[by Jerry Gibbs]
The fly fishing world lost one of its icons on December 30, 2018 with the passing of Charlie Hezekiah Smith. He was 82. Over his lifetime, the legendary guide, innovator, entertainer, entrepreneur, far-thinking conservationist, distinguished himself as undisputed father of Bahamas bonefishing. Charlie, who died at his son Prescott’s home in Stafford Creek, Andros, Bahamas was the first Bahamian to establish his own bonefishing lodge, and was key in bringing a once nascent and exclusive sport into the prominence it enjoys today. He is, of course, inseparably conjoined with the eponymous Crazy Charlie fly. [See separate History below]
Charlie was born on March 13, 1936 on Grand Cay, Abaco, Bahamas and began fishing under his father’s tutelage at age 7. At 13 he headed to Grand Bahama Island to work in the US missile base, then transferred to Andros. For five years he sampled a number of jobs from handling heavy equipment to captaining a yacht, and at age 18 became a chef along with providing evening calypso music at The Lighthouse Club at Fresh Creek on Andros. His free moments there were spent fishing, and he developed an enviable reputation for his bonefishing skill. While at Lighthouse, he once took a bonefish reported to be 18 or 19 pounds, depending on the stories. 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 adding to Smith’s already blooming reputation, the non-record fish incident simply polishing his talent for rising within the Old Boy network of the day. Celebrities, 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 Bhering Point venue burned in 1983. In 1988 when I fished with him, Charlie was in transition state between constructing a new Haven, and prior to taking charge of the historic Bang Bang Club on Pott Cay, an original ‘40s hideaway for the notorious and the glitterati. He was coasting easily along the summit of his game, a wellspring of bonefish knowledge, still cat quick, a joyous raconteur of endless tales.
“His dream was to create a kind of university to train young Bahamians as stewards of their homeland’s natural resources, to teach them fly fishing and other angling, along with aspects of eco-tourism…”
Under Charlie’s reign the Bang Bang Club continued as a corporate duck hunting/fishing retreat for politicians, industrial leaders, and was for a time a lay-low for gangster Al Capone. From the Lighthouse to the Bang Bang, 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 promotor, 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 as stewards of their homeland’s natural resources, to teach them fly fishing and other angling, along with aspects of eco-tourism, enabling them to establish livelihoods that were sustainable of the environment.
In his later 70s, though his fishing eye sight faded, Charlie’s charm was far from diminished. His banjo playing, blues singing, tale-weaving appearances in moves like Howard Films’ “In Search of A Rising Tide,” and Confluence Film’s “Drift” introduced him to an unsuspecting and delighted young generation of fly fishers.
Though his guiding days were done, Charlie continued to develop new fly patterns, and he’d never lost his eyes for the ladies. He had 15 sons and 9 daughters. Surviving at his death were also 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, advising 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 remembered 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 Deceiver 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.
According to the Nauheim legend, the now eyed fly, intended to imitate 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 Christmas 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 Orvis 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 Charlie 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.”