked with and the anglers he met along the way. Spence admired Taneycomo like a father who watched his baby grow up to realize their potential and even surpass a parent’s dreams. And Spence knew how to tell the story.

“Probably the biggest job any biologist has, and most of them never realize it until they have been in a long time, is communication,” Turner said.

Spence was a talented communicator. In fact, he was a professional communicator. He is a founding father of the Missouri Outdoor Communicators, and was president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. A prestigious position few ever attain. He wrote an outdoor column for the Columbia Tribune for 12 years, and freelanced articles on all sorts of outdoor adventures to the largest game and fish publications in existence, including Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and the Conservationist.

 Bobby Whitehead, editor of Outdoor Guide Magazine, said, “Spence contacted me soon after we started the magazine in the early 90s. Quickly he became a major contributor, and a mentor for me. Spence was responsible, in many ways, for the early success of Outdoor Guide.”

Spence was the rare total package; a highly successful biologist, superior sportsman, incredible communicator and friend to so many. One of the last bits of wisdom I heard Spence bestow was, “Somebody said if you got a job you love to do you’ll never work a day in your life. And to be quite honest, I was there at the right time where I could be autonomous and do things I knew needed to be done. I was able to accomplish what I set out to accomplish, and that’s humbling.”

So many of us are going to miss Spence Turner. I know I’ll think of him often when on the rivers of the Ozarks. Turkey hunting legend, Ray Eye, will miss sharing fall turkey camps on the Big Piney with him. Eye said, “Spence Turner was my friend, my turkey hunting brother. Every time I hear a fall gobble, I’ll think of him. And I’ll toast him around every fire from now until I’m with him again.”

See you down the trail…

Brandon Butler


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