Permit Crab Pot
Cook up some of these crustaceans for your next trip to the tropical flats.
by Pat Ford
 
When I first set foot on Key West in 1971, catching a permit on a fly was considered unlikely if not impossible. If you wanted
to catch one on an artificial lure, you had to use a brown Popeye jig. A Popeye looked pretty shrimpy, and the permit ate it.
Thirty-five years later, however, the top guides from Marathon to Key West—Kris Suplee, Doug Kilpatrick, Dustin Huff, Diego
Rouylle, Justin Rea, and half a dozen others—are helping anglers catch permit on flies on a daily basis. What happened?
The answer is simple: The flies evolved!

Back in the early 1970s, a tarpon angler might occasionally catch a permit because he’d see the fish close to the boat and
say, “What the heck, I’ll cast to it.” I caught my first permit on a fly in 1974 after repeatedly watching them run up to a
perfectly cast fly like it was the juiciest thing they’d ever seen, only to stop about a foot short and swim away. Duplicate
the same cast with a Popeye jig, and wham—you’d have a hookup.

It finally dawned on me that the action of the jig made all the difference between getting a refusal and a strike. The Popeye
dived to the bottom while the fly hung suspended in the water. Almost everything a permit eats tries to hide in the sand or
grass, and a fly that simply hangs there and doesn’t dive for safety is not natural and therefore not edible. (We’ll talk about
an exception to this rule in a moment.)

Back then, fly shops didn’t stock lead eyes (actually, there were damn few fly shops), so I simply pinched a split shot behind
the hook eye and tied up a fly featuring brown and grizzly feathers. I can’t say that it was revolutionary, but it did catch an
exceptionally dumb permit that was cruising the edge of a flat off Boca Grande Key.

On another day, R. T. Trosset and I found a huge school of permit hanging around a shallow wreck west of the Marquesas.
(Here’s that exception I mentioned.) The fish were cruising near the surface, picking at shrimps and crabs hiding in the weeds
that were floating on the outgoing tide. I caught 14 permit on small yellow poppers over the course of two days. I had a few
photos to back up our tale, but nobody really believed us, at least not enough to start casting yellow poppers to permit.
Better permit flies, however, were on the horizon.
Image Image  
Depth Charge Crab
Hook: Long-shank saltwater hook, sizes 4 to 1.
Thread: Chartreuse 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Rubber legs, pearl Krystal Flash, and
   partridge or brown hen hackles.
Body: Tan Polar Hair or rug yarn.
Weight: Medium lead dumbbell.
Merkin
Hook: Regular saltwater hook, sizes 4 to 1.
Thread: Green or brown 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Green or brown grizzly hackle and
   strands of Krystal Flash.
Body: Green or brown and tan rug yarn.
Legs: Rubber legs.
Weight: Medium lead dumbbell.
Weed guard: 30-pound-test monofilament.
 

The Permit Angler’s Fly Box
I think Nat Ragland, of Marathon, developed a fly called the Puff. This pattern was almost identical to my original split-shot
design, except that it utilized large glass doll eyes to add weight to get the fly to dive. Years later, Capt. Mark Krowka
downsized the Puff, added a few rubber legs, and came up with a dynamite bonefish fly that also works on permit. Not long
after that, Del Brown designed the Merkin, the fly that set the standard for permit patterns. The Merkin looks a lot more like
a crab than the Puff, but the key to its success is that it dives to the bottom when you stop the retrieve, mimicking the motion
of a fleeing crab. The Merkin suddenly gave anglers hope that they could target permit and actually have a decent chance
of catching them. More guides and anglers started to fish for permit. They perfected their flies and learned how to cast to
these fish.

Fly tiers have never followed the rule, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We think we can fancy up and improve any fly. (The
ones we ruin, of course, never become public.) Del Brown’s original Merkin was pretty basic: lead eyes, rug-yarn body
tied in any combination of crabby colors, and a couple of feathers that look like claws. Rubber legs were eventually added,
along with some black monofilament eyes near the hook bend. Materials have varied for the legs and claws, but the yarn
body still works just fine, and it’s debatable whether the claws and rubber legs make any difference at all.

