The Cult of Kwan

The Silicon Permit Crab

The result of painstaking work: a realistic crab fly.

Just found this blog—BornToFlyfish—and it has some stellar example of the lengths to which fly-tyers/fishers will go for realism… with impressive results.

Now, not to take anything at all away from these amazing creations, but I’m more in the impressionist school of tying myself; I don’t believe you have to replicate every appendage or antenna to get the “look and feel” of the animal in question. However, I appreciate the artistry of these flies as much as the next guy. They’re gorgeous, and no doubt they catch fish [1].


We called him Skinny, as in skinny water. He used to fish his favorite flat with a few strands of yard lashed side-ways to a hook. No rubber legs, no painted eyes, no feelers. In fact, the thing wasn’t even cut into a believable crab profile; whatever shape they took in the tying process was how he fished them. I think they were square-ish. Skinny called these things Kwan’s but even a brief glimpse of his flies revealed that to be a very generous characterization. These were yarn flies—not Yarn Crabs, just yarn flies—and the Kwan, as suggestive as it is, still has a greater level of naturalism than Skinny’s crabs, and a lot more parts. Nevertheless he caught fish. Not lots of them—Skinny’s Flat (as we came to call it) is a tough place to fish—but he caught them with a regularity that baffled me.

I realize now that he was simply a much better angler than me. I was still in the (prolonged) learning stage of fly fishing where even the act of stringing a rod wasn’t guaranteed to work out successfully, and his casual facility, not to mention constant child-like enthusiasm, became a standard for me. He was, I realize now, a hero. He’d work all day, wrap a few fuzzy things to a hook, drive like hell to the nearest flat and fish till dark. If the tide sucked for bones he’d prowl the canals for rising tarpon until the mosquitoes drove him back to the safety of the old pickup.

However, the main quality that Skinny had was a seemingly unshakable optimism. By all appearances he truly believed that the fish would be there, that he’d be able to make the cast, that they’d eat his silly little flies. And most of the time he was right. After many fishless months waving a flyrod at the water, my flybox jammed with everything from Clousers to the most realistic flies I could tie, I started to suspect that perhaps it was not the bait, but the angler. Of course, I’d suspected this all along—that I was an incompetent fly fisher—but now I could see up close what lay on the other side of the learning curve.

I think I was lucky to meet Skinny when I did. I was probably right on the edge of becoming entrenched in the belief that fly fishing (for bonefish) was this incredibly complex ballet, involving planning, choreography, and (not to put to fine a point on it) certain rules. Rules like:

  1. Bonefish are leader shy.
  2. The more believable the fly, the better.
  3. The farther you can cast the more fish you’ll catch [2].

My brief time fishing with Skinny cured me of that. Mostly. I mean, I still kept a little of my sense of doing things right—well tied flies not only caught fish but were a pleasure to tie and look at and making a good cast was at least half of fly fishing—but I began to see that perhaps I’d been taking the whole thing too seriously. A guy could, for example, tie wind-knots in his leader 3 casts out of 5, grab any old bedraggled fly out of last season’s box, toss a 20-foot roll-cast and still catch bonefish. More importantly, he might be—hell, probably is—more likely to have fun doing it.

That’s why I have such a hard time taking seriously those nit-picking fly fishers that believe you can only do things one way. Sure, you can fish bones with ultra-light leaders and hope it makes a difference, but all the trout-fishing logic in the world don’t mean squat on a bonefish flat. Same goes for those tarpon fanatics that refuse to tie up their leaders with anything but a Huffnagle. Ok, I realize the winters are long in Montana and probably require a productive way to pass the time so folks don’t get cabin fever and start eying the shotgun in the corner of the door, and labor-intensive, overly complex leaders systems are a healthy outlet. Nevertheless, you don’t actually need all those fancy knots to catch a tarpon on a flyrod [3]. In fact, I’m a firm believer that the “wrong” knot tied properly is better than the “right” knot tied poorly. In other words, if you tie a knot that’s supposed to test at 90-100 percent but you can’t actually tie it correctly because it’s a next-to-impossible knot to tie, you might be better off tying a knot that only boasts 70-80 percent breaking strength but it’s so easy you can tie it in 30 seconds… blindfolded.

But I digress [4]. The point is there is an inherent paradox here. On the one hand fly fishing should be about, is about taking things slower, absorbing the experience and living the ethos that less is more. Tying ultra-naturalistic flies [5] falls squarely within that belief-system. However, just because a fly looks real sitting in your hand doesn’t mean it’s going to act alive (and therefore real) when you fish it. This, in fact, is a major complaint regarding realistic patterns, and (I suspect) why flies that imitate active pray rely so heavily on more suggestive, impressionistic elements. Is a bonefish, for example, going to stop and count the legs on a crab before eating it—no wait, there’s only four legs there, mate; that’s not a real crab—or do they simply see a something that acts like a crab in the right size and shape and eat it. If you’re puzzling over the answer I suggest you take up bait fishing. You’ll be happier.

