February 27, 2023
There are a lot of ways to make a good permit crab fly these days. Those of us who’ve been around a while recall the days when there was pretty much only one effective permit fly: Del’s Merkin. Slowly, others crept onto the permit scene with a variety of sometimes successful but oftentimes failing patterns. George Anderson’s McCrab, Drew Chicone’s McFlyFoam Crab, the RagHead Crab, and most recently the Strong Arm Merkin are a few winners, but many others have come and gone over the years. All were made with specific situations and strategies in mind, for instance light or dark bottoms, tailing permit, traveling permit, and even “floaters.” In fly tying there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Now Montanan Doug McKnight—an Umpqua Signature Tyer and the creator of a bunch of other great salt- and freshwater patterns like the ER Crab, Rasta Puff, Thundergrass Hopper, and the Home Invader—dazzles us with the latest iteration of a small green reef crab for permit in places like southern Belize, Guanaja, and elsewhere in Honduras. Of course, McKnight’s pattern can be tied in any color you like, and he mixes them up in a variety of combinations to replicate any given substrate.
In speaking with McKnight, he claims that he spends as much time on a permit flat looking at what’s in the water as he does fishing. While it is common for us trout anglers to flip a few river rocks during the course of the day, I don’t know that anyone has ever mentioned to me that they actually dig around in the bottom of a saltwater flat. McKnight does. And he’s found crabs in every shade from basic black all the way to orange, and his innovative Danger Muffin can easily be tied to match any of them.
The pieces that set McKnight’s pattern off from so many others are the hook itself and the way in which he constructs a shell using a bit of deer hair for shape, mixed with a bit of soft rabbit fur to counteract the buoyancy of the deer and soften the fly landing.
Mixing the colors of the deer hair and rabbit allows you to create mottled, camouflage effects that can’t be matched with any other conventional method. With a little practice, the fly actually becomes fun to tie, too.
McKnight starts off with an Umpqua XS506 BN jig hook as the undercarriage. This 60-degree jig hook eliminates the issue of hoping the fly will land hook point up, and its needle-sharp point makes sure it stays stuck when it’s supposed to. McKnight ties the Danger Muffin in sizes 2 through 8 and uses either small or extra-small lead eyes to begin the weighting process, then adds lead wire to the shank to assure the fly plummets to the bottom like a real crab. Once a nicely weighted base is established, the magic starts to happen.
McKnight stumbled onto mixing deer hair and rabbit fur to create a soft, lively, and mottled carapace for his crab pattern. He likely got the idea from a pile of waste material on his desk (that’s my theory, not his). He likes a 60:40 proportion of rabbit fur to deer hair. McKnight clips the fur and hair from the skin and mixes them by hand. I used my old canned air trick to mix my batch together and it worked beautifully. Simply place the components in a large Ziploc bag, poke several holes in the bag, and close the zipper around the nozzle tube on a can of compressed air. Give the mix a few blasts of air and you have a very nicely mixed batch of material ready and waiting for a trip to the tropics, but first you need to twist up a few bodies and get into a bit of arts and crafts.
Once the fur/hair mix is complete, McKnight hand stacks a neat bundle and flares it on the point side of the jig hook. While the finished product may at first resemble a spun hair body, its texture and shape are confined to only the point side of the hook. McKnight repeats the flaring process up the shank all the way to the eyes, leaving a one-sided fluff ball just waiting to be carved into a crab sculpture.
After spending a ridiculous amount of time trimming every hair into a perfectly shaped crab shell, you’re ready for the arts and crafts portion of your endeavor. Using a bit of olive and black micro Velvet Chenille, a precut set of Cohen’s Crab Claws, and a healthy gob of Zap Goo to create the legs, eyes, and claws, McKnight’s pattern takes shape quickly. You finish it off with a thin piece of Furry Foam to cover the guts of the construction and better replicate the lighter underbelly of the crab, then get out your markers and add some color and mottling to the claws and legs.
The pattern I’ve tied here uses natural and dyed olive spinning deer hair mixed with the fur from an olive variant rabbit strip. I can easily see how simple it’d be to throw in a bit of blue or orange as a speckling highlight or mix up a nice batch of natural, tan, white, and even yellow deer and rabbit to create a pattern more at home in Mexico. This technique provides endless options for variations, and creates a need for this fly in a rainbow of colors and a range of sizes . . . along with a plane ticket and some casting practice.
