Charlie Craven needs no introduction, but I’m going to introduce him anyway. Charlie is owner of his fly shop Charlie’s Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado which celebrated its 12th Anniversary this year. He is also well known as one of the top selling Umpqua Signature Fly Designers, a long time commercial fly tyer, guide, author, and guest speaker for events around the country.
Charlie- Having learned to tie mainly through your early books and website, this interview is a true honor-
CC: All mine, man.
“Tying Nymphs” is your third and newest fly tying book. What was the driving force behind this project, and what do you hope people take away from it?
Jay Nichols, my editor and publisher, is the guy who really keeps on me to keep writing. Jay is fantastic to work with and he and I have a great relationship. He pitches some ideas to me and we hash things out and come up with a plan and honestly, it’s never been anything but great working with him. My tying books have always been, in my mind anyway, about building a tool box of techniques. I’ve taught classes long enough to know that a technique driven curriculum on its own can be pretty boring, but if you “hide” those techniques in compelling fly patterns, you end up making better fly tyers whether they like it or not! Tying Nymphs was a book that needed to be done in a more modern version. There are so many new patterns, materials and techniques these days, the format really needed an upgrade and I love having the opportunity to do it.
On Ask About Fly Fishing Radio, you mentioned that “Tying Nymphs” was the first book in a series of future books- including Streamers, Dry Flies, Emergers, Terrestrials, and a Technique book at the end. Will those books also follow suit being more technique oriented than pattern oriented? Also what book will be released next in this series?
I finished the Streamer book this past July and handed it off to Jay Nichols, so yes; it’s the next one in line. Apparently I need to take a few more photos of materials and things like that in the meantime for that book, but I am guessing it’ll come out in the fall or early winter of 2017. All of my books are heavy on the technique and that’s one of the things that makes pattern selection a little tough sometimes; trying not to be redundant, especially with streamers. The Streamer book has got some of the latest stuff in it, but also a couple old classics because the technique is important. Streamers also are so heavily dependent on design. There are so many flies out there these days with a half zonked rabbit hide, lead eyes and a turkey worth of marabou that just aren’t cast-able. I tried to add a fair bit of what makes a good fly design into that book along with the instruction and technique. I’m sure the Dry Fly, Emerger and Terrestrial books will follow suit.
A.K. Best wrote a pretty interesting book called “Production Fly Tying”- Have you thought about writing your experiences on the subject? (If not- I encourage you).
I haven’t. But maybe now I will 😉 The commercial tying game is very different these days than it was when I was doing it. There aren’t many cheap and quick to tie patterns in high demand these days. Commercial tyers now have to have a niche of supplying something you can’t get from the big fly suppliers. Streamers definitely come to mind here and there are a few guys doing just that. I’ve always been a big fan of doing the math on anything, including tying, and in so many cases, the math just doesn’t work out that well.
Do you ever get the itch to tie 100 dozen of anything anymore? Lol. What kept you sane tying thousands of flies at a time? ?
I can’t say that I do! I don’t really miss commercial tying in bulk to be honest. I love to tie the small special orders that make up the majority of what I am tying for sale these days. Tying has become much more relaxing and thought provoking to me as I get older and I don’t have any desire to go back to sweating over a hot vise for ten hours a day.
You know, as far as what kept me sane, I’d have to say my attitude about it. Rather than approaching commercial tying as a repetitive, boring job, I really tried to think of it as an opportunity to become a better tyer and let my mind run through all the things I could alter or change or tweak in materials and techniques to make the flies better.
Have you considered doing dvds to better articulate your instruction? Do you prefer book instruction to video?
I actually have done a whole series of DVD’s with FlyFisherman Magazine. The Flyfisherman Foundation 40 series is a set of 4 DVD’s that start off pretty basic and work through a range of 40 trout flies. When they asked me to come out to Minnesota to shoot the videos a few years back I really expected a guy with some lights and a handy cam, but they have a full on TV studio with a real camera man, sound guy and even a makeup girl. The videos really came out well and part of them became, what I believe, was the first fly tying app. They must have done well because they invited me back a few years ago to shoot a warmwater and saltwater DVD as well.
