South Jersey’s Foam Fly Savant: Carl Harris
The CGH Customs’ tying room looks more like the workspace of an architect than an angler.
Math sucks. I’ve hated it my entire life. It made me the goober in elementary school who had to leave class to go to the trailer in the back parking lot for extra help. In college, the trailer became the annex building, and I went there, too. I am a big fan, however, of fishing math. Whether you realize it or not, timing a tide, calculating angles and line speed when casting to a moving albie school, and creating a symmetrical, properly weighted streamer at the vise require math. It’s just that those equations can be solved with experience and gut instinct, and the answer isn’t always exact. You might think, then, that bringing the kind of math that had me pacing around the quad before my final exam to fly tying would ruin the creative flow and beauty of it all, but Carl Harris has taken fly innovation to a new level that simply couldn’t be achieved without geometry.
Harris’ tying room in the basement of his Northfield, New Jersey, home looks more like the workspace of an architect than an angler. Detailed plans for his creations drawn in a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) program plaster the walls. Precision-cut foam and Ultrasuede parts are piled on the tables. Their shapes aren’t particularly interesting by themselves, but when Harris pieces them together, it’s like a plain piece of white paper being transformed into origami. His Soft Chew Wiggler—the first pattern that gained Harris notoriety—features a head with a diving lip cut from a single piece of foam that gives it a wobbly subsurface scoot. His Coola Popper has a gaping mouth and open, flared gills to create more bubbles. Its body is thick and ultra-buoyant, formed by folding different foam pieces around each other to create a tapered staircase effect on its flanks. His Crick Biscuit is also made by folding layers of foam, but it has a thinner profile and blunt head to produce the perfect little surface-sliding baitfish. The Crick Biscuit is Harris’ version of the classic floating sand-eel fly. The others aren’t riffs off any flies, but rather classic lures—a driving theme and the connective tissue woven into most of his work.
Harris actually hates math, too. He was never particularly good at it, he tells me, but he is good at making things and using CAD, which does the heavy math for him. His fluency in CAD has landed him several surveying and drafting jobs over the years, but he’s currently employed by the Federal Aviation Administration and works at Atlantic City International Airport.
“Whatever they need drawn, I draw,” Harris says with a grin. “We call our crew the mole people because we’re down in the bunker redrafting plans for a new runway slab or whatever. Every once in a while, they let us out to see the sun.”
Harris took his CAD certification course not long after graduating from high school in 1994. At the time, he was framing houses for a living, but he didn’t enjoy the work. What Harris did enjoy was fly fishing. His uncle was his mentor and got him fly-casting on the pickerel ponds of the Jersey Pine Barrens in the late 1980s. Harris fell in love with the technique. When he wanted to upgrade from a hand-me-down fly combo to a better outfit, his uncle spotted him the cash. In those early years, Harris says he was obsessed with flyfishing and fly tying in the “purist way,” as he puts it. However, he eventually reached a point where he felt a void in his fly box, one inadvertently created by never permanently shelving his spinning rod.
“I thought, why should conventional guys have all the fun stuff?” he says with a laugh, “I wanted to be able to throw all the same lures as everyone else, all the lures I grew up using, but I needed them to be lighter for the fly rod. My next thought was, if I can’t have it, if it’s not readily available, I’m going to make it.”
Harris’ criteria for what constitutes a fly might be the smartest I’ve ever heard; if it’s light and streamlined enough to be turned over by a fly line without needless flailing and extra oomph to send it, it counts. He will not sell or market any pattern that doesn’t meet that standard. However, this isn’t easy to translate to the masses, especially via social media. Harris has been the victim of fly-purist ire since his Soft Chew Wiggler started making rounds online in 2017. With each subsequent release, he can bank on someone telling him it isn’t a fly, but his answer is silence. He refuses to engage in the debate, and by now claims to have grown a thick skin, though he admits it bothered him very much early on. This debate, of course, only grows as modern flies evolve. The irony is that any new-school fly angler who scoffs at flies mirroring conventional lures is wrong for two reasons. First, many contemporary creators of bass, trout, and muskie streamers (like the Game Changer, for example) will blatantly admit that they were trying to copy the action of a conventional lure. They were filling a void, like Harris. Second, many fly anglers don’t bother to research the history of the sport they love. If they did, they’d know Harris isn’t doing anything new. In truth, he’s carrying on a long-lost tradition.
