This story originally appeared in the Aug-Sep 2019 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. For complete tying instructions, see Tying the Strong Arm Merkin, by Dave Skok.
O’Hearn and I obviously had some work to do. Our adjacency to what would have been our first win was sweet, but the bitter sensation of loss was far more palpable. In permit fishing, my memories of failure are more vivid than those of success. Whatever fire we had beneath us was fueled by that loss, and our preparations went into overdrive.
Aaron Snell and I won the Del Brown tournament in July that year using early versions of a fly being developed by Dave Skok. After that, Skok and I were on the phone regularly to discuss improvements for the fly we intended to use in the 2015 March Merkin. For the three of us involved, one thing was clear—we weren’t trying to make a new fly. We were just trying to catch more permit and win some tournaments. We ended up with a fly that has caught a few hundred permit in the Florida Keys, and placed first or second in 8 of the last 11 permit tournaments. It wasn’t accidental, but it wasn’t exactly the plan either.
As always, the presence of a little chaos went a long and fascinating way toward the production of something that had a serious impact on how many fish we were catching. We were driven by a desire to change the outcome, which makes for an interesting story. People are the best part of almost any story, and in this story there happens to be two of my favorites: Dave Skok and John O’Hearn.
Dave Skok started tying flies for my fly shop The Angling Company when it opened in 2009. He’s one of my oldest friends, and he’s the kind of person who is perpetually busy being exactly who he is. I often talk to him for hours about anything that can be wrapped around a hook. His level of interest in flies and fly fishing is surpassed only possibly by his interest in the history of our sport.
If there’s a counterpoint to many of today’s vapid social media superstars, it’s Skok: sharp, avid, and involved effectively in the sport for the better part of his life. Skok is willing to try anything at the vise in pursuit of success on the water, and his long history as a fly tier shows that this is not the first problem he solved with precision and elegance.
Capt. John O’Hearn, a man Dustin Huff nicknamed The Creature, is a 20-year veteran of the flats fishery in Key West. If there’s a way to understand O’Hearn completely, I have yet to figure it out, but the closest I’ve come is to inspect the stickers he has underneath the rear hatch in his Dolphin Super Skiff. Among the miscellany of vinyl tournament and nonprofit logos sit two custom stickers, both designed for his boat’s liner notes by O’Hearn himself: One asks “Who is John Gault?” and the other declares plainly “Trolling motors are for pussies.”
I can’t think of a better example of O’Hearn’s personality than that. Somewhere on the underside of his own metaphorical hatch lid, O’Hearn has the need to reference both the freedom of the market to which we have access, and the negative implications of using that market to make things easier than they should be. Skok and O’Hearn got sandwiched together by their relationship with me, and while I may have been driven, one thing was clear: These two were doing most of the driving.
The thing that kept my interest keen throughout this process was the drive to win permit tournaments. In the Keys there are two, the March Merkin and the Del Brown, and between them they represent the most competitive field of permit fishermen in the world’s most challenging fishery.
I was nursing the desire to make a name for myself in competitive fly fishing, having recently quit a drug habit in 2010 that had kept me from both my business and fly fishing, and the tournaments represented a way for me to reclaim some ground I’d lost—both personally and professionally. As I mentioned earlier, we weren’t trying to come up with a new fly. We would have been happy with anything that got us the results we wanted, which was to catch more permit than anyone else for a period of three days in March and then again in July.
Through The Angling Company, we were able to beta test these flies at a rate we couldn’t have under other circumstances. For every 100 flies Skok delivered to the shop, I took a handful and try them out. This allowed O’Hearn and me to pick from a larger sample size, not to mention giving Skok the chance to cast a wider net at the vise. From the first fly that I would (now) classify as a Strong Arm Merkin (SAM), to its current form, I think it would be fair to say that Skok tied more than 5,000 iterations.
There was a constant tweaking of the design as it passed from Skok’s imagination, through O’Hearn and me on the skiff and back again, a feedback loop that hummed with purpose and cut no corners to prevent waste. In every way, the process was one that allowed for as many mistakes and missteps as we needed. Because of this we were able to flesh out only the best ideas and leave each that was not worth developing on the side of the road.
