Fly Fishing with Lauren
Fishing is a thing of patience, of waiting quietly until you obtain your prize. There are two problems with this. One, I am not patient. And two, I do not wait quietly. Throw in the nice little caveat that I don’t even know how to fly fish, and well, it’s not exactly my idea of a good time.
But fly-fishing on the Eleven Point River? That’s an entirely different story. After my adventures in floating the only designated National Wild and Scenic River in Missouri, I knew I’d have to trek back down to the Ozarks soon. This river is a thing of beauty unlike any other—it inspires the kind of unbridled tranquility and peace that jives perfectly with fishing: rod in your hand, eye on the water, quiet in your mind.
I set out on a stunning fall day in late September with my husband, Jim, and Brian Sloss, the owner of Eleven Point River Canoe Rental. Brian and his team were great on our float trip, so much so that I knew he’d be the perfect fit to teach me how to fly fish. Plus, Brian is an avid fly fisherman. Though he grew up in Fulton and lived in Columbia for many years, he spent much of his time fly fishing on the Eleven Point. When an opportunity presented itself for him to buy a canoe rental business in 2004, he took the bait. After a couple years getting the canoe rental business down, he added guided fly fishing tours.
The great thing about learning with Brian is that he takes care of everything. He has all of the equipment, he packs lunch, and best of all—he rows the boat so you can focus on fishing. This isn’t necessary, but it’s something that is of great importance if you are a fly-fishing newbie like me.
We start at the Greer Spring Boat Access ramp. Here, he unloads his custom-built boat and pulls out his fly rods, ready to teach us the basics. I go first. He shows me the maneuver used to get the line out into the water. Fly fishing is different in that the fly line and lure are so light, you can’t just tip your rod back and cast normally. You have to flick the rod up quickly, stop at the 12 o’clock position abruptly, and then bring the rod back down quickly, loading your rod (a fancy way of saying: Lauren, wait patiently for the line to unwind, please). By doing this, your rod acts as a springboard for the line, and it is propelled out into the water.
I spend the next 10 minutes practicing this move. Up. Stop. Down. Up. Stop. Down. It becomes a mantra on repeat in the back of my mind. Unfortunately, I lack a certain quality most fly fisherman have perfected, that of hand-eye coordination. It takes me a while to get this maneuver down, and I don’t think I ever truly perfected it. But when Brian deems my moves suitable enough, he shows me how to reel in a fish. It’s a little different than a spinning rod. With a spinning rod, you just reel in the fish by spinning the reel. Pretty simple. But with a fly rod, you have to pull the line with your finger. This move is easier for me to grasp, and I start feeling more confident.
Then Brian throws more maneuvers my way: “Mend upstream,” (a nifty move used to cast across fast water, thus delaying the moment your line starts pulling the fly downstream). “Good, now mend downstream,” (a move used to cast across slow water). “Try high stick nymphing,” he says last, making it sound easy. High stick nymphing is a common strategy used to fish in fast flowing shallow currents, where you let the bobber skim the top of the water with your rod tip held high to follow it.
After about 20 minutes of practice, Jim takes his turn. He’s had a little bit more practice than me with fly fishing, so he doesn’t take very long, putting my newly hard-earned skills to shame. This gives Brian time to add a lure to my line. Then, he adds the bobber, which serves as an indicator for when a fish bites. I spend most of my day fishing with a stone fly lure until a fish bites it off. After, I use a lure that mimics a minnow. It’s less traditional, but it gets the job done.
From the Greer Spring access to the Turner Mill access, there is a Blue Ribbon Trout section with special regulations. In this wild trout management area, anglers are limited to keeping one 18-inch trout, caught with only artificial lures and flies. Past the Turner Mill access, regulations are less stringent—anglers may keep up to four trout, caught at any size or with any method, including natural, soft plastic, and scented baits such as dough bait.
