Permit fishing doesn’t have to be a game of chance.
Many fishing authorities say that landing a permit on a fly on the flats is possibly the most demanding and rewarding of all fly-rod challenges. Indeed, in recent years I’ve seen many articles and one book (Jack Samson’s Permit on a Fly ) written about the thrills and excitement of fly fishing for permit. Previously, however, there was very little helpful information or instruction available to anglers about fishing for these evasive fish.
I’ve learned about permit by fishing for them. After spending countless hours studying permit from above and below the water’s surface, I’ve become familiar with the general habits of the fish. This data has helped me assist my clients in landing hundreds of permit; I’ve personally landed 65, to date. You, too, can increase your chances of permit success by relying on knowledge and skill rather than on good fortune.
The Permit Diet
First, I need to dispel the myth that permit can only be caught on crab flies. Through stomach sampling and personal observation, I’ve discovered that permit feed not only on crabs but also on shrimp, lobsters, clams, sea urchins, and occasionally on small fish. Understanding the feeding habits of permit is the primary key to consistently taking the fish on flies.
Except for clams and small fish, all of the permit’s common prey display very similar and predictable behavior: they move in a horizontal plane and escape downward. Other common saltwater forage species (especially bait-fish) tend to flee to the surface, where their white bellies may blend with a bright sky and camouflage them from predators. Most permit forage does not. Therefore, in permit fishing, we must rethink our angling technique.
I refer to the escape patterns of permit prey as either primary or secondary: primary escape is the initial horizontal movement demonstrated by the permit’s prey when threatened; secondary escape is the downward sloping movement of crustaceans seeking the protection or safety of the bottom. This escaping motion of prey is important to keep in mind when you’re imparting action to the fly.
Also consider that, unlike saltwater fish with upturned or protruding mouths, a permit’s mouth is positioned low on its head. This means a permit usually takes prey at or below the level of its mouth.
You’re likely to encounter permit (whether as singles, in pods, or in schools) in one of four distinct situations. Understanding these situations will help you know how to adjust your tactics. The four situations are: (1) permit cruising near the surface, (2) permit cruising near the bottom, (3) feeding or tailing permit, and (4) floating permit. Let’s examine each of these situations and discuss appropriate tactics.
Permit cruising near the surface: Surface-cruising permit create a top-water disturbance that fishing guides often call nervous water. This happens as the fish swim within inches of the surface, either while travelling or searching for feeding opportunities. Depending on how calm the surface is, you can often see nervous water from a good distance, which gives you plenty of time to get ready and allows the guide to properly position the boat.
Permit also characteristically form a V wake behind them while cruising. Keep in mind that the tail of the fish, not the head, is at the tip of the wake. The permit will be in front of the tip of the V wake and near the surface, so you must lead the fish and allow the fly to reach the fish’s level before you impart action to it. Once the fly has reached the fish’s level, and you do move the fly, you’ll be imitating primary escape action. To lead a fish from 5 to 15 feet is not uncommon; the optimum distance depends on how fast the fish is travelling. Normally, however, a 10-foot lead is sufficient.
Your first cast is the most crucial one. Wait for the permit to approach your casting range before presenting the fly. You do not have to make a 90-foot cast to hook these fish; an accurate 40-foot cast is better than a poorly executed long cast.
Once you’ve presented the fly in front of and slightly across the path of the fish, you must control your line and take out the slack as quickly as possible. When the fly is at or below the level of the fish, start a long and slow retrieve using a three-foot, three-second strip. (With your line hand placed near the rod’s stripping guide, it should take you three seconds to strip the three feet of line – that’s the pace you want to use.)
Quite often, permit will take the fly as you strip it, or they may follow the fly. Sometimes tarpon fisherman hook permit when stripping in tarpon flies, especially when using sinking lines. Of course, the same as other jacks, permit are curious by nature and may follow a fly simply for that reason.
If the permit does not eat the fly or gets too close to the boat, you may induce the fish to take by stopping the strip and allowing the fly to drop. This dropping action is imitative of a crustacean’s secondary escape pattern.
Permit cruising near the bottom: This situation is similar to sight-fishing for tarpon on the flats. The only difference is that because Permit are smaller than Tarpon, they are more difficult to spot.
Permit travelling near the bottom are usually found in three to five feet of water, often searching for food. If all the fish are moving over white sand, their bodies will contrast with the bottom, allowing you to see them from a long distance.
However, you’ll more often find permit in areas with a mottled bottom, over which the fish are difficult to spot. In this case you’ll have little tome to prepare – therefore, you must be alert and ready to cast in an instant. A permit’s silvery body mirror’s its surroundings, so pay close attention to any subtle changes near the bottom and look for shadows beneath the moving fish.
Make visual contact with the fish before casting. Even if the guide’s clock-and-distance instructions are correct (“Three o’clock, thirty-five feet!”), you should only make a blind cast as a last resort.