From a teaching standpoint, it really depends on how a person learns best. I’m married to a pretty smart woman who also happens to be a teacher and in helping her through her Master’s Degree program like a good husband (meaning I proofread a bunch of her work), I learned about the differences in learning styles. Some folks learn from reading about it, some by doing it and some by watching it, so I think all of those genres can be important teaching tools. I am currently right in the middle of learning to edit videos to add them our shop website so, yeah…there’ll be more video coming too.
What is the current state of fly tying? What could the industry use more of, what could it use less of? Any politics or general opinions you think should change?
This is a good question, and frankly, I’m glad you asked because I just might go on a bit of a tirade here. Right now fly tying is pretty available to everyone. With so much instruction available on the web, in books and magazines, it’s not hard to find lots of information relatively easily. I’m gonna sound like an old guy right here and I make no bones about my rapid approach to Curmudgeoness, but back in my day you had to figure things out for yourself. You had the same three books to look through that everyone else did and once there you really were on your own as far as getting better. There wasn’t anywhere near the amount of “help” out there that there is today. The catch today is a guy with a bit of passion and manual dexterity can become a B grade tyer in pretty quick order and unfortunately, too many of them think it came from their own talent and brain power rather than from good quality and quantity of instruction. I think this phenomenon also contributes to so many flies looking alike these days. Facebook and Instagram makes it too easy for everyone to copy each other, sometimes without even consciously knowing it! The proliferation of ripped off fly patterns, the social media Bro-Staff nonsense and the advent of the modern day ‘commercial tyer’ working a full time job and twisting up twenty dozen a week for fun money sorta chaps my ass.
I just read an interview today with a friend of mine, Andrew Grillos, where he was asked what advice he’d give a young guide and he said something like “forget about social media and jamming yourself down people’s throats and just put in your best efforts every day, keep your head down and keep grinding”, and I think a lot of tyers out there would do well to heed that same advice. Sit quietly at your desk knocking out the best shit you can all day every day and if you have what it takes, people will notice. And if they don’t, hey, you became a better fly tyer. Rant over, for now.
You have been a big DynaKing vise fan- why DynaKing and what did you consider when choosing a vise brand and style? What do you think about rotary vises?
I bought my first Dyna-King Pro vise back in 1989 or 90. Before that I tied on a variety of lower end vises and then had moved slowly up the chain trying several before choosing the Dyna-King. I tied on a Regal for quite some time and finally just got frustrated with the jaws chipping at the absolute most inopportune times. I remember working on an order and having a hook pop out and chip the hell out of the jaws and I literally went out to the garage and got a big bastard file and smoothed the chip out myself. Frankly, that vise held better after I went to work on it than it ever did from the factory. Granted, this was way back in the day when the Regal jaws were pot metal and they had the propensity to chip. They don’t seem to be that way anymore and I would say that they’re now damn fine vises although a bit clunky for my taste.
I also bought a Renzetti vise along this path and tied on it for about a week before deciding it just wasn’t for me. Having always tied on a conventional vise, a rotary style vise is terribly un-intuitive for me. The span from the frame to the jaws is too long for supporting your material hand placement and the whole idea of using the rotary function, to me, seems almost pointless. I have two good hands and wrapping materials around the hook is the easiest move in fly tying; I don’t need the vise to do it for me. I also find the head angle to be in the way more often than not and I realize that this comes from me having tied so much on a conventional frame vise. This is not to say that one couldn’t learn to work around these things, just that it’s too late for me!
