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Shrimp & Crab Fly Patterns – A Brief Guide & My TOP 3 Flies
My top 3 shrimp and crab flies are:
The Flexo Crab – this fly looks exactly like a crab and it works for all species from permit to triggerfish and bonefish, all over the world!
The EP Spawning Shrimp – when it comes to shrimp imitations and the range of species that love this fly, it is hard to beat. Tarpon, trevally, permit, bonefish, triggerfish and more will inhale this fly!
The Rag Head Crab – this is a crab fly that works everywhere from estuaries on the East Coast to the flats of Mexico and Belize. It is a great fly to tie on at the beginning of the day when you don’t quite know how the fish are feeling!
How and why did I choose these flies as my top 3? Here is what I thought about.
Imitation – all of the flies are a great range of imitations from exact to general.
Size – they come in a range of sizes so you can “match the hatch” where you are fishing.
Color – the flies come in a range of natural colors to match any shrimp or crab on the flats.
Weight – heavy and light versions of all these flies are available to match skinny, shallow, and deep flats.
For a more detailed fly buying guide, check out the section below the flies!
I have used the EP Spawning Shrimp everywhere from the flats of The Bahamas to Seychelles. Triggerfish, bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook, and even various trevally species have hoovered up this shrimp imitation without a second look.
Made by Enrico Puglisi (hence the name), the design features everything required to make this look just like a shrimp. The EP fiber provides a realistic body and when you add the legs, eyes, and egg sack, it becomes simply irresistible.
The EP Spawning Shrimp comes with heavy dumbbell eyes to ensure it sinks quickly and can be fished on deep and shallow flats. The hook sits facing upwards and the weed guards allow you to fish it around snaggy bottoms too.
Sizes & Colors
The EP Spawning Shrimp is available in sizes 1/0 down to 6. Since this is such a good imitation, having a few of each size is a wise move so you can match the size of the natural shrimp wherever you are fishing.
This shrimp pattern is best owned in tan, olive, and translucent colors, as these match the bottoms and natural colors of the shrimp on the flats.
How to Fish the EP Spawning Shrimp
Fishing the EP Spawning Shrimp is simple but it is quite a heavy fly, so make sure you have a great saltwater fly line to turn it over with ease.
Cast the fly about 6 feet in front of the fish and let it sink to the bottom. Wait for the fish to be about 2-3 feet from the fly and make a long smooth strip. Continue stripping until the fish eats and then set the hook.
The Flexo Crab is one of the best imitations of a crab of all the fly patterns on the planet. It was designed by Alec Gerbec and has literally caught more Indo-Pacific permit and triggerfish than any other fly on the planet.
It doesn’t just work for triggers and Indo-Pacific permit, bonefish, Atlantic permit, trevally, and snapper also scoff this fly without any concern.
The reason it is called a “Flexo” crab is due to the flex material used for the body, which is usually used to coat electrical wires. But, the genius of this fly is also how it is tied.
The dumbbell eyes are tied onto the hook and are encased in the flexo boy. Chenille is then threaded through the body to create the legs, and mono is used for the eyes.
It sits hook side up and looks exactly like a crab, which is why it is so effective.
Sizes & Colors
You can find the Flexo Crab pattern in a range of sizes from 6 to 2. Again, have a few of every size so you can match the size of the crabs where you are fishing.
The colors that are most effective are white, tan, orange and olive. Orange is great on reef flats while white and tan are awesome on sand.
How to Fish a Flexo Crab
The best way to fish a Flexo Crab is on the bottom. Cast about 9 ft ahead of the fish, let the fly sink, and wait. Once the fish is 3 feet away begin a very slow smooth strip.
The Crazy Charlie is a must have shrimp fly when fly fishing anywhere in the Caribbean for bonefish. It was created by Bahamian guide Charlie Smith and is both as deadly as it is simple.
Make sure you have a good saltwater fly reel while casting this to bones on the flats, as you will catch so many fish that your reel will be tested to the max.
