by Dave Hemphill
In Montana, Bud Lilly’s name carries weight. Any angler who has knowledge of the West’s fly-fishing heritage has heard of the man. Legends may be soft-spoken, but their reputations don’t allow them to remain silent.
Born in Manhattan, Montana in 1925, Walen Francis Lilly II was the son of a barber and a homemaker. For reasons lost to time, locals called him “Bud.” In his youth, Bud was a gifted baseball player. Had society not been interrupted by Hitler and World War II, Bud might have found himself pictured on a baseball card donning the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds. Instead, he wound up dressed in the threads of the U.S. Navy. That was the kind of man he was; when duty called, Bud said, “Hello, how may I help you?”
Bud returned to Montana after the war and taught high-school science. He married Patricia Bennett and they had three kids: Gregory, Michael, and Annette. Little did Bud know, these four people would end up being the main workforce for the business he would soon purchase.
Bud bought his West Yellowstone fly shop in 1952, re-naming it “Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop.” This store would be the fertile soil from which his fly-fishing legacy sprouted. Known for being a trout fisherman, as well as an author and a conservationist, Bud was an early—and ardent—proponent of catch-and-release angling. Bud instilled this belief in his customers and his children, and as his daughter Annette says, “We never kept a fish, ever.” This ethic is now de rigueur among fly fishermen, in Montana and beyond.
Bud passed away in 2017, at the age of 91. But as we all know, legends never die.