I picked the Dyna-King because it was the most well-made vise that I have found. The jaws on this vise, when adjusted correctly will hold everything from a 10/0 to a 30. The large hook holding capability is simply incredible and when placed in the corners of the jaws, small hooks are held tightly with an incredible amount of working room around the gap. I know the jaws look blocky at first glance, but they have right angles at the tips creating a corner that holds small hooks really well and leaves plenty of the hook exposed to work on. I will say that DK’s take some getting used to as the mechanism works differently than all other vises so it’s important to know what you’re doing with the adjustment, but once you figure it out there nothing smoother or more durable that I have yet seen. Back to rotary vises for a minute here, just to be fair…I do actually own a Dyna King Barracuda that I bought several years ago when working on a giant order of Kilowatts for a really good customer. In the case of these larger flies, the bodies being made of Estaz, using the vise to roll the material on in long lengths required was certainly more efficient and being able to easily and quickly flip the hook to tie the alternating top and bottom pieces to the shank made it pretty handy. That being said, I hardly ever use this vise anymore but for large patterns like this. As I said, I owe this more to my own proclivities than any liability with the vise itself. I am just really used to a conventional vise and it works best for me!
Now for a disclaimer; As I mentioned, I bought my first Dyna King way back when and have tied an absolute shit pile of flies on it and I STILL use this vise every day. Its serial number is 1609; that’s really old. I am now on the Dyna King Pro Staff as of about five years ago. Just so no one gets the wrong idea, I can’t be bought. My rule for Pro Staff acceptance is it has to be for something I already have been using and happy with. I can’t be bought off for a free vise or a bunch of stickers and frankly, I don’t want anything in return. The folks at Dyna King have always been wonderful to work with, even before I had any sort of name in fly tying, so when Shannon called and asked me to be on their Pro Staff, frankly, it was my honor.
Let’s talk fly development. From concept to finished fly, what are some changes to consider with the original, and is commercial viability a factor?
I always ask myself if there is a NEED for a new fly pattern rather than just trying to come up with a variation. I think that’s why my patterns have been commercially successful; they fill niches that were empty. The Two Bit Hooker is super heavy and slim so it gets down and stays down. Most people don‘t like using split shot and this fly is heavy enough on its own to get the job done. It solves that problem. A Dirty Hippy is a big fly that doesn‘t cast like a big fly. The Jujubaetis is a perfect baetis (or nearly any mayfly nymph) silhouette and it’s much tougher than other flies and at the time I came up with it, it was unlike anything anyone had seen before. These days there‘s several knock offs that are pretty obvious but that’s a different subject. Flies that solve problems are the ones that catch fish and the ones that catch fish are the ones that sell. As far as commercial viability goes, I always seem to be more concerned with that then Umpqua does. They don’t shy away from complicated flies and I really appreciate that. Some of my stuff can be pretty tricky to tie and they’ve done a wonderful job replicating it.
You are a very well known signature fly designer for Umpqua Feather Merchants. What is your most commercially successful pattern?
I think officially it’s the Jujubaetis, but the Two Bit Hooker is an awfully strong contender. Umpqua does an amazing job with my flies and I am honestly blown away by the success of them. Nearly every pattern I have with them does really, really well. It’s astonishing and humbling when I think about it.
Where did you originally find Super Hair material, and what was the Ah-ha moment that created the JuJu series?
Super Hair has been around for a long time. It was originally used as a synthetic bucktail substitute on saltwater flies. Way back when, I was tying up some barracuda flies for a trip to Belize and had a big chunk of chartreuse Super Hair lashed to a big hook. As I wrapped my thread up the shank to cover the tie down, my bobbin caught a strand of the Super Hair and it wound around the hook. I looked at it and said, “that looks just like a midge”. I shoved all the salt stuff off my desk and started developing what became the Jujubee Midge right then.
Do you ever apply UV Resin to the Super Hair bodies? Or isn’t there a need?
The Jujubaetis, Jumbo Juju and a couple new patterns I’m working on all have Super Hair bodies with a dorsal coat of resin. The resin really helps to finish out the shape of the fly, toughens it and adds a bit of weight. The Jujubaetis existed for a long time before I ever put epoxy, then UV resin on it, and the second I did it I knew I was on to something.
For all of those wannabe/hopeful/seriously delusional commercial fly tyers such as myself- what tips can you summon from your production days to improve speed or efficiency?
