Why, Where, and How

By: Captain Dick Cameron

Part 1: Why and Where

The activity called Permit fishing is an experience that cannot really be compared to any other endeavor in the world of sport. If a person has an obsession for golf, for instance, they can spend all of their spare time (and disposable income) honing their skills. With countless hours spent at the driving range and hundreds of holes played a person can achieve a predictable outcome nearly every time out. The results of their efforts are rewarded with the satisfaction of consistency.

A person who has been caught up by the thrill of the hunt can, through practice, become proficient with their weapon of choice and achieve confidence that every time they pull the trigger or release the bow string the projectile will land close enough to the space aimed to bring about the desired result. He or she can also study the behaviors of the species they intend to pursue so upon entering that creature’s habitat the mount of guess work has been reduced and some element of surprise may potentially be shifted to the human.

None of this holds true if the object of your pursuit should ever become the Trachinotus Falcatus. The permit is a fish whose eye sight is amongst the most advanced in all of fishdom. Is armed with not just one but two sets of nostrils and has skin that is so reflective that when laying up it is virtually undetectable to all but the most trained human eye. A fish so frustrating that the god fathers of the sport of flats fly fishing claimed “IT CAN NOT BE FOOLED WITH FUR AND FEATHERS!” Making a flats grand slam all the more grand.

As more and more anglers hit the flats it was only a matter of time before a man like Del Brown would come along and obsess on the species to such a degree that he would be willing to take on a big chunk of the learning curve for the rest of us. Once it was proven that the previously impossible is now just extremely difficult, then everything changes. The list of anglers who are willing to endure long travels, bumpy roads, rough boat rides, sunburns, bad food, diarrhea and hangovers in order to press their skills against the flats more prized resident has become quite large.

With this comes an ever increasing knowledge base, some of which is actually shared, truthfully, between anglers. I have had the fortune (good and bad) to have heard the blow by blow accounts of over 1200 Permit landed and countless thousands more that were casted to and rejected, missed on the hook set, broken off or just simply come unpinned. Luckily I have been able to filter the anglers accounting of these events through the perspective of some of the world’s finest Permit guides. That being said, I think I may have heard just about every possible scenario with regards catching and or failing to catch the Permit.

I have never known of a fish that generates so much mystic or garners as much respect from it’s pursuers that when a particular fly pattern manages to fool just one Permit it is instantly labeled as “the new killer fly.” “Dude this jumping bunny jig nasty fleeing creamy crab shrimp fly is the bomb man! I caught an 8 pound Permit with it last year, it’s the hot ticket.

The reality is that many things have to be just right in order to get a Permit from water to hand. Some of these things are even within your control as the angler.  First of all you need to go where permit live! The fish ranges from the Bahamas in the east, Venezuela to the south, Florida’s Keys on the northern border and Central American’s Caribbean coast representing the western edge as well as the species most densely populated destinations. Belize and Mexico’s Mayan Riviera provide (arguably) the raveling flats enthusiast’s greatest chance for multiple permit encounters.

Permit fishing is as much about numbers as it is about skill.  As an emerging Permit junkie you will need to have many shots in order to make all of the mistakes you can so learning comes at the quickest possible rate and at the least expense. There is a story that has circulated through the sport over the years that has its origin in the Florida Keys. The story talks about a first-time salt water fly fisher who travels south and hires a salty old Keys guide. On the first morning of his trip, on his very first cast he hooks and lands a big Permit.  After releasing the fish the guide sits down and with his head in his hands he starts to weep uncontrollably.  When asked by the client what the cause of his radical emotional swing was the guide simply replied “I know how much you are going to spend to catch your second one.”

There is an often used phrase regarding the Permit. “I’d rather make a bad cast to the right fish than a perfect cast to the wrong one.” Once you have made the fateful decision to chase Permit the rest is just this simple.

  1. Get the best equipment you can afford
  2. Practice casting using the double haul in heavy winds
  3. Work on eliminating as many false casts as possible
  4. Travel to a location that has been recommended to you by a trusted source.
  5. Trust your guides!!!
  6. Have fun and do not take yourself too seriously

If you follow all of this advice you can put yourself in a situation where a great presentation was made in difficult conditions to school of happy Permit.  After manipulating the fly perfectly and watching several fish show extreme interest in, and following your bug of choice you are left with you knees shaking while the school just swims away.  Another day may find you off of your game completely. You make the worst cast to a fish that already appears spooked but, for whatever reason, it almost turns itself inside out to eat your fly. Bottom line, the sooner you get in the game, the quicker you make your mistakes, and the closer you are to catching a Permit.  If you can ever meet the guy who caught Permit on his first trip, run away as fast as you can.

