From the forward seat of a drift boat, Bert Berkley floats a dry fly to a quiet eddy of aquamarine water near the willow-brushed banks of the Beaverhead River. His presentation is close to flawless, and as guide Jeff Lyon invokes the standard incantation to the fish gods in these parts — “Eat it!” — Berkley is handsomely rewarded. A hefty rainbow trout smashes the fly, leaps in a splash of technicolor and zips downstream in a sizzling run that gives Berkley’s 4-weight Sage fly rod a workout.
“Tip up,” Lyon says reflexively — advice that elicits a good-natured response from Berkley. “I believe I’m doing that,” Berkley says as his rod bends in a perfect arc against a pristine Montana morning sky.
After five decades of fly-fishing all over the world and landing everything from trophy bonefish to Atlantic salmon, Berkley knows a thing or two about fighting a trout, even one that’s running “hot” like this one. Or as Lyon, a guide on this river for 21 years, will later tell me: “Bert is probably better than 85 to 90 percent of the people I take.”
“Outside of the guides and some fly-fishing instructors we’ve had here, Bert is probably the best natural caster I’ve ever seen,” adds Jay Burgin, the longtime owner and operator of Five Rivers Lodge, where Berkley has fished pretty much annually for the past 28 years.
Any fly angler would love to earn such accolades, given that among the guests coincidental to Berkley’s yearly stays is legendary casting instructor Doug Swisher, a Berkley friend who is enshrined in the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. But the praise is particularly resonant because Eugene Bertram “Bert” Berkley is 98 years old. Or young, as might be a more appropriate description. To call Berkley spry for his age is to underappreciate the term.
While many men two decades younger struggle to put on their pants each day, Berkley — an exercise junkie who still attempts 600 stair steps a day — is game to hop on a jet or take a long road trip from his suburban home near Kansas City, Missouri, to his favorite fly-fishing haunts. His annual pilgrimages include the rich rainbow and brown trout rivers of southwestern Montana and the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick, where the Berkley family owns part of the Sutter Club (pronounced SOO-ter), a lodge and salmon-fishing concession on the Miramichi River near the hamlet of Doaktown.
Sutter, which the Berkleys bought into in the mid-1990s, has a Wall of Fame — plaques for any angler catching a fish weighing more than 20 pounds. Berkley is on the wall with a 23-pounder. In 2019, fishing the Beaverhead, he caught a rainbow that the guides said was likely the biggest trout caught all season. Berkley has a 62½-pound king salmon mount in his home office that he caught on a guided trip to British Columbia. But he doesn’t like to brag about the monster — because he caught it on a spinning rod.
“E.B. is indefatigable,” says his 65-year-old son Bill Berkley, who fishes often with his father and is part of a 17-person contingent — what might be called Bert’s Flotilla — on this six-day trip staged out of Five Rivers.
“Dad is never happier than when he has a fly rod in his hand,” adds his daughter Janet Berkley Dubrava, also a regular on the annual Montana excursion, who has an impressive fly-casting skillset herself.
As for that feisty rainbow, Berkley, after about a seven-minute duel, skillfully plays it into shallow, quiet water near the bank about 10 yards downstream of the boat. Lyon hops out and wades briskly toward the trout. He has netted thousands of trout and rarely misses, but as he lunges with a long-handled net, the rainbow spooks, flips and is gone, just like that. “He did not like that,” Lyon says, shaking his head. “He saw that net coming.”
Lesser men might have said, “What the hell happened there?” Berkley just shrugs. This is a catch-and-release fishery, so all that was lost was a photo op.
I’ll fish the Beaverhead with Berkley for the next two days. I’m an agile spin fisherman if only average with a fly rod, and fly-casting from a drift boat is new to me. However, I grew up in a hard-fishing family with five brothers and a father who fished like some men box. I fish with a certain steely determination tinged with an edge of competitiveness.
Berkley easily outfishes me during those two days, bringing 10 or 11 impressive trout to the net, including a 20-inch brown, and hooking up with at least dozen more.
