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.