My Father: A Tribute to Tom McNally

By Bob McNally

Tom McNally, my father, died July 29, 2002, at Madison Valley General Hospital in Ennis, MT, from what was believed to be a stroke. Dad was in ill health for some time. He had a number of heart attacks, dating back to the 1980s. When he retired and moved to Montana, his health grew worse, and he suffered a couple more heart attacks and strokes.

Dad was cremated, and his ashes were spread over the Bighole River near the town of Twin Bridges, MT, his favorite brown trout water. This is a river I remember fishing with him as a kid when I was too small to wade. He’d carry me on his back through chest-deep water at dusk. The best fishing was at dusk, and the best pools always seemed on the other side of the dark, deep water. I remember closing my eyes because I was so scared.

Some of my earliest recollections of fishing with Dad were while attending gatherings of the Brotherhood of the Jungle Cock back in the early 1950s. It’s a conservation group that takes kids fishing in the Catoctin Hills of western Maryland along Big Hunting Creek, not far from the presidential retreat at famed Camp David. The Brotherhood was started in 1940 by J. Hammond Brown and Van Campen Heilner. Dad joined the group in the early 1950s, and it helped mold his fishing life — as well as mine — and my children too.

Fly-fishing was his forte and long before it was in vogue. He may have been the first angler ever to hook a billfish on fly, a white marlin out of Ocean City, MD, in the very early 1950s. The fish hit, took line and a loop of backing line somehow caught around Dad’s index finger, cutting it to the bone. He would have lost his finger if the fly leader hadn’t broken. But, as he was fond of saying, if he’d lost his finger, he would have at least caught that first fly-rod marlin, estimated to weigh about 100 pounds.

Dad was very well known in the Chicago area as a top and pioneering pike fisherman. He was at the cutting edge of fly-fishing back in the late 50s and 60s. This along with spoonplugging with Buck Perry, and what later became popularized as “structure” fishing.

Dad was also a long-time bowhunter, starting in about 1950. I still have the long bow he took his first deer with in Maryland around 1954-55. He bow-hunted Africa twice in the early 1960s and was close friends with Fred Bear. Bear loved to fly-fish the AuSable River, and Dad was deadly with flies and trout (fishing behind him for trout in a river was like fishing behind a net). Bear learned from Dad about flies and trout; Dad got more of the bow-hunting fever from Bear, and I learned from them both.

Dad and writer Erwin “Joe” Bauer were the first modern anglers to fish Costa Rica’s east coast, at the invitation of the government, to learn if there was fishing good enough to build camps. They lived with the natives in thatched huts and caught many tarpon weighing well over 100 pounds — on flies.

He was a tough old guy; a World War II paratrooper with four combat jumps, decorated, wounded, etc. He was in the Italian campaign, at Anzio and Monte Casino, and was on a troop ship for the Japan invasion when they dropped the atomic bomb. He told me many years later that his time on the Japan-bound troop ship was the most depressed he ever was in his life — he knew he wouldn’t survive it. By then he was the old man of his 101st Airborne outfit — and about the only one who had survived.

Dad very seldom discussed his time in the service, and didn’t much like to hear others talk about their war heroics. Dad had nightmares about the war for many years, even when I was a young adult.

One wartime memory he did pass on — I was named after his best friend Bob, who was killed while serving with my father. Dad, Bob and four others jumped behind German lines to kidnap Mussolini from the Italian underground. The six paratroopers, including Dad, got there, but the underground had already killed Mussolini and his mistress. Dad later saw them hanging by their heels in a town square. While going back to Allied lines, four of the six troopers were killed, including Bob. Dad and one other were the only ones to make it back alive.

Immediately after the war, Dad was a welterweight professional fighter, having, I believe, 10 professional bouts. He started boxing in the service, and after the war he boxed for money. He attended Loyola College in Baltimore on the GI bill where he finished in three years, then met and married my mother. He worked at a tackle store in Baltimore and wrote an outdoor weekly column for the Baltimore Union News, while still in college. He stayed at the tackle store until 1950, when there was an opening at the Baltimore Sun Papers for a full-time outdoors editor. In 1956, the outdoor editor job at the Chicago Tribune opened, he interviewed, took the job and we moved to Skokie, IL. A year later, we moved to Glenview, IL, and remained there until Dad’s retirement took he and my mother to Ennis, MT, near the Madison River. For 15 years prior to his permanent Montana move, he had a summer home in Ennis.

