Originator of the famous “Crazy Charlie” bonefish fly, Charlie Smith’s legacy extends well beyond the flats and mangroves of the Bahamas. ADAM TAVENDER

Crazy Charlie

Chris Gaggia
Fishing 2014

The basic ingredients of any fly are simple: feather, fiber, thread and hook. But when combined in a way that consistently triggers a strike in a fish—those simple ingredients become the stuff of legend. The “Crazy Charlie” fly is one of these.

Charlie Smith, a pioneering Bahamian flats guide and the man behind the Crazy Charlie fly, tied the original with feathers from a local chicken and a snipped section of bead-chain for eyes, giving the fly just enough ballast to ride hook up and minimize snagging without splashing heavily and spooking bonefish in shallow water.

From the bonefish’s point of view, we can only wonder: Is it a shrimp, a minnow? Either way, the Crazy Charlie’s simple formula has proven itself irresistible to both fish and angler alike—so much so that both the fly and the man are icons of the flats fishing scene.

Charlie started his first fishing lodge, Charlie’s Haven, in the late ’60s. His prowess on the flats and good humor attracted an international cast of characters to Andros Island to fish with him, from prime ministers and presidents to sports legends like Ted Williams and Jack Nicklaus.

But there is more to Charlie’s story than helping visiting anglers, famous or otherwise, land the “ghost of the flats” on a fly. Many of the multigenerational, family-owned fishing lodges and guiding operations on Andros are directly connected to Charlie and his efforts to teach his profession and help others get started, earning him local nicknames like “Papa Charlie” and “The Godfather of the Flats.”

“As important as the fly is to the industry as a whole, what my father did was plant the seeds of fly fishing as a way for local people to make a sustainable living off the flats” says Prescott Smith, one of Charlie’s sons and a respected lodge owner and flats guide. “My father is true to the sport; he loves to fish. And he’s helped so many people.”

Prescott sees his own conservation and education outreach as an extension of his father’s legacy: He travels extensively at home and to international fly fishing shows to spread the word about environmental challenges and opportunities in the Bahamas. “We have the largest saltwater flats in the world and the largest concentration of mangroves in the western world—it’s the nursery for bonefish but also so many other species.”

The flats, seagrass beds, creeks and mangrove forests, the adjacent deep water, like all things in nature, are an interconnected system of habitats that make the Bahamas not just a storied destination for flats fishing, but a critical piece of the aquatic ecosystem in the Caribbean.

“You aren’t just going to re-create the largest bonefish flats somewhere else,” Prescott says. “We need to protect the resource. Having locals earning a living from the environment, practicing good conservation, that means more protection and less destruction of that nursery system. The Bahamas are much more than sun, sea and sand.”