The first thing I would say is, don’t ever try to tie fast. Tie at a comfortable rate. Hurrying usually leads to mistakes and anxiousness and speed comes from familiarity. Learn the pattern inside and out at whatever rate or speed it takes to get the job done well. Speed comes from knowing the pattern and not having to re-do steps or struggle with any piece. Prepping materials always seems like a good idea but the folks who do too much of it seem to forget that that time counts too. If you prep for an hour and tie for three hours, you still have four hours in the job.
I do find myself doing a fair bit of stage tying…all the abdomens for Jujubees and Jujubaetis then coming back and doing the thorax separately, or tying the tail section of a Double Gonga then the articulations and eyes, then the front section and finally the heads, all separately but that’s mostly for continuity of tying. Doing a dozen heads in a row makes them much more consistent than doing them fifteen minutes apart.
The hardest part about commercial tying seems to be the discipline to sit down and go to work every day. It all sounds like great fun until you have a hundred dozen to do and a week to do it. It’s real work and needs to be approached as such.
How did you decide on the name for your fly shop when you decided to open one?
Every time I’d go to deliver flies to shops back in the day, the shop guys and guides were always asking to look in my fly box. When I guided I could never leave my fly boxes out on the tailgate of the truck while rigging up because the other guides would always grab them and start digging in, so when it came time to open a shop I just thought about where everyone always wanted to be and that was in Charlie’s Fly Box.
When a customer walks into Charlie’s Fly Box, what can they expect, what would they be surprised by?
I would hope that people can expect a really well stocked, friendly fly shop with expert advice. The shop is a huge point of pride for me and was a life-long dream and never for a moment do I forget that. I hope it shows. I think most folks are surprised by just how much inventory we have. Our tying selection is twice that of anything else I have ever seen in a shop and it’s fairly unusual to not find what you are looking for. Obviously, I am into tying and I think the shop reflects that.
Another thing some folks are surprised by is that I am actually in the shop. I answer the phone and take orders and help customers and people sometimes talk about my books or articles and me in third person and are then surprised that’ “yes, I know exactly what you are talking about, I wrote the article you’re referencing”. I always get a kick out of that.
What type of bench do you keep while tying- clean or messy?
Clean. I always work better in a clean work area. This is not to say that when I really get to hammering some stuff out that my desk doesn’t get out of hand, but I clean it up again right away. I think my flies reflect my work area and vise versa so I try to keep things tight. I am a Type A, Introvert Capricorn and I like things the way I like them, period.
What is the 1 fly pattern you wish you would have thought of?
Copper John, duh. But I’m glad it was JB.
Are there any tying materials you wish were still around that have gone off of the market?
Christ…I’m like the kiss of death for fly tying materials. Seems like anytime I find something I really, really like it gets discontinued. Tiemco 16/0 thread and TMC Hair Stackers went away shortly after I wrote about them. Gray Flouro Fiber just got discontinued. Lagartun Wire, although I hear that is coming back. Overton’s Wax too, but it’s magically appeared once again recently as well. I am becoming big fan of Veevus 14/0 thread recently so, you might want to stock up given my track record.
What are your biggest fly tying pet peeves?
You’re really trying to stir me up, aren’t you? Pet Peeves…hmmm. I might say the phrase “It’s good enough to catch a fish” might be my biggest pet peeve, or maybe, “the fish don’t care”. Fish eat fucking marshmallows; Tie Nice Flies.
What’s the one pattern (or two) that you feel really defines a tyer’s ability and skill set? What would you look for if you were to grade it?
This is a great question and the answer is NOT any single fly. To define a tyer’s ability and skill set, I would ask to see a range of flies. Dries, nymphs, streamers, wet flies, salt stuff, hair bugs; the whole gamut. So many guys today specialize themselves into a corner. They can tie a beautiful hair bug but their Hares Ears look like something your cat coughed up. Streamer Tyer Pro but can’t tie a damn parachute. The measure of a tyer’s ability and skill set is the range of mastery. This one trick pony nonsense…pshhhh. I’d love to see a tying contest where you lined up a bunch of these hot shots and made them tie a Hare’s Ear, an Adams, a quill wing wet and a tarpon fly or something like that.
