Nov 12

Leaving a Legacy

by Perry Backus

STEVENSVILLE – They say a photograph is worth a thousand words. But sometimes that single moment captured in time can be so much more.

Dale Burk knows all about that.

The Stevensville man has always found his peace along the riffles and pools of a good trout stream.

He’d always hoped to leave his children and grandchildren with that.

Over the decades, Burk made a point of starting their instruction into the finer points of fly fishing when each one his five children and four grandchildren turned 6. It required patience and love.

“The first thing I taught them was how to work a fly rod correctly,” Burk said. “In those early years, they needed lots of help as they learned how to reach out to make a longer cast and to place their fly in just the right location.”

He taught them how to read the river, too.

He showed them those places where they’d most likely find a feeding trout. He showed them the still waters behind large rocks favored by fish and the feeding lanes along the cut banks on the river’s edge. He showed them how to present their flies just right to an actively feeding trout.

“When you do things right most of the time, good things tend to happen,” Burk said.

Burk learned those same lessons in his 20s from some of the finest fishermen to cast a fly on the Big Hole River.

“It’s really where I got hooked on fly fishing,” he said. If you have a minute, Burk will tell his best fishing story of the big one that got away. He’s been searching for it ever since.

That happened on the first day that Butte’s famous fly shop owner, Fran Johnson, offered to take him for a float down the lower Big Hole near Melrose.

Burk was still a beginner then.

“I had never used streamers before that day,” Burk said.

“I’d fished most of the day without much luck when Fran directed me to try a streamer in a nice hole.”

His rod bent double and the fight was on. “About 30 or 40 minutes later, there was Fran kneeling on the bank and holding one of the largest fish I had
ever seen,” Burk said. “He carried one of those little tape measures and scales in his pocket.”

Johnson’s scale tipped 12 pounds, four ounces.“I was going to keep that fish,” Burk said. “It was before I had learned about catch and release, but it took a mighty flop and sailed right back into the river. Just like that, I had lost a fish of a lifetime.

“I’ve only caught one other brown trout since then that even came close,” he said. “I was ruined for life.”

But he never quit fly fishing.

He passed along everything he’d learned over thousands of hours of casting and catching trout to his kids and their kids, too.

There’s pride in his voice when he says they’ve all become good fishermen in their own right.

Burk’s youngest grandchild, Ted, turned 9 this year. He’d already been through those first lessons on casting, setting the hook and reading the river.

When he came to stay with his grandparents for a few weeks this summer, the young boy proudly told Burk he was ready to do everything himself.

“The first thing he says when he gets here in the summer is ‘can we go fishing tomorrow?’ ” Burk said.

All summer long, Ted listened and learned as his grandfather offered him tips on his casting form and tested him on what he’d learned over the past few years.

Like all summers, this one came to an end a few weeks ago.

When their raft pushed off from the banks of the upper Bitterroot River, they all knew this was the last float trip of the season.

It was one of those late summer afternoons where the air was warm and the cottonwood’s changing leaves created reflections that turned the waters of the Bitterroot River golden. Caddis flies dappled the shimmering waters and the fish were rising.

The youngster asked for one of his grandfather’s handtied size 14 red-bodied caddis flies.

“I asked him to look and see what they were feeding on,” Burk said. “I told him to tell me what he’s seeing. He asked for the caddis.”

Burk watched as his grandson placed that caddis perfectly in a feeding lane right along the bank.


The boy’s rod bent double as he carefully fought the large and colorful cutthroat back to the raft where Burk’s son-inlaw, Joe Gordon, was waiting with a net.

A few minutes later, the fish was caught and a beaming 9-year-old was staring at his prize dripping in the net right before his face.


Burk captured the moment with his camera.

“It was one of those perfect days of late summer that we all look forward to seeing,” Burk said. “It was made more perfect by happenstance when I managed to capture the absolute moment of joy and pride that filled that young boy’s face.”

Burk had always hoped that his children and grandchildren might experience the same feeling of peace and contentment that he’s had all these years on the river with a fly rod in his hand.

“When I began all of this, I think it was more to see if they would find the same enjoyment and release that I’ve found in the experience of fishing,” he said. “In that single photo, it’s now all locked in. I know that’s happened.”

“I’ve always taken my fly fishing seriously,” Burk said. “I later developed my skills as a fly tier. Beyond those two endeavors, it’s been the great joy of my life introducing my children to fly fishing. … It’s a delight to know that I’ve been able to pass that heritage from one generation to the next.”

Burk knows his grandson is already looking forward to next summer’s adventures on the Bitterroot.

Next summer, there’s going to be something new.

“He’s going to be expected to row.”

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