Contraband Crabs

The 2024 J. Stockard Fly Fishing Catalog cover features Drew Chicone's Contraband Crab fly in white. Drew is Fly Tyer magazine's 2023 Fly Tyer of the Year, and we're big fans of his, too! Below, read about how to tie this unique, creative, and highly effective pattern, reprinted from Fly Tyer magazine.

Contraband crab fly white

Guest Blogger: Drew Chicone, Instagram: @drchicone

The original Contraband Crab was a confluence of several of my favorite permit patterns: Bauer Crab, Scotch-Brite Crab, and McFly Crab. My goal was to incorporate all my favorite attributes or "abilities" and overcome each pattern's shortcomings. After several years of "test and tweak," the outcome proved productive all over the planet. But, targeting Sheepshead or "Prison Permit," a notoriously picky fish with human-like teeth, required some rethinking and adjustments to my old stand-by.  It took some time, but with the help of my good friend Captain Codty Pierce, we managed to crack the code for consistently catching these crustacean-crunching convicts!

Saltwater Fly Fishing

Figuring out the Contraband Crab Fly Pattern

As the hook size decreases, so does the hook gape, wire, and strength, which becomes a huge issue, especially when it comes to flies designed for a fish that can bite through hooks. The obvious fix would be to go to a larger or wider gape hook. But this is no improvement if the fly is too large to eat or it doesn't look natural, and the fish refuse it. Another vital attribute of a shallow water fly is its "splat factor," or the noise it makes and how hard it lands when presented to the fish. The chocolate variation of my contraband crab was designed to emulate a tiny mangrove crab falling out of the bushes. For your fly to mimic the intended prey, it must sink at the same speed as a natural crab. A fly that moves too slowly or too quickly through the water column is often a red flag to suspicious sheepshead. A refusal usually follows. 


Tailing or feeding fish around mangrove roots are the easiest to target, and those fish typically feed on oyster bars or other shallow water bottom structures. Most of the time, your fly needs to get down quickly so it is not carried away in the current. A 5/32" dumbbell eye is an excellent place to start, but I suggest tying identical flies with a few different-sized eyes for faster-moving water. 

The hook size, style, and color are also crucial to the fly's effectiveness. After testing several different hooks, the clear winner is the Gamakatsu SL12S 1x Short, in size 2. The shorter version of this hook is the perfect fit for an extra small crab, so it's easier to eat. This hook also has an extremely wide gape, ensuring that you have enough room for the crab's body without impeding the hook's effectiveness. The 1x wire is thick enough so larger fish can't crush it, yet thin enough for easy penetration when gently strip setting the hook. Its ultra-fine, chemically sharpened point is "sticky" and seems to find and hold onto any exposed tissue in a mouth full of oversized teeth. 

 

saltwater fly fishing

Background Story by Capt. Codty Pierce

Being an avid outdoorsman, conservationist, and now a career fishing guide, I spend a lot of time exploring Florida's forgotten waterways in a Hells Bay Skiff or an old Indian canoe. One of my fondest memories that still makes me smile today is fishing for juvenile permit around Sanibel Island with Drew when we first met. We had only fished together a handful of times, but we became fast friends, and I learned much about him. "Always outnumbered but never outgunned" is one of his mottos, so he always travels with several rods and hundreds of flies, fully prepared for whatever species or scenario we may encounter. He's an impressive multi-tasker and not one to procrastinate, so he typically changes flies after two or three refusals. I watched in amazement while Drew would snip off a shadow box-worthy fly and toss it in the bottom of the canoe while simultaneously tying multiple lengths and poundages of leader material. He stood back up in what seemed like seconds, loaded with a fresh new fly and ready to cast again. 


