American Fly Fishing

Fish Killer, Fly Shop Owner, Firebrand Conservationist

By Don Roberts

Long before he was trout’s best friend, Bud Lilly was trout’s worst enemy. Not only was he born with an instinct for finding fish, but he grew up in an era when catching and killing were inseparably linked, the harvest inextricably bound to the hunt. Back then there were only three socially acceptable reasons to abstain from keeping trout: you and probably your neighbors already had a freezer full of the damned things; you found caring for and cleaning one’s catch a disagreeable chore; you just plain couldn’t stomach the taste of fish. For most anglers in those days the question wasn’t whether to keep trout; the question was how many.
   In his autobiography, A Trout’s Best Friend (written with Paul Schullery), Lilly recounted that one of his first serious angling companions, besides his dad, was an old woman, a neighbor and friend of his mother, whom everyone called Ma Wiedman. “The two of us would dig a can of worms in her chicken coop and go up to the Gallatin … and we’d catch our twenty-five each [the limit in 1935] in the morning, clean them, and go home for lunch,” Lilly wrote. “Then we’d go back and get another fifty in the afternoon. It was my job to try to pawn them off on neighbors. It got so that often when I’d knock, they wouldn’t answer the door.”
   Despite such apparent abundance and a profligate attitude regarding game, in retrospect Lilly came to realize that the resource wasn’t what it seemed. “We had a lot of great fishing, but I don’t know if it was really that much better then than now,” remarked Lilly. “There were so few laws regarding harvesting fish, and so little protection for streambeds and habitat, that many rivers are probably in better shape now than they were when Ma Wiedman and I were at our peak.” The main difference between then and decades later boils down to ever-increasing population counts. Not of trout; of us. The fewer people who share the resource, the greater the illusion of abundance. Fewer people meant more fish to go around. In addition, the perception of space—i.e., elbow room—provided the standard yardstick for measuring the outdoor experience. As Lilly recalled, “My dad used to take me up the Gallatin Canyon for some fishing, and we were so spoiled that if we saw another fisherman, we considered it crowded. He [dad] complained that he didn’t want to fish the Gallatin on the Fourth of July because he didn’t want to break off the tip of his rod in somebody’s ass.”


One and Done
Around 1920 or so, Walen Lilly Sr. moved from California to Manhattan, Montana, where he opened a barbershop. There were several reasons for the move—recuperation from the flu epidemic that had swept through California, escape from a marriage gone bad, a complete change in career—but a man doesn’t move to Montana to cut hair; a man moves to Montana to hunt and fish every minute he isn’t cutting hair. Somehow, between hours spent fishing and barbering, Walen found the time to meet, woo, and wed Violet Collins, a local who was a descendant of famed Montana pioneer Mary Wells “Granny” Yates.
   Walen Jr., aka Buddy (later Bud), was born in 1925. Soon after Bud’s birth, Walen Sr. proclaimed that was that: no more kids. As far as Bud’s future was concerned, the single-child arrangement couldn’t have been more advantageous. Bud became his father’s constant hunting and fishing companion. Lilly recalled, “Dad started me fly fishing as early as I could handle it. Having read all the outdoor magazines, I was familiar with fly fishing, but my exposure to it was limited to the old snelled wet flies.… On my thirteenth birthday dad let me order a South Bend, nine-foot, three-piece split bamboo rod from Salt Lake City. It cost around twelve dollars. I lost that rod, but I do have my first creel. [It was so big] you could put alligators in it.” 
   Although nothing ever entirely overshadowed fishing for Lilly—not girls, or cars, or carousing with compadres—baseball came close. Like many other sports-obsessed fathers in America, Walen Sr. nursed visions of his son playing in the major leagues. It almost came to pass. Fifteen-year-old Lilly was so good he played on as many as three local baseball teams at once, including an independent all-adult town team. While playing second base for the Manhattan men’s club, kid Lilly experienced the high point of his baseball career: hitting a ground ball single off a pitch by the incomparable Satchel Paige, the headliner for an all-black team that had been barnstorming the country.
   Pro scouts came looking—two of whom, at his father’s insistence, young Lilly took fishing. Lilly later recalled that they seemed more impressed by his fish-catching ability than by his ball playing. However, upon their return a couple of years later to take a second look, they offered the teenage wunderkind-angler a contract with the Cincinnati Reds farm team system, to take effect after high school graduation. It never happened. Instead, World War II came along and threw everyone, particularly draft-age males, an epic curveball.
   When U.S. Navy recruiters showed up in town, Lilly and a friend decided that going over to take the test would offer a legitimate way to ditch school for a few hours. He did not expect to score in the upper percentile, much less qualify for officer candidate school. The “special Navy training program,” Lilly recounted, “turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me because it gave me the chance to get a college education.” Faster than you could intone, “Anchors aweigh, my boys, anchors aweigh,” the freshly enlisted teenager was sent off to the old Montana State School of Mines in Butte, Montana, for a 16-month grounding in engineering. From there, he was transferred to midshipman school in Throgs Neck, New York, where in due course he received his commission. He was 18 years old and an officer in the Navy.
   Although, like many veterans, Lilly was reluctant to elaborate upon his experiences in the war, he made note of the fact that vivid memories of hunting and fishing in the Montana wilds provided a psychological boost. One episode Lilly was not loath to share occurred in the war’s wake, on November 1, 1945. While their ship, the USS General R. M. Blatchford, was temporarily moored in a Japanese port, Lilly and a fellow officer took liberty ashore. Upon disembarking they made arrangements with some Marines to borrow a truck and drive through the atomic blast zone in Nagasaki. In a letter home, Lilly wrote, “The bomb was a complete success here, for the whole industrial area was knocked out of existence. Those buildings constructed of steel girders were pushed over and laid low like fallen grain … window glass was melted and all wooden things burned. The machines stood naked of their buildings.… Skulls and bones are still to be seen [three months after the explosion] among the rubble and thousands are still unaccounted for … children swarm the streets looking very dirty and hungry.”
   Despite the utter devastation he had witnessed, Lilly ended his letter on a quintessentially American upbeat note—a possible prospect concerning the spoils of war: “I have a line on some Jap rifles, dad, so I may have some for us to look at anyway.”


