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The Story Behind the Crazy Charlie

A not-so-fancy masterpiece.

March 27, 2013
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It’s always refreshing to meet an icon who never set out to be one. Smith’s a simple man who lives a simple life.

Don’t forget to click through images in the gallery above.

Look inside the box of any bonefisherman anywhere in the world and, if you don’t find a Crazy Charlie inside, you will at least see the inside foam pierced with row upon row of patterns that stem from what many consider to be the most well-known bonefish fly of all time. When Charlie Smith (better known as Crazy Charlie) created the Nasty Charlie (later dubbed the Crazy Charlie), he had no idea what he was onto — he was simply nervous about two high-profile guests he was to fish with the following day.

Around 1950, Charlie became the head chef at the Lighthouse Club, located at the port of Fresh Creek on Andros, a hot spot for big-spending celebrities such as the members of the Rat Pack, George Bush Sr. and Ted Williams, to name a few. In those early days, Charlie frequently heard grumbling complaints from the guests about the bonefish guides. When club founder Dick Birch caught wind that his chef had talents other than preparing fish stews and frying conch fritters, he saw an opportunity that would aid in customer satisfaction and, therefore, his bottom line.

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As Charlie puts it: “When he found out that I know about fishing, he would send me out to make sure the guest would get happy and would have a good day fishing. That’s how I began cheffing, playing music and fishing.”

Charlie became quite the entertainer in many respects, and his reputation as the local bonefish guru was on the rise. At one point, he even caught an 18½-pound fish right off the Lighthouse Club beach. These were different times, and because Charlie was a “colored” Bahamian, what would have been a record catch was not accepted and was instead relegated to be the main course that fed 25 guests that night.

When news about the trophy catch got out, Charlie’s reputation skyrocketed to the point where it was his knowledge of bonefishing that attracted the majority of big-name public figures, such as Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to the club. For such highly esteemed guests, Birch wanted the best chef on the island to cook for them, so naturally he called on Charlie. When Charlie arrived, Birch surprised him by saying, “You are always bragging about fishing, so now you have two prime ministers to fish. I hope you can go to the drawing board and do something to make sure they catch some bonefish.”

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Charlie realized then that his reputation (and perhaps his job) was on the line and admitted recently he was nervous. He spent the remainder of the evening experimenting with fly patterns. By 2:30 in the morning, Charlie felt he had a winning combination, a fly that was essentially nothing more than a hook, lead eyes and a chicken feather. The next day, Pindling caught two bones and Trudeau managed three. When they got back, Charlie showed the men the fly he invented just for them. Pindling told Charlie, you better start inventing more because it worked for us and it will work for someone else. Pindling was indeed correct.

“So when Bob Nauheim came from Fishing International to Charlie’s Haven with Frank ­Bertania, they were missing all the big fish,” Charlie said. “Bob was getting upset and angry because he couldn’t get one on, so I said, ‘I have a nasty fly in my pocket; would you like to try it?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’ll try anything,’ so he cut the Deceiver off that Lefty Kreh invented and put on my fly. As soon as he cast it out, as soon as it hit the water, the fish ran over and — boom — 9½-pound fish to the boat. So, I poled the flat a while and Frank caught one, 6½ pounds. Then he gave the rod back to Bob. When he went to cast to the next big bonefish, Frank was in the middle of the boat and Bob pulled the fly between me and Frank and hooked Frank in his ass. And this is how it all began right there. We got the fly out of Frank’s ass. Bob cut it off the line and put it in his pocket, and he took it to the Fly Shop in Redding, California, to Mike Michalak and asked if he’d copy the fly and tie up a lot of them. Mike said, ‘Yes, but I’ll have to call Charlie.’ So Mike called me up and told me, ‘Bob gave me this fly for me to copy,’ so I said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and do it.’ And that’s how it all began. It ended by Bob saying he looked in his tackle box and found this old lure. That isn’t true; he got the fly from me.”

Charlie is the first to admit that his flies aren’t fancy — or even pretty for that matter.

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“I tie fly to catch fish, and I always tell the shops they tie the flies to catch the fish and the customer.” As with any genius, Charlie has a rhyme to his reason behind turning out flies that many would consider unattractive. “If you are a bonefish trying to catch a shrimp and you are gaining on it and it looks crippled, you are going to keep going after it.”

He swears that his sloppy version, sitting right next to the beautiful version bought from the fly shop, will be picked up by a bonefish every time. “It’s because my fly doesn’t look too fancy or too pretty; it always looks rough and I keep it like that. I could make it fancy and pretty but I’m not selling; I just tie and give.” Do Charlie’s flies display a few external imperfections? Absolutely. However, his rationale reveals the inner beauty of Charlie’s Charlies, and when you understand it, you realize that the finished product he holds in his hand is not merely a roughly tied fly but rather a true masterpiece.

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When Charlie Smith (better known as Crazy Charlie) created the Nasty Charlie (later dubbed the Crazy Charlie), he had no idea what he was onto.
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While the original Crazy Charlie might appear to be nothing more than a few chicken feathers bound to a hook weighted with dumbbell eyes, this fly literally changed bonefishing.
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Maybe not every single bonefish fly in existence has traces of Charlie Smith’s handiwork in it, but the argument can certainly be made that most do.
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After meeting him and examining the Crazy Charlie he tied for me, I found myself admiring its imperfections and determined it was a compelling representation of Charlie himself. Simple, rough around the edges and modestly legendary.
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Visiting Smith at the dilapidated but nonetheless renowned Bang Bang Club was a true honor. His hands were as weathered as the Crocs he wore on his feet.
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It’s always refreshing to meet an icon who never set out to be one. Smith’s a simple man who lives a simple life.
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