In the Fall of 2015, an opportunity arose and found Jon, Justin and myself (J3) contemplating the purchase of Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop. Truth be told, this scared the shit out of all three of us and I’d be lying if I said I never lost any sleep over this decision. Booze will help one manage crazy periods in life and as long as it doesn’t become a crutch and throw a wrench into the process, there’s nothing like bourbon to help solve a problem or two. Life was going to change as we knew it, that is of course if we pulled the trigger and made the jump to the Premiere League of the fly fishing world. Owning and operating a fly shop is something Jon and I never thought we’d venture into; we enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle of guiding year around with enough time off for hunting, fishing, traveling and family. Justin however, had been running his fly shop (West Yellowstone Fly Shop) here in town for about ten years; splitting his time between Argentina and West Yellowstone taking the girls along with him for the ride. Guides are notoriously independent folks who have a hard time committing to just about everything except the guide season and their precious time away from guiding. How are the three of us supposed to pull this off? While communication and accountability are the key points, we are not completely sure just yet what lies ahead. We’ve almost made it through our first season, are paying the bills and have come up for air. Think of it like a tarpon, when it comes up for a gulp and then gives the angler another run for their money. We are in planning mode for 2018 and beyond and this time of our lives is exciting to say the least.
We pulled the trigger and bought Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop, closing on the business November 30th, 2016. At some point over the Winter of 2015-16 we made the decision to change the name of the most iconic fly shop in the Rocky Mountain West. Mind you, this was no easy task and we’ve taken a fair amount of grief over it. The shop had gone through three different owners when we came along. Bud hadn’t owned the place since the mid 80’s, after buying it back from the two fishing guides he’d sold it to in 1982, then selling it to Jim and Ann Criner. Dick and Barb were next and along came J3 last fall. To us, this hadn’t been Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop since the day he sold the place and moved back to Three Forks. Bud was a legend and touched thousands of lives from the roughly 30 years he owned the place. Even after he sold his fly shop, Bud continued to educate anglers from all walks of life; he was a huge supporter of Veterans and teaching anglers was just one of his many passions. Conservation was a close second and he was known as a “Trout’s Best Friend” for good reason. The history surrounding Bud Lilly’s is storied to say the least. Most of the well known names in western fly fishing got their start while working for Bud Lilly on this very corner. We were fortunate to spend time with Bud last December at his place in Three Forks. Those four hours are something I’ll never forget, the same goes for Jon and Justin. Bud didn’t beat around the bush and asked us what the name of the shop would before anyone could get comfortable. He was sitting in a easy chair in the corner of the old hotel, donning sunglasses and long white goat tee when he asked the question, “so, what are you gonna run it as, what are you gonna call it?”. I stumbled on my words for a moment, uneasy with telling the man that we had a different name in mind, but quickly came to my senses and told Bud that we were changing the name to Big Sky Anglers. He sat there for a moment, rocking back and forth, then said “good, you call me with anything you need and I’ll do everything I can to help you boys out. The name of the game is relationships and if you build them, you will succeed.” He also mentioned that it was “about damn time my name came off the side of that building”. The name change always felt right with us, but having Bud’s blessing made it even better. Bud passed away on January 6, 2017. That morning, Bob Jacklin called me at the shop and gave me the sad news. Bud’s wife, Esther, had mentioned to Bob to make sure that he called the three of us regarding Bud’s passing. There I sat, in Bud’s old fly shop, chill after chill running down my spine as I thought about all the history between these walls; most of which I’m not even aware of. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but I do remember the phone ringing several times and I never once got up to answer it; lost in thoughts and not really wanting to discuss much with anyone. Later that day, Bob called and invited me down to his shop for tea. We discussed many things, but Bud’s life was the main topic. Bob told me story after story and I wished I could’ve recorded it all.
We’ve got plans to honor Bud here in the shop, while we aren’t exactly sure how, it will happen sooner than later. Mostly, we will honor him in the way we treat others; with respect, in hopes that we build a business similar to that of the late Bud Lilly.