What are your thoughts on this current streamer-craze the last few years? What is your favorite streamer design- classical or modern and why that particular pattern?
Honestly, I love seeing other folks’ ideas, but I really try to ignore most of it. Let me put it this way. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a fly and maybe scroll around the web looking at other flies and before I know it, my pure idea has been polluted with what I see other people doing. Rather than working out an original idea and process, it’s really easy to take the most obvious route to get to the end. I try not to dig too much into other folk’s stuff just for that reason. That being said, there are a couple really good streamer concepts out there these days…and a million variations on the theme. I love that guys are getting so into the streamer game and there are a few who are doing truly great, original work. Blane Chocklette comes immediately to mind. Totally out of the box and unique. I love it.
As far as favorite streamer design…I love the old feather wing stuff. It’s just so elegant and beautiful and complicated, it really appeals to me. As far as fishing flies go, my Baby Gonga is, right now, my favorite streamer to throw. While everyone else is going big, big, bigger, this little articulated fly is getting a lot of attention. Those smaller hooks stay stuck a lot better than the big wire stuff and the fly gets eaten way more often than followed like the really big stuff does so much, and it’s also super easy to cast. The Double Dirty Hippy is another fly that I have really come to enjoy fishing as well. It’s meant to be fished slower, jigged and danced rather than ripped and stripped. It’s a different application than a Gonga.
It was nice watching your “Designed to Deceive” youtube clip this year of you out drifting chuckin the Double Gonga. Any consideration to do a fly fishing book or dvd? Maybe a fly fishing dvd compliment to a tying book?
I suppose that’s always a possibility but for me, fishing is pretty close to my heart and when I am out, the last thing on my mind is an audience or instruction. It’s part of my creative process and I keep it pretty close. I don’t fish with a ton of different people anymore; the time is too precious to waste. As I mentioned, I like what I like…lol
Do you have any new fly designs you are working on or testing at the moment?
I have a list in my phone of new fly ideas (and new fly names too). I keep it there because they pop up at all sorts of different times and rarely when I am sitting at the vise. A lot of them come on the way home from fishing, some just float around in my head and some are things that people ask me for. So yeah, there are always new patterns in the works. Some of them come easily and some have been being developed for a looong time and still aren’t right. But there’s always something to work on and I have sort of been pacing myself to dial them all in over time. I don’t let anything out to Umpqua, the internet or the public in general until I have fished it for a bit and really dialed it in.
As far as the pet peeves you asked about earlier, you can add “guys who come up with a stonefly adult pattern in December and immediately put it out on the web before it’s even had a chance to see water”. No matter how good a fly comes out from an idea, there are almost always some tweaks that need to be done to really dial it in and there’s no way to do that without fishing it.
What are the 3 things the casual tyer can do to be more competent behind the vise?
Practice, pay attention and think about it. There is no substitute for flies falling out of the vise, but tying poorly over and over again ain’t gonna make you any better. Pay attention to the details of the flies you are tying and make an effort to make every one perfect. You can be fast later. Be good first. Think about the fly and the dynamics and design behind it, even when you’re not at the bench. I have a long drive in to the shop every day and I use that time to think all kinds of things through at the start of my day, fly patterns included. Some of my best ideas have come to me behind the wheel of my truck. I’ll also add in Don’t Be Afraid to Use Logic and Reason too. If you tie your tails too long consistently, what do you think you ought to do about it?
Jujubeatis, Jujubee Midge, and the Charlie Boy Hopper. What is the 1 thing beginning tyers get wrong with each of those patterns?
On the Juju’s, almost everyone makes the bodies too fat. I try to keep the thread underbody as thin and as flat as I can to match up better with the real thing. Also, people use Fluoro Fiber like it’s going out of style. I use, at most, a dozen strands to make a wingcase. I see a lot of these flies tied with something like thirty strands and it’s just too much. Restraint goes a long way.
