Two easy-to-tie patterns that match one of the most prolific food sources in the sea.
[Article and Photography by Scott Sanchez]
CRABS ARE MUST-HAVE FLY PATTERNS for inshore saltwater fishing. Whenever bonefish, redfish, black drum, or permit refuse other flies, a simple crab should be your next go-to choice. It’s a natural food source that’s just too plentiful to ignore. While fish typically find crabs around and on the flats, they also inhabit reefs, oil rigs, jetties, and floating vegetation.
But with so many species, sizes and colors of crabs in the sea, it pays to know a few patterns that are easy to customize in different colors. Here are some thoughts on crab-fly design, and two patterns that have become my favorites over the years.
Crab Fly Design
I’ve played with crab designs for over 20 years, and in my experience, while it’s important for a crab fly to look like a natural, it’s equally important to make sure it acts like a natural.
Most living crabs dive or scurry for cover if there’s danger. Patterns with wide, rigid bodies frequently plane side-to-side as they drop, like a coin thrown into a wishing well. That motion simply doesn’t look natural to fish. I once spent an evening throwing different crab patterns into water to see how each one sank and landed. I found the soft-bodied patterns made with yarn dropped correctly more consistentantly than any others. I also realized how critical counter-balancing weight, or a strong weed guard, can be. If a fly snags during the retrieve, you risk spooking fish as you pick it up for the next cast.
How a pattern reacts during the cast is another important part of crab design. Flies tied with buoyant materials usually need dense weight to compensate and sink. But if a fly is too heavy and hard to cast, you’ll struggle getting it where it needs to be, and when you do, it may be loud when it enters the water—possibly spooking every fish on the flat. The best crab flies sink well with moderate weight.
Too Much, Too Little, and Just Enough
It’s important to match the weight of your crab pattern to the depth of water you’re fishing. Large, heavy flies are better for deep water, while small, light flies are more appropriate for shallow presentations.
Metal dumbbell eyes are the simplest way to weight crabs you want to fish deep. For skinny water, use bead-chain eyes. Tiers have so many different dumbbell eye options available that tiers can match a pattern to almost any depth of water.
To invert crab patterns you need more material inside the hook bend and some weight on the opposite side of the shank to ballast the fly. Legs and claws that rise above the inverted body can also help right the fly.
Camouflage is one of a crab’s great survival mechanisms. Try to tie crab patterns to match the bottom you’re fishing over. Most crabs replicate the color of the ocean floor or whatever habitat they’re clinging to. I’ve even seen black and green Hawaiian crabs that matched the color of volcanic sand.
With all that in mind, here are a couple crab recipes that work well and are simple to tie and modify depending on the color and weight you need, wherever you’re fishing.
Larry Sunderlund, one-time owner of the Austin Angler, came up with a practical crab design about fifteen years ago called the Parachute Crab. He gave me a few when we were kayaking the Texas flats near Port Aransas. It was one of those simple patterns that had me asking myself, “Why didn’t I think of this?”
The fly uses a base of monofilament eyes and a body of flared yarn or sheep fleece with hackle wrapped parachute style to mimic the legs and claws. One of his favorite ways to fish it is to cast in front of a fish and let it sit still or drift freely, though I’ve seen it work when someone strips or twitches it.
Sunderlund frequently tied it without weight to avoid spooking redfish rooting in shallow water, though you can also tie a weighted version with bead-chain eyes for deeper water or lead-dumbbell eyes for when you really need to get it down. I sometimes hand-blend materials to achieve a desired color. It’s a great way to achieve a specific shade, just don’t make the body too dense. Less compact ties sink better and hold less water on the cast.
The parachute on this fly is a great way to use up any large, junk hackle from partially depleted necks or saddles. To make the claws more prominent, use hackle tips or tufts of squirrel tail. You can also use synthetic hackle like Polar Chenille, Trilobal Hackle or Pseudo Hackle for a different look.