Beyond a Fishing Story

by David McCumber

THREE FORKS – If there’s one thing just about everybody in Montana who cares about trout fishing has agreed on for the past six or seven decades, it’s that Bud Lilly is a really nice guy.

Well, yes, most of the time. But it must be told: Bud Lilly has a sadistic streak.

I am driving down a back road near the confluence of the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison rivers on a beautiful sunny July morning, and Bud is riding shotgun.

Bud, who turned 90 on August 13, has macular degeneration, and his vision is no longer perfect, though I suspect it’s a lot better than he lets on. Anyway, as a consequence, he’s wearing wraparound shades under his flatbrimmed Stetson, giving him sort of a sinister, Harry Dean Stanton look. Perfect for what
transpires next.

Abruptly he says, “You have your fly-fishing outfit with you?”


“Then turn here,” he says. “Park right there at the end of the bridge.”

Bud Lilly

Bud Lilly

We get out of the truck and walk onto the bridge.“Any rising?” he demands. He knows darned well what I’m looking at. The water of the lower Gallatin is low and clear. From the bridge downstream for 20 yards, fish are rising all over the river like popcorn on a hot skillet.

“Put on a dry with a nymph dropper,” Bud says. “Just some sort of little bead-head.”

I soon realize to my horror that I’m missing two fly boxes out of my vest, and the smallest bead-head
nymphs I’ve got are #14s.

“Too big,” he grunts. “Try anyway.”

Bud stays on the bridge, watching, and I head down to do battle.

I tie on the smallest caddis fly I have and from the hook drop the aforementioned bead-head hare’s ear on about a foot of tippet.

I flip the dry-dropper rig out into the middle of a full-on boil of feeding trout and whitefish.


I slug it through there maybe a dozen times, trying different lanes, dead-drifting then stripping it back.

I’m certainly not putting the fish down – they are still chowing everywhere I look.

“Try stripping it right away instead of letting it drift,” Bud says. So I try that for the next 10 casts.


I switch to a prince nymph. Still too big. Nothing.

I look up on the bridge and I see Bud’s shoulders shaking suspiciously.

“Something funny?” I inquire.

He shakes his head, unconvincingly, and then says, in the driest possible tone, “You get tired of playing with those, go over on the other bank. They’re podded up over there too.”

After another 15 fruitless minutes, I trudge to the other bank and wet-wade out to a gravel bar so I can place my horribly hatch-mismatched flies right into the action.

By this time I’ve tried several dries by themselves – every small mayfly I’ve got, blue-wing olive, attractors, even out of desperation a hopper or two. I’ve also tried a wide variety of nymphs. Of course, there are no midges in my fly boxes, and the midge hatch off the concrete bridge is so thick they’re breaking EPA clean air standards.

The fish are jumping over my dry fly. They’re coming up under my tippet to take the midges off the surface.

I’m amazed I haven’t foul-hooked one by now. Big, slurping, aggressive fish.

“One other thing you might try,” Bud calls from above.

“What’s that?” I ask between gritted teeth.

The shoulders shake again. “Go somewhere else.” This was followed by what can only be described as a guffaw.

As I put my rod in the truck and squelch wetly into the driver’s seat, Bud says, “You know what fly you needed down there? What they call a number nothing.” This is followed by another evil laugh.

The good Bud Lilly is back. “See how steep the banks are?” he points. “People try to haul their boats
out here all the time. It’s dangerous.”

So Bud has organized some friends and volunteers to do something about it. “Head down toward Logan,” he said.

In about a mile, I turn toward the river again, and the windshield fills with 1,300 feet of pristine river frontage. On the near bank, lush native grasses are golden in the sun. On the far side, bluffs and a craggy ridge line rise quickly.

“We took all kinds of junk out of here, tons of it, to the landfill,” he said. “This is the way it’s supposed to look.”

I walk down to the river at the spot where Bud is creating the new fishing access. A dozen feet upstream is every angler’s dream riffle. Tiny black caddis are hatching in clouds, and the fish are feasting.

“We need more access, not less,” Bud Lilly says, warming to a favorite subject. “We have more and more
fishing pressure on Montana streams, and a lot of rich people are coming in and buying up river frontage and trying to keep people out.

“Where boats can go in, there are too many of them,” he said. “That’s why we need more points of access.”