With five to six hours a day floating the Beaverhead, where Capt. Merriweather Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame once paddled, I’m happy to put my rod aside from time to time, pick up my camera and watch for photo opportunities along the willowy banks and distant sun-sanded mountains. Berkley fishes with a Zen-like focus and effortlessness. He is never happier than when a guest on his boat catches a nice fish. But he is inexhaustible. As the drift boat pulls into the haul-out spot, Berkley floats one last dry toward the bank thinking, surely, there is one more big, beautiful trout to be raised.
Bert Berkley was born May 8, 1923, in Kansas City, one of two children in a close, prosperous, entrepreneurial family. He caught the fishing bug from his parents and fondly recalls summertime excursions to Devil’s Gap Lodge in Kenora, Ontario, where the family chased smallmouth bass and northern pike, and feasted on shore-cooked walleye for lunch. “My dad was a good fisherman, but my mother was even better,” Berkley recalls. “But we were spin fishermen back then. Nobody really fly-fished.”
That changed about 50 years ago, when a paper company that was a supplier to the thriving envelope-making company that the Berkley family still owns invited Berkley to its Canadian fishing lodge. A guide there gave him fly-fishing lessons, and he was hooked.
Berkley will be the first to tell you that his fishing jaunts and travels to far-flung corners of the world have been made possible by the success of the family business. His father, E.B. Sr., took over the operations of a once-small Kansas City novelty-advertising print shop, founded by his own father in 1886, and helped turn it into an envelope-making enterprise.
Over time and through innovation and propitious mergers, the Berkleys grew the company into Tension Envelope, which remains among the largest envelope makers in the world. Now known as Tension Corp., it produces several billion envelopes a year and, as email sapped the envelope market, has expanded into such profitable niches as specialty medical packaging. Dun & Bradstreet estimates Tension has annual revenues of about $234 million.
From an early age, Berkley was groomed by his father to run the business. After earning an economics degree from Duke University and graduating with an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1951 — and a harrowing diversion to the Korean War — he joined the company full time. “It’s the only job I ever wanted,” Berkley says.
After working in various roles, he served as president and CEO from 1962 to 1988, then turned over the reins to his son, Bill, who continues to run the company. Berkley may be officially retired, but as Bill tells me, he’s intimately interested in Tension and up-to-date on its earnings, markets and prospects. Ask him a question about the company, and you’ll get a 10-minute exposition on its latest foray into robotics.
But a prosperous life doesn’t always mean an easy life. Berkley served in the U.S. Army in World War II. With two years of college under his belt — rare for servicemen at the time — he landed a logistical post in the Philippines and saw limited combat. Upon discharge, however, he was offered what seemed like an alluring deal: He could go home a day early if he signed up for the Army Reserves. In retrospect, he concedes it was a boneheaded move. He was called back to duty in the thick of the Korean War.
Just out of Harvard, he found himself leading a platoon on nightly patrols behind enemy lines. He recalls his rank as “first lieutenant, infantry, expendable.” After a vicious assault by Chinese forces one night, Berkley was one of only two members of his unit to see dawn. He promised that if he got out of Korea alive, he would live a life of service. And fish at every chance. “You’re talking to the most fortunate man you’ve ever met,” he says.
Berkley and his wife, Joan (pronounced JoAnne) served on all manner of civic boards and charities, and have given large sums to causes as disparate as civil rights and scholarships for needy students. Berkley’s first cousin, Dick Berkley, who is 90, is a three-time mayor of Kansas City for whom a waterfront park in the city is named.
It was Joan — Berkley’s partner in life, travel and adventure for 64 years before she succumbed to breast cancer in 2012 — who began the annual Montana sojourn to Five Rivers Lodge. They met as youngsters; their families had known each other forever, but it was at a wartime roast beef dinner at a mutual friend’s house that they had their first serious encounter. Berkley, 21 at the time, was about to be shipped to the Philippines, and he was unimpressed. He saw a “shy, wisp of 16-year-old girl in a white dress” and he thought little of her — until they reconnected upon his discharge from World War II. He went with friends to pick up Joan upon her arrival by rail at Kansas City’s Union Station where they were all to attend another dinner party. She had blossomed into such a beautiful, prepossessing young woman that Bert suffered a lapse of equilibrium upon seeing her.
