Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
A riverman’s life
Drew Lemberger answers
the call of the Big Muddy

by Bob McEowen

Drew Lemberger eyes the river for likely fishing spots while leading Jacob Holman and Jan Carla Johnson on a guided catfishing excursion. Drew’s Guide Service offers a number of guided trips including sunset and sunrise cruises, sightseeing excursions and fishing trips. The Rocheport resident and full-time winemaker also operates Missouri Boat Works and builds custom boats, primarily for friends and acquaintances.

The reaction is as predictable as the spring rise on the Missouri River. As soon as Drew Lemberger trailers his 17-foot dory-style motorboat up to the gas pumps at a convenience store along Interstate 70, two men approach to admire the unusual craft.

Although the boat’s design is reminiscent of high-walled rowboats on the East Coast, the flat-bottomed wooden craft is clearly ideal for the river. When the gawkers ask where to buy a similar vessel Drew points to the letters “missouriboatworks.com” tastefully pasted on the boat’s interior and reluctantly admits he built it himself.

Drew’s low-key promotion stands in stark contrast with other boat builders, who emblaze their names on the outside of their products. In truth, Drew is not looking to sell a lot of boats and he’d rather not do business in a gas station parking lot.

In the past five years, Drew has built just seven boats, two of which he still owns. Drew has settled into a comfortable pattern of building a boat or two each year, usually for friends or acquaintances, and only after carefully evaluating a client’s needs.

Drew built this 17-foot Dory five years ago. It was the first boat he built and he still uses it to guide sightseers and anglers on the Missouri River.

“If somebody says they want a boat built I say, ‘Alright, let’s go have some beverages and let’s figure out what you want,’” says Drew, who enlists customers to help with sanding and other chores.

Barely more than a hobby, Missouri Boat Works mainly serves as a way for Drew to combine a love of woodworking and boats. With a full-time job and another sideline business as a river guide, he has more than enough work to keep him busy.

By day, Drew is cellar master at Rocheport’s Les Bourgeois Winery. On weekends and spring and summer nights, you’ll likely find him on the river.

An avid fisherman, Drew competes in catfish tournaments and guides other anglers in search of lunker cats on the Missouri River. In the spring and fall, he ferries sightseers and birdwatchers up and down the river from Rocheport.

“I like to show people what’s out there. There’s a lot of people who would like to go out but either don’t know how or don’t have their own boat,” he says. “I figured I have all that and it’s a way to make a little bit of money.”

Whether catering to fishermen or nature lovers, Drew takes advantage of the beauty and abundant resources provided by a stretch of the Missouri River that’s packed with recreational opportunities. The area is home to several conservation areas and the federally owned Big Muddy Wildlife Refuge, where efforts to return the river to a more natural state have created an angler’s paradise.

Drew casts a net for bait fish on a small stream near Rocheport.

“The fishing is outstanding,” he says. “It’s just getting better and better every year with the habitat restoration.”

The scenery, likewise, is some of the best along Missouri’s portion of the Big Muddy.
“From here to Jeff City is some of the prettiest. In the fall, the bluffs are just covered in maples. It’s gorgeous, gorgeous stuff,” he says.

Drew offers a variety of guided excursions, from $125 sunset cruises to $350 overnight catfishing trips. Drew supplies all of his guests’ needs, from sunscreen to fishing tackle. Each trip includes non-alcoholic beverages and snacks or meals, depending on the length of the excursion.

Drew’s various enterprises are a natural culmination of his life experiences. He was born into a family of dedicated boat builders. His great-uncle was a commercial carpenter who built White River john-boats. His father was an avid woodworker who often rebuilt old boats.

“I grew up with the idea of building boats as something the average guy could do,” Drew says.

Drew pulls one of his creations, a mahogony rowboat from a pond at the home of the boat’s owner.

Likewise, Drew’s relatives were dedicated sportsmen. Drew began hunting and fishing at an early age and had plied the Mississippi, Missouri and lower Meramac rivers by the time he headed off to college. “I think I’ve always been an adventurous kid,” Drew says.

Drew studied fisheries and wildlife management at the University of Missouri in Columbia before leaving school, 12 credit hours shy of a degree. Drew stayed in the Columbia area and worked as a bartender, waiter and restaurant manager. He enlisted in the Army Reserves and trained as a combat engineer. In time, Drew married and took a job at the winery so that his work schedule more closely matched that of his new wife, Sara.

