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 like Dan Rather, Curt Gowdy and Charles Kuralt – and as the owner of a legendary West Yellowstone fly shop – where Jimmy Carter once visited him – he will be remembered most for everything he gave back to the sport.
Lilly was born August 13, 1925, on the family’s kitchen table in Manhattan, Montana. 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 signed up for 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 like 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.”
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 Helena, 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.
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.
Writer Bill Lambrecht met Lilly in 2004 while researching his book about the Missouri River. "I found him to be a powerful and articulate advocate" for the river, Lambrecht said. The two became close friends.
He also recalled Lilly's dry sense of humor.
When they met, Lilly "agreed to demonstrate his casting prowess with my aging equipment," Lambrecht remembered. "'You know, you could use a new reel about any time,' he told me, gently."
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.”
One of Lilly’s passions in late life was the Bud Lilly Trout and Salmonid Initiative, a 10,000-volume collection of books, manuscripts and personal papers at Montana State University-Bozeman. Of all his ways of giving back, the collection was perhaps the most rewarding, Lilly said, because “I have seen that we can build something that will have a lasting impact.”
A memorial service is planned early next week. Arrangements are pending at Dahl Funeral and Cremation Service in Bozeman.
Lilly is survived by his wife Esther, and five children: Sons Greg, in Palm Desert, California, Mike Lilly in Bozeman, and Chris Lilly in Phoenix; and daughters Annette Russ in Chico, California, and Alisa in Milwaukee; and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Pat (Bennett) Lilly, in 1984.