Bud Lilly, prominent fly fisherman and conservation advocate, dies at 91

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His name didn’t simply adorn some storefront in West Yellowstone, and he wasn’t just a famous fly fisherman. Bud Lilly was a dedicated conservation advocate, and his influence helped bring major changes to the sport of fishing and the conservation of trout.

“He was a real leader in a lot of things that have shaped where we are right now,” said John Bailey, who runs Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston.

His voice is now gone. Bud Lilly died Wednesday evening in Bozeman. He was 91.

He was immensely famous in the fly fishing and conservation communities. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statement mourning Lilly on Thursday afternoon, saying that Montana “lost a true outdoorsman, a stalwart of conservation and a leading voice in Montana’s fishing community. He was, and will always be remembered as, ‘a trout’s best friend.’”

But friends and family who spoke to the Chronicle on Thursday also remembered his friendliness.

“He’s the kind of guy that remembered your name and if you came into his shop or he saw you on the street he’d invariably remember who you were,” said Len Zickler, the president and CEO of the International Federation of Fly Fishers.

Bob Jacklin, a close friend of Lilly’s, visited him this week, only a couple days before he died. They talked a while, and at the end of it all, Lilly had specific instructions for Jacklin.

“He says, ‘Call me,’” Jacklin said. “He says ‘Call me’ on his death bed.”

Lilly was born in Manhattan, Montana, in 1925. He had a shot to play baseball in the Cincinnati Reds organization, but instead he joined the Navy.

He spent four years in the Navy, ending in 1946. When he returned, he became a high school teacher. But teaching school wouldn’t be his lifelong career. When he was in West Yellowstone during one summer vacation, he saw that a fly shop there was for sale. It became the famous Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop.

He ran that shop for many years. It’s how he met many people in the fly fishing industry, including Jacklin. Jacklin came west to fish in the 1960s and soon started working for Lilly in the shop.

“He gave me my start here,” Jacklin said, “I said thanks to him many times.”

Even though Jacklin opened his own fly shop in West Yellowstone in 1974, he and Lilly stayed friendly. They fished together, of course, but they also worked on various water and trout conservation issues.

“Bud did a lot in the conservation issues,” Jacklin said. “He had a very, very sharp mind.”

Lilly sold his fly shop in 1982, but that didn’t end his time advocating for trout and water conservation. He is credited as one of the pioneers of the catch-and-release movement. Many were skeptical of the idea at first, but now it has become all but gospel for fly fishers.

“Back when that happened, people were up in arms,” John Bailey said. “And nowadays … I hardly ever see anyone keep a fish.”

Bailey first got to know Lilly by delivering products to the shop. Later on, the two worked side-by-side advocating for different causes, whether it was challenging fishing regulations in Yellowstone National Park or debating what to do with stocking fish in rivers or lakes around Montana.

“He was one of those leaders from the good old days to now,” Bailey said.

While it’s the reason most people know his name, Lilly’s life consisted of more than fishing. He had three kids with his first wife, Patricia, who died of lung cancer. He remarried later, to Esther Lilly, and adopted her two children.

Chris Lilly, who is 33, said he and his sister’s childhood paralleled their father’s rise in prominence. But that isn’t what he’ll remember most about the man; it isn’t all the elder Lilly was to his children.

“He wasn’t this titan of the fishing industry,” Chris Lilly said. “He was just dad.”

The elder Lilly was dealing with congestive heart failure, but he never let it get him down. In his final days, Lilly was sharp. He was in a care center in Bozeman for about a week. He asked his family to call his friends from his decades in the fishing world and to have them come see him.

Word spread throughout the fly fishing community and many people who were important to Lilly stopped in to see him. Chris Lilly compared it to a group of fishing guides drinking coffee at a fly shop before their day began, and he said he thinks his father held on longer because he liked the company.

“I’m sure subconsciously he didn’t want to leave the party,” he said.

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Neil Taylor
Full time kayak fishing guide, Neil was an advocate for conservation since before the time he started guiding. Outdoor writer, speaker and radio show host, Neil connected closely with Captain Mel Berman and did many positives with Mel to promote ethical angling. After Mel passed away, Neil managed www.capmel.com and eventually became that web site’s owner.