Working at a winery perched on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River rekindled Drew’s love for boating and fishing. Five years ago, he built his first boat, the dory he uses to fish and guide on the river.

“It’s a great design. I love it,” Drew says of the boat he built from plans. “It’s got a flat bottom and a shallow draft. There’s plenty of space to put bait wells and live wells and dry storage.”

More than anything, though, Drew says he appreciates the fact that his boat is made of wood. Fiberglass and aluminum have replaced wood as the material of choice for boats in recent years, but nothing beats a traditional wooden boat, Drew says.

Jacob Holman points out sights along the Missouri River to Jan Carla Johnson while Drew pilots his boat during a guided catfishing excursion.

“It’s quiet. It’s got a whole different feel to it,” he says. “Once you get hooked fishing out of a wooden boat, whether it be fly-fishing or catfishing or any kind of fishing, you’re pretty much ruined for life.”

A hand-built wooden boat comes at a price, especially if the client specifies exotic materials or finishes. One rowboat Drew made from mahogany plywood, with a clear finish, was valued at nearly $2,500. A similar craft, but made from fir plywood and painted, brought about $1,000.

One of Drew’s fanciest projects to date was his own 11-foot “drift pram,” a fishing boat made of tropical hardwood plywood and trimmed in black walnut. Although the boat, which Drew uses on Missouri’s Eleven Point River, is beautiful to look at, it is built with practicality in mind.

“With one person, gear for a weekend and fishing equipment, it’s perfect,” he says. “It’s easy to row. You could spin it on a dime.”

Brian Sloss, an acquaintance from Drew’s restaurant days, ordered a similar, but larger craft, modeled after the McKenzie drift boats used in Montana. While he knew the boat design would serve his needs, Sloss says he was also sold on the allure of a hand-built boat.

“You can buy the fiberglass or the pre-molded boats but you don’t see the craftsmanship in those. There’s an aesthetic to it that’s so much more than you get from another boat,” says Sloss, who operates the Eleven Point River Canoe Rental in Alton.

Drew begins to remove hardware from his 11-foot drift boat while preparing to make finish repairs. The boat, which Drew uses on the Eleven Point River, is one of seven the Rocheport resident has built in the past five years. Drew’s sideline business, Missouri Boat Works, custom builds boats to clients’ specifications.

Although Drew’s boats are based on traditional designs, his construction methods are not. He literally stitches a boat’s plywood parts together with bailing wire. The wire holds the members together until fiberglass and epoxy resin can be applied, creating a durable, waterproof joint.

“By building boats with modern methods, you get the best of both worlds,” Drew says. “You get the feel and handling of wood but you also get easier maintenance and construction times are vastly shortened. It makes a more affordable boat but it still has that individuality that production boats lack.”

The individuality of Drew’s boats is enhanced by the fact that their owners help build them. Columbia real estate agent Chris Gebhardt recently ordered a low-slung duck hunting boat from Drew, in part, because he wanted to help build his own boat.

“I could have gone out and bought a boat for less probably than what I paid in materials, but it’s mine,” says Drew’s hunting companion. “I helped him do it. We did all the epoxy work and the cut outs and layouts together. I think that’s the cool thing of it.”

With he and Sara expecting their first child, Drew has his eyes toward his next project — a 30-foot boat, with a cabin to accommodate his family. Although he’s open to boat orders and recently launched a Web site, Drew doesn’t otherwise advertise and doesn’t want the business to grow too much.

Drew pilots his dory up the Missouri River.

“I’m perfectly happy with the way the boat company is developing,” Drew says. “I like to build one to two boats a year, but I’m not really trying to look for business.”

Instead, Drew would rather spend his nights and weekends watching the sun go down or reeling in fish on the river. And, whenever possible, he hopes to include paying customers on his trips.

“I would like to take more people out on a more regular basis,” he says, adding that he’d like to see the guide service grow.

“I’m going to be out there whether they’re coming with me or not, so it’s nice to be able to make it accessible to people.”

For more information, call (573) 881-6160 or log onto www.missouriboatworks.com.

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