|Gary LaFontaine caught his last trout just a few hundred yards upstream from my home in St. Anthony, Idaho on the day before he was diagnosed with the debilitating and fatal disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. During the last year of our Traveling Fly Fisherman seminars, Jack Dennis and I knew Gary was struggling with muscle strength and coordination.
I didn’t realize how serious the situation was until the last evening we fished together. Even though there were hundreds of greedy trout rising all across the river, Gary couldn’t fish. Instead, he took pictures and laughed every time I would hook up. After about an hour of coaxing, I finally talked him into taking my rod and making a few casts. He struggled to lay out a few sloppy casts until he finally put the fly in the feeding zone. He hooked up and the fight was on, but my heart sank as I realized how hard it was for him to maintain control of the rod, reel and line as he battled the fish. After he finally brought it to net he smiled and said, “That’s all I need!” as he slipped the fat rainbow back into the river.
When the phone call came the next day with the news of his diagnosis, I fought to hold my composure until I hung up. Then I crumpled to my knees and sobbed uncontrollably. I had already seen ALS take away my beautiful mother-in-law in the prime of her life. I knew what was ahead for Gary. When I look back over my life as a fly fisherman, there are a few men who have had a more positive influence on me than Gary LaFontaine. I loved him the first time I met him, at a fly-fishing conclave in the early 1970’s, when he walked up to me and introduced himself. After that our paths crossed often as he worked as a guide on the Big Hole River in Montana and spent a few summers as an instructor at the Fenwick Fly Fishing School near West Yellowstone.
I marveled at his knowledge and understanding during his weekly visits to Henry’s Fork, where he collected caddisfly samples from the back of our fly shop. Sometimes I accompanied him to the river and helped him collect caddisfly larvae and pupae. When he finally put his research on paper, the resulting books Caddisflies, immediately became the ultimate reference on these incredible complex aquatic insects.
During that time, Gary and I spent a few days producing an audio tape entitled, “Fly Fishing the Henry’s Fork”. It was part of his “River Rap” series of audio tapes about some of the top flyfishing waters in America. The tapes didn’t sell very well but they contained a wealth of information. Later, I was honored when he decided to transcribe our tapes into a book titles Fly Fishing the Henry’s Fork.
Gary and I really became close friends after I joined with him and Jack Dennis to form the Traveling Fly Fishermen. At first I felt out the place with them. They had both earned strong reputations in the industry as a result of their many books, videos, articles and speaking engagements; I was just a hayseed from Idaho. Both Jack and Gary helped me with the confidence I needed, reminding me of the years of practical experience I had gained on one of the most difficult trout streams of the world.
One of the greatest things Gary did for me was to help me learn to believe in myself. I didn’t always have the confidence I needed to stand before a group and give a quality presentation, and Jack and Gary were a hard act to follow. But Gary often pointed out to me that I’d had the best fly fishing instructors in the world – my grandfather and those big rainbows of the Railroad Ranch – and that I’d been a fly fishermen since I was old enough to pick up a rod. How many people had that kind of background? With the help of Gary’s perspective, I knew I had something to contribute. It was fun.
We worked more than a dozen years together presenting programs for sports shows, fly fishing clubs and other groups. Gary and I frequently disagreed on fishing related issues. We had some hot, friendly debates. I sometimes called him “the mad scientist of fly-fishing” because he seemed to always have a scientific reason for everything. For me, one of the attractions of fly-fishing has always been it’s mystery. Yet Gary always had a way of bringing out the best in me, helping me realize how important it was to defend my position with facts.
|When our time finally comes and our dance is over, our memories are some of the few things we can take with us. Boy, did we share a lot of them together. Like the time he got tossed out of his hotel room in the middle of the night because he was keeping the people in the adjacent room awake with his snoring.
Or the time he showed up at a sports show to present a program entitled, “Dressed to Kill.” Gary’s presentation was all about what makes a fly effective, but when he walked into the room, he found it packed with nothing but camo-clad hunters. None of those guys had ever fly-fished in their lives, and Gary had never hunted. But he wasn’t intimidated in the least. Instead, he scrapped his prepared program and gave them an excellent presentation on stealth and how to stalk game. He maintained his audience for the full hour, and those guys left that seminar believing they had just learned something from one of the great minds of big-game hunting!
Gary was a man who always saw the glass as more than half full; he was the eternal optimist. He never failed to brighten my day. Few people know of the adversity and gloom he faced throughout much of his life, and I won’t discuss it now. One quality he had, which I’ve rarely witnessed in others, was that he always seemed more interested in listening than talking about himself. Whenever we met he would start be asking about my family, my work, what I’d been doing and so on.
My greatest memories of Gary were the hours we shared, sometimes staying up most of the night, talking about fly fishing. He eventually persuaded me to write a book about fly fishing spring creeks. At first it sounded intimidating. But he said, “All you need to do is just write down all the things we’ve talked about.” He could make me believe I could do anything! We sat up nigh after night dictating into a small recorder. We eventually got the entire book outlined.