Few people accomplish much in life unless they work hard, and Tom McNally was among the hardest working, most dedicated writers ever. He’d take a newspaper lunch break in a diner in Chicago, and while eating a sandwich with one hand he would edit magazine features with the other. In Glenview, my bedroom was on the first floor of our home, directly above my father’s basement office. Countless nights I’d fall asleep at very late hours listening to the tap, tap, tapping of his typewriter as he worked on magazines, books and other outdoor musings.

Over the years he wrote 29 outdoor books and thousands of magazine outdoor features and newspaper stories and columns. He also did radio, television and some videos. For years he was on the field staff of Field & Stream magazine, helped form and get Fly Fisherman magazine off the ground, and was a columnist for Fishing World magazine for 20 years. He is in the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame (trout were his primary fish, and he fished all the great trout rivers worldwide, from Chile to Norway, and everywhere in between).

Dad was also a highly skilled fly-tier. When he and my mother lived in Baltimore in the early 1950s, they both tied flies professionally to earn extra income. Dad designed and originated many unique ties, including the well-known McNally “Smelt” streamer, the McNally “Magnum” streamer and the McNally “Frog Popper.”

His interests were extremely varied. His photography was excellent. He was an outstanding artist (pen and ink), a remarkable pocket billiards player (playing with Minnesota Fats and some other pool luminaries) and had the best left-handed golf swing I ever saw, playing frequently at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago. One of my fondest golf memories is playing with him and the late outdoor writer Pete Czura on a magnificent course outside Rio de Janero, Brazil.

When he fell and broke his shoulder before his death, my brother took him to the hospital. He was in great pain but could take it. What he was most upset about was that he’d broken his right shoulder, his casting arm. My brother told me Dad was more worried about his casting abilities in the future than the fracture or the pain. He was truly a world-class flycaster and angling innovator, having fished with the best and given casting lessons to many well knowns. He was close friends with many world-class fly-rodders and anglers, including Joe Brooks, A.J. McClane, Charles Ritz and Dan Bailey.

When it comes time to paddle my canoe into the sunset, I can only hope to leave a wake a small fraction as high as that of my father’s, Tom McNally.

Bob McNally of Jacksonville, FL, is the owner of McNally Outdoor Productions. He is a free-lance writer and photographer and has written over 5,000 magazine features. He is also a co-author of 13 fishing and camping books.

More Tributes to Tom McNally

I was sorry to hear of Tom’s death. I didn’t know him personally, but I did meet him once. I really enjoyed hearing about his life. I knew him by name and reputation as all of us in the outdoor industry knew him. He had done so much for so many people. He came into the outdoor world at a time when he could have a tremendous impact and he made every second count. – Bob Knopf

The outdoor world suffered a terrible loss with Tom McNally’s passing. I knew him only briefly in my earliest days as an outdoor writer from Detroit. He was a hero to all of us struggling scribes. – Jerry Chiappetta

I remember years ago, when Tom was in Chicago, he and I were talking about Central Wisconsin trout fishing. We had a mutual friend, Russ Gaede, and I remarked demeaningly, that ‘Russ was getting old and forgetful’ — Russ had lost his way to the “Shack” and it took him 8 hours to get there instead of 3-1/2.

“We’re all going to get old and forgetful!” your dad told me in an admonishing tone. I think of this often as the years pass by. Balance. Coordination. Endurance. Strength. The mind, too. All these things leave us slowly, not so noticeable at first, but they do leave us.

I’m sure that Tom McNally has already hooked up with Al McClane, Charles Ritz and others and is working on solving various angling challenges. – Jim C. Chapralis

I have a copy of Tom’s “Fly Fishing” outdoor life book on my shelf at home, and I think it was among the best of its time. A couple years ago, he wrote me a note complimenting a piece I did on the history of saltwater fly-fishing in Florida, and that certainly meant a lot to me. He also sent me a McNally Magnum streamer, which I have in a treasured collection of classic flies. Tom was a pioneer in saltwater fly-fishing, no doubt among the true luminaries. – Mike Conner, Florida Sportsman Magazine

Tom was always so active and in such good health that it seemed he would go on forever. I met Tom on what I believe was his (and my) first visit to Ennis, MT, a press trip in the late 50s (I think) organized by Bill Browning and with Al McClane. I do recall that he really liked the place. We also had some lively times fishing (briefly) around Grand Cayman and much longer in different parts of Costa Rica when no sportsmen had yet discovered the place. This much can certainly be said: Tom enjoyed a life of adventure like few others. And how can you measure his influence on so many others to do the same. Or rather try to. He will be sorely missed. – Erwin Bauer

Unlike most men who go through life looking at their feet, Tom McNally charged through life with his head up and eyes wide open. – Bob Brandau, Brandau Marketing

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