S3:E41 Legends of Fly Fishing: Bud Lilly

fly fishing

The fly fishing industry today is a mature industry with a thousand niches, such as salt water fishing, Tenkara, even fly fishing for carp. Before fly fishing’s emergence into the conscience of popular culture came the trailblazers, such as Lee Wulff, Joan Wulff, Lefty Kreh (who passed away recently), and, among many others, Bud Lilly. In this first in a series on fly fishing legends, we attempt to tell a little of Bud Lilly’s story and contribution to the broader fly fishing community.

Listen now to “Legends of Fly Fishing: Bud Lilly”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

Have you read any of Bud Lilly’s writings? Ever talk to him in person? What influence did he have on you?

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The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

We’ve published a book for regular-Joe-and-Jane fly fishers called The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

One person who purchased the book called it “cliffsnotes for fly fishers.”

To switch metaphors, perhaps it’s more like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Buy it today on Amazon for only $15.99!

Fly Fishing and Thanksgiving

fly fishing and Thanksgiving

I have much for which to be thankful as Thanksgiving Day nears. My list begins with the love of God, the love of family, good health, good friends, and a job which I love. Yet fly fishing is high on my list of reasons to give thanks. This week, fly fishing and Thanksgiving have given me pause for some reflection.

Here are seven of the fly-fishing-related gifts for which I am thankful.

1. I am thankful for the years I lived within an hour of famous trout waters.

I lived in Montana for over two decades.

One year, I lived in Paradise Valley — just two hundred yards from the Yellowstone River. Then, I moved to Helena where I could drive to some terrific spots on the Missouri River in less than an hour. Five years later, I moved to the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman. The house we built was less than a mile from the East Gallatin River and less than an hour away from the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. It’s been twelve years since I moved from Montana to the north suburbs of Chicago. But once or twice a year I return to fish those amazing rivers.

I know where to go and how to fish them because I had the privilege of living in fly fishing heaven for so long.

2. I am thankful for the relative affordability of fly fishing.

My favorite outdoor sports are elk hunting, deer hunting, and fly fishing for trout. But I rarely hunt these days because of the cost. Now that I am a nonresident, an annual fishing license in Montana costs me $86. By comparison, the cost of a nonresident Elk Combination license (which includes fishing and upland birds) costs $868. A nonresident Deer Combination license is $602. You will find significant differences between the costs of guide services (if you use them) for fly fishing and big game hunting.

You might be surprised, too, when you compare the costs of fly fishing to other outdoor sports like downhill skiing or golf.

Thankfully, fly fishing is fairly affordable — even if you splurge for a Winston Rod or a pair of Simms waders.

3. I am thankful I can fly fish year round.

When I lived in Montana, the window for big game hunting was roughly Labor Day to Thanksgiving Day weekend. Once you filled your tags, you were done. However, you can fish every month of the year in Montana if you like. I have caught fish in Montana every month of the year. Three of the four seasons—spring, summer, and fall—offer fantastic opportunities.

That is nine months of prime fly fishing!

4. I am thankful for the friendships which have formed around fly fishing.

My podcast partner, Dave, and I have other interests besides fly fishing. But our love of casting a fly on trout streams and rivers has given us a context for our life-long friendship to flourish. I’ve developed several other friendships solely because of fly fishing.

There’s something about it which creates and deepens relational bonds like few other activities do.

5. I am thankful for the way fly fishing has strengthened family ties.

Fly fishing provided a means of communicating and relating with my sons even during the most difficult seasons of their youth (middle-school years). We’ve had some tremendous memories catching cutthroat trout on hoppers in the Yellowstone and big rainbows on nymphs on the Madison.

The memories we share while fly fishing have drawn us closer to each other.

6. I am thankful for the mentors who have taught me to fly fish.

I have written about this elsewhere, but I am profoundly grateful for the guys who helped me learn to cast, to mend my line, and to tie flies. I am also thankful for mentors who shared their favorite spots with me as well as their wisdom. I am thankful for the patience of all those who got hooked by my backcasts or who had to help me untangle my two-fly combination after an unnecessary false cast.

7. I am thankful for the conservation efforts which make good fly fishing possible.

I am grateful for the foresight of anglers like Bud Lilly and the ongoing efforts of folks like Craig Matthews to protect fish and fisheries. I am thankful for the Skinner brothers—ranchers near Belgrade, Montana who were ahead of their time in implementing practices to protect and even restore sections of the East Gallatin River.

