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THREE FORKS - It seems Bud Lilly could've become just about anything he wanted.

He had a chance to swing in the big leagues playing professional baseball. He had a master's degree that was his ticket to a career as a school superintendent. Or he could've remained a high school teacher.

Instead, he went fishing.

He became a legend that way, a man people refer to as the dean of Montana fly-fishing, the No. 1 ambassador for the sport, a pioneer of the catch-and-release concept.

Others sum it up just by saying he's the guy - but with an emphasis - he's the guy.

Sure enough, he's Bud Lilly and there's nobody else like him. Even at 85, he's spry and witty, and he's still leaving a legacy in a place he's already made better.

Lilly lives in Three Forks, a town named for the convergence of the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers. Recently, he sat on the front porch of his home, a 1910 former railroad motel with white pillars, and talked about growing up and the two subjects he seems to know best - war and fishing.

His story picked up at the very beginning, with a sentence he seems to have often repeated.

"I was born in Manhattan in 1925 on a kitchen table," he said, pausing for effect as he started to smile. "And I've been served several times since then."

He learned to bait fish at a young age, and picked up fly-fishing when he was 11 or 12. He fished as a way to spend time with his father, and the sport stuck with him.

But at first, Lilly didn't imagine it as his career; his dad wanted him to be a professional baseball player.

"And I got awful close," Lilly said.

The Cincinnati Reds recruited him and wanted him to start with the Salt Lake Bees. But then the war began, and Lilly's plans changed.

***

He signed up for the Navy, and began his service right after high school.

"We sat graduating to go to war the next week," he said.

Lilly was in the Navy from 1942 until 1946, a time when he said he was constantly in the danger zone because "the ocean was salted with mines."

He made it back to Montana though, to Three Forks where his mom had purchased the hotel he now lives in. And at first, it was hard to adjust to civilian life.

"Any serviceman brings home things they have to live with," Lilly said. "There are a certain amount of things that have haunted me forever."

With a degree from Montana State University, Lilly became a high school science and math teacher. One summer vacation, he was in West Yellowstone working at a car wash when he saw that a local fly shop was for sale.

He bought it and it became Bud Lilly's Trout Shop.

The shop gave him the opportunity to sell flies, give fishing advice, and create fishing schools and trips.

"I met people there who were enthused about what they were doing," he said.

After years of operating the well-known shop, Lilly sold it and retired. His wife, Patricia Lilly, was extremely sick from lung cancer around that time, and eventually passed away.

But first, she told her husband, "You've got to find something to do."

That was all he needed to hear. Lilly began volunteering and has kept it up for the rest of his life.

He began by helping to establish a fly-fishing museum in West Yellowstone and from there has helped with many more organizations. For a decade, he volunteered as a Montana fishing ambassador, taking executives and businesspeople from other countries on fishing trips.

Lilly estimates he hosted about 80 different executives during that time, and said 60 percent went on to do something in Montana, whether starting a business, buying a home or investing.

"Fly-fishing is an international sport," Lilly said. "Anyone around the world can do it and we talk the same language."

He's guided so many well-known people down rivers that he can't remember most of their names. A few still stick out though, like President Jimmy Carter and broadcast legend Tom Brokaw.

***

All along the way, Lilly has spread his viewpoint that fly-fishing is about more than getting the biggest catch.

"Fly-fishing is the total experience because it's in wild country and wild rivers and wild trout and wild women," he said with a smile. "It's the opportunity to be in the out-of-doors, to think by yourself and learn."

He also promoted catch-and-release long before it was common. Lilly remembers days when people would catch fish and then throw them away. But he held to the ideal that a person could experience a resource without depleting it.

And if someone ever asked what the fun in fishing would be without keeping your catch, he had a response ready.

"If you play golf you don't have to eat the balls," he'd say.

And he has a simple way of describing the point of catch-and-release.

"If I release a fish than you can catch it," he said. "A trout is too valuable to be caught only once."

But Lilly's known for more than just his advocacy. At Montana State University, he was part of a small group of people that got together to create a collection of trout and salmonid books, which has gained national prominence as a resource.

In fact, a program at the university is named for him - the Bud Lilly Trout and Salmonid Initiative. The initiative includes the book-collecting project and an annual free public lecture about trout.

Tamara Miller, the library dean, reflected on Lilly's contributions to the university and to Montana.

"I think his fly shop down in West Yellowstone was legendary and became a place of gathering," she said. "People that became friends on (Lilly's) fishing trips are probably still friends to this day. It was an amazing thing he was able to do."

Miller said Lilly has mellowed quite a bit in his older years, but still has "a spark that will light up a room when he's talking about fishing or fish, especially trout."

Dave Kumlien, director of Montana Trout Unlimited's aquatic invasive species program, also looked back on what Lilly has done for his beloved sport.

"He's clearly one of the deans of Montana fly-fishing," Kumlien said. "His influence on the sport and the tourism industry is significant, and he's been recognized for that many times."

Today, many in the fishing world seem to know Lilly, or at least know his name. Even if they don't, they'll still benefit from the legacies he's helped leave behind - whether enjoying Montana's blue-ribbon streams and rivers or catching trout that still swim because they were once released.

 

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