Tim Mead Fishing
|Inside Dan Bailey's Fly Shop|
Sometimes things come together in unexpected ways. For one thing, as a kid growing up in Michigan, I never expected to fish for trout in the Yellowstone River. For another, I never expected to buy flies at the legendary Dan Bailey’s in Livingston. And I certainly never expected to be singled out of a crowd by a beautiful movie star.
Bailey started his shop in 1938 in a store front on Park Street, where the current bus depot is. In the 1950’s, the shop moved to the present location at 209 West Park, Livingston’s main street. Three store fronts have now been combined into a single shop. The entrance is in the center store front. In a sort of bull pen between the center shop and the left one is a series of display cases and cash registers. To the right of the door there is a large table, about 15 feet long and 4 feet wide. This table holds a vast collection of flies for sale. The right hand store front is devoted entirely to fly tying -- materials for sale and two well-equipped tying tables. Above one of the cash registers there is a bulletin board advising anglers of the water temperature and flies currently taking trout on the Yellowstone, Armstrong and Dupuy’s spring creeks, and a couple of the streams in Yellowstone Park.
At the far end of the bull pen is an open spot where guides and anglers gather to tell tales. The guides are eager to explain how the Yellowstone is a big stream, hard to wade and a trip down the river in a drift boat, their’s preferably, is the best way to catch some of the wonderful trout in the Yellowstone. Anglers, in turn, are evaluating the guides and the prospect of a float trip and trying to pick up tips that may lead to the trout of a lifetime.
When I went into Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop a few days ago, something very unusual happened. Everything appeared very much as it did on the other times I had gone into the shop. The usual clutch of guides and anglers hovered near the far end of the cash register bull pen, talking animatedly.
I made my way to the table of flies for sale. Each tiny box was filled with flies marked as to pattern and size, as examples Adams #12 or Blue Wing Olive #18. To fly fishermen, of course, these designations were meaningful. To non-anglers, the notations were gibberish.?
While I was selecting some flies from the side of the table away from the entrance, a red Jeep Wrangler, the kind with the canvas removed, parked in an open spot right in front of the shop. A beautiful blonde woman jumped out of the Jeep and made her way into the shop. She was wearing faded blue jeans and a discreet white shirt. We all recognized her immediately -- Meg Ryan. She glanced around the shop and walked resolutely around the fly table and came up to me.
In a firm but low voice she said, “Can you explain fly fishing to me? I see all these boats floating down the Yellowstone back of my place. People in Los Angeles are always asking me about the fishing here. I don’t think they fish like this in Fairfield, Connecticut. And I haven’t a clue!”
“Why are you asking me? I don’t work here,” I answered. Only a few inches shorter than I, she was taller than I expected from seeing her in the movies. Maybe she simply played opposite tall guys. Her eyes were as clear and as blue as the Montana sky. Discrete diamond ear rings. And was she ever blond!
“You are the only guy in here,” she replied, “that looks like a fisherman that does not have an ax to grind. You are not selling anything and you just looked to me like a real fisherman, not some guy dressed from a New York catalog costume.”
“Where am I supposed to begin? What do you want to know?” I asked.
“We can start right here,” she answered. “What are all these things?” she asked, nodding in the direction of the table of flies.
“Wow! That’s a pretty big order to start with. These flies represent what trout eat. Most folks think that about 80 per cent of what trout eat are insects. So, flies usually represent insects,” I said.
By now the gaggle of guides and anglers had accumulated across the table from us. One of the guides said, “Yeah, but sometimes the biggest trout go for minnows and we use big streamers.”
Without responding, I picked a #16 Adams from the box holding dozens of them. I showed the fly to Meg and said, “This has always been one of my favorites,” I said. “It originated on the Boardman River in Michigan, so it came from the same part of the world I did and I’ve caught lots of trout on a Adams.”
I explained to her how the Adams was a dry fly, designed to float on the surface of the water and to suggest to trout insects that had developed fully and were either resting on the surface before flying away or dead and drifting with the current. Either, I told her, were prime opportunities for trout to gobble them up.
“Look at the dog,” she said in a near whisper. “Is he a nice dog?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “his name is Zooie. If he thinks you are a nice person, he’ll lean up against you so hard it’ll nearly tip you over.”
“I have a dog,“ Meg said. “A brown Labrador named Dave.”
For reasons I did not understand, I replied to her in a whisper. Why was the dog a secret we shared?
Then I selected a #20 Prince. I explained that most insects taken by trout were immature, dislodged by the current, tiny, and taken by trout as they came tumbling down the river. While not all were technically nymphs, we called them nymphs nonetheless. Because of the current, I told her, trout face upstream. Partly because the current brought them food and partly because the shape of trout made facing upstream more efficient.
An angler, dressed out in the latest in unstained gear, noted, “Well, that depends. In eddies trout really face downstream because the current is swirling.” Neither of us looked at him.
Then I lifted a #8 black conehead wooly bugger. “This is another of my favorites,” I said. “Technically this is a streamer, the sort of thing the fellow over there mentioned,” nodding toward the guide who had spoken earlier. “Over time,” I said, “if you cannot catch trout on a black wooly bugger you better learn to sing. Everybody catches trout on a wooly bugger.”
“Well,” the second guide said, “it’s not quite that simple. In fact...”
Meg shot a glance toward him and to the assembled crowd of guides and hangers-on that clearly said, “Butt out. Had I wanted to ask you, I would have.”
“How to they make these? Is there some sort of machine?” she asked.
“No,” I answered. “People take these little hooks and tie materials to them.”
“My gosh,” she said, “how do they do that?”
“There’s a whole set up back here,” I said. Meg followed me into the third of Dan Bailey’s shop that was devoted to tying flies. I showed her the table, vise, and tools used by tiers.
A voice from the group that followed us said, “All the materials and stuff you need to tie a Royal Coachman Trude are all laid out there. That is if you want to show her how to tie. You could tie a #22 and demonstrate how to tie a little one if you want.” There was a hint of sarcasm in the voice.
“If it’s ok,” I responded, “I’ll tie up a fly. Think I’ll tie a #10 because it will be easier for her to see. Maybe I‘ll tie up a #22 later.”
I sat down at the tier’s table and pulled a chair up for Meg. “Sit here,“ I told her, “and I’ll show you how a Royal Coachman Trude, one of the most effective flies we have, is tied.” Meg took the seat and slid it close to the table where she could watch.
Step by step, I tied the fly, explaining to her at each step what I was doing, how the fly developed, and what materials were used. She asked a few questions, but for the most part she simply listened.
After I finished, Meg stood up, said, “Thanks. You know, you are really wonderful. I hope you catch lots of trout. Maybe someday I’ll call you for more lessons. This was great!” She kissed me lightly on the cheek and strode purposely through the on-lookers and back to the red Jeep.
Wheels squeaked as she pulled away from the curb and drove away.
Just as I boasted to the startled crowd, “Now I’ll tie the #22 you wanted,”
the current issue of American Angler I had been studying in preparation for my next trip to Montana slid off my lap to the floor. I don’t know whether I was more startled by the falling magazine or by the way Bailey Cat took off downstairs.
The Yellowstone River. Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop. And Meg Ryan’s ranch. Maybe that’s why they call it Paradise Valley.
Last updated on January 23, 2013