Big Sky Anglers was created in the Fall of 2004 after I got my outfitter’s license in Helena. I had a name, but no logo or web site to market my new business. Kielly Yates, a long time friend and graphic designer, saw my passion for the business and made it his MO to help me out. The trout above is what he came up with, but originally, instead of the Sphinx Mountain inside the trout, he had the Teton Range. Look above at the photo and you’ll see Sphinx Mountain and the Helmet, the two most prominent peaks in the Madison Valley, inside the body of the trout along with the stars above the mountains. When Justin, Jonathan and myself became partners, Kielly made another change to the logo incorporating Orion’s Belt into the scenery(it’s in the tail). STARS ALL ALIGNING This constellation can be seen from both North and South America at the same time; down south, they call the Tres Marias. With all of us splitting time between these two continents and the fact that there’s three of us, Orion’s Belt was very fitting. Over the years, I’ve had folks get confused and ask me if the business is in Big Sky, Montana. The term Big Sky Country is a nick name given to Montana years ago and back in 2004 I thought it was fitting to name the business with this in mind. Whether you’re fishing in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South America or even the wide open salt flats, the sky always seems endless. Jon, Justin and myself have been guiding and fishing throughout the entire Western United States for over 25 years. We all have deep ties to the mountains, rivers, lakes throughout the world, but we call West Yellowstone home.
The fish gods must be looking out for me, as I have managed to convince another group of anglers to travel down to the Argentina for a visit with the good folks at Pesca Patagonia. Some of you know my buddy Justin Spence from his famed fly shop here in West Yellowstone – The West Yellowstone Fly Shop and some of you know Justin from our trips together here in Montana. He also operates a top shelf outfitting company in and around Junin de los Andes. Justin, his wife Rachel and their lovely little girls spend the entire winter and spring in Junin. Half of the year in Montana and half of the year in Patagonia, what an amazing life!
In early April, five of us will make the big trip from North America to South America. We’ll all meet up in BA, take a ride across the city and jump a airplane to Bariloche. From there we’ll meet up with Justin and head towards San Martin. We’ll fish the Malleo, possibly the Chimehuin or Alumine, the Collen Cura for a couple and then who knows where we’ll end up for last couple of days.
Some folks give me a hard time about traveling that far for trout, especially when it’s a solid time frame for chasing salt water species, but Argentina gets in one’s blood and its hard to shake. Their rivers are like our rivers, only different. There are moments when when I wake up from day dreaming of fight with a big brown trout that had just tossed the hooked. Those are memories from my time down south in 2013 and some of those fish were true giants. But it’s not just the quality angling that makes me want to return; the fishing culture is more laid back, it’s the “let it happen” attitude when you’re submersed in fishing and everything is right in the world. Getting after it and putting in day after day on the water is like Spring Training in the MLB. Everyday spent on the river gets you prepped for the next day, if you’ve got the time, stay as long as possible. And then there’s the locality of where you are fishing. Argentine Patagonia is remote and not populous at all. Some folks like to compare it to stepping back in time, to the old days of fishing out West when hardly a soul actually could point out the Missouri and it’s tributaries on a map of the United States.
Right now, I’ve got a busy couple of months ahead. There will be late nights at the tying bench, picking over lines for the trip and the lovely little process of laying out all your gear as you prep for a world class fishing trip. I’m excited about heading back down to Argentina.
Yellowstone’s winter season in the Interior is now a month from shutting down. Where does all the time go? I have been guiding five days a week again this season for Yellowstone Alpen Guides, making this my 9th year and never have I enjoyed guiding as much as this winter. Luckily, this season, we have decent snow. Truth be told, after last years bleak winter, I was not looking forward to guiding in YNP. Mother Nature was providing us with almost weekly snow storms, but now that February has hit, she’s as dry as dirt. And it’s unseasonably warm to boot. The past few days have seen the snow melting from my roof and piling up as ice on the ground, then running into our garage as I frantically try to chip away the glacial mound in front of the door.
Is this the new norm? Currently, its 33 degrees at 11am…it’s not even noon yet! A week or so ago, the morning temp was -33 degrees. I took a break for a couple hours and tended to our roof and the melting snow, now the temps are reading almost 45 degrees. I should be fishing but adulting is getting in the way. The roads in West Yellowstone are showing signs of spring and spring in these parts is normally a couple months away.