Where we Started
We started, as most permit people do, with Del Brown’s Merkin. This fly was the standard for many years in the Keys, and with good reason. It has at least 1,000 fish to its credit in addition to the 513 that Del Brown personally caught with it. Close variations—different colors, some glue on the body, a special hackle extending from the back—probably account for another 500.
Here, our need for results rather than innovation saved us a lot of trouble, because we were willing to start at a place that was already successful. If we’d been hell-bent on coming up with a brand new fly we wouldn’t have started with the Merkin, and the foundation of the Strong Arm would have been poured in some soft ground. As it was, we were unafraid to build the ground level upon what Del Brown and Steve Huff had proven to be successful, and the additional pieces grew up from there.
When we first started toying with the Merkin, we added larger eyes just to flip the thing the way we wanted it. We threw the fly close and showed it to the fish on the drop, hooking a fair number of fish this way.
The issue was converting the shots that didn’t favor this approach. Tailing fish eluded us, especially when it was calm, as we had to throw the heavier fly so close to them in order to force an error that we often scared them as the fly touched down. Even when we were able to build some interest on these shots, we found that often the fly would be lost in the grass before the fish had a chance to bite it on the way down.
Win, Lose, or Claw
The defining architecture of the fly is the claw, and everything else revolves around it. Its purpose is one of both form (it looks crabby, especially reminiscent of the swimming crabs that move sideways with their trailing claw extended), and function: It makes the fly flip with very little weight and keeps it tracking straight. Skok first added claws to Alan Caolo’s Diablo Crab, and those worked great visually but were simply tied straight off the hook shank. He then started to add the claw to his SAMs, and we loved the addition.
The claw gave us a visual representation of what we thought a crab fly should be, and replaced the hackle tips of the original Merkin—something I especially thought could use improving.
The function of the claw became more and more important to us when we started throwing lighter flies as part of our new approach. We had no way of inverting the hook with lighter eyes, and when the fly landed it would often take a long time to orient itself with the hook point up.
The addition of nail polish to the extra-small lead eyes and the use of yarn Skok sourced from Aunt Lydia herself completed the new fly. Where we had once been throwing tan crab flies right at the fish, we began throwing lighter, brighter flies farther from them. A client of O’Hearn’s named Steve Jacobs bought us a couple of gram scales, thinking it might be interesting to weigh our flies, and we soon started obsessing about weight.
We figured out pretty soon that with the hook (a Mustad S71 #2), the weight we were looking for was a little under 1.2 grams, and as this preference became more permanent the claw began to migrate. This hook is tiny at first glance, not the hook you’d think would catch a 28-pound permit. But it holds fish better than any we found, and because it’s light, it helped us flip the flies with ease.
To invert the fly using these light eyes, Skok started tying the claw onto the hook bend. This oriented the arm so that it was curving upward as the fly sat in the water, acting as a parachute. He also started using medium chenille, which was thicker and gave us some added resistance to keep the fly keeled as we stripped it. The result was a fly that tracked straight on both a slow strip as well as when we quickly stripped it in (it didn’t spin). The fly was heavy enough to drop if we stopped the retrieve, but light enough to get it in the water 15 feet in front of a traveling fish and wait for the fish to notice it.
I must stress at this point that the recipe of the Strong Arm Merkin has a lot of specific pieces, and that these pieces were all the result of at least four or five failed attempts prior to their current iteration. Before the Aunt Lydia’s yarn, we tried EP Fibers (they didn’t suspend) and at least three other materials before settling.
We tried the SC15 (hard to flip), SL12S (we lost fish due to the curved point), and 800S (the barb was too large; we lost fish) before settling on the S71.
There were other changes too. When the claw moved up the hook shank, Skok added more details to give the fly life and keep it tracking straight. At the base of the claw, he tied in some dubbing made from the leftover scraps of yarn trimmed from other crabs, and followed that with a palmered hen saddle trimmed on the bottom side.
Skok ties the yarn in two bunches at a time to help the fly sink slower and, I suspect, send out some turbulence to animate the legs and collar. The legs are colored with a marker, banded with different colors that became brighter in time. The color of the fly itself started out tan, but soon we grew bolder and started throwing flies that were bright orange, fuchsia, or colored with a rainbow of neon Sharpies we bought from Staples. Lately the fly we’re throwing is white, with a bright orange or pink tip on the claw and legs that loudly draws attention.