McKnight's Danger Muffin Crab Step-by-Step Fly-Tying Instructions
Step 1. Cut the fur off an olive rabbit strip, then cut a total of about two thirds that amount of both natural and olive deer hair from the hide. Leave the hair the full length. You can either hand mix the deer/rabbit combo or put it all in a Ziploc Bag and use canned air to blend the fibers. It doesn’t take much material to make a fly, so don’t get crazy with the quantity.
Step 2. Mount an Umpqua XS506 BN hook in your vise with the hook point down. Start the thread behind the eye and form a smooth thread base from the eye all the way to the bend. Return the thread to the corner where the upright of the hook eye meets the shank. Tie in a set of plated lead eyes using X-wraps, and wrap the thread back to the bend.
Step 3. Wrap the shank with lead wire. Size .020” to .025” works well for a #2 fly. Start the lead a little short of the bend of the hook and stop a little short of the lead eyes. Break off the excess and wrap over the lead with a smooth layer of thread. Leave the thread hanging at the bend and apply a coat of head cement to the lead, thread, and around the eyes to anchor everything firmly.
Step 4. Pull a healthy clump of the rabbit/deer mixture from the pile and hand stack it into a tidy bunch. The tips of the deer hair will be random and opposed but with a little manipulation it’s easy to make a tight little bundle of fur and hair that is relatively aligned.
Step 5. Invert the hook in the vise and place the center of the clump right at the bend. Make two stacked turns of thread through the center of the bunch and—without letting go of the hair—tighten the thread by pulling straight down, flaring, not spinning, the clump of fur/hair.
Step 6. The result should look like this, with the flared hair on the point side of the hook only.
Step 7. Preen the forward ends of the fur/hair back and move the thread to its immediate front edge. Bundle another clump of fur/hair and repeat the previous process five or six more times until you reach the base of the lead eyes.
Step 8. Whip-finish and clip the thread at the back of the eyes. Note the hair is all on the point side of the hook and has not spun all the way around, leaving a relatively flat bottom. Use a dubbing needle to rake through the fur/hair clump to free any trapped fibers.
Step 9. Start the trimming process with your sharpest scissors by trimming perpendicular to the hook shank to flatten the top of the carapace down close to the hook shank. Leave the fibers on the sides long for now.
Step 10. Once you’re happy with the thickness of the shell, spend an inordinate amount of time trimming the final crab-like oval shape. I taper the sides down from the hook shank to the edge of the body with angled cuts, then use the radius of my thumb as a guide to the final body shape. Your thumb may not be as crab-shaped as mine, so I’m not sure how helpful that will be to you, but you want to end up with something that looks like the top of a crab.
Step 11. The bottom side of the fly should be pretty flat, and if it’s not, feel free to make a few diligent snips to make it so.
Step 12. Put the hook back in the vise with the point down. Apply a liberal glob of Zap Goo to the flat side of the fly.
Step 13. Use your bodkin to smear the Zap Goo into an even layer across the bottom of the body.
Step 14. Cut three 2.5-inch lengths of olive Micro Chenille and two 0.5-inch lengths of black. Place the precut crab claw blank with its base aligned along the near side of the hook shank, then press the olive chenille into the glue in a neat row on the far side. Position the chenille around the lead eyes at the front of the fly and spread the strands out so they are evenly spaced. You can see the outer strand is curved to accomplish realistic placement in a tight space. Press the two pieces of black chenille in place on the claw side of the body to replicate the eyes.
Step 15. For the belly of the fly, cut a strip of olive Furry Foam that is just sightly narrower than the bottom of the shell. Carefully peel the two layers of Furry Foam apart, exposing the netting in the center. Peel one side all the way off the other, then peel the netting off the other half. You now have two clean pieces of Furry Foam, ready to use.
Step 16. Cut a small, rectangular piece of Furry Foam that is about the size of the bottom of the fly. Fold this rectangle in half and round the edges with your scissors to create an oval shape. You can see in this photo how I use the radius of my thumb to help guide the shape.
Step 17. Apply a second, slightly smaller gob of Zap Goo to the bottom of the fly, on top of the legs/claws/eyes. Use your bodkin to smear this gob from edge to edge. Carefully place the Furry Foam cutout onto the belly of the fly, gently pressing it into the Goo. Pinch the fly from top to bottom to smash it flat to the bottom of the fly and make sure it’s glued down all the way to the edges.
Step 18. Now get out your arts and crafts kit and mark up the legs and claws a bit. I used chartreuse, blue, and brown markers to create a mottled effect, and color the tips of the claws red in deference to Del Brown’s Merkin pattern. Trim the chenille legs and eyes to length and singe the ends of the legs with a lighter to create a taper.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie’s Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado. He is the author of four books, most recently Tying Streamers: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns (Stackpole Books, 2020).