“I knew some day, some way I would have to find a way to marry her,” he recalls. As Berkley tells it, Joan didn’t put up much of a fight. “How two youngsters, 18 and 23, knew they wanted to spend their lives together, I don’t know. But we did.”
The couple traveled extensively and adventurously, sometimes with their kids in tow. They rafted the Colorado River. They took a Smithsonian-guided trip around the world. They trekked for 17 days across the wilds of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. As his daughter Janet explains, Berkley travels with the same seriousness of purpose and preparation that he fly-fishes. Before that trip, neighbors saw Berkley and Joan tromping up and down their suburban streets with backpacks loaded with bricks so they would arrive in Alaska in tip-top shape.
For Berkley’s 70th birthday, his wife decided to surprise him. “Mom didn’t fish,” Berkley’s daughter Jane Berkley Levitt says, “but she knew how much Bert loved it.” So Joan began researching Western fly-fishing lodges and settled on Five Rivers. Perched on a plateau outside of Dillon, the lodge isn’t actually on a river but partners with guides who take guests to five premier trout streams nearby: the Beaverhead, the Ruby, the Big Hole, the Madison and the Jefferson. She knew her husband would be thrilled to have access to those storied waters.
Joan cleared his schedule for six days, packed his bags and on the anointed day arranged for a taxi to take them to the airport. “Where are we going?” Berkley asked.
“You’ll see,” Joan replied.
After a stop in Salt Lake City, a perplexed Berkley touched down in Butte, Montana, where a van picked them up. Joan wouldn’t give up the secret until they arrived at Five Rivers, where most of the immediate Berkley clan had assembled. The fishing was so good and the ambiance so pleasant that Berkley returned the next year with a small group that included not just family but also fly-fishing friends.
The group has since expanded to include friends of friends, Tension business associates and in the last 15 or so years, Berkley grandchildren, who dote over their grandfather and zealously clear their busy schedules to join the annual excursion. This year’s attendees include Kate Berkley, Bill’s 26-year-old-daughter, who teaches elementary school in suburban Boston, and Laura Levitt, also 26, the daughter of Jane Berkeley Levitt and a graduate student in social work at Columbia University. The cousins each get a day in the boat with their grandfather, and it’s clear the skill set runs in the Berkley gene pool. On her first day on the water, Laura brought 10 trout to the boat — the best of anyone that day. Later, Kate would have her day when she landed six, including a 22-inch brown.
A few days before Laura was supposed to fly to Montana, her granddad phoned and amiably suggested she get out her fly rod and practice — not easily done on the crowded streets and parks of Brooklyn, New York, where she lives. “That’s classic Bert,” she says.
To be clear, Berkley wasn’t asking of her anything he wouldn’t do himself. “A few days before the trip, I went over to Bert’s, and there was an extra fly rod that hadn’t been broken down and packed,” Bill says. “I said, ‘Do you want me to put it away?’ Bert said, ‘No, I’ll use it to practice with.’ ”
Kate recalls as a child landing with Berkley at the Fredericton, New Brunswick, airport for an annual salmon-fishing trip. As they waited for luggage, “Bert would raise his arm up by his side until his fist was at 12 o’clock, pause and then shoot his fist out in front of him,” she says. “And then he’d repeat the motion again. He was practicing his cast — something he encourages the entire family to do. The guides all tell us, that’s why Bert is so good.”
Berkley’s requirements for Montana guests outside the family are pretty relaxed, although you have to be invited by Berkley or a friend he trusts to vet possible participants. Guests must have a passion for fly-fishing, or a rookie’s eagerness to learn, and an amiability at the nightly cocktail hour and around the lodge’s large, rectangular dining table, where everyone eats together. Berkley, owing to a kink in his esophagus, is a vegetarian by medical necessity. He doesn’t drink alcohol, but each night he fills a glass with ice and margarita mix and mingles to swap fish stories with the scotch, bourbon and wine drinkers. Dinner is served when, in his Kansas City baritone, he announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to eat!”
