Long before dropping out was chic, Dan Bailey chucked his career as a Manhattan physicist for the idylls of fly-fishing on Montana’s Yellowstone River. To keep more than trout on his line, he opened a small fly-fishing shop in tiny Livingston (pop. 6,994). More often than not, the “Gone Fishing” sign would appear on the door. Sympathetic customers persevered.
Today, more than 40 years later, Dan Bailey’s Flies & Tackle Shop is to fishermen what L.L. Bean is to campers. Behind the unpretentious green stucco storefront is the largest manufacturing center of flies in the U.S. In Bailey’s back room, about 30 fly tiers, all women, deftly turn out 750,000 lures a year in 3,000 different patterns. Each fly is handcrafted, usually from feathers and fur, to mimic an insect floating in a stream. Prices range from 80¢ up to $1.35 per item.
Among those angling for a Bailey fly like the Royal Wulff or the Goofus Bug is a coterie of celebrity fishermen who live in and around the surrounding Paradise Valley. Actors Jeff Bridges and Peter Fonda stop in regularly, as do writer Richard Brautigan, artist Russell Chatham and sportsman Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s son. Screenwriter Tom McGuane, another local, even set a part of his 1975 film Rancho Deluxe, starring Bridges, at Bailey’s. Another 50,000 less celebrated customers keep in touch through Bailey’s folksy catalog.
Besides being a superb salesman (he plies his customers with not only ties but rods, boots and worms), Bailey, 77, also presides over a fishermen’s shrine that adds to the shop’s mystique. This is the “Wall of Fame,” a collection of more than 300 wooden plaques, each sporting the name of the angler, the type of lure used and the silhouette of a trout four pounds or heavier caught in the waters around Livingston.
Bailey tied his first fly as a small boy in Russellville, Ky. A farmer’s son, he attended the Citadel military college in South Carolina and then the University of Kentucky. Venturing north to Manhattan in 1930 to study atomic physics at New York University, he eventually saw “I wasn’t going to be an Einstein.” Admitting to himself that he was more interested in fishing anyway, he started looking for a way to make a living at it and soon began selling flies. At the urging of his Manhattan-born wife, Helen, a nurse, he also designed huge decorative flies of gaudy feathers and tinsel to adorn ladies’ hats at Bergdorf Goodman.
By 1938 the Baileys had settled in Montana, where they had honeymooned. “There was no use resisting,” sighs Helen. While his wife worked as a school nurse, Bailey opened his fly shop. The Baileys also raised two children, Sue, 39, now a computer programmer in Washington, D.C., and John, 34, who recently took over as president of the family business.
The family’s spare moments, naturally, are spent knee-deep in fast water, though Helen, once an avid angler, has reeled back these days. “I do most of my fishing with a pillow and a book now,” she smiles. But Dan keeps a fly rod constantly rigged and has been known to cast into the creek running by the family’s contemporary house on Loch Leven Drive (named, appropriately, for a strain of Scottish brown trout introduced into the U.S. a century ago). He prefers, however, to head to the far banks of the Yellowstone. “One of the prime ingredients of fishing to my mind is solitude,” he reflects, “and it’s almost disappeared.”