I am appreciative of Trout Unlimited, a conservation organization to which I belong, for all of its initiatives and projects which protect wild trout.

As Thanksgiving Day nears, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on all the reasons you have to be thankful for fly fishing. It is an amazing pursuit!

Know Your Pattern: Woolly Bugger

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Woolly Buggers. They are America’s favorites. Well the latter is only popular among fly fishers. But it’s hard to argue against the notion that the Woolly Bugger may be the most popular, adaptable, effective fly pattern ever invented. It’s certainly the king of streamer patterns.

The Woolly Bugger is easy to tie, and it’s easy to fish. I’ve had great success with it in high mountain lakes, small Midwestern spring creeks, and large Western rivers.

Here is a profile of this super-effective pattern:

1. How it’s made

There are two main parts to this streamer.

First, the body of a Woolly Bugger consists of chenille wrapped around the shank of a 4X long streamer look (sizes #6 to #10 are the most popular) with hackle wound through it. Then, a marabou tail runs behind the body.

Both the hackle and the marabou make this streamer look active as it darts through the water.

The most popular colors for the Woolly Bugger are black, olive, and brown. I’ve even tied it using red chenille with black hackle and black marabou to catch the big trout in Hyalite Resorvoir in the mountains above Bozeman, Montana.

Normally, the Woolly Bugger is weighted with either a beadhead or wire (underneath the chenille).

2. Where it originated

It is unclear who gets the credit for the Woolly Bugger, but it’s definitely a modification of the Woolly Worm (a Woolly Bugger without the marabou tail).

3. Why it works

Conventional wisdom says the Woolly Bugger imitates leeches, but it likely also passes for crayfish, minnows, sculpins, and large aquatic nymphs such as hellgrammites, damsel flies, stone flies, and dragon flies.

Trout will chase it and go into attack mode because it’s a high-calorie meal. Compared to a tiny may fly, it’s like the difference between an eighteen ounce steak and a Chicken nugget.

4. How to fish it

The key is to retrieve it so that it darts through the water. You can dead drift it down a run, then swing it and retrieve it with deliberate strips. Or, you can simply cast it down river and strip it back against the current.

Depth is important.

Let it sink sufficiently in the lake or river you’re fishing. You may have to experiment to figure out the definition of “sufficient.”

Bud Lilly used to say that color seems to matter a lot with Woolly Buggers. If black is not working, try switching to olive or brown. Your best bet may be to get intel at your local fly shop.

After you’ve spent a fair share of time fishing with size #18 dry flies or nymphs, it’s refreshing to lob a streamer through the air, let it sink in the current, and then retrieve it vigorously. The attack will always take you by surprise, and then the fight is on!

Other Flies in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    H & L Variant

    The Royal Coachman

    San Juan Worm

    Parachute Adams

Winter Fly Fishing without Losing It

Winter fly flshing is not my favorite. But there is a mystique to fishing the big rivers of Montana or the spring creeks in Minnesota a few days before Christmas or a couple weeks into the new year.

If you fly fish in winter, be careful to do so without losing it. I’m using the pronoun “it” to refer to everything from your sanity to the feeling in your fingers to life itself. The frustration and the dangers intensify in the winter.

Here are seven strategies for keeping your sanity and your life intact:

1. Lower your expectations

Don’t expect a twenty-fish day. Trout feed, but not as aggressively as they will when winter gives way to spring. Don’t expect that your hands will stay warm. Don’t expect the guides on your fly rod to remain ice-free.

2. Wait for mid-day and early afternoon

Trout respond better in these brief periods of warmth. You may, too. So sleep in and quit early. While we’re on the topic of warmth, wait for a warmer day. Tie flies or read a fly fishing book when the weather is in the teens.

3. Focus on shallow water, not deep pools

Bud Lilly, one of the deans of western fly fishing, assumes the fish in deep pools are not feeding as actively as fish in shallow riffles. Deep pools do not get enough sunlight, while the sun can trigger insect activity or even the metabolism of a sluggish trout in a shallow riffle.

4. Try nymphs first

I’ve had some good midge fishing in January on Montana’s Madison River. But unless you get into rising fish, nymphs may be your best bet. Trout do not chase streamers as aggressively (if they chase them at all) as they will when the water temperatures get warmer.

5. Avoid wading in deep water

Slipping and falling into the river on a thirty degree day is much different than on an eighty degree day in July. In July, a bath might cost you your dignity. In January, it might cost you your life.