That was about 10 years ago. After that, every time I met him the first thing he would say is, “How is the book coming?” I had every excuse in the world. There were always so many distractions. Even though I wrote a number of magazine articles, filmed a couple of fly fishing videos, and co-authored the Henry’s Fork book with Gary, I couldn’t seem to concentrate on the spring creek book.
The last time I saw him he again asked, “How is the book?” I hated to report that it wasn’t any further along than the last time we talked. He reminded me how you have to dedicate the time to write. Gary never let anything get in the way of his writing. He made me promise to finish the book. It is a promise that I intend to keep. When my spring creek book is finally published, it will be dedicated to Gary LaFontaine. Gary taught Jack Dennis and me a final lesson during out last visit with him. We talked and laughed for several hours, recalling all of the memories we had shared together, but Gary knew we were both struggling. It is impossible to describe how helpless we felt. We had driven to Missoula on a cold December day to try and comfort our dear friend in his hour of need.
Instead, he comforted us. he reminded us not to feel sorry, or to be angry over what had happened to him. His words weren’t much different than those of the man for whom ALS got its name, the great Lou Gehrig.
“Life has been so good to me,” Gary explained. “My dreams have been fulfilled. I came to Montana to be a fly fisherman. How many men can say that they could go fishing every day?
“I’ve done more in my life and had more fun than most people who live twice as long. I don’t think I’ll make it more than a month or two. Don’t feel bad for me. I’m one of the most fortunate people in the world. I’ve had a great life and I don’t think I would change anything if I had it to do all over again.”
The other day I thought of Gary when I heard the song entitled, “The Dance,” by Garth Brooks . . . And now I’m glad I didn’t know the way it all would end, the way it all would go . . . I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.
Whenever I walk along the river above my house, I stop at the spot where Gary caught his last trout and I think how glad I am that he shared his dance with me.
|In the days after Gary’s death, we received dozens of communications, echoing, to various degrees, Craig’s comment. Gary, through his writing and personal contacts, touched people, and in various ways, large and small, made their lives more complete. No small feat for a guy who made fly fishing his life’s work. After all, it’s just fishing, right? But listen to the tone of these comments: “generous” … “his love of people and their enjoyment of the sport”… “his humility and kindness will stay with me and inspire me forever”… “never pretentious or unapproachable”… “wry sense of humor”… “ he had a down-to-earth quality that made him so genuine, he could be anybody’s fishing buddy.”
Having known him for more than 30 years, I can attest to the accuracy of these sentiments. But like all of us, Gary was more complex than the distillation found in these comments, and for me it was that complexity that made Gary’s public persona all the more compelling. I first met Gary in a martial arts class in January, 1968 when I was a freshman at the University of Montana. I was 19, Gary was 23. Our first contact was not auspicious. Drowning in post-adolescent testosterone, I was stumbling along in a new physical discipline, and here this scrawny, hook-nose, wise-cracking guy with lightning hands was tattooing me with punches almost at will (Gary has been a golden-glove boxer in high school). But during class, practice and long drives across Montana to tournaments, we discovered a common love of fishing and books. What follows are a few snapshots of Gary LaFontaine, whom I was lucky enough to know.
That Gary’s fishing dogs became almost as famous as Gary was no accident. From the first time I knew him, Gary had a dog. This first of my acquaintance was a feisty, bright little terrier cross name Beowulf, who answered to “Wulf”. Gary loved his animals unconditionally and they reciprocated. He always grounded his training in kindness and reward. Wulf was Gary’s constant companion, his buddy in every sense of that word.
Cruelty to animals was one of the few things that could drive Gary to a towering rage. Once in college, while jogging along the railroad tracks east of Missoula, we came upon a man kicking a dog for some unknown transgression. Gary, all 135 pounds of him, trotted right up to him and told him to stop it. The guy, bigger than us, sneeringly told Gary, “mind your own damn business.” I don’t think he ever saw the short punch Gary planted in his solar plexus. The dog went with us.
Gary’s compassion and love for animals was surpassed only by his genuine affinity for people, no matter what their station in life. In 1970, Gary and his wife, Ardyce, worked at the Boulder River Training School for developmentally disabled people. In those days, the conventional wisdom for treating people with developmental disabilities was, in effect, to warehouse them. Gary worked as a caretaker, making sure his clients ate, slept and didn’t get out of hand. Gary could no more be the indifferent custodian than he could push back the tides. When I visited him that summer, he was bursting with the possibilities of his “students,” as he described them. Gary didn’t see their impediments, only their possibilities. Yet, as with everything he pursued, Gary couldn’t resist the opportunity for a goofy joke.
