John Foust is a “living legend of fishing,” “the best,” “kind, generous and humble,” his friends said while dedicating a plaque in the 72-year-old’s honor at Hannon boat launch on the Bitterroot River last week.

“We call him the world renowned,” said Foust’s friend of 30 years, Jim Cote. “The guy has been an institution with the fish industry for three decades. He and his wife Elna owned Fish Haus [in Hamilton] next to Ace Hardware, and he’s been the central point for fishermen for a lot of years.”

The gathering to honor Foust and dedicate the plaque mounted on a large granite rock drew a crowd of nearly 60 fishermen, fishing guides, conservationists and longtime friends. The ceremony was a sharing of appreciation for Foust, and testimony to friendships deeper than the river.

“He’s quite a guy,” said Cote. “We want to recognize him while he’s still alive, not wait like they did with Wally Crawford who was a dear friend.”

Foust was appreciative of the event.

“It’s a lot better than sending cards to my wife after I die,” he said. “I’m honored that this many people would take the time. It makes me feel good.”

Flies invented by Foust are used for fishing everywhere and “revered in western Montana, the United States and all around the world: Argentina, Chili and Canada,” said Cote.

“He is a creative genius. He invented ‘Freddy,’ a classic fly that every guy has in his tackle box,” said Cote. “He also invented ‘Pinky,’ a pink San Juan worm, another mainstay for every fisherman.”

On hand for the ceremony was Freddy Goldberg, a longtime friend of Foust who the Freddy fly was named for.

“It is humbling,” Goldberg said of the honor. “It makes me cry. [Faust] treats everyone with respect. He loves people.”

The Bigfork Anglers Fly Shop, a fly-fishing outfitter and guide service, touted another Foust invention: “Just about everybody has heard of John’s famous Fat Freddy. I don’t think there is a Missoula guide around that doesn’t have at least a couple floating around in one of their boxes somewhere. This fly has caught a lot of fish for most of the guides we know.”

“The Montana Fly-fishing Guide – West,” written in 1995 by John Holt, gives a lesson on another fly invented by Foust in 1984 called the Ugly Rudamus, which Holt says has achieved national recognition.

Foust was the consultant on the movie “A River Runs Through It.” He taught the actors how to fish. In the scene where the fish jumps out of the river, he invented the fish that leaps on a crank. He has that fish on display in his home.

Foust is viewed as a conservationist, and he was praised for his efforts.

“He is all about river safety,” said Cote. “Any time there is a structure that could cause physical harm – he’s the first to go with his saw and make it safe for boaters from that point on. He helps save life and limb on the river.”

Joel Loran, a fishing guide for 19 years, agreed.

“He is a conservationist as well as a perfectionist,” said Loran. “John has spent many years working to preserve the quality of the Bitterroot River as a trout stream and recreational resource.”

Perhaps Foust’s biggest legacy is his investment in people. Foust spent his life mentoring guides, fishermen and children – who he sees as fishermen of the future.

“John was an outstanding guide for over 30 years. He served as a mentor to many aspiring guides and is a consummate professional,” said Loran. “John is probably the most talented fly tier I have ever met. The amount of time and preparation he spent perfecting this craft is unimaginable. He is always the first person I call when I am contemplating a new pattern or method, and he always offers insight.”

Robert Gary, of Latitudes Outfitters and a guide for 18 years, said: “There can never be enough ‘thank yous.’ There will never be another Foust, he’s pretty special. He’s done more for our industry than anyone I know.”

Fly-fishing guide Chris Miller agreed.

“What sets John apart from the rest is his relentless pursuit of his craft and his willingness to share that passion with us,” Miller said. “It is the essence of being a mentor. Thank you for all the time and energy you have brought to our lives and thanks for instilling in us a courage for life. Hopefully we can continue to pass it on to the next generations.”

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At last week’s ceremony Foust remained eager to give advice.

“The quality of the fishing trip doesn’t depend on the number of fish caught. It’s about camaraderie and enjoying the day. It’s not the number of fish, but about out-thinking the fish and enjoying the friendship of those with you,” he said. “It all boils down to the enjoyment you get out of it. Just watching the fly and forgetting about business.”

Foust was born in Stevensville and raised in Darby.

“I was raised in Darby during the 1960s – that’s important because Darby was a hopping place then,” said Foust. “I am a Darby High School graduate.”

“His father was a logger, so he grew up where he had to leave school for a couple of weeks to help with the logging,” said Cote. “He just grew up in that Montana world.”

“He started tying flies at 13 and selling them at Bob Ward’s in Missoula,” said Elna. “We’ve always fished.”

For 17 years, he worked at Safeway (Missoula and Hamilton) and IGA, and then started the fly-fishing supply store.

He has guided nearly 35 years - sometimes guiding 120 float trips per year.

Part of what makes Foust so special is his love of people. He knows the rich and famous, but values each person – no matter their social or economic status.

“Johnny treats everyone the same – rich or not – if you are in the water or like fishing – you’re a friend,” said Cote. “How he treats people and his respect for people – he is such a gentleman. I feel so fortunate that John touched my life. He isn’t jealous of anyone about anything. He enjoys being people’s friend.”

“I have never heard a negative word spoken about John Foust, which in this business is quite unusual,” said Loran.

Foust said he enjoys people in the fishing industry.

“Ninety-nine percent of people who fish are nice people,” said Foust. “I’ve done 120 trips a year and there’s no other business with such nice people.”

John and Elna were praised for their hospitality and non-stop entertaining. On display in their home are the fish from “A River Runs Through It,” a poster from the movie with a fly, old fishing reels dating back to the 1890s, over 20 photos of famous people with John and more.

Tom McGowan, 86, and Fritz Tossberg, 83, also came last week to honor their friend.

John and Mary Huberty, former neighbors, said “a 10-hour drive is worth it to spend an hour with John and Elna. It’s the truth.”

Elna said that she and John have been married 33 years.

“We’ve had a good time,” she said.

John agreed.

“It’s been a very interesting life.”

You can find out more about the Foust’s business and view the photo album at http://www.flyfishingalways.com/

Reach reporter Michelle McConnaha at 363-3300 or michelle.mcconnaha@ravallirepublic.com.