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Artisans of Michigan: Angler hooked on tying flies

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Dennis Potter at work, tying flies for fly fishing.

Dennis Potter is still doing what he discovered he loved in 1977. He ties flies for fly fishing. He says he still remembers tying his first one.

“To take that fly that I tied – I can show you within six inches on a log where I caught my first trout on the Au Sable River almost 40 years ago,” Potter said.

Dennis Potter was hooked.

He took a fly-tying class, but he says his real education came from being fortunate enough to know a lot of good fly tyers.

He studied their patterns and techniques. He also studied the insects fish prey upon.

“Trout in particular can become very selective, not only to a specific species of insect that they’re feeding on, but to a certain stage of the life cycle of that insect. So, if you don’t have the right bug, it can be difficult,” he said.

Potter and his family live in a nice house on a private drive. They also own a place on the Au Sable River. I had to ask: How did he manage to get to the point where he could make a living at tying flies? He scoffed. He told me he’s not.

He says he retired from the family business, traded places with his wife, Karen, and became what he calls the “househusband.” And he tied flies.

“There are very, very few people who make a living – quote, unquote – being commercial fly tyers. It’s an unbelievable commitment and you virtually have to tie every day,” Potter said.

Credit Courtesy: Riverhouse Fly Company
One of a series of instructional videos Dennis Potter produced.

He adds you’d be lucky to pull in about $20,000 a year. But, Potter’s done OK. He designs patterns for a company called Umpqua Feather Merchants. His flies are duplicated in factories Sri Lanka, Thailand, other places. He gets a small commission from that. He makes money from his own retail operation, Riverhouse Fly Company. And he speaks at shows and workshops and produces instructional videos.

“I absolutely love the teaching aspect of this. And, it sounds corny, I’m driven to share all this information that I’ve borrowed, stolen from others, come up with on my own. By far, the greatest satisfaction that I get is helping someone get better at what they’re doing,” he explained.

The entire time we talked, Potter was tying flies. He grabbed a bit of this, a scrap of that and in two minutes – actually, a shorter time than that – he’d tied a fly using all kinds of materials around him.

“The natural materials: deer hair, elk hair, calf tails, peacock, turkey feathers, virtually any fur, any hair, any feather can and probably has been in fly tying,” he said. He pointed at a fly he’d been working on while we talked.

“Many, many years ago that fly would have been deer hair or elk hair, but it gets wet, it breaks, it gets heavy. So, anything I can do with synthetic, I’m going to do,” he said.

Credit Courtesy: Riverhouse Fly Company
One of Dennis Potter's early signature flies, the Fat Head Beetle.

Synthetic materials are lighter. They don’t soak up water. They stay on the surface of the water better just as many insects do. Some materials are shiny just like some bugs.

Like a lot of the Artisans of Michigan I’ve met, Potter takes pride in his work. He believes he stands out because he puts in more effort than some of his competitors.

“Every fly that I tie for a fly shop or my retail customers is tied exactly the same way as the flies that go into my fly box. And that’s not the case with a lot of commercial tyers. They’ll crank out something quick, quick, quick that doesn’t have the durability, they don’t all look the same. I just simply refuse to do that. So, could I tie faster? Yes. Absolutely, but I don’t.”

I had to ask him: Do you have to think like a fish when designing a fly?

“Do you have to think like a – well, uh, not when you’re tying. Well, yeah, I guess you do. You know, I’ve tied enough that when I do come up with something new, I can look it and and know, wow, that’s going to catch fish! You simply know,” he said.

And it only took tying a few hundred thousand flies to get there.

That’s Dennis Potter with Riverhouse Fly Company, our latest Artisan of Michigan.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Artisans of Michigan is produced in partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum. Dennis Potter was a master artist with the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program in 2002.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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