Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - November 6, 2010

A Montana Guiding Legend - Don Williams - EOTG

"If you can learn to read the waters of the Yellowstone River and consistently take trout, you can travel the world and consistently be a successful fly angler." Don Williams, 1976

For fifty years Don Williams guided fly fishermen on the waters of Montana, Yellowstone National Park and many places around the world. There were many clients who had yearly times reserved with Don, and many others begging to go with him if a time slot opened up.

"As much as I teach and assist my clients, the more I learn from them" Don Williams, 1978

I finally moved to Livingston, Montana in early 1976, though I had made many visits. Now I was going live where I had the Yellowstone River and many other wonderful fisheries to work. Like anyone else that has a passion for fly fishing I soon became a regular visitor to Dan Bailey's Fly Shop. In those days the Bailey Fly Tyers filled the room next to the main shop floor; so if I wasn't out fishing I was in the shop going through the fly bins or watching the fly tyers at work, always asking questions and learning. I got to meet Dan Bailey, John Bailey, George Anderson, Red Monical and many other well-known fly fishermen. At that time all of the fly anglers coming to fish the Spring Creeks of Paradise Valley or ply the waters of the Yellowstone River or Boulder River came to Bailey's. It was the only fly shop in town.

In the mornings you could go in early and listen to the guides discuss their successes or problems encountered on their trips from the previous day. The guides included Ray Hurley, Chester Marion, George Radel, Jim Francis, Jim Dunlap, Louie Carpenter and Don Williams.

Over a period of time I got to know some of the guides. I learned that some were a little more open and willing to share their knowledge than others. Though I learned a lot about fishing the area waters from some of the others Don Williams was the one who was the most open and willing to teach and pass on the knowledge of fly fishing that he possessed. It didn't take long for me to figure out that Don was one of Bailey's most popular fishing guides.   

Many years have passed since I first became acquainted with Don Williams. We became friends and he became my mentor as I began my own career as a fly fishing guide in 1977. Don was a mentor to a number of area guides, always explaining how a trip should be conducted and leading by example. While Don taught me about guiding and trout fishing, his wife, Betty, taught me what good guide lunches should be and how a good lunch can help to make a slow day of fishing better.

"For each guide trip, always have a plan & a backup plan" Don Williams, 1977

Guiding was not an eight-to-five job for Don. His mornings would start early and often he would get off the water at dark. He told me, "Remember, the length of the day is always up to the clients. Some will stop around 6 P.M., while others want to fish until dark." Don was always a teaching guide, able to help both beginning and expert anglers with their casting, presentation methods and how to read the water and understand the angling situation they were facing. Always remember that fly fishing is supposed to be fun, and help your clients keep it fun. Work hard for them; yes, but never raise your voice unless it is in laughter.  

"With Fly Fishing you never stop learning and it is the same with guiding; you are always learning new methods or better ways to teach the methods." Don Williams, 1998

A Montana Guiding Legend - Don Williams - EOTG

Besides the Spring Creeks of Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River Don guided all over the state. He plied the waters of the Madison, Big Hole, Beaverhead, Boulder, Big Horn and Missouri Rivers as well as having a permit to guide fishermen in Yellowstone National Park.

"Always remember that you are a fly fishing guide, not a miracle worker." Don Williams 1984

He encouraged those guides he was mentoring to spend the time to learn the various rivers, creeks and lakes as you always need to have a plan for each guide day. Then you need to have a backup in case the river you had chosen for the day was blown out by a mudslide, a heavy rain upstream, or if run-off was late and the rivers were not clear. Always have a viable back up plan!

"One of the tricks to having a successful day as a guide, is not knowing  what patterns or methods to use; rather it is knowing what methods and patterns to use based on the skill set of the clients you are guiding." Don Williams, 1983

In mid-July 2011, I sat down with Don and we talked about how he got started fly fishing and guiding fishermen.

Tom:  "Don how did you get started fly fishing and how old were you?"

Don:  "My father taught me how to fly fish on Bracket Creek when I was 8 years old. Do you remember those old telescoping steel fly rods? Well, that was my first rod. My dad was an excellent fisherman and we fished a lot of the small creeks together. He taught me a lot about fly fishing and hunting."

Tom:  "Did you fish together on the Yellowstone River?"

