With limited means, using just his skills and influence as a fly tyer, he has sold individual flies and mounted fly plates at Federation of Fly Fisher, Trout Unlimited and other similar group activities for a total of $75,000.
He gave it all away. He has published two hard bound books: The Master Fly Weaver and Montana Trout Flies. They're significant because they preserve bits of history that could have been lost. The book on weaving hair-hackled trout flies is a classic. It shows (among many other things) in minute detail, the unique procedure of weaving badger hair on threads to form hair hackles.
The book records and teaches skills that could have been lost forever. The Montana Trout Flies book showcases a number of the developers of fly patterns that originated in Montana. George is probably one of a only a dozen or so men who could have created this book. None of the others stepped forward, so George did it.
One of George Grant's
badger hackle flies with
oval mono overlay (left)
His skills as a fly tyer are phenomenal. George is known by all the best fly tyers in the world. Many have made the Mecca-like journey to Butte, just to meet George and study his tying techniques. George's flies are like George--there's much more there than there appears to be. There's a blend of old and new world technology in George's flies. I've heard people ask George, "Do these flies catch fish?" and heard him answer, "Do you think I'd tie them if they didn't?"
George was fishing the Big Hole river (south and west of Butte) in the 1920's. In 1932, at the height of the Depression, George lost his job as a clerk at the railroad. He'd had the job for five years, and could see the end coming.
"I was in the traffic department," recalls George. "They offered me a job in Salt Lake City, but I didn't want to leave the Big Hole. So I rented a cabin on the river for $5 a month, and all season long in 1933 I fished, every day, day after day. It was wonderful. I'd let all the fish go except the last one or two of the day. That would be my supper. There wasn't much store bought food on the Big Hole during the Depression."
George in his hip boots in 1933(right)
George had a number of jobs over the years, but none of them involved heavy physical labor. "I was just too small for that," says George. Many of his jobs involved fishing; as a clerk, bookkeeper and once, as the owner of his own tackle store. It would be nice to say that he was a roaring success, but that wouldn't be historically correct. He went broke after five years and went back to working for someone else. But he was tying and fishing all along.
In 1972, he retired. He'd been writing magazine and newsletter articles for years. He became editor of Montana's state Trout Unlimited newsletter, called "The River Rat". He was editor for seven years. George, Montana, Trout Unlimited and much of the national flyfishing community would never be the same.
As Editor of The River Rat, George had a platform. The first issue he put out (and almost every issue thereafter) had an article about the Big Hole River. George took people to task. He said harsh things. He got a whole lot of folks upset. And none of the nasty letters he received phased him one little bit. Right was right. The Big Hole had problems and George was going to help solve them. When he discovered other problems with other fisheries in Montana, he talked about those.
When fishermen in Montana found they had a wolf in sheep's clothing as editor of their state T.U. publication, they started feeding him information. It was used, as strongly worded as necessary. Things started happening in Montana. Montana T.U. was a force to reckoned with. George Grant was known, for better or worse, around the state.
Here's the concluding paragraph from an article in the Sept./Oct. 1975 issue of The River Rat entitled From the Neversink to Poindexter Sloughs: "What has happened in other parts of the country is now beginning to occur in Montana. Our great trout rivers, a priceless heritage, are being sacrificed because our elected officials are unable or unwilling to recognize their value as trout streams. Unless the people of Montana act quickly and decisively, what has happened to the Neversink will happen to the Big Hole and other Montana Rivers. The usual pattern of greed, stupidity and myopic vision is being manifested at every turn".
In 1973 George Grant was the winner of the Federation of Fly Fishers' prestigious fly tying award, the Buz Buszek award. George had tied at a few of the organization's annual International Conclaves and developed a following. "They had me tying with Polly Rosborough, Art Flick, Dave Whitlock, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards," recalls George. "I was so frightened and uncomfortable my hands shook. But then people started asking questions about weaving hair hackles, and I settled down."
On page 15 of his first book, The Master Fly Weaver, George had this to say about fly tying: "I have long held the opinion that flytying (in England and Scotland it has always been designated as fly-dressing, a more appropriate term) is closely related to both art and science. I think that a skilled flytier who works creatively with hair and feather is just as surely an artist as the individual who works with water colors or oils. I believe, too, that his knowledge of the use of various materials in relation to their buoyancy, action and appearance in the element in which they are used leads him into a field that is not unlike that of a laboratory researcher.
"Engaged in on a purely investigative basis with no commercial motives, flytying is an absorbing, fascinating, thought-provoking mental stimulant. It has captured the minds of highly-educated, extremely intelligent people whose primary accomplishments have become secondary to their knowledge of trout flies. Angling literature, that pertaining to flytying in particular, is exceptionally well-written, educational and imaginative. The serious student of flytying does not need to meet these writers to acquire the feeling that they are his friends, and this applies even though some of them may have been dead for over a hundred years. The deeply committed flytier lives in a private world of people with names like Halford, Skues, Theodore Gordon, Hewitt, Jim Pray, Joe Brooks, Ernie Schweibert, Dave Whitlock, ad infinitum. He often views them from afar -- he knows all of their virtues and none of their faults, and he firmly believes that they are all, including himself, somehow linked together with a common bond."
