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Rural Missouri Magazine

Trolling for trout
Floating the Eleven Point River in Brian Sloss’ drift boat, The Doubting Walt, is the only way to fish for trout, regulars say

by Jim McCarty

Chrys Fisher and Matt Rohrer cast their fly rods from the stable platform provided by a McKenzie boat rowed by river guide Brian Sloss. The two say fishing the Eleven Point River from Brian’s boat, The Doubting Walt, is “the only way to go."

It’s early morning and the sun has just found its way past the Ozark mountains into the narrow valley of the Eleven Point River. As the air warms, dense fog drifts in lazy clouds above the pale green water.

From around a bend in the fast-flowing stream, a strange shape emerges, looking like some great beast called up from the depths. At first glance, it is an ungainly craft, its bow and stern elevated above the waterline. But as fishing guide Brian Sloss deftly flips one of the oars hanging over the side, the boat spins on its beam and puts the two anglers on board in a perfect position to drift their lines into a deep hole.

Chrys Fisher of West Plains, the fisherman in the bow, witnesses his strike indicator head for the bottom with all the subtlety of a heart attack. He gives a practiced flip of his well-mended fly line, setting the hook, and the rod bends double. Ten seconds later, a rainbow trout floats in Brian’s dip net, while Chrys and fellow angler Matt Rohrer of Springfield admire its healthy colors.

Adrenaline still pumping, the trio watch the trout swim away after Brian releases it to fight again. Then they get back in position, anticipating the next bend in the river. On what Brian describes as a slow day for fishing, the two land more than a dozen fish.

For Chrys and Matt, drift fishing the Eleven Point River for trout in Brian’s handmade wooden McKenzie boat is the only way to go. “In a drift boat, you are at a premium advantage,” Matt says. “In a canoe, you don’t have this vantage point. Besides, Brian is a great host.”

Brian worked in a Columbia restaurant before buying the Eleven Point Canoe Rental, moving his guide service much closer to the river he loves. He says he enjoys helping others catch fish almost as much as catching them himself.

More common on western rivers than in the Ozarks, this wooden craft provides the perfect platform for the guide service Brian operates out of the Eleven Point Canoe Rental in Alton.

McKenzie boats were developed around 1940 to run the rapids on Oregon’s river of the same name. They proved to be durable, nimble and stable platforms for catching trout. Drift fishing allowed anglers to reach those tantalizing holes that were out of reach for an angler on foot, exactly the reason Brian brought his to the Eleven Point.

As a young man, Brian was introduced to fly-fishing by a friend. Since then, he has fished most of the major rivers in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It was here he learned to pilot a McKenzie boat.

“It became an addiction,” says Brian, 41, a member of Howell-Oregon Electric Co-op. “But as wonderful as Montana is, you really only have about a four-month window. I love this part of the country because you can fish 12 months of the year.”

Back home in Columbia, Brian took on the occasional guide trip on the Eleven Point while working at the legendary Booche’s, a pool hall known for its burgers. “It was more of a part-time thing,” Brian says of his guide trips then. “You can only do so much when you live in Columbia, Missouri. I’ve had people ask me to guide who lived 200 miles away. And I realized you really can’t get a grasp of the river if you aren’t here a lot.”

Determined to do more guiding, Brian left a message with an Eleven Point outfitter who had been directing guide inquiries his way. He ended the message with “By the way, if you happen to know of an outfitter for sale, I’d be interested.”

Brian got a call back with an offer too good to refuse. He teamed up with business partner Ryan Griffin and took over the Eleven Point Canoe Rental.

Brian and Chrys examine a nice trout Chrys hooked during an Eleven Point River trip. The river has a population of trout that is supplemented by stocking.

While still living in Columbia, Brian got the idea of building a Mc-Kenzie boat for use on his guide trips. He says the boat design is perfect for rivers like the Eleven Point, which runs deeper than most Ozark streams. Its wild and scenic designation means fewer access points for wade fishing, and its fast current and heavy streamside vegetation make bank fishing all but impossible.

