Tom Harman was one of the funniest and engaging individuals I’ve known, and it was a shock to learn of his untimely death, at age 61, on August 29.
I met Tom when he was running a fly shop in Sheridan, Montana. I stopped in one day while on my way to fish the Ruby River.
I ended up hanging around the shop for about two hours that morning because chatting with Tom was more entertaining than wading in a trout stream. I did go fishing, though I probably spent more time mentally writing a column about Tom that originally ran in April 2001.
Tom grew up in Pennsylvania, served in the Air Force, spent some years working in a gun shop and, finally, followed his dreams and moved to Montana. He related that he and his wife looked at several business opportunities before deciding to buy that fly shop in Sheridan. For several years he spent most of his time guiding clients while his wife tended the store. Then they divorced, so Tom had to quit guiding to run the fly shop full time.
This is when Tom learned one of the ironies of life; that if your business is fishing, you don’t have time to fish.
Tom’s store was a meeting place in the Ruby Valley. “I’m the only license vendor in the Ruby Valley that’s open year ‘round,” he said, adding that just about everyone from Twin Bridges to Virginia City stopped at his shop. “When deadlines for applying for big game licenses come I figure I see everyone twice. Once for the application form and again, a couple days later when they come back for another one, because they made mistakes filling it out the first time.”
Tom told of a local guide who frequently took bookings through his shop. He stopped in to say he was going to the dump and wondered if Tom had anything to get rid of, adding, “Glen Blackwood is coming in, so I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” Glen Blackwood had a TV flyfishing show that used to air on PBS and he was going to do a program on the Ruby.
A few minutes later a stranger walked into the shop and asked to see a phone book. Without missing a beat, Tom said, “xxx Mill Street, 842-xxxx. Bud had to go to the dump—he’ll be back in 20 minutes.” The stranger was, indeed, Glen Blackwood, and he got this strange look on his face and stepped back, thinking, “Whoa, what’s going on here.”
Tom had three big passions in life: flyfishing, motorcycling, and upland bird hunting. “I had this idea to put together a motorcycling-flyfishing tour. We’d spend a day cycling to some fishing area and then fish the next.” Then he had second thoughts. “I actually had several people ready to go when I realized they were my least favorite clients. So, I scratched the whole thing.”
When the flyfishing seasons were about done, Tom would often put a “gone hunting” sign on his shop door to go hunting with his dogs. “I did some upland guiding a couple years. Luckily, I got out of that before it became a job, so I still enjoy hunting.”
Tom eventually closed his fly shop, though he continued to be involved with the business of flyfishing, working as a regional sales manager for Cortland Line Co. at the time of his death.
I had a long chat with Tom at the end of July at the Big Hole River Foundation flyfishing festival in Melrose. Tom was demonstrating tying the George Grant flies. He commented that he often visited Grant in his later years and was proud that when he showed him some of his flies, Grant asked, “Are those mine or yours?”
Tom gave me the fly he was demonstrating, and I treasure that work of art he created, presumably one of his last, along with fond memories of this unique fisherman.