Hello, West Yellowstone
In the summer of 1946, Lilly “saw this cute Irish girl dancing with some guy” at an old-fashioned barn dance just down the road from Manhattan. He cut in for a couple of dances, just long enough to become completely smitten by Pat Bennett, a doctor’s assistant in Three Forks. Never ones to dawdle, having met in July, they married in March. In the meantime, Lilly plunged back into school to get both a degree and a teaching certificate in applied sciences from Montana State University in Bozeman. 
   For the next few years, Lilly bounced around teaching science courses in high schools in several towns in southwest Montana, including Roundup and Deer Lodge, before settling in for the duration in Bozeman. Meanwhile, as the Lilly household expanded—two sons and a daughter—it became increasingly evident that a “teaching salary didn’t stretch
far enough.”
   In 1952, Norm Hansen, one of Lilly’s teacher colleagues, pointed out that West Yellowstone, the most trafficked entrance to Yellowstone Park, had become something of a boom town, a raw and rollicking place, with few services beyond beds and bric-a-brac, and crude unpaved streets given to alternating states of dust or mud. Despite the road grime, gas station attendants were so busy pumping fuel that nobody could be bothered with washing a car. It happened that Hansen’s mother owned a small lot in West Yellowstone just big enough for a makeshift carwash. “So, we went to West Yellowstone,” said Lilly, “cut a few trees for a tent, ran a garden hose from nearby, dug a drain ditch, and were in business.”
   While hand-washing cars was lucrative, it was also labor intensive, a real backbreaker. But at that juncture simply being in West Yellowstone proved providential, as Lilly heard, again through the teacher grapevine, that a small fly shop–bait shop (with a walk-in cooler) had come up for sale. Instead of buying a new car that he’d been saving up for, Lilly wrote a check for $4,500 and received “a little piece of paper”—a handwritten bill of sale for one more-than-slightly neglected fly shop, inventory and sign included. Exit wrinkled-prune hands; enter bins brimming with Humpies.


