The Contraband Crab

Combining historically productive patterns with new tying techniques and materials provides a fantastic platform for building new patterns.

[by Drew Chicone]


I have been asking myself that question since I was old enough to hold a fly rod. The theories are endless, and the pursuit of this knowledge has driven more than a few fly junkies completely mad. I certainly don’t profess to know all the reasons why fish eat certain things and ignore others, but I have spent the better part of a decade trying to demystify the crucial elements needed to design productive flies. As is the case for most anglers pursuing permit with flies, my journey has been vexing and sometimes exasperating.

I learn something new on each fishing trip I take to the permit flats. I feel like I am gathering pieces of a puzzle. Some of the planet’s primo permit guides have shared their experiences with me. Using each new grain of knowledge I gain from those permit-fishing gurus, we work in concert to hone existing patterns and have designed a few new flies along the way.

A Combo Fly

The Contraband Crab is a combination of several of my favorite crab patterns: the Bauer Crab, Scotch-Brite Crab, and McFly Crab. My goal was to incorporate the best attributes or “abilities” of each fly while overcoming their shortcomings.


Hook: Gamakatsu L11s-3H, size 6.
Thread: Danville 210 denier, olive.
Eyes: 5/32- or 1/8-inch black-nickel brass
dumbbell eyes, or large EP Shrimp/Crab Eyes.
Legs: Large gray square rubber legs.
Claws: Olive micro Ultra Chenille.
Body: Scotch-Brite or a substitute scouring pad.
More stuff: e6000 or a substitute permanent craft
adhesive, Tulip Slick Fabric Paint (white), and
Copic markers—pale olive and light walnut.

Tying the Contraband Crab

The Bauer Crab has been a fly-box staple since the 1970s. Its iconic, knotted square rubber legs allow the segments below the knots to face rearward, giving this pattern a very realistic silhouette. It’s a very difficult configuration to pull off with small-diameter silicone or round rubber legs, and legs made using those materials do not provide the same silhouette or movement.

The body of the original Bauer Crab is created using sculpin wool with melted monofilament eyes glued into the fibers. When purchasing this pattern from your local fly shop, you will find that the cheap (usually dull) hook is bent to create a larger gap. The bend weakens the integrity of the hook and alters its effectiveness. If the eyes are inserted into the wool with too much glue, the fibers wick the glue and stiffen as the adhesive cures, leaving you with a great-looking teaser fly with little hook gap.

The Scotch-Brite is a variation on the Raghead Crab. I do not like the flat, unrealistic look of felt, so for years I searched to replace that material with something thicker, more durable, and that had a more mottled look. After a little experimentation, I stamped Scotch-Brite pads to shape, cut them in half, and sandwiched the hook between the halves. I achieved the look I was after, but the feather claws were on the rear of the fly—not the front—and the splayed round rubber legs shot out in every direction so the fly looked more like a smashed spider. And although the legs provided excellent movement, they were not durable and didn’t hold permanent marker ink very well; after being exposed to salt water for a few hours, the color either faded away or bled everywhere.

The McFly Foam Crab was my fix for the majority of those issues; however, I ran into some new problems when I tried scaling the pattern down to smaller sizes. The fly calls for a size 1/0 Gamakatsu SC-15 hook, which is perfect if you wish to make a crab the size of a quarter, but it is not a great hook for matching dime-size crabs.

Rules of Thumb for Fly Design

I probably sound like a broken record, but when it comes to creating productive flies for catching any species of fish, you must consider a few important factors. First and foremost, the pattern must be easy to cast. I use the term castability to describe a design’s aerodynamics. Even the most perfectly tied fly is useless if it fouls in the air or doesn’t make it to the fish. Tropical saltwater flats are almost always windy, so your fly should be somewhat streamlined and require a limited number of false casts. Bushy or wide flies are too wind resistant, and extra-long rubber legs easily foul and make long-distance casting into the wind unmanageable.

As a commercial fly tier, I gather a lot of information from the orders I receive. I learn what patterns experienced anglers are using and where they are using them. Each season, it seems that the flies for all species, especially tarpon and permit, get smaller as these fish become more pressured. Tying custom flies is typically not a problem, but some materials are simply not scalable or available in smaller sizes. With some ingredients, such as McFly Foam, using less to create a smaller fly does not work very well; the fly loses the realistic look or functionality of the material. And as the hook size decreases, so do the gap and strength, which becomes a huge issue when it comes to crab patterns for catching plus-sized permit. The obvious fix is to use a larger hook, but that is a poor choice if the fly doesn’t look natural and the fish refuse it.

Sink rate is an important attribute of a permit fly. Salinity, current, leader material, and other factors can affect how your fly falls through the water. In order for your fly to mimic the intended prey, it should sink at the same speed as the real thing. A fly that moves too slowly through the water column is often a red flag to permit, and a refusal usually follows. Most of the time, your fly must get down quickly, so the majority of the patterns in my permit fly box are heavily weighted. Adding 5/32-ounce dumbbell eyes is a good place to start for weighting a size 6 or 4 hook, but I suggest tying identical flies with a few different sizes of dumbbells for different fishing situations and water depths.

The size, style, and color of the hook you choose are crucial. I prefer a heavier wire hook with a short shank and wide gap. A larger gap not only helps with hooking fish, but also ensures that you have enough room for tying on materials without impeding the hook’s effectiveness.

Permit have huge eyes and acute vision, and they will often follow a fly and examine it as it is stripped all the way back to the boat. In the past, I have talked about the idea of black hooks having a tendency to silhouette more over white sand and possibly being more visible in clear water; over the last few years, however, many anglers, including myself, have come to believe that this hypothesis is untrue. Larger fish, and fish that experience a lot of pressure, seem more spooked by the glint from silver hooks; therefore, I tend to tie with both black and silver hooks to hedge my bet for any situation.

When choosing crab patterns, I like flies that can be easily modified on the water and fished effectively anywhere. The materials used in the Contraband Crab hold color well and can be easily modified. A Copic airbrush gives the fly its ultrarealistic appearance. Copic offers a wide array of colors that work astonishingly well on said materials. I like using different shades of tan, brown, and olive for the flies I tie before a trip; however, I always tie a few plain tan or white patterns, especially when I am traveling. The plain patterns provide blank canvases that I can easily color with permanent markers to mimic the unique coloration of the local prey.

We all have our favorite patterns, but today’s hot fly might not work so well tomorrow or next week. While local knowledge of the fishery and forage is paramount, success often comes to those who can adapt to the ever-changing playing field. Combining historically productive patterns with new tying techniques and materials provides a fantastic platform to build new patterns, and hopefully ensures you have the right bugs in your box for any flats situation.

Drew Chicone is a regular contributor to this magazine. After a stint out West, he and his family recently moved back to Florida. To learn more about his patterns or tying classes, or to sign up for his regular newsletter, go to www.saltyflytying.com.