Bud Lilly Passes

Bud Lilly Passes

I personally did not know much about Bud Lilly. I do know he was revered and loved by many. I have visited his fly shop, sold a few times over the years, in West Yellowstone. Cool place. West is fishy. And touristy. But it has some western history for sure.

I have read a few Bud Lilly books and enjoyed them. Good reads. Look them up if you have an ounce of fly fishing nostalgia in you.

Bud was a conservationist too. A leading advocate of Catch and Release Fishing and a big fan of #keepemwet. He was an early proponent of women anglers and female guides. He spent time on the hill in Helena when fishing related issues were proposed by our bi-annual legislature.

Thanks from all of us here in the west Bud. You set the tone for fly shops participating in more than just retail. You are fishing that beloved Royal Wulff in heavenly waters to rising trout!

An article from Outside Bozeman. Bud Lilly, Father of Fly Fishing by Mike England

Every sport has its legends – great ones who, with courage and grace, have done things just a little bit better than everyone else. Baseball has Babe Ruth; boxing, Mohammed Ali; tennis, Billy Jean King. These heroes exemplify the indomitable human spirit, showing us what it means to strive valiantly, to rise above the rest, and to know, in the end, the victory of high accomplishment.

In Montana, where there’s little in the way of professional sports, our legends tend to be a little different. They are often those involved in sports and activities that embody our western ideals: fortitude, self-sufficiency, inner resolve, and an appreciation of, and respect for, the natural world. They are explorers, adventurers, cowboys, conservationists, and outdoorsmen. One of these legends is Montana’s famous fisherman, Bud Lilly.

There’s scarcely a Montana fly-fisherman alive who hasn’t heard of Bud Lilly. He’s a fly-fishing icon, having already acquired a permanent seat in the annals of angling. He is recognized as the leading authority on the fabled Madison river, and the nationally-renowned trout shop in West Yellowstone bearing his name is virtually a required stop on the itinerary of any visiting angler.

Bud knows how to catch trout. A professional guide for over 35 years, he reads the water and fish like no other. Books, articles, and even a video pay tribute to his abilities, and his streamside council has been sought by the likes of Charles Kuralt, Dan Rather, and Jimmy Carter. Local outfitters refer to him as “The Dean of Fly-Fishing.”

Bud’s life began in 1925 in the tiny town of Manhattan, Montana. He started fishing almost as soon as he could hold a rod, and by the time he was ten he was regularly catching dinner for all his neighbors. It was in those early years that Bud began to develop a permanent attachment to fishing. As he matured and learned more about the sport, his passion for it grew. It would soon become his livelihood, and his life’s purpose.

But first Bud went to college, earned a degree in Applied Science, and got a job at a local high school. “I was very innocent – I thought that I could make enough money as a teacher to live on,” he explains with a chuckle. West Yellowstone was becoming a busy place, so Bud began working there in the summertime. After a brief stint washing cars, he heard of a tackle shop for sale. His fisherman’s blood was stirred – perhaps he felt his calling – and he bought the shop. The year was 1952; Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop was born.

Bud pioneered the then-fledgling sport of fly-fishing, sending out catalogs, publishing promotional literature, and holding seminars with some of the biggest names in fishing. He gave angling instruction at the first fly-fishing school west of the Mississippi. A.J. McClane, Ted Trueblood, Ray Bergman, and other well-known outdoor writers began to flock to West Yellowstone in search of thick-bodied Montana trout. And they all stopped in to see the resident expert and fishing guide par excellence, Bud Lilly.

Always concerned about his fellow fly-fishers, Bud spearheaded the movement to make the typically male sport of fly-fishing more accessible and appealing to women. As early as the 60’s, Bud offered women-only fishing trips. He helped establish women’s fly-fishing clubs, and with his encouragement, his daughter became the first female fishing guide in Montana.

This kind of open-minded, egalitarian philosophy is Bud’s trademark. Fishing should be fun, he believes, and there’s no room for the elitist snobbery that runs rampant in modern fly-fishing. “Serious” fly-fishermen condemn the use of worms and metal lures as “crude” and “too easy,” but Bud thinks differently: “A good bait-fishermen or lure-fishermen is just as talented as a fly-fishermen,” he says, with due appreciation for what is merely “a different method.” He reminds people of the importance of streamside courtesy. People must respect each other’s space; resentment and anger are equally out of place on the river. “You have to learn to share,” he says.