Don:  "No, Dad didn't like the big rivers, he preferred the smaller streams."

Tom:  How did you get into guiding?

Don:  "Well, I had this friend I grew up with named, Jack Williams, no relation; anyways we fished all over together. I remember one time we went to the Big Hole River, we had an Army Surplus rubber raft. Well, it was pretty late in the season and Jack wanted to float pretty high on the Big Hole. Well, we launched the raft, I think it was a 7 or 8 mile float. Anyway we ended up dragging that raft for at least 5 or 6 miles of that float.

Anyway, Jack did some guiding for Dan Bailey's and he was taking another job and told me I should give guiding a try. So I did. That was around 1959."

Tom:  "When did you go into guiding full time?" 

Don:  "Sometime in the early 1960's. As I said before, we started with Army Surplus rubber rafts and then we switched to long Jon Boats. I put pedestal seats in it to make it more comfortable for my anglers and then in 1978 I got my first drift boat."

Tom:  "Don, what do you think about some of the young guides we see today?"

Don:  "There are a few good ones, but there is a whole lot them that just won't work at it. They can't row a boat very well; to many of them it is just a paycheck. Yes, I have made my living guiding fisherman for a long time now. But it is more than just making a living. It is a way of life, help others, to show and teach folks how to catch fish and, as you know, sometimes you have to teach them how to relax and have a good time."

Tom:  "What do you think is the best thing about guiding? Is it the places you go, or the people you meet or what?"

Don:  "It is the people. Over my career as a fly fishing guide I have guided my share of famous anglers and got to meet some wonderful people. Bob Solomon was one of my clients, but we became as close as brothers and we have traveled the world together and enjoyed many fishing adventures over the past thirty-five years. Yes, it is definitely the people. I have always been lucky and have had excellent clients who have developed into lifelong friends."

Tom:  "Was there ever anything else you wanted to do?"

Don: "No! There are very few people who get to travel and fish or hunt the places I've been. It has been great."

We talked on for hours about the people he had guided and fished with; anglers like Dave Whitlock, Dave Hughes, Gordon Eastman, Joe Brooks, Charlie & Debie  Waterman, Sheldon Coleman, Bill Browning, Tom Morgan, Ted Williams, Lee & Joan Wulff and the lists goes on and on.

"Too many instructors get a mindset that their way of teaching is the only way. That is a mistake. A teacher should always be flexible. There are many ways to   teach a presentation method or cast. If one doesn't work, try another. Remember, it is the end result that counts, not how you arrived there." Don Williams, 2002

In the weeks that followed this interview I visited with Don every day that I had off, and on each visit he wanted to know where I had been fishing, how the fishing was and what had I been using.

A Montana Guiding Legend - Don Williams - EOTG

During the late 1960's Don ran the Orvis Fly Fishing School at the 9th Street Island Resort and was an excellent instructor. Don traveled and fished in Alaska, Argentina, England, Iceland, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and New Zealand and all over the United States.

He always came back with flies and ideas to try on the local waters, and he took many of the techniques from his home waters and used them and shared them in far off waters.

Don & I guided together for many years and he was, in my opinion, the most talented and gifted fly fishing guide I have ever known.

A Montana Guiding Legend - Don Williams - EOTG
Missouri River Brown Trout

One of the facts that made Don special was that after guiding for ten or twelve days in row, if you were to call him and say, "Hey I'm heading over to the Missouri tomorrow, do you want to go?" and unless there was something he had already planned the reply would be—"Sure, what time are we leaving?". Don loved to fish! Don was also a lifelong supporter of Trout Unlimited and believed that all fly fishing guides should be. He was always distressed by the poor showing among the guides during the annual river clean up or at other Trout Unlimited functions.

When Don Williams talked me into becoming a fly fishing guide and taught me how to do it with professional pride and to do the job properly he gave me one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.

On August 23, 2011 Don Williams passed on to those Great Rivers in the Sky, where the wind is never too strong, and there are always willing trout to chase. Even though Don is no longer with us his legacy will live on in other guides that he mentored and the clients he guided and the friends that he fished with.

"You know, there is a lot more to fly fishing than just catching fish; the fish are a bonus." Don Williams 1987

Tom Travis

November 2011


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