Brian, though, has his own stipulations on his guided fishing tours. In my experience floating in Missouri, I’ve encountered some great outfitters and some that are a little less than great. Eleven Point River Canoe Rentals is one of the greats. Brian is passionate about what he does. Not only is he passionate, but he is deeply aware of the importance of protecting and conserving the pristine nature of the Eleven Point River. On his guided fishing trips, he does not allow his guests to keep the fish they catch in an effort to preserve the trout population. For me, this sort of business ethic is refreshing, and I don’t mind having to slip the fish we catch back into the cool current of the river.
We set out in the boat, finally, and I am eager to start. Brian takes the boat upstream first to try out a fishing spot near the banks of the Eleven Point. We cast into areas that fish hide in: boulders, rocks, fallen trees, and weed beds. After some time here (and no caught fish), we start heading downstream and reach a fork in the river. Brian shares that the island created by this particular fork is the largest island on the river. We take the left fork, known as the “Stair Step Hole” because of the historic concrete steps on the steep left bank, and continue casting out. Still having troubles with casting, it takes me some time to feel like I am doing anything resembling fly fishing.
But, the sun is shining and there is a light breeze. I take a break and lean back in the boat. After a while, my feet begin to warm up in the black rubber boots I am wearing. (Normally, anglers wear waders, but since I’m new to this whole fly-fishing thing, I don’t have fancy waders.) I pull the boots and my socks off and dip my toes into the cool waters of the Eleven Point. The sky is a perfect blue with puffy white clouds, and there are yellow leaves falling everywhere around me, a sure sign that Missouri fall is coming. Jim continues fishing in the front of the boat, and Brian gives him pointers on his form.
In the next hour or two, Jim and I each catch a couple fish, but not as many as Brian expected us to. Over lunch, Brian wonders aloud why the fish aren’t biting much today. Then he remembers.
A couple days before, the Missouri Department of Conservation electroshocked the river so they could spend time evaluating the trout population. The Eleven Point trout population was heavily overfished by settlers and fishermen in the early 20th century. The river is stocked periodically. Spawning season happens in late November, making late September and October prime fishing times. During spawning, it’s best to be judicious when fishing. Usually, Brian can see large groups of fish spawning in parts of the river during spawning season, but he chooses to never fish those areas at that time.
“If you catch a female, she could be laying eggs, and that’s a lot of future trout that just ended up in your boat if you reel her in,” he says. Jim studied forestry at the University of Missouri-Columbia, so he and Brian spend the rest of lunch discussing the conservation efforts in the area. Brian tells us MDC recently began a black bear study in the area, and he explains the intricate relationship that MDC and the U.S. Forest Service have in managing the Eleven Point River. Neither entity manages the river alone; the two work together to keep the Eleven Point wild and scenic.
Sandwiches in our bellies and the day’s lesson in conservation finished, we hit Little Hurricane Shoal, and Brian steps out of the boat to position us just below white caps. He says there is great fishing here, but it is difficult. “If you can catch a fish here, you’re doing a good job,” he says.
Jim casts out and gets one bite, but the fish leads his rod near a rock and unhooks itself. “If the fish takes your lure anywhere near a rock, you’re done,” Brian tells us. “It’ll escape.”
I cast out next and land a bite. I pull in the line, giving the fish some room to pull when it needs it but still pulling the fish in closer to the net. Bringing a fish in takes patience. When you snag a fish, you can’t just reel all the line in. You must gently pull it in. If the fish wants to run away for a second, you must let it, Brian reminds me. “Just always be guiding it close to your net. Once its head is out of the water, then you can net it easily.”
Finally, the fish is in my net. I am elated that I, a girl with no patience, exercised superb self-control and patiently brought in a beautiful rainbow-colored trout at one of the harder areas to fish. I begin to think maybe, just maybe, I’ve got what it takes.
Mary Decker Shoal, one of the most talked about points of the river, comes next. The boulders at Mary Decker are left over from an old logging dam. Supposedly, Brian says, during the Civil War, a Union soldier from an Iowa regiment drowned here and still haunts the shoal today. I see no Union ghost, but I do see a couple of good areas to cast. We finish out the day fishing here with some luck as Jim catches a fish.
As we near the end of our fishing trip, Jim and I try to remember how many fish we each caught. We can’t exactly remember, but I know for certain I caught more than he did. Not bad for a girl with no patience.