While putting up the canoe at the end of the day, I would scavenge dozens of incredible flies that may have touched the water a couple of times. I would fill my box with the unsuccessful flies of the day to take back for reference or personal use later... I quickly learned that fishing with one of the world's best tyers has many upsides; the most influential for me was finding one of his Contraband Crabs. Our day in the Ding didn't yield a permit to hand, despite our greatest efforts, but we caught a host of other species, and it did provide me with the best pattern I have ever discovered for catching Sheepshead. 

Chicones Contraband Crabs

Shortly after that fateful trip, the Southwest side of Florida experienced one of the worst red tide outbreaks of the century. Our once-thriving ecosystem was decimated overnight due to a lack of dissolved oxygen, killing countless fish, plants, and other marine animals. I was a relatively new fly fish-only guide then, and it was horrific to pole miles of shoreline and flats to find no life. The redfish, snook, and seatrout populations all took a direct hit, making my daily routine and traditional quarry a thing of the past. During the hard times following the big bloom, while the flats were healing, I would see an increasing number of Sheepshead on grass flats, shoals, and structures of any sort. The other species were few and far between, and I had nothing else to target full time. 


Clearwater allows us to observe the fish in their natural habitat and study their feeding behaviors. Sheepshead are grazers and visual feeders; they analyze and prospect all subjects of interest, whether its sand-fleas/mole crabs on sand bottoms, rooting for marine worms, crabs, and shrimp when they are tailing on a seagrass flat with pinpoint accuracy as they browse structural items like barnacles and oysters affixed to a bridge or dock piling. They also have an incredible sense of smell, proven by the success of bait fishermen catching a large quantity of fish in zero visibility situations. 


In fly tying and fly fishing, we constantly struggle to emulate an intended prey item but usually strike out due to our lack of “realness.” We cannot replicate critical life-like attributes like the scent, pheromones, or electrical discharges like those given off by a fleeing shrimp crab or baitfish with fur and feathers. It may look close, but the fish are usually just too smart. 

crab

In the Chocolate Contraband, we not only have the incredible realism of a mangrove crab falling in the water, but we also have the right texture. Fish like Sheepshead, permit, boxfish, triggerfish, etc., inhale and exhale prey quickly to ensure it "feels" like what they are used to eating. If you have been fortunate enough to observe any of the species mentioned above' feed, you probably noticed the fish ingesting and discharging a food item several times. When consuming a crab, a sheepshead will check it several times before pinning it down, dismembering the claws, and lastly, crushing the body and swallowing it. That is why it can be so difficult to hook a sheepshead. Many anglers feel a tap and swear the fish ate the fly but try to set the hook and pull the fly away. The Chocolate Contraband triggers a positive feeding response from the combination of its realistic-looking appendages, eyes, and crunchy texture.  

Sheepshead

Chicone's Chocolate Contraband Crab has been the most exciting and productive pattern I have ever fished. Over the past five years, it has caught my clients and me over 250 sheepshead and countless other species. The method of retrieval is critical to catching fish with this fly. Once the fly is cast to the fish, let it settle to the bottom. You capture the Sheepshead's attention with a burst of rapid short strips, much like the saying tic-tic-tic. Once the fish engages, stop moving it. Wait for the fish to pin it down and peck at it. This could take several seconds once you feel the initial bump. Slowly slide the slack out of the line with a long, smooth strip until it comes tight and you feel the fish's resistance. Once the fish begins to pull away, set the hook with a firm strip set and sweep the rod tip up to ensure that the leader does not get hung up in barnacles or other obstructions.


Cracking the code on Sheepshead has been my most outstanding achievement as an angler thus far. I don't justify that statement by the numbers I have caught personally but rather by the undeniable success my clients and friends have had... The Chocolate Contraband Crab is our weapon of choice 99% of the time.

Capt. Pierce and boat

About Captain Codty Pierce

Capt. Codty Pierce is a full-time fly fishing and light tackle guide specializing in off-the-beaten-path angling adventures. Having been raised by naturalists, Codty has a background in biology and herpetology with a profound understanding of Florida’s flora, fauna, and hydrology. He is an environmentally conscious steward of nature and is at home, whether roaming the swamps or poling its flats.


