NOT Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 11, No. 1

January 2-8, 2003

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Help for the Flummoxed Fisherman
by Bill Lambrecht

The wise old angler looked at my fly-fishing outfit and made his assessment gently as he could.

“You could get a new reel about any time,” he said.

Okay, Bud. Anything you say.

I would head up the Montana road immediately to the high-dollar fishing store, if Bud told me to do it. I’d swim there, if that’s what it took to get this unanticipated, much-needed and free fly-fishing lesson from the legendary Bud Lilly.

As Bay Weekly readers know by now, I have no business fishing with the famous Bud Lilly. No legitimacy talking about tying caddis flies, whatever they are. No right to even stand on the same shoreline of the Gallatin River, a fly-fishing heaven.

After all, Waymen ‘Bud’ Lilly is a fly-fishing king, the author of books, the star of videos and the architect of a Western fly-fishing industry that beckons well-heeled anglers from around the world to the idyllic rivers of Montana.

Remember Me?
Me? I’m the flummoxed fisherman of Chesapeake Bay, the fellow whose angling misadventures have startled and amazed readers of this space.

You may recall one or more of them

  • The mysterious, football-sized hole that opened in the hull of my cruiser after a misguided visit to a voodoo temple while committing an act of journalism in Haiti.

  • The desperate attempts to exorcise the voodoo priest’s hex during a ceremony that involved Creole gibberish and dropping a monkey skull overboard into 42 feet of water. (This is all true.)

  • A trip to the hospital emergency room, where a doctor, while removing the giant bucktail from deep in the palm of my left hand, displayed a special tool — pliers.

There have been years of tortured fishing outings, boat breakdowns, spilled chum and, once, even a man overboard. I haven’t provided updates recently, perhaps because my family, which operates Bay Weekly, has decided to spare serious fishing folks the pain of knowing that these troubling episodes can occur.

Legendary angler Bud Lilly knows about the pleasures of fishing — and much more.
Hex Unbusted
But I can tell you that they do occur and they have persisted. There was the outing a year ago October with my friend, Farley Peters, on perhaps the most beautiful afternoon in history.

Rockfish and blues were breaking everywhere, and I fumbled with rods as we approached them in my vessel, a modest Sea Ray.

But 100 yards away from an incomparably wild scene of breaking fish and diving birds, the boat stopped, and we sat. A bizarre, unfixable mechanical glitch had rendered us helpless.

So until the towboat arrived there we sat, just out of casting distance, so close to a feeding frenzy that we saw big fins and smelled fish flesh.

This year was no better. David Stover, my dentist and one serious fishing fellow, got skunked when he had me aboard. All season, when the fish were biting, I was working until dark. When I was off, the storms arrived and the wind howled.

But it was a beautiful day standing alongside Bud Lilly, and I was about to get lessons of more than one kind.

A Matter of Balance
I’d tracked down Bud for a writing project about the Missouri River, America’s longest river and a waterway that Americans soon will be hearing more about as we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of the 1804 westward expedition of Lewis and Clark.

Bud, who turned 77 last summer, knows about more than flipping barbed bits of fuzz to trick pretty fish. He understands the rhythms of the earth and the delicate balance between commerce and the environment on bodies of water, be they lakes, rivers or Chesapeake Bay.

That balance is especially elusive along the Missouri River, much of which has been turned into a fast-flowing barge ditch that is unfriendly to creatures of any sort.

Bud’s health has been keeping his fly rods in their cases recently. But he’s still operating his 92-year-old Angler’s Retreat in Three Forks, Montana.

Nearby, on the Ruby River, Lilly’s son, Greg, operates the Healing Waters Fishing Lodge where, one could say, fat cats meet fat trout.

So Bud knows the pleasures of fishing. He’s also a very nice fellow, which is why, I presume, he invited me out to his ranch and showed me his personal trout streams.

“You don’t happen to have a rod with you, do you?” he asked.

I did.

Patience Is a Virtue
Truth be told, I had bought that fly reel years ago for two dollars at a southern Anne Arundel antique shop long since out of business. I’d taken it wishfully on a few reporting assignments along with a slightly better rod, but I’d never unpacked them.

Now Bud Lilly, possessor of a king’s ransom in bamboo and graphite rods and the founder of a Yellowstone fishing store, is whipping fly line from my junky outfit into the Montana sunset.

He’s also talking about that aforementioned balance. “The Missouri,” he says, speaking of the great river nearby, “is like an artery system that carries the blood of the entire nation.”

It’s my turn to manipulate the line, and I notice that the fly on the end lands only about two-thirds as far into the stream as it does when cast by a 77-year-old guy who has been under the weather.

“Can you put a little more oomph in it?” Bud asks.

I try, fearful of flinging myself into the drink. That’s when Bud recommends some newer gear, and reaches into his pocket.

He carries with him a wallet-sized leather case with a selection of flies for, I presume, any fish on any water in any weather.

“Tie this one on,” he says.

In my head, a memory swam by of a similar moment. Fishing in a northwest Ontario lake, a friend and professional guide handed me his prized, antique wooden muskie lure.

“Over there. A huge fish. Hurry up,” he said.

The muskie lure flew through the water toward the intended prey — and kept flying, plum off the line. My knot, it seemed, wasn’t sufficient for a stout cast.

In Montana, I flung Bud’s furry little bug toward the home of cuthroat trout hoping that if, by accident, I snagged one, it wouldn’t be big enough (or smart enough) to untie the fly.

Bud talked about patience, whether in fishing or in dealing with environmental damage. “It’s going to be a long time before the river can change back to anywhere near how it was when Lewis and Clark saw it. But there’s a glimmer of hope,” he said of the Missouri.

As he spoke, the line from my two-dollar reel grew as tight as the ribbon on a store-wrapped Christmas package.

“Well, pull it in,” he said, of the boot-sized trout that soon would be flopping at my feet.

A glimmer of hope, as Bud put it. That’s what I’ll take out fishing out on Chesapeake Bay when that time rolls round again.

Copyright 2003
Bay Weekly