This summer, make a promise to yourself to slow down, take in the surroundings and have a leisurely and incredible meal at one of the true dining treasures in our region. Haven 55, nestled among the trees on a bend in Little Sugar Creek.
Through an email, there was a simple interview request. Phil Lilley’s immediate response: “Yes, but it must be with rod in hand.”
It took three weeks to make it happen. Tropical Storm Cristobal complicated things, although a weakened storm failed to produce the type of havoc Lilley feared. He had visions of evacuations for the 27 cabins at Lilleys’ Landing Resort and Marina, his gorgeous property on Lake Taneycomo in Branson, Mo.
“It missed us,” Lilley said when we were walking to his boat. “It shifted just enough east that we really didn’t have any problems. But we were prepared for the worst with Table Rock Lake full.”
As promised, Lilley took me on the trout lake, weaving his 115 horse-powered boat between pontoons (some bearing the name of his resort) to an open area of the trophy area of the lake below Lookout Island.
Lilly handed me an ultra light spinning rig with a 3/32 ounce olive jig, a sculpin imitation. Before I could figure out the reel to make my first cast, Lilly was jigging his lure towards the boat. Boom, a nice rainbow was hooked and in the boat.
Too bad I didn’t have my phone set for video. I could have filmed another one of Lilley’s famed One Cast segments for his YouTube channel.
“No, this doesn’t count,” Lilley said. “Our guys have already done the one for today. I don’t think they got a trout this morning.”
A member of Lilley’s wonderful crew tapes the One Cast videos each day. You can find them at Lilleyslanding.comunder fishing in the pull down menu. The “casters” in the videos — seen by millions on the web — are Duane Doty, Blake Wilson, Ryan Titus, Victor Jantz and Lilley.
“It’s turned into a show,” Lilley said. “We’ve done a lot of different thing with it, including instruction.”
There have been 1,981 One Cast videos taped since Jan. 10, 2015, when boat dock manager Ryan Titus did the first one.
Only one day was missed “when it just slipped our minds” to do the taping. As of late June, there had been 252 fish caught. There were 261 bites, but without the fish landed.
We caught fish that morning in late June, all beautiful rainbows in the 15-to-18-inch range. After we quickly got to double digits, the decision was made to move to Lilley’s office on his floating dock.
Early in our visit, the conversation moved to the two gigantic trophy replica brown trout mounts in the main office near the cabins. How many times Lilley has told the story about those two fish – but mainly his buddy Frank the Tank – is probably like the number of trout in the nearby state hatchery.
“A lot,” Lilley said. “And, it never gets old.”
It’s the constant reminder that any cast might result in a Missouri record brown trout, or a world record. There is not much difference.
Frank the Tank lived under the dock at Lilley’s Landing for much of a two-year period before being caught in February 2019 by Neosho, Mo., angler Paul Crews. That broke the Missouri brown trout record. Frank the Tank weighed 34 pounds, 10 ounces.
Just seven months later, Bill Babler of Blue Eye, Mo., busted that mark with a 40-6 brown, just 1.69 pounds under the world record. For perspective, if Babler’s trout had eaten a couple of stocker fish a few minutes earlier, he’d probably had the world mark set in New Zealand in 2013.
Lilley knew it was probably only a matter of time until someone broke the Missouri record when two massive brown trout showed up under his dock a few years ago. They are the products of a stocking of triploid (non-reproducing brown trout) from nine years ago.
“We had video of Frank (the Tank) months before he was caught,” Lilley said. “We’ve got some from an underwater camera on our website. He was under our dock for about six months.
“We know it was the same one Paul caught because of some distinctive markings. It had the same hump, a dorsal fin bent to the right and the tailfin cut.”
There were actually two big browns under the dock. Duane Doty, guide at Lilleys’, named the first one Frank.
“They come to be under the fish cleaning station to get the scraps,” Lilley said. “But I looked at that brown and told Duane, ‘Why didn’t you name it Frankie? It’s a hen.’ A week or two later the bigger male showed up. So we called them Frank the Tank and Frankie.”
There is an open space between the boat slips and Lilley’s office. That’s where the two browns were often seen.
“Duane could actually touch Frank,” Lilley said. “He would be that close. So we got some video. He wouldn’t be there every day, but a lot of days. He was there for several years.
“We didn’t talk about him too much because I didn’t want someone to come down here in the middle of the night to fish for him. But people saw him.
“We were real protective and we didn’t allow anyone to try to catch Frank. We didn’t advertise that he was here at all.”
When Crews caught Frank, it was in a trout tournament just a few hundred yards above Lilley’s Landing.
“It was on a 1/8-ounce jig, a sculpin pattern,” Lilley said. “It was on a horribly windy day. I don’t know how Paul even cast that jig into the air to catch him. The funny part, Paul is one of my best friends.”
Paul brought it to the dock in a hurry.
“He had it in the live well, but the fish didn’t really fit right,” Lilley said. “Frank was in there sideways, just a massive fish. I knew immediately it was Frank.