Nowhere is Bud’s commitment to fly-fishing better shown than in his environmental ethic. He’s been called “Trout’s Best Friend” (in a book about his life by environmental historian Paul Schullery), because like Lee Wulff before him, Bud always seems to look at things from the fish’s point of view. As a result, his conservation philosophy is unyielding: he is committed to protecting and preserving the rivers and streams that make the West one of the greatest trout fisheries in the world. Catch-and-release fishing is imperative to this end. “I haven’t kept a fish for probably thirty years,” Bud says, at once reflecting his personal philosophy and a sensible preservation strategy. He’s been promoting responsible environmental practices since 1950, long before it became fashionable to do so. He likes to joke about the time his wife accused him of spending more money preserving the environment than buying clothes for the kids.

But conservation is no laughing matter to Bud Lilly. “I’ve been involved with a lot of causes,” he says. That’s putting it lightly. As a past national director of The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a director of The Whirling Disease Foundation, a director-at-large for American Wildlands, and a board member of The Montana Land Reliance, Bud has fought tirelessly to protect trout and restore damaged waterways. He is also associated with The National Federation of Fly-Fishers and The Governor’s Task Force for Whirling Disease, and has worked with Trout Unlimited since its inception. Bud works to prevent development by establishing conservation easements on riverbanks, and is a major force in the movement to stop over-grazing and irresponsible logging around major rivers and their headwater streams. He recently petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Westslope Cutthroat trout as a threatened species. “According to the law, they’re supposed to do so, but they’ve just put it on the back burner,” Bud says, with a hint of impatience. As is his custom, he refuses to stand for this bureaucratic nonsense; he’s brought on a lawsuit to get things moving.

This is what makes Bud Lilly a legend – not just his fishing ability, but his determined conservation efforts. Thanks to him, the quality of many of Montana’s trout streams has been improved, and they’re now properly managed to insure that they’ll stay that way.

At 72 years old, Bud shows no signs of slowing down. “I’ve still got plenty of vigor,” he says with a grin, and it shows – he has the lively gait of a man half his age, and he still fishes three or four days a week. When he’s not on the river, Bud visits local schools to teach kids about fishing and conservation. He also spends time at his “current love,” The Angler’s Retreat, a lodge in Three Forks that caters to fly fishing visitors. The building had been in his family since 1915, and after his mother’s death in 1994, Bud remodeled the cozy, 18-room western inn. In addition to helping guests plan itineraries and arrange for guide services, The Angler’s Retreat also promotes the centennial of Lewis and Clark, schooling visiting fishermen on the famous explorers’ travels and adventures throughout Montana.

Bud is optimistic about the future of his increasingly popular sport, provided fly-fishermen continue to practice sound ethics. “We have to educate people about what the real values are – it isn’t just about catching something, it’s about preserving our opportunity to catch something,” he says. It’s this kind of long-sighted view that promises our grandchildren an experience that we tend to take for granted – standing in a crystal-clear mountain river, listening to the crickets and the birds, feeling the cool Montana wind, and catching a trout.


This great article from the Post Register in Idaho Falls. Well written. from Montana Standard By DAVID McCUMBER

The Montana Standard
Bud Lilly, who became one of Montana’s best-known fly-fishermen and pioneered the catch-and-release ethic that saved wild trout fisheries and powered a huge expansion in the state’s outdoor economy, died Wednesday. He was 91.

While he grew famous in the sport as a guide — he guided the rich and famous, including media stars such as Dan Rather, Curt Gowdy and Charles Kuralt — and as the owner of a legendary West Yellowstone, Mont., fly shop — where Jimmy Carter once visited him — he will be remembered most for everything he gave back to the sport.

Lilly was born Aug. 13, 1925, on the family’s kitchen table in Manhattan, Mont. His father, a barber, taught him to fish and to play baseball — and Lilly excelled at both.

He was offered a minor league contract by the Cincinnati Reds, but World War II intervened. Lilly enlisted in the Navy and was placed in a special training program. He attended the Montana School of Mines in Butte for 16 months, then was sent to officer school, earning his commission at age 19. He served for 18 months in the South Pacific, and was discharged in 1946.

He got a degree in applied sciences in 1948, and started teaching school in Roundup, then taught in Deer Lodge and Bozeman.

His love of fishing was unabated, and he bought a fly-fishing shop in West Yellowstone for $4,500 in 1961.

Lilly’s shop in West Yellowstone was a family affair, with his late wife, Pat, and their children all helping out. Sons Mike and Greg and daughter Annette all had guide licenses at one time, Mike Lilly remembered Thursday. “We saw it from the beginning to what it is now,” he added.

“When I started guiding you’d see maybe two boats on the Madison,” he said. “The fact that the fishing is still as good as it is now is largely due to what Dad did.”

