Bonefish on Fly: A Challenge from the Start

Capt. Bill Smith, in 1939, with the first-ever bonefish caught on regulation fly tackle. That's a copy of Smith's fly, framed with the image. Reprinted with permission, from Florida's Fishing Legends and Pioneers, University Press of Florida.

As we enter one of the best times of the year for bonefish action in far South Florida, fly fishermen are no doubt sharing ideas on their favorite patterns. How about this for a retro challenge:Try copying the hackle-over-squirrel tail pattern used by Capt. Bill Smith, in 1939, to catch the first-ever bonefish on fly. The story is recalled in Chapter 9 of  Florida’s Fishing Legends and Pioneers, a fascinating piece of journalism cultivated by Doug Kelly, a Florida Sportsman Contributing Editor. For more details and to order a copy of the book, click here

 –Jeff Weakley, Editor

Excerpt from Chapter 9 Florida’s Fishing Legends and Pioneers

After guiding through most of the 1930s, Smith took a man fishing in 1938 who would put him into direct confrontation with George LaBranche’s theory about bonefish not taking flies. An Alaskan fly angler named George Crawford wanted to fish for tarpon with Smith for a few days. According to Smith, Crawford had written the song for the U.S. Air Force (then the Army Air Corps) that starts, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.” He’d brought along flies he used for taking salmon, and he wasn’t having much luck with them in the salt.

“I asked Leo Johnson, a friend in Islamorada who also guided, what he was using to catch tarpon on flies,” said Smith. “Leo explained that he simply wrapped pork rind around a hook. I decided to modify the idea, so I added hackle feathers to the hook and rind when I got home.”

The next day, Crawford again struck out on silver kings, but this time he tossed the pork rind flies at several schools of bonefish. Crawford caught two, and after pulling into the dock, Smith put the fish into a sack and drove to the local grocery store—the only place in the region with accurate scales—to weigh them. As chance would have it, as Smith and Crawford walked out of the store, in walked George LaBranche. After asking Smith what they’d caught and being told bonefish on fly, LaBranche huffed and demanded to see the evidence. Upon so doing, LeBranche went into a tirade.

“He totally scoffed and put me down,” Smith recalled. “It embarrassed the hell out of me. He ranted that the addition of pork rind or anything else that could be considered bait rendered the fly nothing more than bait. I knew he was technically right, and right then and there swore I’d somehow catch a bonefish on purely a fly.

“It took me months, but I finally came up with a small portion of ostrich feather over brown squirrel hair and a red-and-yellow hackle tied with red and orange thread on a 1/0 hook. I tied a lot of flies until I came up with that version.

“One afternoon in 1939 I hit the Islamorada flats armed with those flies. I saw many bonefish and cast at them, and it didn’t take long at all for one of them to chomp it—about an eight-pounder,” Smith recalled.

 

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