Capt. Kris Suplee found that a Zonker strip works well for a tail, and that two strips look like claws. In addition, three rubber
legs give the fly a bit more fish appeal. Capt. Doug Kilpatrick uses legs made from rubber bands on his Merkins with great
success, but rubber bands don’t do well in the heat and salt water, and they tend to deteriorate quickly. Doug and Kris have
won the Del Brown and the March Merkin permit tournaments more than any other guides, and they will be the first to tell
you that fly placement is probably more important than pattern selection—but don’t try to take one of their patterns home
with you! (I’m lucky they gave me the flies for this article. Thanks, guys.)
 
Image Image 
Original Puff
Hook: Regular saltwater hook, sizes 4 to 1.
Thread: Brown 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Squirrel tail hair and brown grizzly hackles.
Body: Tan chenille.
Weight: Medium glass doll eyes.
Suplee Merkin
Hook: Regular saltwater hook, sizes 4 to 1.
Thread: White 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Brown grizzly hackles.
Body: Brown and tan rug yarn.
Legs: Brown rubber legs.
Weight: Medium lead dumbbell.
 
 
Capt. Rick Murphy, of Sportsman’s Adventures television series, is convinced that a fly’s diving action entices a permit
to strike. Rick modified the Merkin by placing oversize lead eyes at the back of the fly near the hook bend. Claws, legs,
and eyes are tied near the hook eye to trail out behind the body as the crab dives. When cast properly, the fly acts
exactly like the original Popeye jig, only it has a lot more appendages. Capt. Chris Dean, a guide and fly tier working
out of Miami, also has his own adaptation of the Merkin. He uses a small size for catching bonefish, and a bigger version
for permit.

Chris has also developed a floating crab that is a killer pattern when permit are holding in a channel on the edge of a flat.
Every so often, you will find permit in the channels from Miami to the Marquesas holding in position and feeding off the
weed clusters that drift by. A standard diving fly will work in these situations, but the fish are feeding on the crabs that are
hanging on those weeds, and a floating imitation might be a better choice. Capt. Simon Becker, of Key West, agrees that
under these conditions, a floating crab is the way to go. Orvis sells Simon’s pattern as the Hover Crab, and Enrico Puglisi,
Ltd., also sells an excellent floating crab that’s very realistic.
 
 
Do Realistic Flies Catch More Permit?
In 1996, I went to Turneffe Flats Lodge in Belize to fish for permit. There was an angler from Japan at the lodge named
Hiromi Kubaki. He tied the most amazing flies I’d ever seen; his crab patterns looked so real, you thought they’d crawl
away. I wrote an article about his flies in the March 1997 issue of Saltwater Fly Fishing magazine, and a new generation
of permit flies was born—ones that looked like real crabs!

Hiromi’s artistic talents went way beyond what was needed for creating flies for actual fishing, but his techniques are sound.
First, his flies had bodies shaped like crabs. Hiromi used deer hair, but today Enrico Puglisi, Ltd., not only makes excellent
crab flies, but also sells pre-shaped crab bodies. Many other anglers simply cut diamond-shaped bodies out of Velcro.

Hiromi cut crab legs and claws out of latex gloves, and then added silicone to give them some strength. He painted each
leg with mind-boggling accuracy, which has proved unnecessary. Today, Enrico Puglisi sells preformed crab claws, and Capt.
Doug Kilpatrick and a lot of other guides make crab claws by cutting pinchers in the ends of rubber bands and adding a bit
of red paint. Doug feels that legs convince the permit that the fly is something edible, so he makes them very visible and
doesn’t pay so much attention to the body. Doug is also a fan of white flies, although most crabs—and crab imitations—
are tan or green.

Hiromi covers the bottom of his crabs with light lead wire rolled flat. This makes a smooth underside, and he paints the
bottom to duplicate a crab. Hiromi’s crab fly, however, may be too perfect. It looks great and I’ve actually caught several
permit on it, but its flaw is that it doesn’t dive to the bottom like the Merkin. The weighted underside makes it sink, but it
sort of slides down like a flat rock. It wasn’t long before the guys tying realistic crab flies started adding lead eyes to the
ends of their patterns to make them dive.

Tying Ideas
There are two ways to tie a crab imitation. Hiromi placed the pointed ends of the body at the ends of the hook shank; the
claws and legs hung out the sides of the fly. To make the Puglisi-style pattern, you simply tie the claws and legs along
the shank of the hook with thread. Next, you stick a piece of Velcro over the legs and claws, and place some black mono-
filament eyes between the claws. You then add a second piece of Velcro on the other side of the hook or glue on a Puglisi
crab body, and tie a lead dumbbell next to the hook eye. You can easily color the fuzzy Velcro with permanent markers.