Recently Skok has made another addition: a dab of UV adhesive where the legs exit the terminal end of the yarn, holding them in position to move and suspend the fly even further.
Shots that never used to work started to work better, and soon we were catching fish from circumstances and in conditions that used to curse us as much as we cursed them. Those waking schools of fish that always seemed to swim past a heavy fly sitting in the grass, the swimming singles that didn’t like a heavy fly caroming off of a tight leader and impacting the water near them, the pair of fish heavily tailing but changing direction at random—all of these now became shots that we felt could convert to a fish in hand. Armed with Skok’s invention, we started to catch a lot of permit.
I’ve personally caught over 140 permit on the Strong Arm Merkin, and my wife Kat Vallilee has another 15 or so to her credit. I know a few other guides have been using it regularly, and I conservatively put the number of Florida Keys permit caught on this fly at over 350. It’s won four permit tournaments, placed second four times, third twice, and caught the largest four times.
I used it to catch the men’s 2-pound-test tippet IGFA world record, a 16-pound fish that replaced the 9¾-pound fish that Steve Huff guided Del Brown to in 1986. Its close cousin, the Strong Arm Hackle Crab, is responsible for the women’s 4-pound-test tippet record, caught in Belize in 2016.
Why it Works
So the obvious question regarding the fly is: What makes it so good? How can the addition of a claw tied up the hook shank be that important? When we’re talking about what a fly does on the shelf, it’s not much. It looks cool, which is helpful, and it’s different than the realistic flies that we used to throw. It’s not the only fly with a claw, but as far as we’ve been able to tell it’s the only one that has just a single claw. One thing this does is present the same profile on either side—unlike some realistic flies meant to mimic a swimming crab that look crab-like only from the claw side—something that has always been anathema to me. This fly looks the same from either side.
Here I’ll mention something that I think is important in all saltwater fishing, but particularly for permit: In nearly all cases, there is no hatch to match. As fly fishers in salt water, we have always been burdened by trout. We want to believe that a permit feeding on a flat is eating just one thing, just as a trout feeds on Blue-winged Olives, but that’s simply not the case.
Whereas a trout is at the mercy of metabolic math in moving water, a permit will likely eat anything it considers to be food as it travels along the flat. A Strong Arm Merkin can appear to be a crab, a shrimp, a baby lobster—you get the idea. Add to that the fact that it can be fished shallow without hiding in grass or deep if left to drop, stripped or left to lie, and the force behind Skok’s invention comes into focus: It’s the best blade for the unknown number of unpredictable knife fights a day of permit fishing might bring. What makes it such a great fly is not how it looks but how it acts, not what it imitates but how many things it could appear to be.
If there is one thing that defines a good fishing guide, it’s what they do when the fishing is tough. In the world of fly tying, it’s the problems that the tiers solve that make lasting impressions on our sport. Any guide can take a day full of unpressured hungry fish and make you think they’re a hero. Those guys have no problem filling days in tarpon season. Any fly tier can take an existing pattern and tweak it slightly, give it a new name, and post it on Instagram and get a few thousand followers. They’ll probably fill some orders too.
As fly fishers in salt water, we have always been burdened by trout. We want to believe that a permit feeding on a flat is eating just one thing, just as a trout feeds on Blue-winged Olives, but that’s simply not the case.
But when I returned to the March Merkin in 2015 I was armed not just with any guide, and certainly not just with any fly. Between John O’Hearn’s ability to find us willing fish to throw at and Dave Skok’s invention, we caught four fish—winning the tournament by the same margin we’d lost the year before. In 2017 we had only one shot, and that one shot caught the only fish of the tournament. And in 2019 John O’Hearn and I won our third March Merkin, once again confirming the efficacy of the Strong Arm Merkin.
To have even a small part in the development of something as cool and interesting as a new permit fly, let alone one that boasts things like world records and tournament wins, is something I’m grateful for.
It’s the hard work of a quiet genius that allows things like the Strong Arm Merkin to happen, and Skok’s invention turned our world of permit fishing on its tiny strange little head—the mark, surely, of a most elegant solution.
*Nathaniel Linville owns The Angling Company in Key West, Florida.