On the Charlie Boy, I’d say the number one issue folks have is not butting the foam strip up on top of the hook bend at the end of the binder strip. This causes the foam to fill in the hook gap and creates a straight body that doesn’t lend itself well to the important razor cut to form the shape of the fly. Also, I’ll add that that cut has to be done with a razor, not scissors. Scissors distort the foam by pinching it as you cut it where the razor maintains the shape and slices right through.
I have spent a lot of time writing and photographing really good instructions for all of these flies and I can’t say I don’t find it a bit annoying when people don’t follow them and wonder why things don’t come out right!
What’s the fly you’ve personally tied the most?
Probably Pheasant Tails. Pheasant Tails, RS2’s and Bead Head Prince Nymphs. I’ve seen more than my share of those run through my vise back in the day.
What are your thoughts on fly box organization? Do you organize by fly type, by season, or some other criteria?
I carry one big Wheatley swing leaf box for most of my nymphs and it weighs about five pounds. I have several other nymph boxes with more specific stuff in them, but the Wheatley is the one I always make sure I have on me. As for dries, I have a whole box of baetis that I haul around, although I find I almost always use the Mole Fly these days. I have a box for PMD’s, a box for caddis, a box for midges and one for tricos, a couple boxes of hoppers and attractor dries…so I guess I’d say by species of insect and type of fly is how I “organize”. I have a couple of suitcases worth of streamers too. It’s an issue.
Having done so many things in your decades of experience, do you have any goals left to accomplish either as an angler, tyer, or steward of the sport?
There are always goals. There’s always a new place to go, a new species, learning more about the old ones etc. I’ve been trying to branch out and fish more different waters locally here in Colorado as well as in the surrounding states as time allows. I love saltwater fishing and bonefishing is as close to heaven as I think I can get.
I’m not sure if those are goals, but I want to do more of all of that. As a tyer, I don’t per se set goals, but there are accomplishments that come along the way with new patterns and designs that really solve problems. One of my goals over the last several years is to become a better teacher and make more good, thinking fly tyers. I think I am getting there and I still love teaching classes and doing demos.
Are you an ambassador or pro staff member for any companies?
Obviously, Umpqua Feather Merchants, but also Dyna-King and Dr. Slick, and as I mentioned, it’s all stuff I used for years before accepting any pro staff position.
Anything new and exciting happening in 2017?
Head down, work hard, keep grinding.
Any final thoughts? Rants? Universal truths?
Haven’t you had enough yet??
Lastly- I just want to encourage all of the beginning tyers, and really anyone purchasing Charlie’s books, to not be so impatient like I was early on where I read or glanced only at the minimum to get the fly tied- rather to slow down read through the pattern, and then tie through the pattern the way it is presented. I was very impatient and just wanted to get the fly done, but ended up disappointed because the fly didn’t match the photo. It was no wonder- I never learned the nuanced technique that went into material placement, selection, etc.
The depth of instruction that goes into your books is unsurpassed. I usually picke one book in fall and I’ll tie through it again just to get ready for the winter tying season. This way my game is sharp, and I’ve practiced some techniques that I might not have used in a few weeks or months. It just clarifies some finer points, and I usually find something neweach year, that I”ve somehow missed previously. It not only helps whatever tying whatever fly is presented in the book, but you can apply it infinitely where it fits in the future. To me, that is why your books will truly stand the test of time as classic- mandatory curriculum so to speak, while some pattern books will fade as the popularity of those flies do.
Thanks man…this is all I can hope for and exactly what I planned.
I hope you guys enjoyed this interview with Charlie. The guy is funny as hell, and the most well rounded fly tyer that I know. Below is his contact information, and where you can find his recent ties plus a link to his pro staff companies to check out.
Lastly, Charlie and I are going to be giving away a copy of his newest book Tying Nymphs to 1 lucky person and there may be another surprise coming. More on this will be posted to my Instagram page @inpursuitoftrout.
Please let me know what you thought of this interview, and check out the links below!
Lastly- Can you tie a 2 minute Parachute Adams? Charlie can…