If you could leaf through a tackle catalog from the 1950s or 60s, you’d notice something many of today’s fly fishermen would call blasphemy—lures you can cast with a fly rod. During that era, it was common for major lure manufactures to produce tiny versions of their best-selling baits for the pipe-smoking, plaid-wearing fiberglass wavers that (heaven forbid) might have even taken a few bass and trout for the table. There was the Heddon Widget, Shakespeare Midget, Creek Chub Fly Rod Pikie, and Heddon Punkie Spook, to name a few. They were all made of molded plastic or wood. Most had diving lips and some even featured a treble hook. All that really separated them from their bigger cousins was weight. Sixty years later, Harris is doing the same thing: striving to make lighter, sleeker—but not necessarily smaller—versions of proven lures. He’s just doing it better, smarter, and in a manner that should be more acceptable to purists.
Of all the fly rod-compatible lures ever created, one could argue that Arbogast’s mini Hula Popper was the most successful. With its bell-shaped body, wide mouth, rubber legs, and rubber skirt, it was the predecessor to many of today’s popular flies like the Boogle Bug. I suspect, however, that if this plastic popper were sold today, few flat-brim-donning smallmouth junkies would be stoked to have it in their sling packs. This is simply because it’s made by a company that caters to gear-chuckers, first and foremost. However, George Roberts, a veteran author, fly tyer, and casting instructor, missed having them in his box very much. Roberts, the managing editor at Tail magazine, became aware of Harris when tying instructions for his Soft Chew Wiggler ran in the 2020 winter issue.
“George called me and said he was really impressed with my foam work. He told me he used to fish Hula Poppers on his fly rod as a kid with his dad,” Harris explained. “But, he never liked the weight of the plastic and how the skirts used to rot away. He asked if I could make a lighter version of that Hula, and that’s how the Coola Popper came to be.”
Harris’ Coola Popper is perhaps the best example of a fly that simply couldn’t be made without CAD. Five pieces of foam come together to create the body, and each piece is a mere 1/16th of an inch smaller than the other. If they’re not perfect, you end up with a body that doesn’t taper correctly, which may cause it to list to one side.
“Without CAD, I’d have never been able to figure out exactly what sizes those pieces needed to be,” Harris says. “I could have never achieved it by hand.”
CAD also plays a huge role in fly balance, and years of trial, error, and testing at a lake down the street helped Harris figure out that hook size and weight are critical factors in the performance of foam flies. Every time he orders hooks that he’s never tied on before, he weighs them and uses a micrometer to gather all the specifications. He plugs that information into his CAD program, creating a hook database. Once those numbers are in the system, the program calculates which hook will balance each pattern. If Harris wants to create a smaller or larger version of a pattern, or if he’s working on something new, he can adjust the scale and the program will spit out which size hook he’d need to make it perform optimally. Once the math is dialed in, Harris never changes the formula.
“Everything I’ve ever made has probably failed at least once,” he says, gesturing to a cardboard box full of prototypes and discards. “But I will sit there and tinker with it until it doesn’t fail. With CAD, I can overlay my designs on the hook before I ever actually make the fly. I can look at how two shapes interact with each other, which eliminates most of the issues before I encounter them at the vise.”
For Love or Money?
Where Harris lives, there’s no shortage of big-fish options. Heavy stripers feed in Great Egg Harbor Bay, along the oceanfront jetties, and in the area’s inlets. Cobia, dolphin, and false albacore set up just offshore; quality pickerel and largemouth lurk inland. Harris makes flies that will catch all of these, plus any other predatory species around the globe. He’s sent his patterns as far away as New Zealand. I’ve personally taken them to Mexico and the Amazon, but Harris is not a big-fish man nor world traveler. He’s a self-proclaimed “quantity over quality” angler. His passion is to fly fish for white perch in the local brackish creeks and rivers using his tiniest creations modeled after the popular Trout Magnet lure, which fits his personality. There’s a humbleness to Harris that’s refreshing considering the egos of many tyers striving to be rock stars in the fly-innovation genre. It’s almost as if it’s difficult for him to accept that what he’s doing is so transcendent.
