Craig Mathews is a spectacular and versatile fly fisher, a keen conservationist, and one of the most passionate anglers I know. He is this year's Fly Rod&Reel
- By: Nick Lyons
Craig Mathews is a spectacular and versatile fly fisher, a keen conservationist, and one of the most passionate anglers I know. He is this year's Fly Rod&Reel Angler of the Year, and he is bound to be seen as one of the most worthy and popular winners in the 20-year history of this Award. Craig's intimate connection to the world of fly-fishing began in his early childhood (he started to fly-fish at six and was tying seriously at nine), and then accelerated when he left his native Michigan for Montana.Craig was a patrolman in Grand Haven, Michigan when he heard there was an opening in the small West Yellowstone police department. Though the job paid $8,000 less than he was already getting, he had been to Montana with his fishing buddy, the outdoor photographer Larry Dech, and was hooked. That was February, 1979. Craig was 29. He got the job, became chief of police, and that summer he married his girlfriend, Jackie, who had come with him from Michigan. Their wedding took place at Black Sands Spring Creek, just west of West, and I have it on very good authority that both the bride and groom paid as much attention to several good trout rising to a decent hatch of caddis as they did to their vows-though the vows have been strong enough to keep them well-hitched for 25 years. Within a few years Craig was using his free days to guide for Bud Lilly's Trout Shop, and then to organize a group of fly tiers in a wholesale operation called Blue Ribbon Flies. His partner was Gus Tureman, the local fire chief, and their first six employees were three disabled and five non-disabled tiers. Jackie, who had become dispatcher at the police station, supervised the business and oversaw the tying of some 40- to 60-dozen flies daily. I floated with Craig when he was guiding for Lilly's shop and we became immediate friends. We are still so, decades later, and have fished together on the heavy water of the main Madison River, in several unique backcountry ponds he's found, in a cold tributary to a hot Firehole one summer, on the mysterious Gibbon, on a remarkable spring creek, and a batch of other Western waters. He is a hard man not to like-always pleasant, soft spoken, eminently knowledgeable, and one of those gifted teachers who do their work by gentle verbal hints (when you want it) and by example. His enthusiasm for fly-fishing is infectious; he's remarkably modest for someone so successful on the water-especially in a field known for bloating egos to the size of the Titanic. The range of his abilities is just stupendous. It's the combination of skills, and a full complement of strengths, that makes him such an effective fly fisher, as is the case with all great anglers. His casts are unaffected and effective: low to the water, accurate, with a minimum number of backcasts and the concentration to adjust casts instinctively as the water demands. He reads a great variety of waters deftly, and understands where Mr. Trout will be at various times of the day-and why. I have seen him fish his big, black stonefly nymph killingly on the Madison, in the heaviest water, and a size 18 Pale Morning Dun, in his own Sparkle Dun design, with huge success on one of the most challenging spring creeks in the West. He's a noiseless, low-walking, natural predator, and he has studied the entomology of the nearby waters so well that he has been able to co-author two superb books about the bugs near at hand: Fishing Yellowstone Hatches (1992) and Fly Patterns of Yellowstone (1986), both with John Juracek; and three about the local waters: The Yellowstone Fly-fishing Guide (1997) with Clayton Molinero: Fly-Fishing the Madison River (2001) with Gary LaFontaine; and his own Western Fly-Fishing Strategies (1998). And Craig has written a number of important articles in Fly Tyer, Fish and Fly, Fly-Fishing: the West, Fly Fisherman, and Fly Rod&Reel. One of his favorites, written for FR&R, is "Cripples, Stillborns, and Shucks,"[May/June 1990], which tries to set the record straight on how Colonel Harding first came up with the idea of trailing shucks, and other matters connected to this critical moment for fly fishers. Craig has been a determined tinkerer with fly patterns, and in the advance guard of those who have dramatically altered the course of fly-tying by freely blending natural and artificial materials. He has worked alone and with his guides and colleagues at Blue Ribbon Flies. Are the patterns truly his own, unique designs, and deserving of having his name in front of them? Craig told me this: "Too often, credit for developing a fly pattern has been given, wrongly, to a tier who merely introduces a pattern to the public." Craig added: "And too often, for any number of reasons, credit is given to someone who really had little or nothing to do with the actual development of the fly." About even the Sparkle Dun, perhaps the fly most often associated with Craig, he had this to say: "I had been tying them since 1971, only to arrive in West Yellowstone to find others doing basically the same thing." He is quick to add that "originality or credit in fly-pattern development might be said to be only undetected plagiarisms." Still, the number of patterns with which Craig's name is associated has mounted briskly over the past decades, and I am inclined to think there's too much modesty in his case, for he has been credited with too many for them to be arbitrary: the whole series of Sparkle Duns (Pale Morning Duns, Baetis, Flavs, Hendricksons, Sulphurs and the Green, Brown, and