Overall, there has been plenty of wildlife along way to Old Faithful and of course the scenery never gets old. The Canyon runs have been little void of life from time to time, but recently there have been bison on the move in the Gibbon Canyon, which means that coyotes and foxes are making an appearance as well. Wolves have not had much of a presence this season along the Madison, Gibbon and Firehole. There’s been a few sightings, but overall they have been non existent. I would say that has something do with the 94% snow pack and the fact that there are more elk around Big Sky, Gardiner and in the Madison Valley around Cameron, MT. Wolves chase elk and the elk population is down to just a couple dozen, if that, animals on the west side of the park along the Madison drainage. There are two small bull elk and one giant bull living along the Madison River around 7 Mile bridge. So far, they look very healthy. While winter is not over just yet, this break from the cold is nice for every single living thing in these parts.
I’m off to town for a while, with any luck it will be nice enough to drink a beer outside this evening. Pray for snow.
Statewide, there are fishing regulation changes that are coming down the pipe and frankly, I don’t really care for all of them. I will not go into any other regulation changes other than those here on the Madison River. First off, I am not a fisheries biologist, however, the amount of time I have spent on river over the past 23 years of my life as an angler, guide and outfitter gives me some insight on the topic.
Throughout the Rocky Mountain West, fishery managers are on a path to “simplify” regulations. Folks, if you can read, then you can follow the regulations as they stand right now. Ever try to draw an hunting tag in the West? Wading through those regulations takes time, energy and a complete understanding of entire mountain ranges that are broken apart into zones – it gets confusing to say the least. These “proposed” fishing regulation changes are a huge swing in the other direction from what we’ve had for a VERY long time.
Why is this? There are many rivers in the State of Montana that are open year round (the Missouri and the Big Horn to name two notable ones) and fishing these rivers in the spring has not lead to a downfall in fish populations. However, these rivers are busy places and getting busier all the time – especially the Missouri. The Madison is the busiest river in the State, period. Opening it up year round will put more pressure on the fish at a time period when they are vulnerable. I can tell you that as soon as the river is open, more anglers will come here to fish. Will it hurt the fishery? That remains to be seen and fisheries biologists will tell you that no, it does not hurt the fishery to fish over spawning fish. This is where ethics comes in to play a part. Personally, I don’t fish directly over redds (spawning nests) as I have an overwhelming feeling to leave them alone. However, I do fish and guide rivers in the springtime and it can be difficult to avoid the redds – in some rivers redds are almost everywhere. Avoiding the shallow gravel bars and the shallow channels is a solid choice in the months of April, May and early June. The Madison is a shallow river and a majority of the trout spawn in the river itself. Do we need more anglers walking on redds and hooking spawning trout? Will that have a negative impact for the years to come? I want to say yes, but I can’t say that it will either. In my opinion, the Madison River needs a break during the springtime.
Below, in black ink, is what’s in store for the Madison River. I would suggest that most of these changes will happen. In my experience, once FWP gets this far, it’s imminent. Your comments matter though, so speak up. What’s alarming, is that hardly anyone knows about it and not many of us have heard a word about this from FWP. Just this morning, the outfitters on the river received a note about the proposed changes and now that the public meetings have come and gone, all we can do it write in our comments or make a phone call. There was not a public meeting in West Yellowstone or Ennis.
Yellowstone National Park boundary to Hebgen Reservoir
• Catch-and-Release for rainbow trout, except anglers 14 years of age and younger may take 1 rainbow trout daily and in possession, any size.
• Combined Trout: 5 brown trout daily and in possession, only 1 over 18 inches.
Hebgen Dam to Ennis Reservoir
• Artificial lures only.
• Combined Trout: 1 Daily and in possession, any size. .
Quake Lake outlet to Lyons Bridge
• Closed to fishing from boats/vessels
Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake
• Closed to fishing from boats/vessels
Ennis Dam to the mouth
• Northern Pike: No limit.
RATIONALE: These regulation changes greatly simplify the Madison River fishing regulations.
What’s changed you ask? Well, quite a bit.
For as along as I can remember the Madison from Quake’s out flow to Mac has been open from the 3rd Saturday in May till the end of February. That was to protect spawning trout. If these reg changes happen, then the entire river from Hebgen Dam to Ennis Lake will be open year round.
