Early Montana Fly Fishing

In the beginning

I stumbled across a late 19th century photograph once showing two elaborately dressed guys "fly fishing" on the Missouri river near Fort Benton Montana in the late 1870s. They were using fishing rods that looked like long not so thin 12' to 14' foot wooden sticks. I didn't download that photo then and now I cannot find it again. I'm still searching. I hope I find it eventually.

Beyond that ephemeral 1870s reference to Montana fly fishing I'm not aware of much written about fly fishing in Montana until the game changing creations of Jack Boehme and Frans Pott and to a lesser but still important extent Butte Montana's Wilbur Beaty in the early part of the 20th Century. Not much is available on those guys either, not in writing. There are photographs of flies scattered here and there about the internet. The only written sources I've been able to find are a nifty series of now out of print pamphlets compiled by Butte Montana's Todd Collins but written by George Grant, and published by the Big Hole River Foundation. And Paul Schullary's American Fly Fishing, and a PDF file atl The American Fly Fishing Museum. I Early Northwest Fly-Fising by Blaine Hallock has been a good source too.

Near Lolo Hot Springs 1890
The card game scene in A River Runs Through It was at Lolo. The guys here are on bear watch while the gals fish.

The history of white settlers in Montana doesn't amount to much before the end of the civil war in 1865 or so. Change from the end of the Civil War on happened blindingly fast when beaver trapping bison hunting and gold mining gave way to copper mining big time logging and large expanse cattle ranching. Norman McClean and his family moved to Montana from Iowa in 1909 when McClean was seven years old--the first year of the homestead act which brought thousands of dirt farmers to the Eastern part of the StateI. Eastern Montana dirt farming has had a profound political and spiritual influence on the Treasure State ever since, but it was a barely started industry in the early 1920s. Early Montanans West of the high plains were a rowdy extraction-oriented crowd by comparison.

One of Montana's earliest fly fishing entrepreneurs was Butte Montana's Wilbur Bugs Beaty who was reputed to have kept 20 to 30 I Butte Montana women busy tying flies at his place of business: The Bug House. Beaty sold wholesale to grocery stores and hardware stores. The diagram below illustrates a patent Wilbur Beaty received in 1920 for a reel seat invention that apparently never caught on. Wildbur did sell a lot of flies. Businesses like this don't materialize over night. Fly fishing was already a lively and ongoing concern by 1920. How far back did the popular and widespread practice of Montana fly fishing go? We don't really know but we do have some dates relating to Jack Beohme and Frans Pott, as old as 1915.

wilbur beaty patent 1020
Wilbur Beaty's 1920 Reel Seat Patent

Jack Boehme

Jack Boehme tied and sold flies at the Turf Bar in Missoula Montana until his death in 1956. His work included a big adult salmon fly wet fly, an early Bunyan Bug like adult salmon fly dry fly, the infamous Picket Pin and the Bloody Butcher--where the Bloody Butcher is a bit like a reddish, more salmon-colored version of the Picket Pin. Jack's prolific inventions reflected the local Northern Rocky Mountains he lived in and the materials he had close at hand.

Jack clearly knew about traditional British flies--they were already on sale throughout the State, as manufactured by Butte's Wilbur Beaty. Jack may even have known about Theodore Gordon, but Jack wasn't a bit bound by those foreign land influences. Jack used local materials like Columbian Ground Squirrel tails (the Picket Pin) deer hair and goose quills and duck feathers. Everything Jack tied was an invention.

Jack Boehme Fly Display
Jack was not exactly a traditionalist
Jack Boehme Wet Salmon Fly
This one was an adult Salmon Fly Wet-fly
Jack Boehme Balsa Bug
This was the prototype Bunyan Bug, invented by Jack Boehme and elaborated on a decade later by Norman Means (aka Paul Bunyan) as the infamous Bunyan Bug.

More Jack Beohme images can be publicly seen at Spencerewert.com and Montana Riverboats and in person at the Visitor Center just off the interstate in Butte Montana.

Frans Pott

The Frans Pott barber shop was a door or two away from Jack Boehme's Turf Bar on North Higgins in Missoula in 1915, which is interesting when you think about it. I . The following quote comes from a letter Pott's daughter Betty Thanos wrote to Mike Wilkerson--one of the last owners of the Pott Fly Company after Frans Pott's death in 1956 (the same year Jack Boehme died too). The full text of this letter can be found in the Gallery .

