The first time Greg Chester went fishing with Earl Little, he thought he knew a thing or two about casting a fly.
Chester had moved to the Bitterroot from Long Beach, California, where he had been an active member of a famous casting club.
Little was the first person who took him fishing on the Bitterroot River.
“It was my introduction to fly fishing in the Bitterroot,” Chester said. “I was out there fishing away when I asked Earl: ‘How is my casting?’”
Chester, who now serves as the Bitterroot Trout Unlimited president, will never forget his answer.
“He told me I had a beautiful arch and my cast was technically correct, but it wasn’t a cast that was going to catch fish very well,” Chester said. “From then on, he gave me tips and guidance on how to catch fish rather than cast to impress everyone.
“Over the years, I learned a whole lot from him,” he said. “He and his wife, Joanie, were always eager to share everything they knew.”
And the Littles knew a lot about fishing.
It was the bond that tied them together for more than a half century of adventure and joy.
They grew up fishing and hunting in their native Wisconsin, but both were quick to let people know they were most happy after moving to God’s country and becoming fly fishing purists focused entirely on trout.
It was a passion they shared with both young and old.
“We had our little club here,” Joan Little said recently while sitting at the kitchen table of her Hamilton home. “People would come by to ask for advice on this fly or that one. If Earl wasn’t helping someone learn how to tie a fly, he was out in the front yard showing them how to cast.”
It’s been about a year since Earl Little died.
Last October, the Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited made their first effort of remembering him when they created the Earl Little Award for Excellence in Youth Education.
“Some of us in Trout Unlimited thought that was fitting considering his contributions to fly fishing here in the valley,” Chester said.
The first recipient was Max Fielder and his Darby High School shop class.
Feilder’s class had made a habit of supporting the local Trout Unlimited’s annual banquet with gifts of beautiful, handmade wooden fishing nets and centerpieces cut from steel in the shape of a trout.
But Chester said that something was missing from that first award presentation. Everyone knew there could be no Earl without Joan.
“After we got to thinking about it, we decided to change the name to the Earl and Joan Little Award for Excellence in Youth Education in fly tying and fly fishing,” Chester said.
They redid the plaque and Chester dropped it by the Littles' home with the wooden net made by the Darby class especially for them.
Chester said it won’t be an award that automatically is given out every year.
“It will be presented to someone who stands out head and shoulders above the rest,” he said. “We don’t want to have to just pick someone that might not be up to standards of Earl and Joan's ideal.
“We might give out three times in a year or it might only be presented to someone once every three years,” Chester said.
The fact the award is focused on educating young people about the sport of fly fishing for trout would have made Earl Little smile.
“Fishing was everything to us,” Joan Little said. “We loved to share it with others.”
After her husband died, she continued on with that tradition by donating her husband's large collection of fly-tying materials to Healing Waters, a group focused on helping veterans through fly fishing.
“Some of the stuff he had stored away was just mind boggling,” she said. “He would have been happy to know that he helped some veterans.”
Earl Little's happiness wouldn’t have stopped there. He would have been tickled to know that his fishing partner wasn't ready to give up her rod.
The fact that Joan Little needs a walker to get around these days hasn't gottten in the way of her fishing adventures.
Last fall, with a little help from her son, she felt the waters of East Fork swirling around her feet as she worked a nearby riffle in search of trout with her fly rod.
“My doctor probably wouldn’t have been too happy seeing that,” she said.
“I do miss (Earl) terribly,” Joan Little said. “But I can’t give up fishing because of it. He wouldn’t want me to do that. I’m fishing for both of us now.”
She smiled as she picked up one of several poinsettias off the nearby counter. Nestled on one of its bright red leaves was a small white fly.
“I told him I needed a snow fly and this is what he tied for me,” she said. “That’s a Christmas fly. So many memories. So many good memories.”