Surprisingly, despite the growing numbers of anglers, Lilly says he believes the fishing is better now in the state than it was 20 years ago. If that’s true, Bud Lilly should get a lot of the credit.

Fifty years ago, he was the West’s foremost catch-and-release pioneer.

“I started out a fish catcher and a fish keeper,” he says. “But a lot of the time, we didn’t even know it, but we were catching hatchery fish. They put them in there, and we took them out.”

He realized that the wild trout were what made Montana streams special, and that the put-and-take cycle of hatchery fish had to end. “After I opened my fly shop in West Yellowstone, I had some customers from the East who talked to me about catch-and-release. They were already trying it there.

“It made sense to me,” Lilly said. With his leadership, the idea caught on and spread throughout the West.

Fly fishing became about conservation, not killing; hatchery fish were removed; and wild trout populations made a huge comeback in Montana streams. Lilly’s forebears emigrated to Montana after the Civil War, and a great-uncle was killed with Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Which was less than 50 years before Bud was born – August 13, 1925, on the family’s kitchen table in Manhattan, Montana.

His father was a barber, and little Bud got used to listening in on all the customers’ stories from the back room – which may explain his penchant for storytelling.

His father was also a baseball fanatic and an ardent fly fisherman, and Bud took after him on both counts. He played American Legion and then town-team baseball, and very soon found himself in a brush with fame.

He played in an exhibition game against a Negro League traveling team that included the renowned Satchel Paige. Lilly, a light-hitting, slick-fielding 15-year-old second baseman, managed to time a big roundhouse curve from Paige and scratch out a groundball hit.

“I thought I was doing so well, I’d try to steal second base,” he said. “They were waiting for that,” and he was out by plenty.

He was pursued by the Cincinnati Reds, but World War II intervened, and he became an officer in the Navy. “When I got back,” he said, “I no longer had interest in playing baseball.”

073015-mis-out-bud-lilly-4 for MT 55Bud went to school at the Montana School of Mines in Butte, excelling in math and science, and he
taught those subjects in Roundup, Deer Lodge and Bozeman before getting a chance to buy a fishing shop in West Yellowstone. He scraped $4,500 together and Montana fishing was forever changed.

He got to know hundreds of fishermen and trained scores of guides – including children Mike, Greg and
Annette. He became legend, for his kindness as well as his gruff humor. And the barber’s son collected fishing stories.

He tells one about a skinflint customer looking for a bargain.

He watched the man go in and out of a couple of other shops in West Yellowstone before coming into his.

“I’m looking for a reel,” the customer announced. “I have some I can show you,” Lilly responded.

“But I’m looking for a $5 reel,” the customer said firmly.

“Well, I’ve got some,” Lilly replied.

“You do?” said the surprised customer.

“Yup, but I get $15 for them,” Lilly told him.

Over the years, Bud Lilly has become one of the leading voices for conservation, taking the trout’s side in every possible way. He has been a frequent visitor to Helena, testifying and lobbying for conservation initiatives, and against measures he felt would endanger trout. His tireless efforts have won him the admiration of just about everyone in the sport.

Now, he’s working on educating anglers about catch and release. Even when releasing is done correctly,
studies show the fish mortality rate is around 20 percent. He’s trying hard to spread the word to make
sure anglers minimize handling of trout, and always wet their hands before touching fish. He advocates releasing fish without touching them at all when possible.

He’s also responsible for assembling the Bud Lilly Trout and Salmonid Initiative, a 10,000-volume
collection of books, manuscripts and personal papers at Montana State University. Of all his pro bono efforts for fish, the collection is perhaps the most rewarding, Lilly says, because “I have seen that we can build something that will have a lasting impact.”

It’s easy to get the sense that behind those dark glasses, Bud is silently replaying the stories he likes best from a lifetime of Montana fishing. It doesn’t take much encouragement to get him to tell the stories out loud. Ask him about his favorite fish and he’ll probably tell you about one he didn’t catch himself.

He was with his father. Often, after the barber shop closed at six in the evening, they would hit the water together. One night, when Bud was 9 or 10, they went to Baker Creek, a tributary of the Gallatin. As the dusk deepened, his father caught a fish, and before long it was evident that it wasn’t just any fish. “Go to the car and get my flashlight,” his dad told him. “Let’s see just what we’ve got here.”

What they had, by flashlight, was a nine-pound brown trout, and in the telling of it, Bud Lilly’s face lights up just like it must have that evening, eighty years ago.

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