"The Mite (fly) family was originated by Franz Pott and over the years the Sandy Mite and Lady Mite have been the most popular flies. The woven body with the mostly orange strip and the woven hair hackle characterized the Pott Trout Fly. Over the years he originated more designs for unique flies, naming some for fishing friends or for whimsical reasons, as the Fizzle - named for Fort Fizzle of Western Montana Indian history. In all there are 30 different patterns that have been copyrighted."
Sandy Mite

The Sandy Mite and the Lady Mite were Pott's best selling flies. Pott started off selling his (thickly-snelled) flies three for a dollar which made them the best selling flies in the State but also the most expensive. At least in the beginning. Pott flies still sold well clear into the middle 1950s when--still at that price--they became some of the cheapest available.

In my first summer fly fishing in Montana when I was 12 (1960), outside of Dan Bailey in Livingston and Don Martinez in West Yellowstone there were no fly shops. Flies lines rods and reels were sold at hardware stores. My first few flies included the Royal Wulff and the Humpy (Goofus Bug in those days) from Dan Bailey plus a few hand tied deer hair and grizzly hackle flies tied by my dad's friend at the virus lab in Hamilton: Bill Hoyer. Dan's flies came in a plastic box with opaque green bottom and clear plastic top. We saw Pott flies and Bunyan Bugs for sale there too, at the hardware store in Hamilton, but didn't buy them. We thought we only wanted to fish dry flies. The Bunyan Bug was just a bit too weird for a beginner's know-it-all eyes. It wasn't until a half a lifetime later when I learned what amazingly good flies they really were.

Mark Friedman's Tutorial on hair hackle weaving
Mark has promised an updated, sharper video. Mark's genius here was to start off weaving with heavy cord strands so you can really see what's going on.

Not many tie Jack Boehme flies anymore. Lots of people still tie woven hair hackle wet flies. George Grant did, although he may have used a slightly different weaving technique. Henry Wombacher made hair hackle wet flies South of Dillon for many years. Wombacher did use a simpler not really woven procedure. Tom McIntyre, a fly tier and after hours card shark from Ennis made beautiful woven hair hackle flies. So does Matt Watrous from Utah and my good friend Mark Friedman from West Yellowstone. So does Randy Flynn from Sun Valley. The master of all is Todd Collins from Butte who still teaches classes a few times a year. And so do I although I, more like Henry Wombacher, use a far simpler not at all woven technique.

Pott Sticker
A Pott Sticker -- as a Sandy's Might

I'm a compulsive experimentalist. I'm 73 years old now in 2021. My list of failed and forgotten experiments stretches from Bozeman Montana all the way to New Jersey and back again. When I got interested in hair hackle wet flies I didn't even consider learning how to weave. I'm an impatient tier. I like it fast and simple. Most of the time anyway. I had an idea about jamming hair fibers up against a bead in order to make the hair fibers flare out I . I was more than a little pleased with my first attempts. "This is easy," I told myself. My visual pleasure was nothing compared to what happened after I actually started fishing these flies. Hair hackle wet flies are a goto category for me now. This is a fly I have seminal confidence in. A fly I often return to when nothing else does. Why would that be? I have no idea and no explanation but I do now see why Pott flies were the most popular flies in the state--for so so long.

I call my hair hackle wet flies Pott Stickers;

Spruce Fly

There are so many nifty old time flies. I like looking at all of them. The Bitch Creek, Girdle Bug and the Spruce Fly are three I still tie and fish with. The Spruce Fly turns out to be one of our oldest too. Back in 1918 the Spruce was originally called the Godfrey Badger Hackle or Godfrey Special after a Mr. Godfrey, from Seaside Oregon.

Tied by Bob Jacklin

I Boehme to Bailey -- Historically Important Montana Fly Tiers. George Grant. Big Hole River Foundation Box 3894 Butte, Montana 59702

I Writing Ink -- From Sow's Ear to Silk Purse. George Grant. Big Hole River Foundation Box 3894 Butte, Montana 59702