“We put it in a fish tank with good water quality, then got it to the hatchery for measurements. They got the weight and DNA samples.
“The only bad part, we just didn’t take any good pictures. The sun was going down when we got it into the lake. I know we all wish we had gotten better pictures for Paul. But we got it released and watched it swim away.
“We know it survived because we kept seeing it for several months. Another dock had sightings of Frank. You could tell it was Frank because of all the jewelry.”
Jewelry in fishing terms means fishing lures.
“There were spoons, jigs and other lures hanging on its fins from all the people who had tried to catch Frank,” Lilley said. “I suspect that Frank just died from old age. We saw him again in April and most of the summer. But not since August.
“It’s an awesome story. You couldn’t make it up. Frank was 38 inches with a 27 girth. We knew exactly how long he was. We could put a tape above him in that space next to the dock and I nailed it.”
The fish caught by Babler did not survive. It prompted Lilley to build a fish cradle for his personal boat.
“I know we were criticized by the fishing community for the way they viewed Frank was handled,” Lilley said. “But I strongly believe what we did was sound. We took pictures only for a total of 20 seconds. The priority was on taking care of Frank and we did.”
The cradle was made of fish slime protecting rubber mesh net, between a folding rectangles of PVC pipe.
“I’d call it a prototype,” Lilley said. “We haven’t used it yet and it’s only on my boat.”
There might be another record fish in Taneycomo, the eight-mile trout habitat below Table Rock Lake.
“We know there is that potential since the triploids were stocked,” Lilley said.
Trophy trout are a daily happening at Taneycomo, even with beginners.
“We had a little girl catch a 20-inch trophy brown yesterday on a Snoopy rod,” Lilley said. “It happens all the time. It was a beautiful fish and was released.”
Lilley is not against his clients taking fish home for dinner. Without question, Taneycomo is a “put and take fishery,” thanks to the massive hatchery just below the dam. Annually, 560,000 rainbow trout and 15,000 browns are stocked in Taneycomo.
“That’s what makes our lake so special, that it’s easy enough for a beginner to be successful,” Lilley said. “But it’s also a place that a good angler can come without a guide and go after a trophy.”
Lilley’s operation has a wonderful reputation. Along with the cabins, there is a swimming pool. A 13-man operation keeps the cabins and grounds pristine.
“We stay booked,” Lilley said. “We did lose a lot of reservations in March with the (covid-19) virus, but an interesting thing happened; we filled back up.
“We have not had openings for the peak months for many years. We just have return customers. But with the cancellations, we had some openings and new clients took them. We are booked solid again.”
It’s more than just a place to stay and fish. It’s also a great place to find quality lures and tackle. Lilly and Doty make their own jigs, for sale in the office. They built their own jig head mold about three years ago. They hand paint jigs and jerk baits.
The Lilley family has owned the landing since 1983.
“My dad and mom helped us buy it, and we ran it together,” he said. “It’s our 38th year. We came down from Kansas.”
Lilley has not guided in years.
“I could, but what I really love to do is just take friends fishing,” he said. “I don’t want to take any of the guide trips from my workers. Guiding is pressure. You don’t know what the bite is going to be like or what level your clients can handle.
“But this is a great place to guide. It offers you a great chance to catch fish almost any day.”
Plus, guide trips cut into his daily workouts, on the basketball court at church. Lilley is a great man of faith, but also a great basketball fan. Asked if he’s the guy who shoots every time he touches the ball, he said, “No, I get as much pleasure out of making the pass that leads to the basket.”
It goes along with a servant’s attitude common in the top professional guides. But there was a time that there was too much guiding or working at the marina and his weight was climbing.
“I had gotten too heavy and took a personal trainer for workouts about six years,” he said. “I did that for a while, but I found out it was a lot more fun to get my workouts on the basketball court.
“I’ve been playing basketball in the mornings for the last 12 years. I’ve lost about 40 pounds. It was usually 4 on 4, full court, but not everyone has come back yet from the virus. We just got back playing again. So it’s 3 on 3 half court. It’s intense.”
Lilley, who will be 62 in September, understands intense. That’s the weekend, when the crowd at the resort turns over.
“We usually take people from one weekend to the next,” he said. “That’s just the way it’s been for a long time.”
It can be hectic when boats launch in the mornings, then come in at day’s end.
“I live on property,” he said. “There is good and bad. It’s a short walk to the office, but if something happens at night, I’m the one they find.
“I work every day. It slacks off in December. But even then, something needs to be done. You might need to replace some things in a cabin, or rebuild a pontoon boat. It’s work, just a different tempo.”
There have been vacations of sorts. He loves to fish for big rainbows on the Naknak River on Bristol Bay in Alaska.
“I guided there a few summers after a friend bought a place,” he said. “Now that was work. There is a purpose for every minute. You are in the bush. That kicked my butt and when I came home, that’s when I got the personal trainer.”
Now, if a big fish comes to the dock, Phil Lilley might be first to the boat. He’s a quick, lean trout fighting machine.