Tying tradition / Hooked on Art to feature Franz Pott's legendary flies

2007-02-09T00:00:00Z Tying tradition / Hooked on Art to feature Franz Pott's legendary fliesBy KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
February 09, 2007 12:00 am  • 

Not everyone can tie Pott flies, which is exactly what Franz Pott had in mind when he patented the things in 1934.

The Missoula fly manufacturer employed his skills as a wigmaker to develop 30 variations of his Mite pattern before he died in 1956 at the age of 77. Pott flies became, and remain, a part of Montana's fly-fishing tradition and still command a base of diehard fans.

They've earned their reputation.

"I certainly couldn't tie them," said Mike Kustudia of Missoula. "Grandma tried to show me, but I was a terrible student."

Growing up in western Montana, Kustudia caught the fly-fishing bug from his grandfather, Bill Cadieux. But the two of them left the tying to Bill's wife, Evelyn.

"She was amazing. She did it for so long she could make it look easy and just crank them out," marveled Kustudia.

He remembers watching his grandmother, who died in 2002, tie the pioneering wet flies in the kitchen of her small home in Piltzville. She did it, he said, for some 27 years starting in the late 1940s.

Turns out it was a block party.

At first Pott, an immigrant from Germany in the early 1900s, couldn't find anyone in the Missoula area to make his woven hackles. He sent instructions to his sister in Germany and two sisters-in-law in the Netherlands, where his wife Henrietta came from.

He even shipped the business out to Finline Fly Co. in Colorado during the World War II era.

"But he wasn't very happy about the quality of them, so he cut them off. That's the only time they were made out of Missoula that I know of," said Mike Wilkerson, a walking encyclopedia of fly-fishing lore.

Eventually, Pott found housewives like Cadieux to tie the flies locally.

Mary Emma Jeszenka lived two doors down from Cadieux (pronounced "Cadger") in the Bonner-area burg that has been bisected by Interstate 90 since the early 1960s.

"She had a huge cupboard full of colored feathers, all different kinds of line and stuff like that," said Jeszenka's daughter, Sue Hogan. "She used to put it right on the kitchen table. She would sit there and just do it at her leisure. I think they always gave her plenty of time."

Frank Anderson of Piltzville bought the Pott fly business after Henrietta Pott died in 1958.

At least two more local housewives, Shirley Miles and Vi Lizotte, helped Cadieux and Jeszenka with the hackles after that. Of the four, only Miles survives.

They did good work, said Paul Layton, a Piltzville artist who grew up fishing with Pott flies. He'll present a display of them Saturday at the second annual Hooked on Art festival at Bonner School.

"Fish stories are fish stories, but I'd say I've caught probably a wheelbarrow or two over the years with these things," Layton said.

The story goes that, in order to protect his patent, Pott wouldn't let any one person tie the whole fly.

The Pott flies business passed through several hands in the last quarter of a century. All struggled to keep it afloat. Wilkerson sold out his share of the business in 2005 when he retired.

According to Wilkerson, the last person to tie the flies was Ron Schestag, who died last March.

In his kitchen in south Missoula, Wilkerson keeps a mounted picture of Pott in a display that includes a sample of an antique Sandy Mite.

He also has a copy of the trademark application Pott filed. It's four detailed pages of small print, packed with diagrams and intricate instructions.

Lines 93-96 read: "When the preliminary winding of the binding thread 6 has been completed as described, a wisp or tail of horsehair 9 is applied at one end as at 10."

"The problem with these flies," said Wilkerson, "is they are so labor intensive. It's pretty hard to compete with good flies that come from China and Africa, South America and Central America when it takes so much longer to tie them.

"And materials are really expensive. If you sell for even a halfway reasonable price, that makes the retail price on them about 2 or 3 bucks apiece, which is kind of prohibitive."

Pott's favorite material for the hackles - fibers that extend from the woven body of the fly to keep it afloat - was hair from the Asiatic badger. He found that the hair is different, and more attractive to a trout, than that of the American badger. It sells for $398 a pound these days.

George Grant of Butte, who turned 100 years old last fall, was a contemporary and competitor of Pott in the fly-tying business. Though Pott had little to do with Grant outside of the business arena, he had few bigger admirers.

"Although it was probably not a conscious effort on his part, I believe that Pott contributed more than anyone else to the establishment of the sport of fly-fishing in Montana," Grant wrote in his 1981 book, "Montana Trout Flies."

Pott made those contributions, Grant went on, "by creating flies that were especially suitable to the waters in which they were intended to be used, and thereby gave an unschooled fishing public the confidence they needed to convince them that trout could be readily taken by a more interesting, imaginative and humane method than by using a snelled hook and a worm."

Most of a century later, the Pott fly is considered something more.

"It's an artistic rendering of an aquatic insect, sort of akin to an impressionistic kind of painting, I would think," Kustudia said. "They don't look like any particular bug, but they look like a lot of bugs."

"It's history," Layton said. "It's history of our community."

Hook one on

Piltzville artist Paul Layton's collection of Franz Pott's flies will be among dozens of exhibits on display at the second annual Hooked On Art, a celebration of Walter Hook and the arts, Saturday at Bonner School, 9045 Highway 200 E. in Bonner.

The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes a community art market, quilt show, art instruction for adults and children, and refreshments. Missoula artist Dudley Dana will give a gallery talk entitled "China" from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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