Trout Bum of the Week LIII: Will Lillard

Will Lillard’s (right) guiding career focuses on introducing youngsters to fly fishing and a life outdoors.
All photos courtesy Will Lillard

Welcome to our series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlight some of the folks living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status. 

Will Lillard is the man behind Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions (LFFE), an adventure education company specializing in wilderness fly-fishing trips for adolescents. (Check out his great post about teaching teens to fly-fish.) He formed the company while getting a Master’s degree in Environmental Conservation Education at New York University, and he now spends most of each year traveling the country in a van, with his wife and dog, teaching courses to kids.

1. When did you start fly fishing?
I was first introduced to fly fishing when I transferred to a high school in Vermont. During college, sports consumed most of my time. My fly-fishing obsession was brought to a new level when I moved to Colorado the fall after I graduated. I went for one ski season, and ended up staying for three years. My first summer, I was nowhere near ready to be a guide, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. So I used the money I saved bartending and bought a raft with a fishing frame. My roommate and I bartended together at night, and were on the river every morning. The local fly shop owner saw me on the water so much he finally succumbed to my job inquiries.

Will loves getting deep into the backcountry, where you won’t find other anglers.

2. What’s your favorite water?|
When I first started LFFE, we hiked a group of teens deep into the backcountry of Colorado to fish a small alpine stream that I knew was loaded with cutthroats. After staring at the map all winter, my co-leader Charlie and I knew we wanted to explore some lakes near our highest campsite. After the whole group climbed a 14,000-foot mountain early one morning, Charlie hiked half the group down to two lakes right above tree line.

The first lake they went to (the lower of the two) was shallow, stagnant, “warm”, and completely dead. Luckily for us, Charlie’s group decided to push on and check the second lake. We have been bringing groups of teens there for four years now. The cutthroats average 16 inches plus, they love to eat, and the best part is that we have never seen another person within miles of the lake, yet alone fishing it.

The bad news is that I can’t tell you where it is, or I would be breaking the pact we have made with the students who have taken the effort to hike thirteen miles straight uphill to get to it. The good news is that there are dozens of lakes just like it in Colorado. You won’t find their names on fishing blogs, but if you get a map and some good hiking boots you can go “discover” one yourself. It is well worth the effort

Will’s wife and partner, Kim, is no slouch with the fly rod, either.

3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod and why?
My favorites are whatever is wild and native. I am a total snob for them. There is something special about catching a fish whose relatives have been swimming in that particular water for thousands of years. Big browns and rainbows are fun, but when I am in North Carolina, I love searching small streams for a 10-inch trophy brook trout. In Colorado, I will happily hike miles for colorful cutthroat.

4. What’s your most memorable fly-fishing moment?
On one of our first days of steelheading on Prince of Wales Island during our road trip to Alaska, I fished all morning and early afternoon without much action. After an early streamside dinner, we went back out to fish an incoming tide. It was the best session we had the whole trip. After landing my first few steelhead, I looked over and Kim was hooked into a real nice fish. The next few minutes are a bit of a blur. All I remember is watching Kim scramble up and down the small stream as the fish ran from hole to hole, jumping several times. I will never forget the smile on Kim’s face as she released her first steelhead (and what ended up being the biggest of the trip).

5. What is your most forgettable fly-fishing moment?
I ran a six-day winter break sea-kayaking and fly-fishing trip for six teens in the Florida Everglades. After the first day, we got hit by a “polar vortex.” The temperatures dropped into the 40s and 50s, and the fish completely turned off. We managed some fish here and there, but it was a long few days fighting the cold, rain, and wind. Of course, I remember it like it was yesterday.

When you put in the effort, you can find amazing fishing experiences.

6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
The people you meet. I have moved around a lot in the last five years. It doesn’t matter if I am in New York City, Colorado, Massachusetts, or wherever–there is always a group of fly fishermen willing to show a new guy around the water.

7. What’s your favorite piece of gear and why?
Maps! I am not much of a fan of tying flies. In the off season I spend my free time staring at maps, dreaming up new back country routes.

8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
Black Conehead Woolly Bugger.

Traveling around the country in a van allows Will to fish in many kinds of waters.

9. What was your favorite fly-fishing trip?
When I first started LFFE, I spent so much time on the road visiting schools, going to fly-fishing shows, basically spreading the word about our trips any way I could, that I bought a camper/van to travel in. I convinced my girlfriend at the time (now my wife), Kim, to quit her job, and we hit the road. We finished our marketing road trip in Memphis, drove west to Santa Fe, then headed north to Alaska. We skied on the way there and fished on our way back. We were on the road for more than four months. Two people and a dog living in a van can be tight at times, but it was worth it. We had a lot of great fishing, but the highlight was definitely the two weeks we spent chasing steelhead around Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Nothing beats having most the “comforts of home” parked on the banks of river full of wild steelhead.

10. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?
I know a lot of trout bums from all different walks of life, but most, if not all of them, have spent some time living in a car down by a river.

The trips led by Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions can be life-changing experiences for the kids.

6 thoughts on “Trout Bum of the Week LIII: Will Lillard”

  1. very cool how Will is building the next generation of fly fishing leaders (and hopefully conservation leaders)

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