Part 2: How

Let me preface this segment by saying the most important “how” of permit fishing is simply putting yourself into permit territory often enough to recognize what is happening before it is all over.  This is my attempt to share some stuff with you that may help you if you are new to the game.  If you are an experienced permit angler I hope this piece sparks some recognition and makes you eager to head to the flats as soon as you can.

There are many things in saltwater fly fishing that are out of your control completely, for everything else there is practice.  I know how horrible the word sounds but, if you want to improve, it has to happen. The single most important skill you need to obtain is the ability to double haul.  Being able to deliver a heavy fly in strong winds with the fewest possible false casts is also very important. This is not a casting article so, if you need help, get assistance with these techniques through casting lessons at your local fly shop or with one of the great books or videos on the subject.

There are only 2 positions we as anglers can be in when casting to permit.  We will either be standing on the deck of a boat or have our feet on the beach, flat reef or— you get the picture.  The area you are fishing has a great deal to do with this part of the equation. I will suggest to you that, whenever possible, getting out of the boat will increase your chances for success.  Even with a guide at your side, your ability to approach a fish is far greater on foot then in a boat. In our area of Mexico there are miles of firm sandy flats, other permit destinations are more rocky, muddy or just too deep.  Other times an opportunity will unfold so quickly that a shot from the boat is all that presents itself so you have to be ready.

When wading or poling the flats in search of permit they can be found involved in several different activities.  These various activities dictate the method used to approach the fish as well as suggest the likelihood of success or failure in catching that particular fish.  I will describe these situations in the context of how each condition rates as far being a good, fair or poor way to happen upon a permit.  The stripping methods I will be explaining in the scenarios to follow relate primarily to crab patterns.  At certain times of the year, in specific areas or in deeper water, permit are feeding on things other than crabs.  When fishing a shrimp or baby lobster type pattern remember to strip the fly in a way that best resembles the creature you are trying to imitate, while fleeing for its life.

Traveling or Cruising Permit:

Traveling fish is the most common way to spot a Permit and is also the most difficult or lowest percentage chance you have of hooking one.  These fish will be moving as singles or in groups and can be spotted by the push of water they create while moving. Sometimes dorsal fins and the tips of tails can be seen to help with positively identifying them. It is important to intercept these fish far enough ahead of them so you’re your movement has stopped before attempting to present the fly.  The fish are now closing the gap quickly so your first cast needs to be 10 to 15 feet in front of the lead (or solo) fish.  Remember, with a floating line, as your fly sinks it comes back towards you.  When the fly reaches the bottom strip in a long, slow motion (crab patterns) to maintain contact with the fly as well as give it some life.

If no interest is exhibited by the Permit, make your second cast within 5 feet of the approaching fish (singles) and repeat the sink and strip sequence. If this is a large school of permit you have been casting to then continue to cast to them by picking out fish on the outside of the school nearest you.  Cast to them as you did to the leader. Sometimes two or more permit will come out of the school to take a look at the fly. Often, with younger fish, a competition over the potential food takes place which is a good thing, but more often, the fish will spook and rejoin their school of travelling fish to continue down the flat.

Laid Up Permit:

Laid up fish is a description more often used when talking about tarpon but permit do this as well. A fish suspended in the water column, not feeding and with no forward motion is very difficult to see.  This is another low percentage shot because they are not feeding at that time and as such, are more often spooked then enticed into eating.

The key here is to spot them before they are alerted to your presence. Before making the first cast, try to confirm there are no other fish between yourself and the target fish. The initial cast should be close enough to pass through the fish’s sight window but not so close as to cause the fish to spook, within 24 inches. Let the fly sink through the zone, and if no response is noticed, let it fall to the bottom and strip it slowly out from under the fish. With each of the follow up casts, drop the fly a little closer to the fish until it either follows (and hopefully eats) the fly or gets spooked and swims away.

A common ending to this scenario is that the angler becomes so frustrated by the permits ambivalence to what was most likely the best sequence of cast thrown all day. What happens next is generally a fly delivered in the fish’s direction with the intent to inflict bodily harm.  The largest permit I have personally landed was a result of just such an action. After masterfully walking the fly into the “zone” just to have the fish start to nonchalantly swim away I shot the fly as hard as I could. The fly hit the permit just above the eyes on the short hop. To my amazement the fish instantly turned and ate the fly. Stranger things have happened, believe me.

