Family fish tale - Dream turns into successful trout business

Monday, April 22, 2002

AVA, Mo. -- Half a century has passed since a young couple knowing little more than how to hook and cook rainbow trout purchased 30 acres with a crystal spring gurgling from the foot of an Ozarks hillside.

Mary Alice Emerson, 82, recalls how friends teased her and husband Dwight -- Kansas City natives and teachers by training -- about paying too much for land that grew nothing but rocks.

"Everybody thought we were crazy," she said. "They told us nobody would want to buy trout fish from the Ozarks. But my husband, he had a dream."

With hard work and stubborn determination, the Emersons turned that parcel on Hunter Creek in rural Ava into one of the largest private commercial hatcheries in Missouri. Crystal Lake Fisheries Inc. sells about 1 million fingerlings and stockers annually in more than 37 states, stretching from Texas to Minnesota and Florida to New York.

"Ninety-five percent of our fish end up on a hook before being consumed," son Marvin Emerson said.

'Quite an adventure'

The Emersons' trout even made a cameo at the 1964 World's Fair in New York as part of a campaign to promote fishing in Minnesota.

"We've had quite an adventure," Emerson said. "We were a team."

There also was disappointment in the years after Dwight Emerson gave up the security of a civil service career and moved his family to Southwest Missouri. The initial 50 fish they bought in 1951 as brood stock died. So they hatched about 50,000 trout eggs. The yield a year later was 25 fish.

To make ends meet, Dwight became a principal in Ava. She taught in a rural one-room school house. They knew they would prevail as long as their spring continued to pump sparkling 58-degree water into the concrete raceways filled with rainbow trout.

Dwight eventually took a job at a Kansas City steel mill that paid twice as much and commuted home on weekends. She was left to tend the trout ponds and their four children.

"I was so much in love with him that I believed whatever he said," Emerson said. "He was very intelligent and very careful. I just believed we were going to make it."

They finally turned the corner, and Dwight was able to run the hatchery full-time.

"It was 25 years before we got to zero, and the books balanced," Emerson said. "I didn't have a bathroom in my house until after all four of my children had college degrees."

Found their niche

Weeds now claim once-fertile farm fields and stores sit dark in Douglas County, where the unemployment rate was 12.3 percent in February. But trout continue to thrash in the spring that gushes 7,000 gallons of water each minute on the Emersons' farm that has grown to 1,000 acres.

Dwight died of a heart attack in 1993. Sons Marvin and David keep the dream alive.

"Recreational fishing is really our niche," Marvin Emerson said. "We enjoy getting fish for kids and families. It kind of makes you feel good."

They now have about 12 employees and selectively breed their own strain of rainbow trout -- added 15 years ago as the "Emerson Strain" to the national trout registry.

"They're a first-rate outfit," said Mike Ray, superintendent of park safety and education for Johnson County (Kan.) Park and Recreation District. "They deliver a good fish."

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