6. Go with a buddy

This is always the safest approach to fly fishing, but it’s even more critical in the winter. A sprained knee a quarter mile from your vehicle could be a disaster in cold temperatures if you are alone.

7. Dress for warmth

It goes without saying, but pile on those layers. Put on waterproof gloves. Cover your face with a neck gator or a face mask. Double up on socks, too. Wear a wool or fur or polyester fleece hat. The folks at Harvard Medical School say that without a hat you can lose up to fifty percent of your body heat in certain cold-weather conditions even if the rest of your body is bundled up.

Final Thought

Alright, I promised seven strategies, so I won’t add an eighth one about bringing a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee. Also, the jury is out on whether you want clouds or sun. A friend and veteran fly fisher in Montana used to say, “The worst day for fly fishing is a sunny day in February.” My experience suggests he is right. Yet, as noted earlier, Bud Lilly observes that sunlight can trigger certain insect hatches, particularly the big “snowflies” that appear on many big rivers beginning in February.

For now, I’d suggest worrying less about the presence or absence of cloud cover than whether or not you remembered to bring that thermos filled with warm liquid.

Witty Fly Fishing Sayings for the Ages

Proverbs are little sayings that condense a volume of insight into a pithy sentence. A few years ago, I picked up a book of Haitian proverbs in a bookstore in Port-au-Prince. One of my favorites is: “Pretty teeth are not the heart.” I am also fond of Savvy Sayin’s, a little book of proverbs from the old west. One of the gems it contains is: “Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.”

I’m a big fan of proverbs and aphorisms. By far, my favorite collection is in the Book of Proverbs (in the Bible). One of its well-known aphorisms is: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15.1) Another blunt-but-true proverb is “If you find honey, eat just enough – too much of it, and you will vomit” (25:16).

Fishing One Liners for the Ages

So far, I haven’t found a book of fly fishing proverbs. But I’ve discovered some great one-liners as I’ve read fly fishing books and listened to wise fly fishers. Here are some of my favorites. These sayings drip with wisdom. They challenge me, stop me in my tracks, and make me think. You might find a few of these useful, too:

    You don’t learn fly fishing as much as you survive it. [Tom Davis]

    There are lots of ways to catch a trout. Maybe that’s why there are so many experts. [Bud Lilly]

    There’s no taking trout with dry breeches. [Miguel de Cervantes, about 400 years ago]

    The more you fly fish, the less flies you will use. [Bob Granger]

    Rivers and their inhabitants are made for the wise to contemplate and for fools to pass by without consideration. [Izaak Walton]

    The deepest satisfaction comes from letting go. [Tom Davis, on catch-and-release fishing]

    There is no greater fan of fly fishing than the worm. [Patrick McManus]

    Creeps and idiots cannot conceal themselves for long on a fishing trip. [John Gierach]

    No hatch is good enough for you to risk waving a nine-foot graphite rod around during a lightning storm. [Bud Lilly]

    There’s a fine line between fly fishing and waving your rod like an idiot. [adapted from a proverb by Steven Wright]

    Accepting advice makes you no less a fisherman. [Peter Kaminsky]

    What a tourist terms a plague of insects, the fly fisher calls a great hatch. [Patrick McManus]

    Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. [Henry David Thoreau]

These pearls are words to live by as well as to fish by. Here’s one last fly fishing proverb:

    Blessed is the fly fisher who has nothing to say and doesn’t say it.

The Fly Fishing Wit and Wisdom of Bud Lilly

Fly fishing wit and wisdom – you need both to truly enjoy the sport. If you’re planning on fly fishing in the western United States, do yourself a favor and find a copy of Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the New West. Read it. Then read it again.

This volume, co-authored with Paul Schullery, was published in 2000. But it’s still relevant a decade and a half into the new millennium. You’ll want to read and re-read it for two reasons: its wit and wisdom. Lilly’s dry sense of humor and his story-telling skills will keep you entertained.

But he will teach you a lot about fly fishing in the land where the buffalo once roamed and the deer and the antelope still play. Here is a sample of what Lilly has to offer.

Time of Day

Lilly says that the cool nights in the west mean you do not have to get up as early to fish as you do when you’re fishing lower-elevation waters on either coast. Nor can you count on the evening rise when fishing the big rivers in the western mountain valleys.