What makes this fly so good is that it imitates everything from shrimps to crabs and even small fish. The flash body and tail combined with a wing of calf hair give it incredible action in the water too.
It is a light fly with bead chain eyes, making it easy to cast and it lands softly, not spooking larger fish on shallow flats.
Sizes & Colors
You can buy this fly in sizes 6 and 10, and in a range of weights made for deep, shallow, and tailing fish. Make sure you have a range of weights across the different sizes for every flats situation.
The three colors to have in your box are pink, tan, and white.
How to Fish the Crazy Charlie
The Crazy Charlie can be fished quickly like a small fish swimming quickly away or with slow strips like a crab, and anywhere in between like a shrimp.
Again, like the other fly patterns, lead the fish to allow the crab to sink and then give it some movement when the fish gets close to it.
The Spawning Mantis Shrimp fly pattern is my favorite shrimp imitation for both bonefish and triggerfish. Many a Bahamian bonefish over 8 lbs have fallen to this fly for me, so it is one of the best saltwater flies to have in your box.
Mantis shrimp are a favorite diet of flats species and this pattern imitates them perfectly. The tan body, orange rubber legs, eyes, and egg sack are simply irresistible and provide an excellent action in the water.
It also comes with dumbbell eyes to ensure it sinks quickly and can be fished off the bottom easily.
Sizes & Colors
The Spawning Mantis Shrimp fly is only available in tan, which is the perfect color for sandy flats and it works on reefs too!
You can buy it in sizes 8 to 2, and I would own a few of each size so you can “match the hatch” on the flats.
How to Fish a Spawning Mantis
The Spawning Mantis should be fished on the bottom. Cast 9 feet ahead of the fish, let the fly sink, and use medium length/speed strips when the fish is within a few feet of the fly.
The Avalon is another jack of all trades that imitates both a shrimp and a crab. It is, without question, one of the most successful Atlantic permit flies ever made and tarpon, large bones, snappers, and other species like it too!
Made with heavy dumbbell eyes, it sinks quickly, and the beaded keel aids this, making it a great deep water flats fly. The beaded keel also makes a sound that fish are very interested in.
The addition of claws, rubber legs, and the pearl shellback all come together to give this a natural look and action when being fished.
Sizes & Colors
Available in sizes 4 & 2 and in one color, tan & white, I would highly recommend having 4 of each size in your fly box as you will get through these flies pretty quickly.
How to Fish the Avalon
The Avalon is one of the heavier shrimp/crab fly patterns. This means it may land with a loud splash. To avoid spooking any fish, lead them by about 9 feet.
This will also give the fly enough time to get to the bottom on deeper flats. It is best fished at a slow to medium pace.
The Rag Head Crab Fly imitates just about any crab in close to every part of the world. It works for a huge range of species from striped bass in cold water to the triggerfish, bonefish, and permit on the flats of Mexico.
It comes with a tan body with a crab profile, rubber legs, claws, and maribou to look just like a stationary or fleeing crab.
The Rag Head Crab comes with heavy dumbbell eyes so it sinks quickly. The hook sits facing upwards and it swims beautifully.
Sizes & Colors
The Rag Head Crab is available in sizes 2 and 4. It comes in tan only. Make sure you own a few in each size so you can mimic the crabs where you are fishing.
How to Fish the Rag Head Crab Fly
Like all crab flies, fish the Rag Head Crab off the bottom. Cast ahead of the fish, let it sink, and follow it up with slow long strips.
The Merkin Crab is another all-time favorite permit fly. Designed by Del Brown, it helped him land more than 500 permit over the course of his life, making him one of the top permit anglers in the world.
This fly is tied with lead eyes which makes it sink incredibly quickly with the claws in a natural position. Fish will even eat this fly on the drop. It comes with a brown/tan synthetic body and white rubber legs with red ends.
It swims very well in the water and works for bonefish, triggerfish, and of course, permit. Do not go on the flats of the Caribbean without this fly.