“When I was ready to get mine, I didn’t know of anybody in the Ozarks that was using one,” Brian recalls. “Now you are actually seeing a few more here and there. It’s catching on, but you’re not going to see a flotilla.”

Brian paid a visit to Rocheport boat builder Drew Lemberger, the subject of a July 2006 Rural Missouri story. “I got a great price putting in some sweat equity,” Brian says.

In 2001, Brian’s boat was ready. But one patron of Booche’s, Walt Rolly, insisted the boat built from marine-grade plywood wouldn’t float. In honor of his friend’s skepticism, Brian dubbed the craft “The Doubting Walt.”

Over the years, the Walt has proved popular with the anglers Brian guides because it offers huge advantages over more traditional Eleven Point vessels.

“The biggest advantage is you can stand up,” Brian says. “Most of the fish we catch are out of the boat in deeper water. If you were trying to do that from the bank with a fly rod, it would be tough. It just gets you to more fish really. And it gives you a nice secure platform that is 54 inches wide. It’s almost impossible to turn it over. And it’s highly maneuverable. Both ends are out of the water so when I hit one oar, it turns sharply.”

Brian gives Chrys some pointers as he wade-fishes the scenic river. A patient teacher, Brian routinely guides trips for people who have never used a fly rod.

Fishing out of the Walt works best with two people plus Brian midship manning the oars. When he guides, Brian supplies all of the equipment, along with lunch. “Really, the only thing someone needs to bring is waders. I try to get people to buy some flies so they don’t have to use all of mine, but we generally end up taking about half out of my box anyway.”

A patient teacher, Brian guides many people who have never before cast a fly. “Usually, if someone’s never fly-fished, before we get on the river we’ll practice false casting, roll casting, making sure they can get 30 to 40 feet of line out there. I work with them intently all day. I stay on their shoulder and work until they get better.”

On the Eleven Point, the premier fishing time is late summer through November, although fishing can be good well into the winter months. The river has a population of wild trout averaging 200-250 per mile. This population is supplemented by one annual stocking.

The stretch from Greer Spring to Turner’s Mill is a trophy trout area. This means a keeper trout from here must be at least 18 inches long. Last season, Brian guided anglers to two 24-inch trout — and released them.

Brian aims his marketing efforts at a conservation-minded crowd. His guide trips are catch-and-release only.

“I’m kind of a stickler for catch-and-release. If I let people limit out on the guide trips, you can only sustain so much. I don’t have a moral problem when someone goes down the river and limits out. But I think it’s more valuable to catch a fish three times before he’s taken than to catch him one time and he’s gone.

Brian keeps his rates lower than guides on other Ozark streams, which he says makes up for the longer drive from population centers. Hiring him for the day is $250, which compares favorably to the $400 charged by guides on the White River. When groups exceed the Walt’s capacity, Brian enlists a friend who guides from a motorized johnboat.

The Doubting Walt is a McKenzie boat, a type that was designed in the 1940s on one of Oregon’s wild rivers. The design is more common in the West, but is catching on in Ozark streams as well.

Brian says his guests are drawn by the wild nature of the river, which is limited to three outfitters. He points to the huge amount of public land in Oregon County, and the plethora of trails, springs, geologic wonders and solitude available to visitors. If he never caught another fish himself, chances are he would be content here.

“I didn’t fish today, but I had a good time,” he says of the day’s trip. “I enjoy rowing the boat and telling people what to do. To me, it’s almost as much fun to help someone catch a fish as it is to catch one yourself. I’ve caught plenty and I’ll catch more. There’s no rush. I’ll have my day off and catch a bunch.”

For more details about Brian’s guide service and canoe rental on the Eleven Point River, call 417-778-6497 or send e-mail to canoe@orttrackm.missouri.org. His Web site, www.11pointcanoe.com, also has links to area lodging and other attractions.

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