The Dairy Queen Dog
Lilly spent the next two decades building not so much a business as a brand, which revolved around three abiding principles: first, never forget a name; second, never condescend (no question is too dumb); and three, never fail to dispense sound information and/or advice (sale or no sale). Oh yeah, and free cookies. Don’t forget the free cookies, which, as Lilly wryly noted, busloads of Boy Scouts managed to sniff out from miles away.
   Every successful brand needs to project its own identity or image. Among the many small touches—such as artwork and pottery, shelves of books and field guides, and outdoor gear unrelated to angling—two elements Lilly quite consciously and conspicuously incorporated into the atmosphere of the Trout Shop were his ever-present cowboy hat and a succession of shop dogs, “customer greeters,” the most memorable of which was a Lab named Sam, aka the Dairy Queen dog.
   Of the hats, Lilly wrote, “I like to think that we had something to do with the popularization of western hats among fishermen and guides in our area, and I was glad to see it. I was glad partly because we sold Stetsons and Resistols in the shop, but also because it was part of developing an image of Western fly fishermen. Easterners had their Tyroleans and little tweed hats” and Westerners now had their Stetsons. “I didn’t realize how successful I had been at developing the image,” Lilly mused, “until one day a fellow came into the shop and wanted to buy the hat right off my head.”
   When the customer asked if it was for sale, Lilly replied that “everything is for sale in here except my wife,” then promptly quoted the man a price. The cash register chimed sweetly.
   Over the years, the Lillys owned many shop dogs, “but none had made the Trout Shop his territory as aggressively as Sam.” Despite his loyalty and staunch protectiveness, Sam had a weakness: a fierce love for the ice cream at the Dairy Queen directly across the street. At midday, when the crowd would start to gather at the DQ takeout window, Sam would stroll over and await his opportunity to snatch a carelessly dangled cone. “He was especially effective with small kids,” Lilly remarked, “who tended to gawk all around while eating and who, being short, held their ice cream cones just about at the level of Sam’s nose. He had
no mercy.”


On the Front Line in the Trout Wars
With the boom in fly fishing in the 1970s, the Trout Shop became a veritable beehive of activity, starting with the first five gallons of coffee brewed at dawn, followed by the dispersal of its stable of guides, including all three Lilly offspring, and their clients, and ending after dark with the guides straggling back in and, having filed their field reports, mounting a logistics plan for the following day. It was exhilaration and madness and exhaustion all rolled into one. 
   Along with heady success and heretofore unimagined profits loomed the realization that unless the gravy train changed direction it might be headed for a cliff. More and more people catching more and more fish became an untenable proposition. Animal activist Jonathan Safran Foer observed that fish receive little human sympathy because of their failure to show emotion. “Fish are always in another element,” Foer maintained, “silent and unsmiling, legless and dead-eyed.” But for Lilly the word “fish” was both noun and verb—both the animal and the act of pursuing it. Lilly saw trout as a constantly worthy quarry—dead-eyed only when removed from their living medium, but bright-eyed and evasive in their underwater realm. It became crystal clear that conserving wild trout was not only the right thing to do but that it meant business, or, more precisely, staying in business.
   Enlightened thinking by state biologists concerning habitat protection and restoration, along with a groundbreaking study on the Madison River proving the efficacy of wild trout management versus dead-end hatchery programs, set the stage for a new era of fisheries management and policies in Montana. Special regulations, particularly no-kill and catch-and-release, were enacted to supplant increasingly worn-out meat fisheries. However, neither science nor reason could easily penetrate parochial passions, not to mention an opioid-like addiction to hatchery stocked trout.
   Along with such noteworthy contemporaries as fellow fly shop owner Dan Bailey and river guide Dick McGuire (a man big enough, in Lilly’s words, “to lick anybody in the place”),Lilly manned the front lines in public hearings and town hall meetings, where he staunchly defended the need for reduced bag limits, maintenance of wild trout populations, and enhanced habitat protection. “We had, in short,” wrote Lilly, “to overcome a lot of ingrained and traditional ideas about how the West should care for its natural resources.”
   But the specific issue that provoked the loudest outcry of all was Lilly’s support for discontinuing hatchery programs on the Madison (and, later, every river in the state). At that juncture in his outspoken advocacy for wild trout management, Lilly became about as popular as a swarm of yellow jackets in an outhouse. “There was unlimited hostility,” said Lilly. “It’s something for your soul to get up in front of a group of your neighbors and have them so angry with you that they’re booing and hissing like you’re a matinee villain. We went through that to drag Montana fishing into the 20th century.”
   Were the years of struggle worth it? The short answer lies in a Chamber of Commerce view of today’s West Yellowstone. It doesn’t take a Harvard economist to understand the significance of five fly shops operating full tilt in a hamlet of 1,271 residents. Of course, one must take into account the nearly 2 million visitors who pass through each year on their way to Yellowstone and ponder what percentage of those wayfarers are fly fishers who choose to linger awhile and sample the hundreds of miles of quality trout water in the surrounding area.
   The sheer number of blue-ribbon rivers, the size and number of wild trout, the number of anglers who annually ply these waters, and, yes, even the number of wallet-bulging dollars that change hands—all serve as testament to Bud Lilly’s enduring effort to drag Montana and its glorious fisheries into the 20th—and 21st—centuries. The kicking and screaming have receded to the faintest
of echoes.


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