One of our guests was asked if he wanted to cast to a school of Jack Crevalle that were swimming towards the boats. The said “sure” and grabbed his popper rod and laid a beauty of a cast right on the nose of the first fish he saw. At that moment, the guide screamed “do not moov de fly” because it was a large permit he had just dumped his chunk of foam and fur in front of. With the popper lying still on the surface, a mad scrabble ensued to free a rod from the tube that had a more appropriate fly tied to it.  As the now harried angler strips off line and moves back into casting position he, his fellow angler and both guides watch as the twenty pound permit rises up to the surface and sucks that popper right of the face of the waves. The fish was landed, I told you stranger things have happened!

Schools of Permit:

Permit can also be found during various methods of feeding, all of which represent the highest likelihood of getting a fly eaten. Permit will often feed in large schools, as many as 200 tailing fish have been witnessed by myself and many of the anglers lucky enough to visit Ascension Bay Mexico. A large school of feeding permit draws a lot of attention, not just from humans carrying expensive sticks of graphite in their hands either. These large permit schools will be accompanied by bonefish, jack crevalle, blue runner and any number of the snapper family. These “lesser” fish will try to get between the permit and the food, or the permit and the bottom. Try to pick out a fish to cast to on the edge of the school one with a bit of distance from the school is best. AVOID the temptation to dump a cast into the school.

Stripping the fly in this situation is very important and needs to start almost as soon as the fly hits the water.  In a mixed school the Permit is the least aggressive feeder. If the fly is allowed to sink very far something else will eat it. Let the fly sink just far enough to where you think the permit can see it then get it moving long and slow for a crab and jerky for just about everything else. When more than one permit tracks your fly, keep stripping. With a single fish follow, start and stop your strip in an effort to keep them interested.

Single Tailing Permit:

A single tailed up permit presents the angler another set of issues. One problem not usually encountered is the presence of “lesser” species getting to your fly. The biggest difficulty here is how focused this critter is on a very specific source of chow. The water immediately around the fishes head is muddied from it’s pursuit of the food and it is locked on to what is about to pass across those crushers and into the belly. Your mission is to put your fly into the permit’s feeding zone and hope you have tied on some configuration of yarn, rubber legs and feathers that will come close to resembling what is actually being eaten.

Casts in this situation should be made slightly ahead and to the side of the head nearest you, strip the bug slow and maintain contact. If your target changes direction or moves away from your fly just reposition yourself and do it again. Be patient and careful no to line the fish. If your fly lands long do not strip it back towards the fish, wait for the fish changes direction, pick up the line slowly and redirect the cast. Crabs rarely charge a permit as form of defense. Change flies after refusals, you should get multiple shots if the fish is not spooked so keep casting.

I once cast to a permit in this sort of situation for over an hour. This particular fish was huge, over 35 pounds, and was very content to continue eating whatever it was he had found. I changed flies 7 times with many shots landing inches from those big rubber lips. The story ended with that monster simply cruising of fin the sunset probably never even knowing I was there.

Permit on a Ray:

The last, and very best situation I want to tell you about is permit feeding over the top of rays. Rays are foragers and scavengers. Their mouths are on the underside of their head. They move across the bottom and when the outer edge of their body feels something move they move over the top of the victim until the mouth is on top and eat it. They also eat dead things and find that stuff by smell then slide over it and eat. While doing this, a ray will often times cause the crabs and stuff to jump up into the water column in an attempt to let the ray pass by underneath. Permit will follow these creatures for the opportunity to grab an easy crab.

The best casting angle in this scenario is from the side or at least a quartering sort of shot towards the rays head. If the ray and permit are moving slowly, make your first cast far enough ahead of the group so that it settles on the bottom. Your first strip needs to be aggressive enough to lift the fly up off the bottom just in front of the approaching ray. Strip the fly slow enough to keep it on top of the ray’s back. The fly can even roll over the back of the ray but make sure to keep contact with the fly.

When any of these situations results in the permit actually eating your fly be ready. A permit can pick up, crush and exhale the fly so quickly that often times an angler never even feel it so, maintain contact with the fly, at all times, it is a must. Strip strike the fish with the rod tip low, even in the water. Keep the rod tip low and if you are in the water, walk backwards until the permit swims away from you and starts clearing the line. Clear the line with the rod low and arched away from the direction the fish is going. Once on the reel, play the permit just like any saltwater species. Do not let up on the pressure, a permit won’t quit until it is tailed.

One other thing to remember through all of the different shots you may come up against is that whenever the need to pick up the fly and redirect the cast should arise, strip the fly out of the zone first. Then lift the fly out of the water gently and quietly .If the line is “ripped” off the surface, the noise can spook the fish and end your session with this particular fish or group of fish.

Through all of this information, the one thing that should be overwhelmingly obvious to you at this point is if you have not participated in this fishery yet, you need to. Also, if you have fished for permit in the past, you’ve got to do it again! SOON!