Sizes & Colors
The Merkin Crab comes in sizes 2 through 6 and in shallow or deep water options. Owning a few of each size in each weight is advisable so you can always fish the right size in the right depth of water.
The Merkin Crab only comes in one color, tan/brown, which makes it ideal for dark and light bottoms.
How to Fish the Merkin Crab
Since the Merkin Crab is quite a heavy fly it can land quite loudly. Make sure to cast it 9 feet or more in front of fish so they do not hear it landing. Once landed, let it sink and then fish it with slow strips on the bottom.
The Gotcha is an excellent general imitation of both shrimp and small bait fish. It is a bonefish fly through and through, and was designed by Jim McVay on a trip to The Bahamas but I have seen Indo-Pacific permit inhale this fly, so don’t be afraid to throw it at any creature on the flats.
Tied with dumbbell eyes, a pearl body, and tan craft fur, it looks the part. It is a flashy fly, and the flash either provokes aggression or creates a spook, so you will quickly know whether to change it out or keep fishing it.
Sizes & Colors
The Gotcha is available in sizes 4 to 8 and in pearl or tan colors. You also have different weighted options for deep or shallow flats.
Have a few Gotchas in every size, color, and weight so you can also fish the right variation for the situation.
How to Fish the Gotcha
Like all shrimp imitations, cast the fly 6-9 ft in front of the fish, let it sink, and use medium speed/length strips for the retrieve.
Another crab imitation from Enrico Puglesi, the EP Crab is a must-have pattern no matter where you are fishing. It works for stripers on the East coast as well as bonefish, triggerfish, and permit across the world.
The rubber legs, EP body, and marabou make it look very real and give the fly a lovely action in the water. The heavy dumbbell eyes ensure it sinks quickly so you can fish it on shallow and deep flats.
Sizes & Colors
The EP crab is available in sizes 2 to 8, light & heavy, and in tan or olive colors. Again, own a few of each so are not caught out on the flats.
How to Fish the EP Crab
Being a heavy crab fly, lead fish by 9+ feet so as not to spook them, and then fish it with a slow retrieve to imitate a crab.
How to Pick the Best Shrimp & Crab Flies
There are four factors you need to consider when looking for the best crab and shrimp fly patterns and these include; imitation, size, color, weight, and hook quality.
Let’s look at what these all mean in more detail.
Shrimp and crab fly patterns can be exact imitations like a Flexo Crab, a general imitation of both like a Crazy Charlie, or a broad imitation of a crab or shrimp like a Rag Head Crab.
It is best to have a range of flies that do it all. Exact imitations are great for fooling smart fish like permit. General imitations of both are ideal for searching, and a broad imitation allows you to fish the same fly in lots of different environments.
Size & Color
You never really know what size the shrimp or crabs are going to be where you are going fishing. But, the closer the size of your fly is to the natural version, the more likely a fish is going to be fooled by it.
Make sure to have a range of different sizes for each fly pattern so you can “match the hatch” as best you can wherever you are fishing.
Color is the next thing to consider, and again, natural imitations are best. Look for flies that are tan, white, olive, and pink as these all look like natural shrimp and crab variations.
When saltwater fly fishing, you can fish in a range of different depths from flats that are shin deep, thigh deep, and even chest deep.
Shrimp and crab flies are made to be fished on the bottom, and they need to get down quickly before the fish sees the fly.
You should therefore have a range of weighted flies that suit skinny, medium, and deep flats, so you can get the fly in the feeding zone quickly enough.
The final consideration is hook quality. Unfortunately, not many fly manufacturers give you a choice of hooks. But if the hook is made for a specific species, and the manufacturer is trusted, it should be able to handle the fish it is intended to catch.
The best hook is the Gamakatsu SL12 series and you should only have this hook when fishing for triggers as they will bite other hooks into pieces.
Bonefish and permit don’t have the bite power of triggers and the hooks that come with the flies should be fine.
Growing up fishing on streams and lakes in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles and offshore, there are not many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.