As it stands right now, anglers can fish bait from Hebgen Dam through Quake Lake. This is a change I can get behind. I have no problems with anglers who like to fish bait, by all means, go right ahead. But this is a gem of a river and fishing bait normally means you’re gonna keep the fish. This leads to the next proposed change. Anglers inbetween the lakes will no longer be able to keep 5 trout per day, per person. I hardly ever notice anglers keeping fish except for the spring time inbetween the lakes. This stretch of river is plum full of spawning trout in the spring time and I have seen, on more than one occasion, stringers full of big rainbows which are full of eggs. Hopefully they do get eaten and not freezer burned. In the past ten years, I have hardly wet a line in between the lakes during the spawn….for me, it’s a choice to leave the rainbows alone.
The final proposed change is anglers will now be able to keep 1 fish per day per person on the entire river. For what seems like an eternity, the Madison River has largely been a catch and release fishery. My personal beliefs are that a trout is worth catching more than just one time. Catch and release angling does in fact kill fish. Like it or not, those of us who put em’ back actually kill a percentage of the fish. A barbless hook regulation would help with this as barbed hook extraction take much longer than a barbless hook. If a fish is out of the water for a couple minutes while an angler extracts a barbed hook, the fish may swim off, but will probably die a short time later. Fish barbless folks!
So….make those comments to: email@example.com The comment period is open till September 12th, 2015.
Click here for an article on the reg changes and to read a little more about it. I called and talked with Joel Tohtz this morning for over an hour to express my thoughts. You can too: 406 444 1230. Joel is the Fisheries Management Bureau Chief for Montana.
Something else for you to ponder…..
Since 2008 Hebgen Dam has not been functioning. Hot water has been running right off the top of the lake and into the river all summer long. Water temps have been way too high during the summer months which was not the case prior to the debacle at Hebgen Dam. There have been quite a few years where we have seen fish die in the river due to warm water temperatures. Are rainbows more susceptible to warm water than brown trout? Yep, they are. Most of us thought we would see a Hoot Owl closure on the upper Madison River this summer (and past summers) – that did not happen. Most of us altered our fishing hours accordingly to not stress out fish even more. If you read this site very often, I have been outspoken about Hebgen Dam. I believe the river needs a couple years, if not more, to see how things (insects and trout) react to a properly functioning, bottom draw dam before we get a sweeping regulation change like the proposal facing us right now. The Madison will not change overnight with respect to insect hatches and trout behavior. At this point, the water is coming from around 17 feet below the surface…better late than never. By November, hopefully, the river be drawing from 37 feet (or around there) below the surface. Will the hatches go back to the way they were? Will the consistent fishing on the Madison return? I say yes…but all in due time. Why not wait for a couple years to see what happens with the river before we change the regulations?
Flows and the damn Dam
River flows in the Madison Valley, from Hebgen Dam to Ennis lake, are sitting pretty good right now as we shift from summer to fall. At the Kirby Gage, she’s registering at 994 cfs. Over the past few weeks, the heat and high sun have been minimal and river temps are hanging in there on most days. However, there have been some super hot days once in while and the river temps can still hit the high 60’s and low 70’s. Once 68 degrees hits the river, you might as well reel up, sit back and take a boat ride. Recently, we have been experiencing some very cold over night air temperatures and several mornings here on Horse Butte the thermometer has read 28-30 degrees. That folks, has been the saving grace for the Madison River, well, that and decent flows from Hebgen. This past week, Hebgen Dam began to pull from roughly seventeen feet below the surface. This is NOT the point where we celebrate just yet. Apparently, this will only drop the river temp a couple degrees, but that’s better than top releases any day of the week. Sometime in November (cross your fingers), Hebgen will hopefully be completed and the river will pull from 37 feet below the surface. Right now, I am holding my breath and really won’t believe its fixed until it actually is. This project has stretched out for way too long and we are all completely over it.
