By Beau Davis
“Look at that baby!” Bob Jacklin exclaims as the foamy waters of Montana’s Madison River churn steadily around him. Elegantly draped out of the net he’s holding is the tail of a now-famous 30-inch brown trout—a fish that Jacklin had caught before. “You talk about a fish—that is a big boy!”
This prime example of sheer angler joy comes from the 2007 YouTube video, Bob Jacklin’s Fish of a Lifetime; and, due in part to Jacklin’s great dialogue in response to the trophy, it remains one of the most well-known fly-fishing videos on the internet. Currently, the fish spends the days observing the comings and goings of customers and staff from its spot on Jacklin’s Fly Shop’s wall.
One of the longest continuously owned and operated fly shops in the United States, Jacklin’s Fly Shop has been a staple of West Yellowstone, Montana since April of 1974. Less than a year prior to its opening, visitors were still catching spawning cutthroats by the hundreds along Yellowstone’s Fishing Bridge. In 1982, however, Jacklin’s Fly Shop moved to its current location of right outside the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
I asked Jacklin how the business has changed for him since the early years and he said that the way he got his merchandise has been one of the biggest changes. “Dan Bailey supplied a lot of the flies in those days before we started going overseas with flies. They were tied right in Livingston, Montana. He had young ladies—housewives–tying flies all day long in Livingston,” … “If we wanted some Goofus Bugs, we called Dan Bailey and he had a lady that just did Goofus Bugs. Whatever you wanted, they had; but, things are still good.”
According to Rob Orsini, one of the shop’s head guides who has been there since 1999, a main reason for the shop’s continual success is Jacklin’s self-sustaining drive. “This has been his life since the 1970’s, and he kind of doesn’t know how to stop. And I think that’s commendable—he’s still there and still fishing all the time,” … “There’s not too many people who can be a small business owner for as long as he has been. He’s someone to look up to on how to run a fly shop for sure.”
Since its opening, anglers and tourists alike have come to frequent Jacklin’s for their modest equipment prices, Jacklin’s great stories and advice, unique products for the area like Compass waders and spinning gear for the less fly-inclined anglers, and the distinct ambiance that only a continuously run fly shop can supply in spades. Everything from the cabin façade to the faded trophy pictures and old-school tackle on the walls speaks to its almost 50 years of operation catering to the cacophony of fisheries in the area.
One of Orsini’s favorite places to guide is the Firehole River in Yellowstone. “Early season and late season I love the Firehole. The fish aren’t huge in there, but there’s lots of fish willing to eat dry flies and really that’s kind of the thing that we at Jacklin’s specialize in–teaching people how to catch fish on a dry fly, especially beginners.”
Out of all the products and services that the shop provides, however, Jacklin himself is most proud of their more than 50-year relationship with the Cortland Line Company, his personally designed nets, and his custom flies. “I buy my flies imported like everybody, but a lot of them I tie myself and I have quite a few patterns of my own,” Jacklin said. “My most sought-after fly is my Salmon Fly. Last year I sold close to 60 dozen and it’s a favorite among all the other shops in the area. A lot of the guides come in here and buy flies from me.”
For Orsini, having guides from one of the other many fly shops in the area come in to buy flies is a welcome change to how things used to be in West Yellowstone. “When I first started, I would say there were kind of rivalries in town. You know, one shop against the other. That’s kind of all gone away and really everybody works together now in town—there’s not really that rivalry that we used to see.”
Eventually my conversation with Jacklin steered back to the fish that has made him even more well-known in recent years.
“I took some real crap for keeping it, but what people don’t know is that I’ve been a licensed taxidermist for about 35 years. I wanted to mount my own fish and I was able to send in the head to fish and game for some analysts to work on it—that fish was 11 or 12 years old.”
Jacklin went on to relate that he had caught that same fish before when it was 20 inches and he knew this because it had the same hooked jaw that was curved to the left.
“It also had a seven-inch rainbow inside him. You could still tell it was a rainbow. It was head-first, right in his stomach.”
Bob Jacklin and Bruce Staples, author of the 2017 publication Fly Fishing the Greater Yellowstone Backcountry, have together co-authored a book titled Fly Fishing West Yellowstone-A History and Guide. It is expected to be released this summer.