BOZEMAN, Mont. – Fly fishing legend, conservationist and catch-and-release pioneer Bud Lilly has died of congestive heart failure at a Montana care center. He was 91.
Chris Lilly says his father died Wednesday in Bozeman.
Lilly was not only an ambassador for the sport of fly fishing but for his home state of Montana.
He was born in 1925 in Manhattan and his father taught him to fish and play baseball. He was offered a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds, but joined the Navy during World War II. Lilly graduated from Montana State University in 1948 and taught school for several years.
He bought what became Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop in West Yellowstone in 1961 and was a fishing guide until he sold the shop in 1982.
In the 1960s, many Montana rivers were “put-and-take” fisheries, with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks planting hatchery trout and anglers catching them.
Some trout shop customers from the East Coast talked to him about catch-and-release.
“It made sense to me,” Lilly told The Montana Standard in a 2015 interview at his home in Three Forks.
Lilly began advocating for catch-and-release fishing and eventually led the effort to get the state to stop stocking fish in rivers like the Madison, now renowned as a wild trout fishery.
“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.
But catch-and-release wasn’t immediately popular.
“Back when that happened, people were up in arms,” Bailey said. “And nowadays ... I hardly ever see anyone keep a fish.”
Lilly also sought to spread the message that fly-fishing wasn’t just about catching fish.
“Fly-fishing is the total experience because it’s in wild country and wild rivers and wild trout and wild women,” he wryly told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in 2011. “It’s the opportunity to be in the out-of-doors, to think by yourself and learn.”
After selling his shop, Lilly volunteered as a Montana fishing ambassador for a decade and said he hosted about 80 different executives from other countries on fishing trips. He told the Chronicle about 60 of them went on to do something in Montana – start a business, buy a home or invest.
Other clients have included Tom Brokaw and Jimmy Carter.
Later in life, Lilly brought his message to lawmakers in Helena, lobbying for conservation initiatives and against any measures he felt would endanger fish. And he continued to advocate for catch-and-release, preferably while leaving the fish in the water.
Writer Arnold Gingrich, co-founder of Esquire Magazine, called Lilly “a trout’s best friend,” which later became the title of Lilly’s 1988 autobiography.
Lilly is survived by his wife Esther of Three Forks, five children and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Pat, in 1984.