(Editor Note: Jerry Gibbs, longtime fishing editor at Outdoor Life, filed this fond recollection and tribute to famed fly fishing guide and outsize personality, Charlie Smith, who passed away recently.)
The fly fishing world lost one of its icons this past December 30 with the passing of Charlie Hezekiah Smith. He was 82. Over his lifetime, the legendary guide, innovator, entertainer, entrepreneur, and far-thinking conservationist distinguished himself as undisputed father of Bahamas bonefishing. Charlie, who died at the home of his son Prescott in Stafford Creek, Andros, Bahamas, was the first Bahamian to establish his own bonefishing lodge, and he was key in bringing the once-exclusive sport of bonefishing into the prominence it enjoys today. He is, of course, inseparably conjoined with the eponymous Crazy Charlie fly. (See “An Oral History of the Crazy Charlie Fly” elsewhere in this issue.)
Charlie was born on March 13, 1936, on Grand Cay, Abaco, Bahamas, and began fishing under his father’s tutelage at age seven. At 13, he headed to Grand Bahama Island to work at a US missile base, then transferred to Andros. In subsequent years, he sampled a number of jobs, from handling heavy equipment to captaining a yacht before becoming a chef at The Lighthouse Club in Fresh Creek on Andros Island. He also worked as an entertainer there, providing evening calypso music. His free time there was spent fishing, and he developed an enviable reputation for his bonefishing skill. While at Lighthouse, he once took a bonefish reported to weigh 18 or 19 pounds, depending on who is telling the story. It would have been at least the club record, but times were different then; the fish was disregarded due to the color of Charlie’s skin, and the bonefish was eaten.
Word of the catch spread quickly, though, adding to Smith’s already growing reputation. Soon, celebrities and international government officials insisted on his guiding when visiting the club. The attention stoked Smith’s natural confidence, eventually leading him to the construction, in 1968, of Charlie’s Haven on Andros, the first Bahamian-owned lodge in the islands. That Behring Point venue burned in 1983.
In 1988, when I fished with Charlie, he was in the process of constructing a new Haven. This was before he took charge of the historic Bang Bang Club on Pot Cay, an original 1940s hideaway for the notorious and the glitterati. He was coasting easily along the summit of his game at that point, still quick as a cat, a wellspring of bonefish knowledge and a joyous raconteur of endless tales.
Under Charlie’s reign, the Bang Bang Club thrived as a corporate duck hunting/fishing retreat for politicians and industrial leaders. For a time, it was a lay-low for gangster Al Capone. During those years when he operated the Lighthouse and the Bang Bang Club, Charlie’s fishing clients included assorted prime ministers, George H. W. Bush, Ted Williams, Benny Goodman, Jack Hemingway, Dag Hammarskjöld, and a laundry list of elite fly anglers. Fishing talent aside, it was Charlie’s charisma, his love of people, his confidence as a lovable self-promoter that instantly attracted people of all stripes to him.
Late in his career three of Charlie’s sons owned and operated Andros lodges while the patriarch continued holding court at Bang Bang. His dream was to create a kind of university to train young Bahamians to be stewards of their homeland’s natural resources, to teach them fly fishing and other kinds of angling, along with aspects of eco-tourism, enabling them to establish environmentally sustainable livelihoods.
In his late 70s, though his fishing eyesight had faded, Charlie’s charm was far from diminished. His banjo playing, blues singing, and tale-weaving appearances in movies such as In Search of a Rising Tide and Drift introduced him to an unsuspecting and delighted younger generation of fly fishers.
Though his guiding days were done, Charlie continued to develop new fly patterns, and he never lost his eye for the ladies. In all, he had 15 sons and nine daughters. Surviving at his death were 66 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. “That’s what happens when all you do is fish, cook, and play music,” he once said.
AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE CRAZY CHARLIE FLY
Small Hope Bay Lodge, not from the Lighthouse Club where Charlie worked, was the occasion of a 1960s visit by Bahamas Prime Minister Lynden Pindling with guest Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s PM. Having heard of Smith’s various talents, Pindling requested not only that Charlie cook and serve them, but that Smith take the two notables fishing the next day . Small Hope owner Dick Birch, good friends with Charlie, arranged it all, ad-vising Charlie that he’d better catch fish. He did of course, and that segues into the conflicting history of what’s now the Crazy Charlie fly.
Facts can fade, memories become creative over the years but before his fish date with the two PMs, Charlie reportedly recalled his father many years back, plucking a duck feather and tying it to a hook. Charlie remem-bered huffing himself to the water and promptly catching a bonefish on that “fly,” saying it looked like a swimming minnow. With that incident in memory Smith said that he tied up flies using chicken feathers the night before the prime ministers date, and that this was indeed the birth of the “Charlie.”
Facts now become muddled. Bob Nauheim, co-owner of the Santa Rosa, California based Fishing International travel agency had fished with Charlie on a number of occasions. On a 1977 trip, he and his partner Frank Bertania were evidently experiencing regular bonefish refusals using a De-ceiver pattern. According to Charlie, he broke out the fly that had caught fish for the prime ministers, and soon the bonefish began eating for the Californians. Evidently Nauheim wanted to name the fly Bonefish Charlie Smith. But hold on; another version of the story describes Nauheim that evening tweaking Charlie’s chicken feather pattern by adding bead chain eyes that not only added slight weight but with their placement caused the fly to ride hook point up. However, both Charlie and his son Prescott insist Charlie’s first flies were “eyed” using the beads from a military dog tag neck chain.
A more modern variation of the Crazy Charlie tied with pink bucktail instead of the original splayed chicken hackles.
According to the Nauheim legend, the now eyed fly, intended to imi-tate a glass minnow, was firecracker hot on the bonefish, provoking Charlie to repeatedly comment “Dat fly nasty!” Nauheim logically rechristened the pattern Nasty Charlie.
Once home, Nauheim let Key West guide Jan Isley use the pattern on fussy Keys bonefish. Isley was first to tie the fly with a hair wing (the original had two small saddle hackles). Soon after, Nauheim used the fly on a trip to the just-opened Christmas Island venue. Planning a trip to Christ-mas himself, then Orvis president Leigh Perkins spoke with Nauheim to learn what flies worked on the bonefish there. Of course it was the Charlie. Following a successful trip, Perkins arranged to offer the pattern in the Or-vis catalog. Either Perkins did not like the original name or some how Nasty morphed into Crazy during a communications glitch.
Charlie himself added to the story with this: “When Bob Nauheim first went home after fishing with me, he gave the fly to Mike Michalak of The Fly Shop in Redding and asked Mike if he would have a lot of them tied up. Mike agreed only if I said it was OK. So he called me up and I said go ahead.”
To his credit, following the Orvis interplay Bob Nauheim asked Char-lie if he would accept the fly’s name change to Crazy Charlie. Smith signed a letter agreeing. “The fly made millions for the fly fishing industry but I’ve never received any compensation, Charlie affirmed back in 2014. “I’m not bitter about it,” he added, “I’ve had a blessed life.”