Sylvester Nemes ties one of his famous soft-hackled wet flies
Sylvester Nemes ties one of his famous soft-hackled wet flies at the Fly Tiers and Liars Guild in Belgrade on March 10, 2010. BEN PIERCE/CHRONICLE

Sylvester Nemes met his wife Hazel Nemes on a blind date in Ringwood, Hampshire, England, in the spring of 1944. Sylvester was stationed in Great Britain serving with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and Hazel was a nursing student.

The couple rendezvoused for their first date at a bus stop, and as Hazel said on Monday, "that was it."

Many of the couple's later dates were on the River Test where they picnicked on K-rations and Sylvester fly-fished for trout.

"I think there is a great romance in fly-fishing," Hazel said. "Sylvester fished all he wanted, whenever he wanted, which I am really happy about."

Sylvester Nemes died last Thursday evening at his home in Bozeman with Hazel by his side. He was 88.

Following World War II, and their marriage on March 17, 1945, Sylvester and Hazel moved to the Midwest. Sylvester worked as a copywriter for the advertising industry in Detroit and Chicago, and as a photojournalist.

During the summer, Sylvester and Hazel would vacation in Montana and other western states. A favorite destination was Yellowstone National Park.

"I started fishing with (Sylvester) in the late 70s," Hazel said. "We used to come out to fish the Madison every fall. I suppose we fell in love with the West."

In 1975, Sylvester published "The Soft-Hackled Fly," widely credited with the resurgence in what many anglers of the time regarded as an antiquated and arcane method of fly tying and fishing. The book detailed the techniques and methodology of fishing soft-hackled wet flies, which had for centuries proven an effective way to take trout, but had generally fallen out of favor in the U.S.

In 1984, Sylvester retired and moved the family to Bozeman the following year. They built a home at the base of the Bridger Mountains with views of the Gallatin Valley.

Sylvester continued to fish the Madison River with regularity, but also turned his attention to other Montana waters. The Missouri and Yellowstone rivers became favorites.

Sylvester fished Montana's great rivers with the same soft-hackled wet flies used on the River Test and the River Wharfe in England. And he devised some of his own patterns.

"He found his first ‘spider' flies at Paul Young's fly shop in Detroit, Michigan," Hazel recalled. "That intrigued him then and was mainly all he fished with. They were very popular in Yorkshire, England."

Sylvester went on to publish numerous books on fly-fishing including "Six Months in Scotland: An American View of its Salmon Fishing," "Spinners," and "Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies: A Survey of the Literature Complete with Original Patterns 1747-Present." He documented the use of soft-hackled flies back some 500 years, swore by them on the river and advocated for their use.

"(Sylvester) was not a dry fly fisherman," Hazel said. "He abhorred bead heads. He would say that was not fly-fishing, that you might as well use a spinning rod.

"He developed some flies and spent time tying flies for himself and every time he went out fishing he met people on the river and he would give those flies away."

Sylvester and Hazel's daughter, Diane Corson, spent many days fishing with her parents on the Madison River. They always packed a picnic to enjoy once the fishing was through.

"My mother and father both waded and followed strict fly-fishing etiquette," Corson said. "You did not speak fishing with my dad. Once you were wading with him in the river, there was no talking. He said to me one time, ‘being on the river is not rectilinear.'"

Sylvester also fished frequently with his neighbor and friend, Jim Bowker. The anglers took long drives to the Missouri River and on the rides home Sylvester would read Bowker the riot act over casting bead heads.

And he'd often surprise Bowker on days the two didn't fish together.

"He would find out I was going fishing and I would go out to the mailbox the next morning and he'd have put a few flies in there for me," Bowker said.

Of course, they were always soft-hackles.

As Sylvester's books on soft-hackled flies grew in popularity, so too did the number of guests venturing to Montana to fish with Nemes. Corson recalls scores of visitors from across the country that came to cast soft-hackles on the Madison with her father during the 1980s.

Sylvester's notoriety extended to Japan where there is a fishing club named in his honor and a fly rod manufacturer that produces a model bearing his name. In 2008, he was the recipient of the "Legends of the Headwaters" award from the Madison-Gallatin chapter of Trout Unlimited.

But for all his success, Sylvester kept that most important part of fishing for himself.

"Syl didn't like to fish too much with people he didn't know," Hazel said. "We liked to fish alone or with a few friends. It was almost a spiritual thing, being out there in the meadows and on the river.

"Personally, I am just happy that he fished as much as he did. I suppose it was just being out there. Some days we'd go out and wouldn't catch a thing. And that was fine."

Ben Pierce can be reached at and 582-2625. Follow him online at and