The Shepherd of the Hills fish hatchery in Branson, MO often comes up on lists of the best free things to do in Branson, but is it really worth checking out? The Branson fish hatchery is located just a few minutes out of town, right next to Table Rock Dam. It’s very close to Table Rock State Park, which has tons of hiking trails (check out my guide to Branson Hiking Trails for more info!), and also just a couple of minutes from the Dewey Short Visitor Center, which is perfect for doing on the same day as your fish hatchery visit. The Showboat Branson Belle is less than a five-minute drive away, so if you’re looking for something fun and free to do before a dinner cruise, consider visiting the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery!
If you’re planning to do some Branson fishing, there’s trout fishing on Lake Taneycomo right outside, including a boat ramp, and you can purchase a license or rent a fishing pole here, too! The money from Missouri fishing licenses goes straight back into conservation, which is something they share details of on the fish hatchery tour!
There’s plenty of parking here, both outside the conservation center building and over by the picnic area, which is just a short walk.
5 Important Things to Know Before Visiting the Branson Fish Hatchery:
- Admission to the Conservation Center and tours of the Branson fish hatchery are both free, but bring quarters if you’d like to feed the fish.
- The hatchery is closed on Sunday & Monday most of the year, as well as on state holidays. In the summer months (June, July, August), they may be open 7 days a week. (Check the Missouri Department of Conservation website to be sure!)
- Branson fish hatchery hours are 9 am – 5 pm. If you’re planning to enjoy the outdoor areas while you’re here, those hours are different: The conservation area opens at 4 am and closes at 10 pm.
- The free Branson fish hatchery tours are offered several times a day. At the time of this post, they’re at 10 and 11 am, and 1 and 2 pm.
- In addition to the conservation center, you’ll find hiking trails, fishing areas, a picnic spot, and a butterfly garden.
Want more details about the Shepherd of the Hills fish hatchery in Branson and tips to make your visit great? Read on!
Trout fishing in Branson is a HUGE deal. I live right on Table Rock Lake so I knew that a lot of people come to this area to fish, but I had no idea about the volume. The Branson fish hatchery puts around 700,000 trout into Lake Taneycomo and other Missouri trout management areas EVERY YEAR! Of those, 70% are caught within two months. That’s so many fish! Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery is the largest of the five cold water fish hatcheries in Missouri, and there’s a lot to see here. Now, I’m clearly very into learning about nature and wildlife and fish in general (be sure to check out my post about the Branson Aquarium!) so that definitely factors into my opinions, but I was surprised that I enjoyed my visit to the fish hatchery in Branson way more than I expected to. I wound up spending almost two hours here!
Feeding the Fish at the Branson Fish Hatchery
Trout food is sold in gumball-style machines outside near the fish runs. 25 cents gets you a pretty nice handful of food! I’d recommend bringing a small cup or even an envelope to hold the food in – it’s a little tough to avoid dropping any! It’s kind of fun to decide which fish you want to feed (they’re segregated by age/size, including a special area for the breeding adults at certain times of year). The conservation center had quarters available when I visited, but you may want to bring some quarters along just in case if feeding the fish is something you really want to do. Feeding the fish anything other than the provided food is NOT allowed.
Exploring the Conservation Center
While it might look small from outside, there’s a surprising amount to see in side the conservation center!
You may want to start by watching the short video (I think it’s 8 minutes) that’s shown several times an hour and explains what the hatchery does. The room that serves as a mini cinema for that video also contains some VERY cool nature and wildlife exhibits!
You can see several different types of live wildlife native to this area, including turtles, frogs, salamanders, and snakes. There are also exhibits that don’t have live animals but do let you see things you might never see up close otherwise, like different bird nests and different stages of fish development.
Tip: If you aren’t sure if your kids will enjoy the Branson Aquarium at the Boardwalk or Wonders of Wildlife Aquarium in Springfield, bringing them here is a great FREE way to see how they react to fish and animals! If they get excited about watching these guys, they’ll LOVE the aquariums!
Branson Fish Hatchery Tours
Tours of the Branson fish hatchery are FREE and fun! They start inside the conservation center, last about 45 minutes, and are about 1/3 indoors and 2/3 outdoors, so be sure to come prepared for whatever the weather (you may want to bring bottled water on hot days). They’re great for curious kids who won’t interrupt the tour guide, as well as adults who love learning.
I’d suggest arriving at the conservation center at least 15 minutes before a tour, taking some time to explore the building, going on the tour, and then feeding the fish/exploring the outdoor areas on your own.
Note: There are restrooms inside the conservation center, as well as some out in the picnic area near the hiking trails.
The runs in the outdoor area are filled with tens of thousands of trout at all different stages of development. Fish come in to breed in the fall and the babies stay here about 15-18 months – until they’re large enough to be released. If you visit at just the right time, you might see Table Rock Dam open in the background!
Just a note – As someone currently studying captive wildlife care and conservation who is pretty sensitive about how animals are treated, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the whole hatchery thing in general. Trout aren’t even native to Missouri, but they’ve become a HUGE part of Branson Missouri fishing since they were introduced to Lake Taneycomo in 1959. I don’t know if the conditions are exactly ideal in terms of welfare, but I’d much rather have people out having a great time catching fish in the lake and eating that than buying fish from commercial fisheries that are endangering so many species of sharks and fish, plus the ocean ecosystems in general. The tour guides will tell you that due to how hot summers have been lately, they do lose quite a few fish to the heat, but on the other hand, all of these fish are totally protected from predators through their vulnerable youth stages. I do think the Dept. of Conservation give the trout the best treatment possible given the space and resources they have. I just wanted to mention all of this here because I do try to be careful about which animal-related tourist attractions I recommend visiting. I still think the fish hatchery is one of the best free things to do in Branson, since it’s fun, free, something you can’t just see every day, and educational, but your opinions might differ.
Other Things To Do at the Shepherd of the Hills Branson Fish Hatchery
You can definitely spend a few hours exploring everything to do on-site at the fish hatchery in Branson if the weather is nice! Here’s a handy checklist:
Things to do at the Branson Fish Hatchery:
- Explore the conservation center and see some native wildlife.
- Take the FREE fish hatchery tour
- Visit the butterfly garden filled with native plants
- Feed the fish (bring quarters!)
- Explore the four nature trails
- Get a fishing license and fish in Lake Taneycomo, just steps away!
- Bring a picnic lunch and relax in the covered picnic pavilion.
I talk about the different nature/hiking trails in depth in by Branson Hiking Trail Guide, and I’m planning to write a detailed post just about the fish hatchery hiking trails soon, but overall they’re short, easy trails suitable to just about anyone, and three of the four have really stunning lake views!
The trails start behind the picnic area just across the road from the conservation center. Look for these little bridges:
You can find a map of the trails on the Missouri Department of Conservation Website.
While you’re out in this area of Branson, you may also want to check out the Dewey Short Visitor Center (also free but closed in winter!), the hiking trails at Table Rock State Park, go for a cruise on the Showboat Branson Belle, or have dinner or drinks at Chateau on the Lake! If you’re looking for more free things to do in Branson, I have a helpful list coming soon!