Lilly writes: “Over the years, lots of my clients said ‘We really want to get the best fishing of the day, and so we’ll meet you here at the shop at 6:00 tomorrow morning.’ And I’d say, ‘Well fine, I’ll put the coffee on tonight, and I’ll be over about 8:00.’ It’s just too cold at the hour for much to be happening. Only in the hottest dog days of August do you have an advantage in fishing really early and late.”

Streamers

Bud Lilly is a big fan of streamers. Large streamers. He fishes them any time of year and argues they give you the best chance to catch really large trout.

Lilly writes: “A study a few years ago in Yellowstone Park showed that large cutthroat trout tended to prey most heavily on fish that were 25-30 percent of their size. Twenty-inch trout commonly ate chubs of five or six inches.”

Rain

According to Lilly, rain can be your friend: “Many times a nice rain in the middle of the day has brought a stream to life for me or my clients. It can drop the water temperature just enough to cool the water and trigger a hatch or get the fish into a more active mood. A hard enough cloudburst can loosen bank materials, including worms and insects, also getting fish out on the prowl.”

I’ve experienced this myself. Recently, a ten-minute rain shower on the Boulder River (south of Big Timber, Montana) brought a sleepy run to life. I landed two sixteen inch rainbows on back-to-back casts in the same run where nothing was happening before it rained.

But let the fly fisher beware: “No hatch is good enough for you to risk waving a nine-foot graphite rod around during a lightning storm.”

Sunk Hoppers

If my hopper gets waterlogged and sinks, I tend to pull it out and dry it.

However, Lilly challenges that practice: “If your hopper sinks, don’t immediately yank it out of the water; hoppers drown, and fish take them just as avidly then. The fish are often looking for the drowned ones.”

Relax

Understandably, you’ll want to make the most of your fly fishing trip to the west. It might be the trip of a lifetime.

So listen close to this next pearl of wisdom from Bud Lilly: “If I could offer the visiting fisherman only one piece of advice it would be this: relax. You’re out here to have fun. You wouldn’t fish 16 hours a day back home, and you don’t have to do it here.”

As the old saying goes, there’s more where that came from. Yes, you’ll find a lot more wit and wisdom in Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the New West.

By the way, if you don’t heed Lilly’s advice, he won’t be offended. He readily admits: “There are lots of ways to catch a trout. Maybe that’s why there are so many experts.”

The Baseball Phenom Who Became a Fly Fishing Legend

The kid dug into the batter’s box, checked the trademark on his bat, and got set for the pitch. It was the biggest moment of his life. At fifteen, this future fly fishing legend was the second baseman for a team of Montana farmers.

Staring at him from the pitcher’s mound was legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige. In the 1930s and 1940s, many of the Negro Leagues teams did a lot of barnstorming. They traveled through small towns all over the country and tried to schedule as many games as they could. It was a way to pick up a little money.

Satchel Paige was the star attraction wherever he went.

Crowds flocked to see him pitch. He had a larger-than-life personality to match his ability to throw a sweeping curve ball. Now peering at the fifteen-year old in the batter’s box, Satch wound up and threw a big roundhouse curve. The kid almost fell on his face trying to get out of the way of the pitch before it broke over the plate for a strike. But after toying with the kid, Satch game him a pitch to hit. That would play well with the home crowd. The kid hit a ground ball single. It was a moment he would never forget.

Reputation on the Rise

The kid’s name was Walen, and his reputation continued to rise.

His team kept winning against other teams in Montana and even against the barnstorming teams. One Sunday, two men showed up to see the team. Walen didn’t know it, but they were scouts from the Cincinnati Reds. Walen’s dad asked him to take them fishing the next day. By this time, Walen was as much a prodigy with a fly rod as he was with a baseball glove. These scouts were also fly fishermen, and they were more impressed with his fly fishing skills than his baseball playing. But two years later, just as World War II was starting, they came back and signed Walen to a contract with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Diverging Road

However, the war beckoned. When Walen returned from his military service, he had lost interest in baseball. He was a slick fielder, but he was a little gun-shy against the better pitchers. Walen ended up graduating from Montana State University and teaching high school science in a couple small Montana towns, Roundup and Deer Lodge.

One summer, a teacher-friend suggested that they supplement their teachers’ salaries by putting up a little car wash in West Yellowstone, Montana. They worked from dawn to dark and made good money. But then another opportunity presented itself. A local fly shop was on the market, and Walen scraped together the money to buy it.

