Bud Lilly's Angler's Retreat
Posted on 18 February 2005
Creating a haven for anglers and families
By Mike England
Few places capture the beauty of a Montana fall like the headwaters of the Missouri River.
Enormous cottonwoods tower above the riverbanks, their gilded leaves rustling in the brisk autumn breeze. Wheat and hay fields sprawl in undulating, golden-brown sheets. And in every direction, rugged peaks claw their way skyward-the burly Elkhorns unfolding to the northwest; the long spine of the Bridgers stretching along the eastern horizon; the diverse and expansive Tobacco Roots to the southwest; and rising due south, the Spanish Peaks and the majestic Madison Range.
It's a lovely place to cast a fly. Resting in the shadow of these mountains is Three Forks, a drowsy western hamlet where, for most of the year, cows outnumber people and handwritten "Gone Fishing" signs appear on shop doors. It is here where three clean, cold, trout-filled rivers - the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson - come together to form the "Mighty Missouri." And here's the tip of the season: Bud Lilly is waiting to show it to you -and he has a place for you to stay.
There is scarcely a Western fly-angler who hasn't heard of Bud Lilly. In Montana trout-fishing circles, he's been practically a household name for decades - a living legend with both awe-inspiring skill and sound environmental ethics. As a professional guide for over 40 years, Lilly has learned not only how to catch trout, but also how to keep them alive and healthy in Montana's rivers for generations to come. Numerous books pay tribute to his fishing abilities and his conservation efforts, including the book "A Trout's Best Friend" by environmental historian Paul Schullery. His streamside council is frequently sought by celebrities, politicians and conservation groups.
He devotes his time equally among these interests, recognizing that both self-indulgent fishing and high-minded conservation programs are equally enjoyable, and equally worthwhile. In 1994, Bud opened The Angler's Retreat, a lodge in Three Forks designed specifically for fly anglers. In addition to helping guests plan itineraries and arrange for guide services, the lodge also promotes the upcoming bicentennial of Lewis and Clark, schooling visiting anglers on the famous explorers' travels and adventures throughout Montana. Every aspect of the cozy, 18-room inn facilitates these endeavors, from the river maps and fishing paraphernalia adorning the walls, to the extensive book and video collection, to the drying-racks for hip-boots and waders. After a long day chasing rainbows on the lower Madison, you can unload your gear, tie a few flies, enjoy a barbecue dinner on the deck, and then retire to the lounge to learn about everything from local hot-spots to the fish Lewis and Clark encountered nearly 200 years ago. Just a block off Main Street in Three Forks, The Angler's Retreat is a whitewashed two-story inn that at first glance looks surprisingly ordinary. But like many of Montana's rivers, the real treasures lie beneath the surface.
Once inside, unsuspecting guests are drawn back in time, to an age of simple, no-nonsense appurtenances: clean, serviceable kitchens; cozy sitting rooms; quirky Western decorations; a lush, garden-like back yard; and all around, the palpable aura of warm hospitality. Nearly a century old, the building was originally built as a railroad worker's boarding house. When Lilly inherited the place from his mother, he set to work restoring the unique combination of comfort and pragmatic functionality that defined the building's early days. Using much of the original furniture and décor (one stove was made in 1915, and still works), Lilly remodeled the house to include several single rooms, two full apartments, and a detached, family-sized cottage. Old photographs, wildlife portraits, and framed letters and awards from Bud's many fans, including Jimmy Carter and former Montana Governor Marc Racicot among them, compliment the lodge's unique character. The result is a classic bed-and-breakfast-type atmosphere with contemporary, eclectic charm. The approach at Angler's Retreat is hands-off; you'll get a housekeeper and some fishing tips, but aside from that, you're on your own. At 78 years old, Lilly doesn't do much guiding anymore. "I've done my time," he says with a smile, "and I've got more conservation projects than I can handle. But he'll tell you where to go and what to use. If desired, Lilly will provide a professional guide who can take you to local waters, or farther out to the Beaverhead, Big Hole, or Yellowstone rivers.
The blue-ribbon fisheries of Yellowstone National Park are also within reach. When you return at day's end, Lilly may join you for dinner at Sacajawea Hotel or Headwaters Café, two outstanding local restaurants that will quickly dismiss any doubts you may have about small-town cuisine. If Lilly is nowhere to be found, he's probably on the water himself, or working on one of his conservation projects. His latest is Baker Springs, a private fly-fishing community about 15 miles west of Bozeman. The 232-acre preserve contains 11 homesites, four ponds, numerous crystal-clear spring creeks, and a lengthy stretch of the West Gallatin River. The lead developer has strong roots in The Nature Conservancy, and Lilly's role as "Resident River Keeper" ensures that no environmentally damaging developments will occur on the property. "Right now," Lilly says, "the land is in better shape than when it was a ranch. This gives the fish a better chance."
Though sometimes controversial, projects like these make Lilly optimistic about the future of fly-fishing. That is, provided its participants continue to practice sound ethics. "We have to educate people about what the real values are," he says. "It isn't just about catching something, we need to preserve our opportunity to catch something." It's this kind of long-sighted view, and inimitable gems like The Angler's Retreat, that promise our grandchildren an experience we tend to take for granted. Things like standing in a clear mountain stream, listening to the crickets and the birds, feeling the cool Montana wind, and catching a trout.