George edited The River Rat until 1979, when he resigned, saying that he was out of step with most TUers and that they'd be better off without him. Many disagreed, but they accepted his resignation. Today, the T.U. chapter in Butte is named after George. A huge collection of his fly plates is on display in the Fort Missoula museum.
In 1989 he started the Big Hole River Foundation to combat dewatering of his beloved river. In 1992 he was one of that year's winners of the Chevron Conservation Awards. He received a personal letter from Ed Zern (who had been in charge of the awards for several years) telling George how happy he was that George had been recognized. George gave the prize money to the Big Hole River Foundation.
"We've been pretty lucky since 1988 when the Big Hole was dewatered," says George. "It happened again (last summer) in l994. The Game & Fish people came in and closed the river to fishing. I'd have done more, sooner, if I had my way, but they did a pretty good job. What we need is measuring devices on the headgates so the ranchers can't take out any more water than they're entitled to. I've told the Big Hole Foundation that we should raise money so we can pay some of those ranchers to not leave their ditches running night and day, day after day. It was worse in '88 though."
George has always done what he wanted, when he wanted. He's not a follower. He's not a leader either, per se. He's a doer. If others want to tag along, that's up to them. Years ago, George developed his own ideas about the value of the trout in the Big Hole. He felt there were too many drift boats in the river, especially during the early summer when the salmon fly hatch was on. He was one of many who felt that a Catch & Release regulation should be put on the river. It happened; 10 miles of river first, between Melrose and Divide. Now there's 17 miles of C&R, extending upstream past the town of Wise River to a spot called Dickie's Bridge. Fishing has never been better, and many Montanans and out of staters know that George had something to do with it. They're grateful.
George takes great pride in the fact that he's a wade fisherman. "I used to cross that river ten or twelve times a day," he says. "In hip boots." He was wading well into his 80's, still in hip boots. His wading experience gave him other experiences.
"I think people should wait until the first of August to start fishing the Big Hole," opinions George. "That gives the fish time to feed and gain some strength after the winter. And in the fall, to protect the spawning browns, I stop fishing on the 10th of October. So should everybody else." George fishes his own season, and the rest of the world, including Montana Game, Fish and Parks, and Montana T.U. can just go to blazes if they allow anything else.
I made the mistake, years ago, of asking George about the necessity of taking all the time and effort to create a hair hackle when a fly tyer could just use a regular chicken feather hackle. Wouldn't it be easier to do it the conventional way I asked?
George's response took about a millisecond, and his eyes were staring right into mine when he gave his short terse, teaching, answer: "That's not the point!" he said. I realized I had stepped in it, and he was absolutely right. It was not the point.
I learned a lot from that. I've repeated "that's not the point" to myself many times since George said it to me. It fits a lot of occasions. Most important things in life you do the right way, because that's the only way any morally correct human being can do them. You have to. Like George.
And finally, in conclusion, lets listen to what George has to say about trout, and why he likes them so much. It's the first paragraph on page 183 of his book Montana Trout Flies called Wild Trout A Natural Heritage. Keep in mind, these are the thoughts of the man who has probably spent more time fishing the Big Hole River for rainbow and brown trout than any other human being alive, mainly because he's outlived his contemporaries and spent a lot of days, every year for over 70 years, fishing it. Here's the quote:
"I have always had an inordinate amount of admiration and respect for wild trout, a deep inner feeling that borders on reverence. At the outset I was fascinated by their iridescent physical beauty when first taken from the water. Later my interest was heightened by their instinctive evasive cunning in avoiding capture, and I was, and will always be, amazed at their speed, tenacity and courage when attempting to free themselves from a restraining line. In later years I have come to more fully understand their importance to mankind in general in the form of recreational, cultural and economic worth, as well as developing an awareness of the necessity to preserve an unbroken line of descent that extends back through untold centuries. Beyond the fact that I am indebted to a noble creature that has enriched my life, there is also a compelling sense of duty that obligates me to do everything within my power to assist in the perpetuation of a natural heritage that is the just due of present and future generations of ordinary people like myself."
Much of what George Grant has written is still available through the Big Hole River Foundation he formed in 1989. You can write to them at Box 3894 in Butte, MT 59702. Ask for their newsletter, catalog and how you can purchase a George Grant fly.
The last known source of copies George Grant's two hard bound books was Anglers Art in Pennsylvania. Beyond that, you have to contact book collectors. Remember, whatever you pay now, you'll be able to recoup with a profit later.
DENNIS BITTON is a freelance writer living in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He became a friend of George Grant's while editing fly fishing publications. Dennis and his wife Linda have been married 30 years and are the parents of six and grandparents of eight.