I knew it right away when he sent me early prototypes of what would become his Double Dipper Weedless Frog. Harris came up with the idea to position two hooks shank to shank and sandwich them between the multi-layered foam body. This created a frog with two hooks protruding from its flat sides instead of its belly or back. He then added a thick monofilament weed guard to the head that resembles cat whiskers to protect the points, and the result was a perfectly symmetrical fly that skims over vegetation and can never land upside down because it doesn’t have a right side up. As my interest in fishing for invasive snakeheads grew, the Double Dipper quickly became my go-to fly. I could run it more cleanly through the heavy weeds and slop where they live, and two hooks are better than one when trying to make anything stick in the snakeheads’ rock-hard jaws. But when I ask Harris how he invented such an innovative design, he just says, “I don’t really know. I’m not sure how I landed on the two hooks. I just wanted a fly I could run through the lilies.”
Carl Harris’ catalog of original CAD-created fly patterns is extensive, but these four are his most ingenious ties to date. Whether you’re headed to the striper flats or bass pond, change up the angles and geometry in your box by visiting cghcustomtackle.com.
Double Dipper Weedless Frog – $8
This is as close as you’ll get to a hollow-body frog for the fly rod—at least one that you can cast with no extra effort. The unique side-hook position and weed guard allow this sneaky pattern to slide over vegetation and play in the pads with minimal snagging.
Retread Rattlesack Streamer – $7
Incorporating a rattle into a fly tends to add bulk. Harris solved this issue by engineering a slotted Ultrasuede mask that lets you easily slip in a removable glass rattle. The Ultrasuede tails add life and durability, making this fly great solo or as a teaser.
Soft Chew Wiggler – $7 – $9
Available in multiple sizes and configurations, the Soft Chew is quite versatile. Fished on a floating line, it’ll dive a few inches, wobble on the strip, and pop back up. On a sinking line, you can get the fly to dig and suspend, behaving more like a classic Rapala Floater.
Coola Popper – $4 – $7.50
This is one of toughest, most durable poppers around. The layered foam body makes it extra buoyant, but it still casts smooth and easy. The Coola hits the water like thunder to draw instant attention and the flared gills create a juicy bubble trail when retrieved.
When Harris pulls up the CAD drawing for the Double Dipper on his computer, the screaming red and blue outlines of the components remind me of the light-cycle scene in Tron. As Harris scrolls around, his most recent developments come into view; lately, he’s been focusing on subsurface patterns. CAD comes into play when mapping out paddle tails, frog legs, and curly tails cut from Ultrasuede for his updated Double Dipper, his Retread UT Swim Streamer, and the Epoxy Swimo. His latest, the Retread Rattlesack, features a chamber in the mask that allows you to easily add or subtract a small glass rattle. This rattling pattern was in heavy demand as part of a recent order for a local tackle shop because, apparently, they are as coveted by fly anglers as they are by fluke fishermen looking for a secret weapon teaser. Harris was thrilled to get the tackle shop’s monster order, but since he’s a one-man band making patterns with multiple components that then require fit and finish, he admits it was daunting.
“I’d like my fly business to go bigger,” Harris told me. “I’d love to see what it could do, but I worry I won’t be able to keep up. I really don’t want to quit my job, but if this gets much bigger, that’s what I’d have to do.”
Making your passion project a full-time gig has drawbacks. It’s clear to me that Harris’ passion for tinkering, innovating, and pushing fly boundaries is enough of a driver to keep him going. He’s simply happy seeing his flies being used and catching fish. Could his name eventually hold rank with Clouser, Puglisi, and Chocklett? I believe it could, but as to whether he wants to go all-in and take it there, Harris is still doing the math.
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