Gray Drakes); the killing X-Caddis, the Iris Caddis, Knocked-down Duns, the Hackle-foam Mayfly Spinner series; Sparkle Spinners, Zelon Flying Ants, Zelon Midges, Nature Stone fly Nymphs and the Serendipity nymphs. When Craig, during repeated trips to Belize, found the need for more effective flats flies, he and the guides he worked with came up with a host of interesting and taking patterns; Pop's Bonefish Bitters, Hermit Crab Bitters, Sir Mantis Shrimp, the TDF ("to die for") Shrimp, Salsa Shrimp, Winston's Urchins and the famous Turneffe Crabs. Craig looks first at the natural and its behavior and then to what the fly must look like. Though he is aware of tradition, his sole object is to develop a pattern that will take the fish he's after. If you compare the naturals carefully with Craig's imitations, you can see why they're effective. They're not "pretty flies; they're built for durability and results; they're fishermen's flies-and they works. Like the patterns of John Goddard-with whom Craig and I once enjoyed a long and memorable afternoon on a Montana spring creek-Craig's flies have a single purpose: to catch fish. They're built out of real observation of the natural food and its habits, and from endless experimentation with natural and artificial materials. Last year he fished 130 days and tied more than a thousand dozen flies. I find his saltwater experience with fly-tying of special interest. Craig does not fish for saltwater species nearly as often as he fishes for trout. He takes one trip a year, usually for no more than three or four weeks, and has done so for 18 years. But he looks. He experiments. He listens carefully to friends, guides, and customers who see and observe bonefish, permit, and other species and what they feed on. He snorkels to study behavior more precisely. He doesn't take any fish's "no" for an answer. And the result? Variations on existing patterns, new patterns, a constant stream of flies that catch fish. On his flies he has caught grunt; and snappers like cubera, gray and red, yellow tail, mutton and schoolmaster; lemon, black-tipped and sand sharks; barracuda; in the Jack family, amber, horse-eyed and crevelle; permit; bonefish; redfish and sea trout; snook and trunkfish; ocean and queen triggerfish; tarpon; grouper; pompano and a host of other species. He has taken five golden bonefish in Belize and one huge bone that might have been a record-39-inches-long, with an l8-inch girth-a huge female that had recently released its eggs. He and the guide thought it would weigh 16 pounds. Craig released it to spawn again. Craig also has an abiding commitment to conservation and has served on the boards of the Montana Nature Conservancy, the Montana Trout Foundation, the Madison-Gallatin Wild Trout Foundation, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and Trout Unlimited's Stewardship Directors Council. Craig and Blue Ribbon Flies have earned a number of important awards, both for his individual efforts and those of his business in protecting the environment-from the Nature Conservancy; Yellowstone National Park (the Protector of Yellowstone Park Award for efforts to protect and preserve the park); Greater Yellowstone Coalition (for protecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem); the Federation of Fly Fishers (for environmental work and innovation in fly-tying),; and in 2002 the State of Montana honored Craig for his work protecting the famous Three-Dollar Bridge area of the Madison River. Finally, in 2002, Craig and Yvon Chouinard of the Patagonia Company founded the 1% for the Planet Club. Member companies donate at least one percent of their gross sales to environmental causes. It's based on the belief that businesses whose livelihood comes from the environment ought to give back to the environment. So far there are more than 60 members, and the number grows steadily; group members donate millions of dollars each year to projects that protect fisheries and wild places. Bob DeMott, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Ohio (and an avid angler) knows Craig well and told me this: "He has to be on any respectable short list of America's most gifted fly fishers. He has that complete cognitive understanding of the fish, the riverine eco-system, and the habits of fish and their prey that can only be learned- accrued slowly and with purpose-over a lifetime of patient, loving attention and careful observation." DeMott also noted the way Craig always honored the great anglers who preceded him-Charlie Brooks (for a time his neighbor and good friend) and Howard Back, whose The Waters of Yellowstone with Rod and Fly offers such an intimate view of the Park region In the 1930's. Craig has written introductions and emendations to books by both. I have the happy feeling that Craig Mathews, at 55, is exactly where he wants to be. Blue Ribbon Flies is respected throughout the world for its honesty and genuine helpfulness to fly fishers, and it has flourished. Craig allows his younger colleagues to manage more of the day-to-day operations lately and has just built a new home in the Madison Valley, close to several of his favorite fishing areas. He has time to hunt turkey and blue grouse, elk and whitetail deer, and to fish more than 100 days each year-usually within the 100-mile radius of where he lives. And Craig, trimmer than he's ever been and with more silver in his hair, has lost none of his affection for the place. His commitments to fly-fishing, fly design and conservation are stronger than ever, and so too is that infectious enthusiasm for fly-fishing. Craig Mathews is not only this year's Angler of the Year, but an angler for all seasons.