He is a wealth of Florida knowledge, and his excitement and passion for its critters and natural history are contagious. His deep understanding of its ecosystem and daily rhythms give him an uncanny ability to find and catch fish in seemingly any scenario. With over 250 sheepsheads on the fly under his belt, Fly Fisherman Magazine aptly dubbed him “the Del Brown of Sheepshead.”


When he’s not exploring the last of Florida’s wild places, Captain Codty Pierce can be found on his home of Pine Island, along the Lee island coast, amidst the snook, seagrass, and shell mounds. 


For more info about Capt. Pierce, visit www.saltwaterbackcountry.com or follow his latest adventures at @codtytheexplorer on Instagram. 

Chicone Contraband Crab

Tying the Contraband Crab

Contraband Crab Materials

Hook: Gamakatsu SL12s, size 2
Thread: Danville 210 Denier, Brown
Eyes: 5/32nd Black Nickel Brass Dazzle Eyes
           Small Black Mono Eyes
Legs: Dark Brown Large Square Rubber 
Claws: Dark Brown Ultra Chenille 
Body: Dark Brown Scotch-Brite, Greener Clean, Non-Scratch Scour Pad
Adhesive: e6000 Glue - Clear
                  Hot Chocolate or Dark Brown Fabric Paint 
Misc.: Black Sharpie Permanent Marker

Tying Steps

Contraband Crab step 1

Step 1: 
Start the thread at the eye of the hook and wrap backward, covering the entire hook shank with an even layer of thread. Continue wrapping halfway down the bend of the hook. Spiral wrap back to position the thread in the middle of the hook shank.

Contraband Crab step 2

Step 2:
Tie in dumbbell eyes with a series of tight figure-eight wraps. Make several wraps around and under the eyes to lock them in place.  

Contraband Crab step 3

Step 3:
Whip finish at the eye of the hook and cut away the thread, and set the prepped hook aside. I like to tie up several of these in advance to save time. 

Contraband Crab step 4

Step 4:
Fold two three-inch pieces of dark brown chenille in half and tie a knot about 1/4 inch from the folded end. 

Contraband Crab step 5

Step 5:
Cut the loops and mark them with a black permanent marker for a mottled look.

Contraband Crab step 6

Step 6:
Melt the claw tips with a lighter by passing the flame back and forth over the chenille quickly until the tips are formed. 

Contraband Crab step 7
Contraband Crab step 7

Step 7:
Cut a 2 1/4" section of brown square rubber legs. Separate two legs from the strip. Tie an overhand knot approximately 3/4" from one end.

Contraband Crab step 8

Step 8:
Tie a second knot on the other side of the leg, approximately 3/4" from the other end.  More than likely, the segmented portions of the leg beyond the knot will be facing in different directions, which is OK. 

Contraband Crab step 9

Step 9:
Roll one or both of the knots until the segmented portions of the legs are approximately the same length and are pointing in the same direction. Repeat on the second leg. Do your best to make the knots on the second leg slightly closer together than the first. This is very difficult to achieve and maintain with any consistency using a round rubber leg or thinner flat silicone leg. This is why the square rubber legs are so important.  

Contraband Crab step 10
Contraband Crab step 10

Step 10:
Using a small or extra small crab-shaped cutter, stamp out the shell of the crab from a sheet of dark brown “Scotch-Brite, Greener Clean Non-Scratch Scour Pad.”  If you do not have a crab-shaped cutter, simply trace a dime onto the pad and cut it with scissors. 

Contraband Crab step 11

Step 11:
Using a serrated knife or micro-serrated scissors, carefully cut the pad in half from end to end. 

Contraband Crab step 12

Step 12:
When you are finished, you should have two matching crab bodies, half the width of the original pad. This is very important because the original pad is too thick and will impede the gap of the hook when the crab is assembled.  