In the 1960s, Lilly began to be concerned about the effect of the fishing industry on the fisheries. Many Montana rivers were “put-and-take” fisheries then, with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks planting hatchery trout for the sportsmen to catch. Lilly was instrumental in the catch-and-release movement, getting fishermen to let caught trout go instead of killing them, and eventually led the effort to get the state to stop stocking fish in rivers such as the Madison, which quickly became renowned as a wild trout fishery after Lilly finally succeeded.

It was a significant change for Lilly, who had been catching and killing trout for years — something he admitted to feeling bad about years later. But it was just the way it was back then. “We had a fairly simple idea of ‘waste,’” Lilly wrote. “If we gave the fish to someone, or ate them ourselves, they weren’t wasted. It took a long time for most of us to figure out that there is more than one way to waste a fish.”

Bruce Staples, of Idaho Falls, helped start the East Idaho Fly Tying Expo in 1994. He recalls Lilly as one of the most generous people he ever met. Staples said Lilly gave a lot of people their start in the fly-fishing industry at his West Yellowstone shop.

“His impact on the sport wasn’t just regional, but nationally, he had a lot of influence,” Staples said.

Jimmy Gabettas, owner of Jimmy’s All Seasons Angler in Idaho Falls, said his trips to Lilly’s shop in West Yellowstone as a teen-ager inspired him to get into the fly-fishing business.

“I got to talk with him in the early years of our business,” Gabettas said. “I was in my early 20s but he always took time to talk to me when I would see him at buying shows.”

In the last half of his life, Lilly, who lived in Three Forks, became a leading voice for conservation, taking the trout’s side in every way possible. He was a frequent visitor to Montana’s state capitol, testifying and lobbying for conservation initiatives, and against measures he felt would endanger fish. His tireless efforts won him the admiration of just about everyone in the sport.

The famed writer Arnold Gingrich, co-founder of Esquire Magazine, dubbed Lilly “a trout’s best friend,” and Lilly used the sobriquet as the title of his autobiography, written with fly-fishing writer Paul Schullery, in 1988.

Both Gabbettas and Staples praised “A Trout’s Best Friend: The Angling Autobiography of Bud Lilly” as a must-read for anyone interested in the sport.

Lilly was instrumental in spreading the sport’s popularity to women. And in recent years, he used the transformative power of fishing to help wounded veterans, special education students, and disadvantaged children.

In the year before Lilly died, he was working to help educate anglers about proper catch-and-release technique. He advocated releasing fish without touching them at all when possible, and leaving them in the water until their release.

Lilly was one of the founding members of Trout Unlimited in Montana, along with fellow pioneers Dan Bailey of Livingston and George Grant of Butte, and he was the first president of the state chapter. He was inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame last year.

Lilly’s vision deteriorated due to macular degeneration in the last years of his life, but it did not dull his desire to fish. He would fish vicariously through the friends he would often take to some of his favorite spots.

Thursday, Gregg Messel of Three Forks recalled a day a few years ago when he took Lilly to one of the fishing pioneer’s favorite places on the Boulder River near Cardwell.

“He couldn’t see the fish I was catching, but he could tell by the splash what size they were,” Messel remembered. “Pretty soon he asked me what time it was.

“‘It’s almost noon, just about lunchtime,’” I told him. “But he said, ‘No, it’s hopper time.’ It was in early July, and he told me, ‘Put on an inch-long hopper pattern — no larger.’ And I did, and an 18-inch rainbow, maybe two pounds, and a four-pound brown were the result. I said, ‘OK, Bud, that worked.’”

Messel said he was a college student at St. Louis University when he first met Lilly, who was by that time a legend. “A friend of mine and I had a magazine article and the catalog from Bud Lilly’s shop,” he said. They decided to go to West Yellowstone.

“It was like going to Mecca,” Messel remembers. “We asked him what flies we needed, and he said, ‘Just one – the Royal Wulff.’ And he wasn’t too far wrong. We pooled our money and bought half a dozen of them.”

A memorial service is planned early next week in Bozeman.

Bud Lilly, Legend, Madison River, West Yellowstone
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  • Well written Mark. Bud was a great person and made such a positive impact on fly fishing. When I was the Head Bellman at Big Sky I spent a lot of time in Bozeman at the Rivers Edge which was co-owned by Bud’s son Greg. Greg got me started with all my first fly tying materials and really excited about fly fishing and casting properly. Greg talked a lot about his dad and the powerful influence he was. RIP Bud

  • Mark: such a nice tribute to a legend of our sport. I made my first trip to Montana in 1980.
    My most memorable stops were Bud Lilly’s and Dan Bailey’s shops. Livingston and West, two of the great fly fishing towns. RIp Bud Lilly.

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