Generally in this situation, choose flies of three different weights – light, medium, and heavy – and change up according to the depth. It’s also helpful to bring three fly rods, such as 8-, 9-, and 10- weight outfits, and to match flies to the rods by weight. This way, you can easily change to a rod with an appropriate weighted fly, depending on what the conditions dictate.
Once you sight a fish, you must lead it with your cast and allow the fly to reach the fish’s level. You must know where your fly is in relation to the fish, even if you can’t see it. Here’s a trick that solves this problem: when you first step up on the bow and make a practice cast (usually 50 feet is sufficient), retrieve the line onto the boat deck and drop the fly into the water. Count how long it takes the fly to reach the bottom – one second, two seconds, three seconds. Then you’ll know how long to pause before your fly reaches the bottom, where the fish are cruising. For example, when you’re fishing in three feet of water it should take the fly no more than five seconds to reach the bottom.
Lead the fish based on its travelling speed, the weight of your fly, and the water depth. When a calm (non-frightened) permit is traveling in four feet of water, for instance, I normally use a medium weight fly and cast 15 feet in front of the fish. If the permit accelerates toward the fly, don’t strip – let the fly sink. However, remove any slack in the line, which will help you detect the take if the permit does grab the fly. After the take, use a strip-strike to set the hook. If the hook doesnâ€™t hold, the permit will still see the fly, consider it a missed meal, and often strike aggressively.
Feeding or tailing Permit:
Of all the situations in which you’ll see permit, this is the most exciting. Here the permit’s tail is raised high above the water’s surface, and the reflection of the sun or bright sky off the tail allows you to spot it from a distance. This situation gives you the greatest chance of success.
You’ll typically see feeding or tailing Permit in one to three feet of water, usually on an incoming or outgoing high tide. Here, the Permit’s attention is focused in a very small area, usually within a five-foot radius. The fish are aggressively pursuing their prey and can be approached very close.
If possible – if the bottom is firm and your guide can stop the boat – try to approach the feeding Permit on foot. Wading allows you to keep a low profile and to get close to the fish; it also eliminates the noise often caused by the boat. It’s not uncommon to wade as close as 20 feet to a feeding Permit.
Because the feeding Permit’s vision is confined to a small area, you must cast close to and in front of the feeding fish. It’s very important that the fly lands either in front of the fish or off to its side. The fly should never land behind the fish. To make an accurate cast, you must first determine which direction the fish is facing. A Permit’s dorsal fin sweeps back toward the tail, so if you have any doubts about where the fish is headed, wait to see the dorsal fin.
When you’re within a comfortable casting ranger, make a minimal number of false casts before presenting the fly – two to three are sufficient. Otherwise, you risk spooking the fish with your line or excessive casting motion. Aim the cast within five feet of the fish, then allow the fly to sink to or near the bottom.
Often a feeding fish will immediately move toward the fly and quickly decide whether or not to take it. If the Permit approached the fly and raises its body vertically, let it inhale the fly. In order to detect a take, you must remove all slack from your line. Once the fish has taken and you feel it move with the fly – and only at that point – set the hook with a strip-strike. Do not life the rod until you’ve executed the strip-strike.
Keep in mind that Permit have thick lips, which probably protect the fish against the spiny shells and pinchers of crustaceans, so you should keep your hooks razor sharp. Often, large Permit (those over 20 pounds) may not react immediately to the hook set, and only after continued pressure will they finally discover that something is wrong and head for the protection of the deeper water.
For whatever reason, Permit occasionally gather in pods or schools suspended in shallow water near the surface. Here, they characteristically display their dorsal and caudal fins above the surface in a motionless state. Whether the fish are waiting for a tide change, or if the behavior is a prerequisite to spawning, nobody knows. But in this situation the fish are in their least aggressive mode.
The same as tailing fish, floating Permit can be seen from a distance. They will usually remain in this position until frightened, giving us time to adjust our fishing tactics.
I’ve found that changing to a lightly weighted fly works best for floating Permit. By using a light fly, I can make a quiet presentation, yet the fly still sinks to or slightly below the Permit’s level.
When you approach the fish, keep a low profile and don’t make any noise in the boat. You want to place the fly five feet in front of or to the side of the fish. Never cast in the middle of the school; this will frighten the fish and ruin the opportunity. Again, if you have any doubts about which direction a fish is facing, wait until it’s dorsal fin appears.
Once you’ve cast and the fly has reached the level of the fish, begin to slowly retrieve the fly with three-foot, three-second strips. If the Permit fails to follow the fly, slowly retrieve the line until the fly is out of the fish’s sight, and cast again, Depending on the size of the school, you may want to cast off to the side of the fish so other Permit can see the fly.
When a Permit follows the fly, continue to strip until the fish is close to the boat. If the Permit has not taken the moving fly, let the fly plummet toward the bottom. This change in direction will often produce a strike.
Written by Joe Sugura