Contraband Crab step 13

Step 13:
Layout all the parts of the crab to be assembled. The rubber leg with the knots closer together will be positioned below the other leg. Trim the longer portions of the claws slightly so that they will fit onto the body of the crab. 


You can do these one at a time, but the easiest way I have found to do these is like an assembly line, doing several at a time. Cut a section of Blue Painters tape and lay it on the bench, sticky side up. Tape the ends of the tape down so it will not move. Stick the precut bodes on the tape approximately 2 - 3" apart and lay out the eyes, legs, and claws for each crab next to each.  

Contraband Crab step 14

Step 14:
Coat the top of the crab shell with an even layer of Hot Chocolate Brown Tulip Fabric Paint. Again, I do half a dozen at a time before moving to the next step. 

Contraband Crab step 15

Step 15:
Begin assembly by laying the pair of EP Shrimp & Crab Eyes into the glue. Cut away the portion of the mono post that sticks out beyond the ScotchBrite Pad. The black eye should stick out slightly beyond the body. The butts of the mono post should be angled to create a V shape.   

Contraband Crab step 16
Contraband Crab step 16

Step 16: 
Next, place the legs into the glue so that the segmented portions beyond the knots point backward in the same direction. Complete the assembly by placing the claws at a 45-degree angle. The knots of the claws should stick out beyond the carapace and line up approximately with the eyes.

Contraband Crab step 17
Contraband Crab step 17

Step 17: 
Apply a second coat of fabric paint on top of the legs, claws, and posts of the monofilament eyes. When the paint is thoroughly dry, it will ensure that none of the appendages pull free.

 

Using a pair of tweezers, make any final adjustments to the position of the appendages. Press the legs and claws down lightly on the tape to secure them in place and set them aside to dry. 

Contraband Crab step 18
Contraband Crab step 18

Step 18:
After the body assembly is completely dry, place the hook assemblies in Chicone’s Crustacean Station or a piece of lotted foam. The slots in the foam need to be deep enough to accommodate the hook's gap and hold pressure against the body assembly. 


Coat the underside of the body assembly with E6000 glue and center the body of the crab on top of the hook assembly stuck in the foam, and press the hook shank firmly down into the glue. Make sure that the body does not cover the eye of the hook. Set aside to dry for 24 hours.

Contraband Crab step 19

Step 19:   
Once the glue is thoroughly dry, cover the exposed thread wraps and the underside of the crab with a thin layer of Hot Chocolate fabric paint.

Contraband Crab step 20

Step 20:
Mottle the legs with a black percent marker, and trim the segmented portion to approximately half an inch behind the knot.

Final Step Contraband Crab

6 comments

Rich Moldenhauer

Rich Moldenhauer

A This is a new twist on crab patterns and I like your thorough assembly explanation. Finding square legs has proven impossible thus far, please let the readers know your source.

Rich Moldenhauer

Rich Moldenhauer

A This is a new twist on crab patterns and I like your thorough assembly explanation. Finding square legs has proven impossible thus far, please let the readers know your source.

Joe

Joe

Cool tie for sure. Does the second piece of foam get attached to the underside of the fly, or not? In other words, are we using only 1 piece of fam per fly or two?
Thanks

Cliff

Cliff

As the recipe states, square rubber legs are essential for tying this fly; yet the link in the materials list leads to Chicone’s Crusher Legs, which appear to be thin and flat, not square. I am merely mentioning this because when I tried tying this fly a few years ago I discovered the hard way that both round or thin flat rubber legs are nearly impossible to manipulate into the position required by this recipe.

Dar Horn

Dar Horn

Wow! Thanks for sharing. I just forwarded this to my two sons who live in the Keys. Think I’ll take some of these on my next trip down!

Patrick

Patrick

Outstanding! Thanks so much for the article and sharing the “how to info”. Very generous of you. Will be attempting the little crab. Enjoy working at the bench and this little critter should add to that joy.

All the best and may the New Year be filled with great fishing adventures for you.

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