Dan Bailey was an angling explorer and a conservationist. Although he put Livingston on the map as a fisherman’s paradise and founded a fly shop that would grow to have an impeccable international reputation, he said there was nothing special about his life except that people had been good to him and he was lucky.
Dan Bailey liked to fish small, backwoods streams and had an affinity for catching little trout, even though he caught many big ones in his life. He spent more time walking up small streams in his waders than he did on fishing boats. He was sometimes lauded as the fisherman who told no tales.
“To Dan, fishing was important. Time wasn’t,” wrote Charlie Waterman, Dan Bailey’s longtime fishing companion and biographer. “He preferred backwoods creeks to more famous places, simply because he liked to fish in solitude.”
Born in 1904, Dan Bailey grew up on a Kentucky farm and first used a fly rod to catch bass. While he spent much of his early life fishing, Dan was also a scientist, earning a master’s degree in physics from the University of Kentucky. He went to New York City in the early 1930s to teach physics at Brooklyn Polytechnic while working on a PhD at New York University. While in New York, Dan Bailey continued to fish and, along with Lee Wulff, created the first fly tying school in the back of a dingy building in Greenwich Village. Later, Wulff and Dan Bailey would collaborate on a series of famous Wulff fly patterns, flies that Dan Bailey’s sold by the thousands in the shop’s heyday. Dan Bailey met his wife, Helen Bailey, through an angling friend, and they got married in 1936. At the time, Helen worked as a nurse. Dan took her on her first trip to Montana on their honeymoon. Their car gave out on a backroad outside Cooke City, so they stayed, camped and fished. Helen might have considered the trip a sign of things to come. A short time after the couple returned to New York, Dan announced his intention to move to Montana to open a fly shop. Instead of turning in his PhD dissertation, he and Helen packed their car and headed west in 1938 in the midst of the Great Depression.
Dan and Helen Bailey ended up in Livingston because their car ran off the road on the Bozeman Hill, damaging an axle. Because they had not crested the hill, they turned around and coasted back to Livingston, where they made their home and opened Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop.
“If he ever regretted his choice he never admitted it,” wrote Charlie Waterman in Mist on the River, his book about Dan Bailey. “He was willing to work however hard and necessary to get all of the fishing he wanted.”
The Baileys opened their fly shop in the Albemarle Hotel on Main Street. They paid $25 a month in rent and lived in a small room in the back of the shop. In addition to selling fishing flies, they ran a shooting gallery and sold guns and ammunition.
In the 1950s, Dan Bailey’s moved into the store’s current location on Main Street. Dan Bailey’s mail order business grew and visitors to the fly shop could watch as a dozen expert women fly tiers tied 750,000 flies annually to be sent all over the world. When he wasn’t fishing, Dan Bailey worked in the shop, banging out letters on a typewriter with his pipe in his mouth. He wrote thousands of letters to people who wrote him about fishing.
“I didn’t want it to get big,” Dan Bailey said. “I just wanted to go fishing.”
Dan Bailey’s became the biggest fishing business in the United States and Dan himself became Montana’s most famous citizen, sought out more than even the movie stars and writers who followed his path west. Yet, Dan Bailey remained devoted to rivers, continually supporting public access to wilderness and keeping ecosystems wild. Bailey remained a staunch supporter of Wild and Scenic Rivers, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and many others. When the government revived a proposal to dam the Yellowstone River and flood the Paradise Valley in the 1970s, Dan Bailey and his friends hatched the plan to stop the dam in the fly shop.
“In spite of the high value of our recreation industry little is done to conserve it, to say nothing of improving it,” Dan Bailey wrote in 1959. “At the same time, great effort is being expended to bring in new industries of questionable value and developments which might lead to new industry. Why should we not put more effort into saving and expanding the great recreation industry which we already have”
When Dan Bailey died in 1982, his son, John Bailey, took over running the fly shop. John Bailey continued his father’s legacy by fighting for Montana’s stream access law, which makes all waterways in Montana public. John Bailey acted as a fly fishing consultant for the film A River Runs Through It and taught several members of the cast to fish. He continued to correspond with children and others who wrote the fly shop and supported local environmental education for children. The sale of Dan Bailey’s in 2020 allowed John to retire, although you might still find him walking along the levee in Livingston, monitoring the Yellowstone, as he has done nearly every morning for over half a century.
Images: Historical photos: Portrait of DB, DB & Helen, Images of Wulff flies, photos of the fly shop
In 1936 Dan was a professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in New York City, and he was working on his doctorate in atomic science at NYU. He married Helen in 1936 and they drove to Montana for their honeymoon. Dan spent the summer camped on the Madison and Gallatin Rivers. Helen had to go back to New York City and work. Again they came back for the summer of 1937. Driving from Bozeman to Livingston Helen drove off the road, which was a winding mountain road. The car had to be towed to Livingston to be repaired and it took three days for the repairs. As Dan walked around Livingston he found a small space to rent on Park Street a block away from where we are located now. The cost was $20.00 a month. Dan found during the previous summer and the summer of 1937 he was unable to buy supplies for fly fishing and got the idea there was a need for a fly shop.
Back in New York he finished all his course work, exams and orals but never finished his thesis. He moved to Livingston in the summer of 1938. Helen came to Montana on vacations but did not move to Montana until 1940 or 1941. Had he stayed in New York City and finished his doctorate, he would have been in the middle of the Manhattan project.