The fly shop was more of a hobby at first. But when Walen retired from teaching at Bozeman Junior High School in 1970, the fly shop was primed to develop into a year-round business. And it did. The fly shop thrived, and so did Walen. He eventually sold the shop in 1982.

The Walen Legacy

A long-time advocate of catch-and-release, he spend countless hours on conservation efforts. He testified and lobbied frequently before state congressional committees in Helena. He even helped establish a fly fishing museum in West Yellowstone. It’s through the efforts of fly fishers like Walen that we have such tremendous fly fishing today. In an interview in July 2015, shortly before his ninetieth birthday, Walen said that he led the movement towards catch-and-release fishing because it simply made sense.

Yes, it did. And it still does.

It’s been years since Walen sold his fly shop in West Yellowstone. But if you drive through town, you can visit the shop which still bears his name. Keep in mind that nobody called him Walen. Since his birth, Walen Lilly Jr. has been affectionately known as Bud.

So look for Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop. And remember that Bud Lilly has had a lot to do with the good fishing you’re about to enjoy the next time you cast your fly upon the water.

Caddis Craze

The exact arrival of the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Yellowstone River is unpredictable.

As its name suggests, the hatch often peaks around Mother’s Day. By then, warm temperatures have caused enough snow runoff so that the Yellowstone swells and looks like chocolate milk. But every so often, cooler temperatures delay the runoff, giving fly fishers a few days to fish during the fabled hatch.

On one of these late April days, I drive over the Bozeman Pass on Interstate 90 to fish a favorite section of the Yellowstone below the Pine Creek Bridge. As I walk down the river along its east bank, I enter a stretch where huge cliffs of dirt and rock loom over the river and obscure the view of the Absarokee-Beartooth Mountains. A deep, narrow run flows right beside the bank.

The caddis are fluttering all over the water. In fact, they are climbing on my hat and on the lens of my sunglasses. Every few minutes, these tan bugs seem to come off in waves. When this happens, the run beneath the bank comes to life. The water seems to boil as trout after trout rolls over and ingests one fly and then another.

My first cast is terrible. It is too short, so I decide to lift the line off the water and make another cast. But as I lift the tip of my fly rod, a 14-inch rainbow cruises to the surface and attacks my imitation caddis fly. I land the fish and try it again. My second cast is better. My fly floats a few feet, riding the roller-coaster current before another trout launches an attack. This time, it’s a 15-inch rainbow. For the next ten minutes, this scene repeats itself several times. Every cast gets a strike. I miss my share and even manage to land my flies in a tangle on my hat. You’d think I had never fly fished before. I hate to waste the five minutes it takes to untangle and re-tie my lead fly and dropper. But I have no choice.

For the next hour, I have at least four ten-minute stretches where the fishing is just phenomenal. Then the action subsides for a few minutes until another wave of caddis emerges from the deep.

But now the dreaded wind is picking up. It whips up dust from the dirt bank behind me, and my eyes cannot take it because I am wearing contact lenses behind my sunglasses. The wind also makes it impossible to cast. Even when I land my fly where it needs to be the wind forces it to plough through the water like a water-skier. It’s time to take a break. So, I hook my fly into the little hook near the cork handle on my fly rod. I cross my arms, and hold my rod to my chest. Then I close my eyes to wait it out.

Skills for the Caddis Craze

Suddenly, I feel my rod jerk. Something is trying to rip it out of my arms. I’m so startled that I almost fall into the water beneath my feet. I get a grip on my rod, open my eyes and can’t believe what I see. I am fighting a fish! I quickly realize that the wind had dislodged my fly from the hook on my rod and that the fly had been fluttering in the wind while my eyes were closed. It obviously touched down on the surface of the river. When it did, a trout made its move. After recovering from the shock, I start laughing as I land a 13-inch rainbow.

A few months later, I share this story with Bud Lilly and Paul Schullery. They are at the Magpie Bookstore in Three Forks, Montana to sign their book, Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the West. Bud and Paul both laugh, and Bud says: “Sounds like it didn’t take too much skill that day.”

Indeed, it did not.

Insect hatches on trout rivers are a crazy phenomena. They sometimes drive the trout crazy, and sometimes they make fly fishers go crazy when the trout go into a feeding frenzy but refuse to take an angler’s fly. Or sometimes they will attack your fly when you’re not even fishing! You never know what to expect.

It is part of the mystique of fishing the hatch.