“Bert is a wise man, and everybody wants to be in Bert’s orbit,” says Brad Jones, who came to know the Berkleys as an employee in an Ohio-based company, Multi-Plastics, that makes the cellophane windows for Tension’s envelopes. Jones and company founder John Parsio got wind of the annual Montana trip and “decided we wanted to be part of it.” That was 12 years ago.
“This is my job now,” Parsio says, happily retired and swapping stories with Berkley at the Five Rivers dinner table. “Fishing with friends and,” pointing to Berkley, “especially this guy.”
Berkley has missed just two trips in the 28 years the family has been going to Five Rivers. The first was 2012, when Joan died, and the second was 2020, when he couldn’t risk getting on an airplane or mingling with strangers as the pandemic raged. “Bert’s such a social animal that that year was extremely tough on him,” Bill says.
Naturally, Berkley improvised, and the improvisation included fly rods. He set up a casting-accuracy course on his spacious suburban lawn and invited Bill and Kate, who had temporarily moved in with her parents due to the pandemic, to participate. One of the challenges was to see who could hit a Frisbee 20 yards away with a fly. It took Kate 19 casts, Bill 26. Berkley did it in six. “Bert schooled my father and me,” Kate says.
Ask Bert Berkley what it is about fly-fishing that keeps him coming back year after year, and he smiles. “It’s hard to understand how a creature with the brain the size of a pea outsmarts me time after time after time,” he says. But if you spend time with Berkley, you realize the answer is deeper than that. Fly-fishing is the elixir of a life well-lived, the continual promise of surprise, the rolling connection to the things he loves most — family, good friends, the outdoors and the wild rivers that nurture those canny, implacably beautiful trout that he so cherishes.
Fly-fishing is all the more resonant because since Joan died, Berkley by his own choice, has soldiered on alone, residing in the same home that he and his wife shared for more than 60 years. He keeps a picture of her on his iPhone home screen — a smiling, radiant woman in the peak of health before the scourge of cancer took her away.
Berkley has a daily routine. He sleeps late, reads the newspaper at breakfast, does his stair exercises, checks in with Bill about Tension affairs, talks on the phone with friends, and keeps up with the nightly news on television. A housekeeper comes in three days a week to cook and clean. Weather permitting, Berkley is likely in the yard, practicing his cast. And dreaming of his next fly-fishing jaunt.
Each year in Montana, Berkley reprises a Billy Crystal-like shtick and presides over awards night, donning a white shirt gaudily decorated with a rainbow assortment of fish and a series of goofy fishing hats, including one designed by angler and author Doug Swisher. In his role as Chief Fly, he presents Master of Fly Fishing certificates to each attendee; the certificates get ever more elaborate as attendees log more years on the trip.
This year is particularly poignant, as the last award goes to Burgin, who has owned Five Rivers for 37 years and has hosted the Berkleys for nearly three decades. At 82, Burgin, a widower, has an announcement to make. He is in tears. “Today, I signed an offer to sell the lodge, so I won’t be here anymore,” he says.
He points to Berkley, who, as it turns out, calls Burgin every year on his birthday and was the person perhaps most responsible for helping Burgin cope with the 2019 death of his wife, Mary Jacques, after a long battle with dementia. “This man has been a mentor to me,” Burgin says. “He’s guided me through very hard times, and I love him very much.” Burgin gets a standing ovation.
But fly-fishing is a serious pursuit, and since the new owners haven’t committed to running Five Rivers as a fishing lodge, Bert asks Brad Jones to commence a search for a new one in the Dillon area. The problem is none turn out to be large enough to accommodate Bert’s Flotilla. Months go by, and panic is about to set in when Kathy and Lane Pruett, the buyers, decide that Five Rivers works best as a fishing lodge after all. The Flotilla will return for its 29th excursion in July. “I can’t wait,” Berkley says.