His early years were very difficult but being a fly tier he sold flies to other outlets. As he told me in the early years most of the fishing supply outlets were bars. After his death in 1982, a customer sent me a copy of a classified add from a July 1937 Outdoor Life. “Send for free folder today. (Trial assortment, 5 for $1.00). Dan Bailey, 217 West 10th Street, New York City. After July First, send mail to Ennis, Montana. (The good old days) As you can see this was the start of our mail order business.
In 1946 John McDonald wrote an article in Fortune magazine about fly fishing and mentioned my father as “the crack Montanan, Dan Bailey”.
John McDonald was Dan’s best friend and lived in New York City. He and his wife came to Montana every summer for years and spent the summer with us. In 1954 John wrote another article in Volume 1, Number 1 of Sports Illustrated titled “Trout Fishermen, Go West” Again John mentioned Dan and showed a photo of the store.
Lee Wulff came and fished Armstrong’s Spring Creek in 1948. Joe Brooks started coming to Livingston in the early 50’s. By the 50s Dan had made
Livingston an international fly-fishing destination.
The April 3, 1958 issue of the Park County News, announced, “$85,000,000 Absaroka, Yankee Jim Dams Proposed by Sen. Murray. Yankee Jim Dam would have flooded parts of Yellowstone Park. The Absaroka dam became the known as the Allenspur Dam. In a 1959 piece in the Park County News, Dan wrote against the dam. “Recreation is one of the largest industries in Park County. Its value is less tangible then that of other industries which are easily measurable in terms of payroll or gross return. The two greatest threats to the fishing resource of the Yellowstone at pres- ent are: 1) the possibility of large water developments which could mean much more of a detriment than a benefit to recreation. 2) The possibility
of losing access to much of our best fishing water as fishing pressure increases.
He was one of the most vocal opponents to the dams. Having access to national publications helped get the information out. I remember all the
talk about the dam. I also remember all the talk after a meeting that took place in the local theater about the dam. This was the first time in my life
I became aware of the choices we face.
As we all know a project supported by a Senator is not easy to stop. It takes many people and a lot of time. One must also remember at this time
Anaconda Copper owned Lee Newspapers, which were most of the newspapers in Montana.
In 1901 John Muir led a large group of civic and conservation organizations in a campaign to protect the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. This campaign was unsuccessful. But it did show those opposed to the dams on the Yellowstone how to organize. Also listing the Yankee Jim Dam enlisted a lot of support from people who wanted National Parks left alone especially after losing in Yosemite.
The issue of the Allenspur Dam ran through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Many people were involved on both sides. Dan always gave due to those who he thought had done more then he had done. He always knew it took a lot of people and support from many different groups to change the govern- ment.
During the early 60’s Dan helped with others to start Trout Unlimited in Montana. The founders from Michigan all fish in Montana every summer. Dan servred on the National Trout Unlimited Board for several years. He understood the importance of an organization to protect, conserve, and restore our resources.
The issue of Allenspur would pop up at odd times. However in the early 1970’s the idea became very valid again. This time the need for storage came from Coal Slurry pipelines. The North Central Power Study and the 1972 Montana/Wyoming Aqueduct Proposal showed how one third of the annual flow of the Yellowstone River would have to be diverted to meet the needs of a new massive power complex. To make this happen the Allenspur Dam would have to be built. Let’s not forget energy is again a national issue. Luckily now we had organizations like Trout Unlimited and others to help in this fight. I had just moved back in the fall of 1971 after finishing college and a stint in the army. I became very involved with TU and in a local group headed by Bob Anderson, who was also involved in the early 60’s with Allenspur Dam. These new studies galvanized Montanans as to how we could lose our quality of life and way of life. Most of Montana’s environmental laws were passed in the 70’s. As I look back at the 70’s, I realize how Dan allowed me to get involved in the many different issues facing our resources as he became the elder Statesman.
The Allenspur Dam idea became a hard sell after the Teton Dam failed on June 5, 1976. Teton Dam was an earthen built dam as Allenspur was to be
built. Also both dam sights have a major earthquake fault line running through the dam sight.
Another important issue Dan led was keeping Armstrong’s Spring Creek open to the public. During the 60’s Depuy’s Spring Creek was leased by a few individuals from the Denver area and no one else was allowed to fish it. The O’Hairs, owners of Armstrong Spring Creek, met Dan and said they would like to keep their spring creek open to the public. Dan enlisted the Yellowstone River Chapter (before Joe Brooks died) of TU to lease the Armstrong’s Spring Creek. Dan raised the money from different fishing companies. Eventually this concept did not work, but it set the founda- tion for fee fishing in effect today. The spring creeks could easily be unavailable to all of us now.
What I remember most about Dan was the advice he gave those who came to learn about the issues. His passion for the river flowed from his words.
He would tell them nothing will change unless you get involved. He would then tell them the many ways they could help.
After Dan died Helen died a month latter. The Joe Brooks Chapter of TU formed the Dan & Helen Bailey Memorial Fund. Norman McClain was
one of the earliest recipients. I would like to read a quote from his acceptance speech.
“The truth is I never met either Dan or Helen, but there have been times when I have thought that is one of the reasons why I was selected. If a man or woman lives after death only in the memory of those who were close to him then he will not have a very long or extensive afterlife. One’s friends are limited and mortal. But people like me who did not know the Baileys but admired them greatly and number in the hundreds of thousands are bigger and more durable then reality and make legends that will continue to remain long after us.”