One of Gary’s charges was a man in his early twenties named David. David had suffered a brain injury in childhood that left him severely mentally handicapped, unable to talk and subject to violent flights of rage. When became his caretaker, David had largely been left to fend for himself, unresponsive to those around him, no basic hygiene, a “lost cause.” But not for Gary. When I visited, Gary brimmed with stories of David. “I’ve got him eating, making his bed, communicating – he even laughs now,” Gary said. “It’s basic behavior modification- show him a little love and there’s a lot he can do. You have to meet him.”
Before Gary, David hadn’t been allowed visitors for fear of violent consequences. Gary led me to a small room on the ward. David was massive- less than six feet tall, but easily 230 pounds, with a neck that sloped from his head to his shoulders and giant, powerful arms. No sooner had Gary introduced us- David greeted us with a crushing, but affectionate hug- than Gary said, with a sneaky little grin, “Watch this.”
He told me to move about 10 feet away from David. Then, pointing at me, Gary said, “David, fetch Stan.” David promptly ran over, seized me around the waist, tucked me under his arm, and delivered me to Gary, gently putting me back on my feet. Gary hugged him and David, beaming, hugged me again. Gary turned to me, grinning and asked, “Pretty good, huh?” I was speechless.
Early in our friendship, Gary met Ardyce, his future wife. Ardyce was the perfect foil for Gary- smart and funny in an off-beat way. But Ardyce lived under the constant shadow of epilepsy. Through college, it wasn’t a problem, but later it changed the shape of their lives.
After their wedding in 1970 and a stint in Gary’s home state of Connecticut, they returned to Montana to start a family. Soon after they got back their daughter, Heather, was born and became the center of their lives. Working at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Gary began his lifelong love affair with the waters of the upper Clark Fork River. Ardyce, a consummate salesperson, started work as an insurance agent and quickly carved out a comfortable living. Their life was halcyon- Gary, working nights, fishing, writing and doting over Heather, Ardyce doing the 9-to-5 job. And Gary’s writing took off- he quit his prison job to concentrate on writing and fishing. He was increasingly invited to travel throughout the country to share his angling expertise.
But their lives changed abruptly in 1983 when an operation to treat Ardyce’s epilepsy went wrong and left her with no short-term memory. Initially, Ardyce spent time in a residential center, eventually improving enough to come home, but not enough to resume her former life. Gary took a state job in Deer Lodge, so he could stay close to home for Ardyce and Heather. During that time, Gary privately mourned the loss of his “best friend” and their lost dreams (her natural sales ability would have been a key element in our publishing venture), and, occasionally, raged at the seeming indifference of the medical establishment that had caused this disaster. But over the many hours we talked, he didn’t once whine or descent into self-pity. Instead, he rejoice in Heather, his pets and his brother Jay (who had recently moved to Montana), and kept himself busy with his writing and speaking, and the start-up of Greycliff Publishing Company. The larger reading public saw the same funny, enthusiastic and engaging Gary in his writing and in his appearance, never suspecting the pain that dogged him every day.
As long as I knew Gary, he had a knack for living in the moment. While his head was filled with an endless array of grand schemes, fishing theorems, fly patterns and myriad stories in the making, he was largely immune to the exigencies of everyday life. Anyone who ever rode in his car or spent time in his house know what I mean. Clutter followed Gary like ants follow sugar. His mind was on bigger things. As a result, operating a business with this was an adventure. Deadlines were often a theoretical construct, to be followed or ignored on the whim of the moment. Gary would drop almost anything on a moment’s notice to fish with a total stranger who, having read one of his books or articles, stopped in Deer Lodge on the off chance of catching him at home.
My wife, Glenda, and I, Gary’s partners in Greycliff, quickly understood that the mundane details of running a business would fall to us. Gary was our visionary and resident optimist; we were his reality check. On occasion we would find ourselves raging at Gary’s seeming helter-skelter approach to business. Characteristically, he remained unflappable in the face of our tirades. He’d let us wind down, crack a joke and then we’d get back on track. It was always hard to stay angry at Gary for more than a few minutes at a time. Fly fishing seems to spawn more than its share of self-absorbed and pompous personalities. Gary was acutely aware of the temptation to believe the press and hype. When some fly-fishing icon would lapse into bombast, Gary, never one to publicly demean others, would silently wince and fret for that person. His embarrassment and discomfort was palpable. Gary adopted a self-effacing humor as a buffer against that temptation. For me, it was one of his defining virtues, and it suffused everything else he did; it was both his salvation in times of stress and the balm that he brought to his teaching, and which drew so many people to him. And he maintained it to the last.
In the end, although Gary regretted the books he didn’t write and some of the dreams he didn’t get to pursue, he ws wise enough to recognize the extraordinary gifts life had bestowed on him. The last time I saw him, in December, knowing it might be our last time together he said, “You know, for all the things I didn’t get to do, I have had an incredible life. I have fished all over the world, I have gotten to make my living fishing and I have been lucky enough to meet incredible, wonderful people everywhere I went. And, I got to leave my mark. I’ve done okay.”
Indeed you have, pal.