Madison River Fishing Report 08.25.2015
Inconsistent…to say the least. Really though, I’ve had a bunch of great days on the Madison River this summer. However, if you are gonna roll the dice and fish the river only one day while you’re in the neighborhood, you had better be on the good side of the trout gods…..or be a little lucky. It also helps to bring your A-game and let the fish eat your fly. Your day could be a dink fest, but please remember to pay attention as there are some really nice fish eating the fly and just when you think it’s a dink and you don’t set the hook, you’re hating life and wondering out loud where that big brown trout came from. My only answer to that question is, “they live here too”. The nymphing crowd is pounding rocks and mid river runs with various flies like: shelia sculpin, trevor’s sculpin, rubber legs, zonkers, midge larva, $3 Dips, olive dips, crystal dips, shop vacs and the traditional no bead pheasant tail. The rest of us are fishing dry flies whenever possible with hoppers, ants, wulffs, beetles, trudes, small royal stimis and pretty much any reddish attractor pattern. I like fishing a single fly this time of the year as most of us, myself included, tend to get a better drift with just one fly on the end of the line. It’s late August and the trout are not dumb, so tighten up that skill set and pay attention.
Hebgen Lake Fishing Report
I will never claim to know everything about Hebgen Lake, it’s almost impossible. However, I’ve been playing around the lake this August and Hebgen has shown us some really good days with calibaetis spinners, duns and ants. Slow stripping mayfly nymphs is a great way to spend any early morning in an unnamed bay on the south shore of Hebgen Lake. I absolutely love watching the lake come alive from 8 am till noon. Some days, like today, there was glass all over the lake till almost 3pm, but making the fish eat was a little difficult. My best bug here lately has been a #14 Missing Link fished on 5X.
Writing and this blog
I would like to reach out and thank those folks who have asked me to keep writing and posting my random thoughts here on the site. Running the business…aka…. full time guiding/outfitting, tying flies for what may be your trip tomorrow, answering emails and phone calls along with mowing the yard and running the bird dog has gotten in the way of writing. Writing is hard, and while I don’t claim to be very good at it, writing is time consuming and after some 600 posts on the blog, I got tired. With any luck, I’ll continue to find some time as I really do enjoy writing, but sometime it’s just hard to find the energy. Thanks for reading! If you enjoy social media, please check us out on Instagram, that folks, is the easiest way to get your fix without sitting in the boat with us on a river here in the great state of Montana.
Headed for the beach….
In just a few hours I will be hoping in the truck with Jonathan Heames and heading north to Bozeman. Tomorrow morning, the two of us depart for Miami, where, once we land, we’ll rent a car and drive south to the Keys and Captain Greco’s house. Hanging out in the Keys is a precursor to our four day run on South Andros at Bair’s Lodge, a trip that our buddy Steve Hoovler is coming on as well.
I’ve been tying bonefish, tarpon and permit flies since February and reading up on what to expect. To a dozen or more guides and anglers, who I know have fished all over the saltwater world, I asked for their favorite fly patterns and their best piece of advise.
Tony V, from L-Town, told me to, and I quote, “set with the strip and not the tip, but since you’re a trout guide, you are screwed on that front….good luck with the trip, you will be addicted for sure and your wife will want to kill you since you’ll be trying to spend every last dime on the next saltwater trip.”
It’s been almost ten years since I was in Florida and I fully expect to blow many a shot while standing in the bow of Brett’s skiff. I’ve never been down to the Bahamas and my brain is ripe with excitement. Expect a full report upon my return and if you’re on Instagram, check us out as I will be posting from Florida and South Andros.
Montana’s General Season Opener
For the past sixteen years, I have not missed one opening day on the Madison River. The upper Madison, from the outlet of Quake Lake down to MacAtee Bridge will open on Saturday, May 16. Both Cabin and Beaver Creeks are tossing in mud, but Quake is filtering some that making for a bitch creek green Madison River. If you are venturing out this weekend, expect to see a few folks on the river. The current flow out of Hebgen is 552 cfs with a flow of 799 at Kirby. Yep, that’s pretty low for this time of the year. Hebgen Lake is filling up and with any luck, we’ll start seeing a rise in flows sometime in early June….don’t count it, but keep up the rain dances as we need every drop we can get. Last night it rained on and off and today we had showers as well. The river above Ennis has been fishing quite well this spring, but it’s boney down there as well.
Good luck and enjoy the coming weekend!