On the other hand, more impressionistic patterns seem to violate the slow, steady approach to life (and sport) that fly fishing espouses. I mean, just how long do you think it takes to tie a Crazy Charlie anyways? At best flies like it and the venerable Clouser Minnow embrace a more casual, let’s go fishing and get on with it attitude, and at worst can be (mis)construed as a slap-dash approach to an activity that some are trying to elevate to an art form [6]. But wait, you say, if less is more, surely tying a more succinct, abbreviated pattern fits the bill? Well spotted, and therein lies the paradox: it takes much more time (and presumably deepens the experience of fly fishing) to tie painstaking replicas of insects and crustaceans and fish, but a more generalist approach—which leaves more time for fly fishing, I might add—can result in flies that actually fish better. I suppose it’s arguable they fish better because their owners have spent more time figuring out how to make them work, but maybe it’s because they’ve spent more time observing how the species in question actually behaves. That hardly seems like a slapdash approach, right?

Of course, I don’t actually believe I’ll change the minds of anyone (who might still be) reading this. Fishermen—and presumably fisherwomen—are the most stubborn people on the planet. But if, like I was, you’re just getting started maybe you’ll realize that the real lesson here is that you have to find your own way, and realize that will never be the absolute Right Way. It can’t be because I’ve got the patent on that.

1 In fact, to understand the true level of obsession involved here you have to visit this page and at least scan the linked pages where Peter Coetzee-Grylls struggles to crack the code on Spotted Grunter [Pomadasys Commersonni], a quest 10 years in the offing. Even a cursory glance over the pages of experimentation, revisions and re-revisions will give you some idea of the deep seated belief by some anglers in having a believable copy of the prey on the end of their line. Makes you believe there just might be something to that. [back]
2 Ok, this one turned out to be mostly true… if you replace “farther” with “better”. [back]
3 Someday when I’m in the mood to tackle some mindless how-to drivel I’ll share my tarpon leader formula. Let me just say that it only involves 2 types of knot and none of them is a Huffnagle or Slim-Beauty or any of the other popular methods. My only clue is that it has much more in common with rigging leaders for big-game spinning gear than fly fishing. [back]
4 Man, I’ve always wanted to say that. [back]
5 For the record, the term is naturalistic, not realistic. The latter is concerned with portraying things as they really are, this is true, and that seems like a good fit for this school of fly tying. However, realism is concerned more with the way things are (i.e. the way things behave and act in real life) than painstaking replication of the way things appear. That’s where naturalism steps in. It is focused on the accurate and precise details (think photography) of the appearance of things. This is an important distinction. One of the criticism of ultra-“realistic” flies is that they might look great pinned in your fly box, but underwater they act as alive as a frozen version of the species in question. Shrimp flies like the Ultra Shrimp are a great example of this phenomenon. In contrast a naturalistic fly—which is what I assume these tiers are aiming for—would both look and act like the genuine article when you fish it. I humbly offer The Usual as an example. [back]
6 Please don’t even get me started on art. Just know that craft is not art, and even if you take something to the highest level it can go that doesn’t change what it is. Follow me here, we’d all agree that craft is distinct from art. Right? And we certainly wouldn’t say that craft is a lower form of art, it’s just different. QED. [back]

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  • Reply

    I still fish with Skinny, and he still KNOWS there is a fish right there!

  • Carson Ware

    Hopefully when I go to Cayman I can have the pleasure of fishing with you. Your blog is so much better than my school books 😉 Please keep posting , thx

  • Reply

    Thanks Mark. Yes! That’s it. The thing with Skinny was he BELIEVED. Straight up. He’s a tugboat captain now somewhere in FLA, towing rich idiots yachts out of danger, but if he still fishes I bet he’d fish circles around me.

    BTW, nice work on your site there.

  • Reply

    I like your post. There is a lot to be said for simply believing in your fly, whatever it may be, realistic or impressionistic. When you believe in your fly, you fish it harder. I found this out with steelhead and bonefish. I recently fished in Cozumel. It was really skinny water and my really cool looking realistic crabs and shrimp were simply too big and heavy and spooked the fish. We caught fish on the old standard Bonefish Special and Brown Snapping shrimp because they were lighter, smaller, made less splash, hung up in the turtle grass less, and so we fished them harder.

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