Column: Sharing coffee and swapping stories with the late Jim Willis

Great Outdoors by James Murray

“Got time for a coffee?” he’d ask, and then in the same breath say, “Come on, I’ll buy.”

A simple enough statement but, in the case of Jim Willis, it also meant, “Got time for a coffee – let’s go swap a few fishing stories.”

I don’t know how many times Willis and I have gone for coffee over the past 25 years, but I do know it only took a short while – a few months and maybe a few hundred stories – to realize that Willis genuinely enjoyed sharing fishing stories. Probably almost as much as he enjoyed casting a line to the shimmery shadow of a three-and-a-half pound rainbow trout moving slowly through the shallow waters of White Lake or Jimmie Lake, or any of the other lakes that he loved to fish.

Willis’ stories were mostly about local lakes and streams, you know, the homegrown sort of thing. They were slow and easy to listen to, kind of familiar like maybe you’d heard them before, but still interesting enough that you didn’t mind hearing them again, especially in their slightly new, somewhat revised version. His stories were just the thing to warm you up on a cold winter’s afternoon when you were killing time waiting for your winter tires to be switched over or just hanging around the local fishing tackle store – one of his favourite places to hang around and join in on any sort of conversation/argument/discussion about fishing.

Willis’ stories were not only engaging; if you were listening close enough, you inadvertently learned a fair amount, like what flies to use along a particular shoal and how deep to fish along the drop-off. And, if you were lucky, you might be sitting at the table when he would stop right in the middle of his story and pull out some of the flies he had tied to fish the particular lake he was talking about. He had no problem handing a few of them out. You could just tell he took a certain pleasure from catching fish on flies he’d tied himself. He also got a different kind of pleasure out of other anglers catching fish on flies he had tied.

I am proud to say I have a couple of his flies in my fly box.

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I first met Willis not long after arriving in town over a quarter of a century ago in, yes, you guessed it, the local fishing tackle store. He was talking to Bill Keown, a local angler and fly tier-extraordinaire who also happens to work there. Somehow I got dragged into their conversation/argument/discussion and by the end, well let’s just say I walked away having made two new friends.

The thing about Willis that always impressed me was that while he was passionate about fishing and catching fish, he was also a conservationist. He believed in limiting his catch instead of catching his limit. He was a catch-and-release fisherman long before it was the thing to do. Having said that, he really did love to catch fish.

Willis was one of the founding members of the Shuswap Flyfishers, an organization made up mostly of like-minded anglers who like to fish and gather together to talk fishing. For as long as I can remember Willis proudly wore a cap that had the group’s logo on the front. I remember when the hat was new. I also remember how it aged and faded over time.

Jim Willis passed away a few weeks ago. I will miss him. Most of all, I will miss going for coffee and sharing stories. We all have our time on the waters.

However, I am sure that by now he has met a whole whack of anglers that passed on before him. They are probably sitting around having coffee in some restaurant up there, swapping fishing stories. I can just hear him telling one of his stories in that slow and easy manner, one of those familiar stories that will help pass the time for everyone until they head off for one of the lakes up there that are full of three-and-a-half pound rainbow trout moving slowly through the shallow waters.


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