18 December 2008

George Francis Grant (1906-2008): fly tyer, environmentalist, founder

I can't let 2008 slip away without paying tribute to the life of Butte's native son, George Grant. He was a noted conservationist, writer, and fly tier. Moreover, George combined two traits rarely dealt into the same hand: he was a good man, and a great man. Good in the sense of his loyalty to family and friends, environmental ethics, and humble lifestyel. Great in the sense of his political leadership, environmental activism, and fly tying creativity.

I met George in the early 1990s, and interviewed him in the late 1990s as part of a book project and for a biographical article. At 90 he was still living on his own, sharp as a tack, could recall minute details of his life, and tied flies. Although his cognitive abilities and energy slipped away over the past few years. But we watched a movie together each week during the winter of 2006-07, and he had some incredibly lucid moments--jogged by watching footage about the 1920s in the Ken Burns "History of Baseball" documentary (George played 2nd base for two local teams as a young man) and by some of the marvelous fishing scenes in Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It." George on his 100th birthday examining a walking stick his father brought back from the Phillipines long ago (presented to him by his grand-nephew Mike Grant; CC-BY-3.0):

In 1933, the Great Depression caught up with George and he lost his job as a stenographer/clerk with the Union Pacific Railroad office in Butte. He recalled that moment as one of the happiest in his life. Though the UP offered him a promotion if he would moveto its Salt Lake City headquarters, he instead rented a cabin at Dewey on the Big Hole River and fished nearly every day from June to October:

Beginning in 1933, George dabbled in fly tying, and from 1937 to 1951 it was his main occupation. He invented a method of weaving hair hackles and secured a patent on it in 1939. Many of his flies, like the Black Creeper (pictured below) imitated the large stonefly nymphs so common in cold, freestone mountain rivers of the West:

Despite his age, the U.S. Army drafted George in 1942. He worked as a clerk in the Butte induction center, soon promoted to master sergeant, and was demobbed in 1945. He got into the sporting goods business and married Annabell Thomson in 1947. She became an excellent fly caster, and they spent many happy days together on George's beloved Big Hole River.

George was an avid reader and knew fishing literature inside and out. He read the history of how rivers in Europe and the eastern United States had been ruined by logging, polluted by industry, and bought-up by the rich. When the Bureau of Reclamation proposed the Reichle Dam project for the Big Hole River in 1965, George became an activist. He helped organize with local ranchers and a new national organization called Trout Unlimited, and together they convinced Montana's senators Mansfield and Metcalf to kill the project.

George retired in 1967 and gave himself over to the conservation effort. Allies such as Tony Schoonen (pictured below at George's 100th birthday party) and Bob Lienemann joined him, and they formed the River Rats Chapter of Trout Unlimited in 1972. Later, the group changed its name and became the George Grant Chapter.

As the editor and "Chief Rat" of the chapter's publication, the River Rat, George developed his voice and published two books, The Master Weaver (about his approach to fly tying) and Montana Trout Flies (still the authorative history of western fly tying). His TU chapter's newsletter became the official publication of Montana Trout Unlimited in 1974 (CC-BY-3.0):

Through George's writing and leadership, and with active lobbying with friends such as Tony Schoonen, they pushed the Streambed Preservation Act (aka "310 Permit") through the legislature in 1975. It was a first step in halting the destruction and dewatering caused by ranchers operating heavy equipment in river channels. It was a busy, heady time. From 1973 to 1985, the River Rats led a successful battle culminating in Montana's Stream Access Law--guaranteeing the right of the public to use all streams and river beds between the high water marks. From the late 1970s through 1990. Grant and Schoonen joined with other activists such as Al Luebeck to end unsustainable clearcutting of the Big Hole River watershed and to establish new wilderness areas. Although the effort to end clearcutting succeeded, the wilderness bill failed thanks to a veto by America's second-most anti-environmental president, Ronald Reagan. Tony Schoonen speaking at George's 100th birthday party (organized by his great-niece Alyse Curry; CC-BY-3.0):

George's environmental activism in the late 1970s led to his break with Montana Trout Unlimited and, by the late 1980s, to his break with the local TU chapter. Montana TU seemed to fear accusations of "environmentalism" for supporting wilderness or wild & scenic designations for rivers. And although the local chapter took George's name, it was controlled by -- and beholden to -- local mining interests. Even Montana Fish & Game (now called Fish, Wildlife & Parks) backed away from environmental issues as it came to be an increasingly politicized agency. FWP did honor George in a "paen to the glories of wild river and wild trout"--the documentary film Three Men, Three Rivers:

Ever the optimist, George sold his book collection and raised funds to establish the Big Hole River Foundation in 1989. For some years, the foundation was effective in promoting conservation along George's river, primarily through the leadership of then-Executive Director Jennifer Dwyer (now Jennifer Boyer). Sadly, this organization did not remain the activist group George hoped to create, and currently will not even take a stance against private bridges across the Big Hole River, built by wealthy landowners to facilitate real estate development.

Among all groups that George was affiliated with, only the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF)seems to honor the meaning and purpose of his life. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, when George worked closely with and was honored with several awards from the FFF, it was primarily a fly tying history & culture group. Today the FFF continues that tradition, but is also a vibrant environmental organization--especially through its Endangered Fisheries Initiative and Native Fish Focus programs.

George Grant is dead, but he is well remembered. Let's hope that organizations such as the Big Hole River Foundation and George Grant Trout Unlimited do more than remember his name, however. Let's hope they honor his spirit by having the courage and wisdom to fight for Montana's Last Best River:

Those wanting to honor George Grant's life and legacy should consider a gift to the Federation of Fly Fishers: Donate to FFF.
Since originally posting this, I've been asked what George's signature looks like. This is a signed print of "Big Hole Brown," a piece of art by David Whitlock. The print was sold with a special "George Grant Limited Edition" of the book, Montana's Last Best River: The Big Hole and its People (Lyons Press, 2001):


troutbum said...

i own a book from georges libary i would likr to see his signature to see if its the real thing if so im honured

EcoRover said...

Hi troutbum, I've scanned and posted George's signature from a piece of art by Dave Whitlock (the print was sold with a special edition of a book by me titled Montana's Last Best River).

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Unknown said...

In the early nineties I was a young teenager learning to fish and tie flies. Garage sailing one weekend I bought a wreath made out of pheasants and pheasant tails. Beautiful piece. But thru my uncle I was able to meet with George here his stories and traded the wreath to him for fly tying materials. Learned how to weave his patterns and get those memories of learning from a master of his craft. I really enjoyed this column

Unknown said...

In the early nineties I was a young teenager learning to fish and tie flies. Garage sailing one weekend I bought a wreath made out of pheasants and pheasant tails. Beautiful piece. But thru my uncle I was able to meet with George here his stories and traded the wreath to him for fly tying materials. Learned how to weave his patterns and get those memories of learning from a master of his craft. I really enjoyed this column

S. Armstrong said...

I became a huge fan of Mr. Grant's flies in 2003 upon seeing Todd Collins' display at the visitor center in Butte. The following year I took a class from Todd through the FFF. I am as passionate about Mr. Grant's flies now as I was 13 years ago and have been tying them exclusively at numerous fly tying events in Colorado and Nebraska. I hope that my efforts will help to extend his legacy for generations to come. S. Armstrong

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That was a really outstanding man. I admire what he did.