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A Salute to Bud Lilly

Bud LillyBud Lilly, pioneer sportsman and director of Montana River Action, is renowned as a river, stream and trout conservationist and widely known as trout’s best friend. Bud started the “catch and release” philosophy in the Northern Rockies in order to preserve one of the region’s most precious resources. Catch and release started over 30 years ago and thus began quiet revolution that changed fishing to a sport and spawned an industry. He has since become a passionate and persuasive spokesman for the wise use of cold water resources.

Whalen Frances “Bud” Lilly grew up in Manhattan, Montana, where as a youngster he fished the forks of the Upper Missouri River. He is a fishing pioneer descended on his mother’s side from pioneer stock that lived in Nevada City, Montana, in 1864. His father, a transplanted Californian, was the local barber and taught his son at an early age how to fish using worms, lures, and sucker meat. Eventually, he taught Bud how to fly fish and to appreciate its subtleties. There was a rule that no fish would be thrown away and all had to be eaten. Bud’s forays on his bicycle to find dinner for his friends became wide ranging and friends and neighbors around Manhattan and Three Forks soon tired of his abundant harvest.

Bud was a tall, skinny kid, who was an excellent baseball player and played semi-pro second base. Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher in the black leagues brought his team to Anaconda, where Bud got a hit off him in a tournament. Bud was fast, but when he tried to steal a base off Paige, this was too much and quicker than lightning Satchel threw him out. Bud gained new respect for older players. Bud served in the Navy in WWII and graduated from MSU in 1948. He had a distinct talent for teaching and was a popular math and science teacher in Roundup, Deerlodge and Bozeman for 25 years.

Back in the “good old days,” says Bud, we were stocking the rivers with hatchery trout for a put and take fishery policy. We were not aware of the value of wild trout and wild fisheries perpetuated by natural spawning. Following pressure on the legislature by Bud and his buddies, hatchery trout stocking was legislated out of the rivers in the 1970s. This was a time of environmental awakening in the nation. Montana made a decision to do its best to maintain clean cold waters in which trout thrive and naturally reproduce. Although the wild trout policy is the height of logical thinking and has support from the majority of Montanans, it is very difficult to bring it to full fruition. Surface streams are impacted by irrigation, stock watering, developers drilling high production wells next to rivers, subdividers drilling myriads of wells for homes, municipalities dumping treated sewage for mixing zones, streamside home builders re-channeling streams, sewage from homes scattered along the rivers, tapping of ground water and lowering it’s levels.

Bud Lilly has invested years in Helena, Montana’s state capitol, working to fend off threats to our rivers so that future generations have the opportunity to enjoy our incredible natural streams and wild fish. While pursuing his teaching career, Bud supplemented his income as a fishing guide and in 1952 opened his fly fishing shop in West Yellowstone. Through the next 30 summers, thousands of fishermen passed through the doors of Bud Lilly’s shop en route to Yellowstone National Park. By the mid-1950s Bud sensed that the fishing pressure was impacting trout populations. Hatchery fish were being dumped into the rivers to accommodate fishermen’s creels and this pressure was threatening wild trout. He made a brave suggestion: Western fishermen must put back the fish they catch to preserve the existence of wild trout for future generations. It was not greeted enthusiastically, but Bud persisted in his belief. Eventually, the radical thought of releasing fish caught on and as a result fly fishing has become an exalted sport more concerned with giving than taking away.

It was difficult to foresee the pressure on fish and streams in the recent 20 years, but Bud predicts that in order to accommodate the growing numbers of fishermen, there will eventually be a lottery to fish some of the West’s blue-ribbon streams. Lilly maintains it is in our DNA to want to be in natural open spaces and we must be responsible for keeping our ecosystem intact.

Bud was the first president of Montana Trout Unlimited, first chairman of the International Fly Fishing Center, and a founder of the Montana Trout Foundation. In 1999, the American Museum of Fly Fishing honored Lilly with its prestigious Heritage Award in recognition of his lifetime achievement in the sport. The Heritage Award has only been given four times. Bud is the author and co-author of several books, including in 1972 Bud Lilly’s Tackle Catalog and Handbook for Western Trout Fishing, which has since served as Montanans fly-fishing bible.

Bud raised his children to be fishermen. Son Mike earned his way through Law School as a fishing guide and is now a successful Bozeman attorney. Daughter Annette Lilly Ross, now a CPA, was the first licensed fishing guide in Montana and son Greg is a guide and outfitter who runs a fishing lodge at Twin Bridges, Montana. Bud has become a fly-fishing senior statesman, a position he used for the protection of rivers, increased fishing access and research into trout diseases. Bud refurbished his late mother’s rooming house at Three Forks into a fishing hotel and anglers’ retreat. He also has a book out, Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly-Fishing in the New West, co-authored with Paul Schullery and he helped with the Anglers All exhibit on display at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

On May 12th, 2001, Bud received an honorary doctorate degree from Montana State University during the one hundred and fifth commencement ceremonies. On October 27, 2007, Bud was honored by the Federation of Fly Fishers and its affiliated organization Headwaters Fly Fishers by enshrining him into the Fly Fishers Hall of Fame and The Legends of the Headwaters at the Annual Autumn fly-fishing Festival Legends Banquet.

One of Lilly’s latest and most satisfying projects is as director of Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation, where seriously wounded and disabled war veterans are helped to experience the healing qualities of flowing waters with fishing and fly casting therapy. The sport of fly fishing is closely linked to Montana and Bud Lilly’s life has been closely linked to Montana and fly fishing. ~

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