January 14th, 2002

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Gary LaFontaine--in Memoriam
By Paul F. Vang, writer for 'Montana Standard,' Butte MT.

When I take a look back at past decades, I find that my memories are sometimes tinged with regrets. There are regrets for some things I've done, but my greatest regrets are for those things left undone. This is especially true when death intervenes and you don't have another chance for a hug or handshake, or some words of love.

My thoughts, this past week, have been dominated by the regret that I never had or made an opportunity to do an in-depth interview with Gary LaFontaine. There were many things I wanted to ask and some personal insights I wanted to share. He died on January 4, 2002, after several years of decline from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig's Disease.

For the benefit of people not addicted to flyfishing, Gary LaFontaine was a flyfisherman—in much the same way Albert Einstein was a mathematician. In his 56 years, he achieved much. In a profile in a 1996 issue of Fly Rod & Reel magazine, which named him their Angler of the Year, writer Robert Berls said that the honor "seems an undervaluation."

Gary LaFontaine grew up in Connecticut. He caught his first fish on a fly at age eight and published his first fishing article at age 15. He came to the University of Montana in 1963, majoring in behavioral psychology. He also arranged his class schedule around hatches on the Clark Fork River.

He returned to Connecticut where he and his wife did pioneering work preparing mentally retarded children to become self-sufficient. They moved to Deer Lodge, Montana in 1973 and Gary worked as a guard at the State Prison and, later, in the children's ward at the State Hospital at Warm Springs. He also worked as a guide on area rivers from the Complete Fly Fisher lodge near Wise River.

While he occasionally held other jobs, fishing dominated his life. He fished across the country and much of the world. He was constantly thinking, observing, innovating and writing about flyfishing. His first book, Challenge of the Trout (now out of print) came out in 1976. He earned national recognition with his second book, Caddisflies, a book combining entomology, underwater observation of trout and insect behavior, and new flytying materials and techniques.

He followed that book with The Dry Fly: New Angles in 1990 and Trout Flies: Proven Patterns in 1993, and Flyfishing Mountain Lakes in 1996, books that continued his themes of observation and innovation, along with new findings on the significance of light in how fish perceive flies. With partners Stan and Glenda Bradshaw, he formed Greycliff Publishing Company to publish his books, plus a mail-order business called "Book Mailer." Alone and in collaboration with others he produced a steady stream of magazine articles, pocket guides, audiotape guides to rivers, and videos on flytying and flyfishing.

Throughout his productive career, he apparently felt driven to create, experiment and write. In Trout Flies: Proven Patterns, he wrote of fishing 6 - 12 hours nearly every day in 1991, putting 30,000 miles on his car, wearing out flylines every four weeks. He'd fall asleep at his computer keyboard at night, and his daughter, Heather, would come out to put a blanket over him. She'd try not to wake him up, because she knew he'd just resume typing, trying to get all his thoughts and observations organized.

I often wonder if he had some premonition that his time was limited and so had to work as hard and as long as possible. His wife, Ardyce, died in 1994 after a long debilitating illness, so when the news that he had ALS rippled throughout the flyfishing world, people were shocked and saddened that his days, also, were likely numbered.

If LaFontaine felt despondent or depressed over his declining health, you would never have guessed. I saw him at the Federation of Flyfisher's 2000 convention, sitting in a wheelchair with a crowd of people around him hanging on his every word and responding with roars of laughter. I always looked forward to getting the Book Mailer, with its running stream of stories, inside jokes and puns, along with sales pitches for merchandise. He never mentioned illness.

In looking back at his writings, a recurring theme is humor. In a preface to The Dry Fly, he wrote, "Why does a Frenchman kiss a lady's hand? He has to start somewhere. In either seduction or fly fishing it's silly to proceed without a plan. This is my book of plans for choosing a dry fly or emerger (no one is clamoring for me to write a book on seduction)."

In a Book Mailer, he responded to a reader who asked if he ever wrote for newspapers. He wrote of a summer when he did work for a newspaper, a career that ended when he was assigned to write an obituary for an elderly lady of whom little was known other than she was an avid crossword puzzle fan. The obituary headline read, "Crossword puzzle fan six down, three across."

While Gary LaFontaine's rod and pen have been stilled, he leaves an impressive body of work. In fact, just a few days before his death, the Lyons Press (an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press) sent review copies of new softcover editions of Trout Flies: Proven Patterns and The Dry Fly: New Angles.

In 1990, LaFontaine, then in his mid-40s, won the Arnold Gingrich Memorial Award for Lifetime Writing Achievements, which predated three more books and a full decade of productivity.

According to the short article in the newspapers last week, LaFontaine had requested no memorial services. I'd suggest that through the coming year, however, every time we use a LaFontaine fly pattern or try a technique he innovated, or re-read one of his many books or articles, we take an extra moment or two in his memory. It will be time well spent. ~ Paul F. Vang


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