Capt. Doug Kilpatrick likes to tie his crabs facing the bend of the hook. Doug uses two rubber bands for the claws; he ties
a simple overhand knot in each claw to create joints. He then ties on several smaller rubber bands for legs. The body is
either deer hair or diamond-shaped pieces of Velcro placed over the rubber legs. Monofilament eyes between the claws add
a touch of realism.

Doug uses a short-shank hook such as the Gamakatsu SC15, and positions the Velcro so that the pointed ends of the crab
body are in line with the hook shank. He also adds some epoxy on one side to strengthen the body, and colors the Velcro tan
or green. Surprisingly, both Captains Doug and Chris use lime-green crabs on cloudy days with good success. Captain Chris
also uses a pink Merkin under similar conditions, and it works very well, too.

You don’t need a lot of flies to go permit fishing. Several Merkins in various colors are a must; light tan, brown, olive, pink, and
even lime green all work depending upon light conditions and the color of the bottom. It’s also good to carry some smaller flies
for slick, calm days when the permit are extra spooky, and be sure to have one or two floating crabs in case you find permit
schooled up in a channel. More realistic crabs are larger and at times very difficult to cast, but they are extremely effective on
windy March days off Key West.

The best guides continually update their own patterns. A good guide is on the water close to 300 days a year, and he has
opportunities to analyze what does and does not work. Every time a permit rejects a well-placed fly, he asks why and then
returns to the vise to remedy the problem. My approach is to let the guide pick the fly from either his collection or mine; not
surprisingly, the one that goes in the water is usually from his fly box.

It’s All about the Cast
Casting to a permit pretty much comes down hitting the fish on the head with the fly and then doing nothing. Most casts are
less than 50 feet, so accuracy is far more important than distance. If the permit is in a cooperative mood, the splash will attract
rather than spook it. When the permit sees the artificial prey diving for the bottom, you hope the fish nails it; your job is
to wait for the permit to “tail” on the fly, then strip-strike to see if he’s got it. This approach is far more effective than the
steady retrieve used to catch tarpon and bonefish.

I remember one day when I was fishing with Capt. Doug Kilpatrick on the flats along Northwest Channel. The tide was falling,
and Doug spotted a big permit working its way onto a flat we were poling. It tailed several times as it moved toward us,
which just made me more nervous. When it was within casting range, I made a nice long cast, but in an absolutely horrible
direction. Wind has never been my friend, and I watched the fly hit about 20 feet to the right of the big fish. I immediately
stripped in as much line as I could before starting a second cast. As the backcast stretched out behind me and I prepared to
move the trajectory of the forward cast a couple dozen feet to the left, I saw the permit bolt over to the exact spot where my
fly had landed. Unfortunately, my second cast was just as bad as the first, but it taught me how important the splash of a
landing fly is to a permit. The noise actually helps, so don’t be shy: just dump the fly about a foot in front of the fish’s nose
and let it sink. If he doesn’t see it, a small strip should get its attention, but don’t strip the fly more than is needed to help the
fish spot it.
 
Image
Ultra Puff
Hook: Regular saltwater hook, sizes 4 to 1.
Thread: Red 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: Cream marabou and pearl Krystal Flash.
Body: Tan chenille.
Legs: Speckled Sili Legs.
Weight: Medium doll eyes.
Weed guard: 30-pound-test monofilament.The standard permit outfit is a 10-weight rod, weight-forward floating line,
     and 9- to 10-foot-long, 15-pound fluorocarbon leader. Many anglers, following Del Brown’s example, will step up
     to an 11-weight to turn over heavy crab flies quickly. The reel must have a good drag and hold at least 200 yards
     of 30-pound backing. I prefer using microfiber backing because a permit hooked on a flat will usually head for deep
    water, dragging the backing over reef edges, around lobster-pot lines, weeds, coral heads, and anything else it can
     find. I’ve saved several fish due to the strength of the backing. Finally, always use a loop knot, rather than a clinch
     knot, to tie the fly to the leader. The loop knot allows a crab fly to dive faster than a clinch knot.

There are hundreds of great permit patterns, but one thing is for sure: On the flats, every permit fly needs lead eyes to
make it dive to the bottom. If you want to catch a permit on a fly, there is no substitute for “Dive, dive, dive!”

Pat Ford travels the world in search of good fishing. He is also a leading outdoors photographer. Pat lives in Miami.
 
 
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