The P Word

While similar in appearance, permit and pompano have two very different personalities. Can you tell the difference between the two?

Capt. Mike Genoun March 21, 2011

The permit is a highly prized game fish regarded by angling’s elite as the most challenging of all fly fishing targets. Fool one on fur and you’ve achieved one of shallow water fishing’s greatest feats. While I admittedly have yet to successfully accomplish this right of passage, I can attest to this gamester’s uncanny ability to drive a determined fly fisherman to the point of picking up a spinning outfit.

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Photo: Jan Maizler

With excellent eyesight and an acute sense of smell, the permit is an exceptional shallow water predator inhabiting the western Atlantic Ocean from as far north as New England to as far south as Brazil, with the southernmost stretch of this region comprising its primary territory. Rarely will you hear of a permit landed north of the Florida/Georgia border. This skilled and wary hunter is so sharp with its survival skills and keen senses that two U.S. Navy submarines were named USS Permit in the fish’s honor.

Temperamental permit are most often found in shallow, tropical environments such as turtle grass flats, outlining channels, and open sandy bottoms highlighted only by the occasional sprouting mangrove. Unlike bonefish that despise the chilly winter, permit are much more tolerant of cooler water temperatures and can therefore be targeted every month of the year. Ocean side flats across Biscayne Bay, along with shallow flats of the fabulous Florida Keys, are world renowned for shallow water permit fishing. Here these flashy, broad bodied trophies are often spotted tailing as they go about the business of sniffing out crabs and other nutritious morsels. In skinny water only a foot or two deep permit usually hunt alone or in pairs. While they may be cooperative one day, even a perfectly presented fly may go ignored the next simply because the fish suspects something is a miss. Permit are regarded with great honor among Florida’s inshore fishing community and should always be revived and carefully released to fight another day. These are hard fighting trophy fish that are worth much more alive than dead. It’s bad enough they have to deal with habitat degradation.

Along with the serene shallows where sight fishing dreams come true for dedicated anglers who put in the time and effort, mature permit also occupy submerged structure in water 20-feet to over 100-feet in depth. Not like a snapper that characteristically knows better than to stray far from the security of the wreck, but like the jacks that they are, notorious for patrolling above and beyond in relentless wolf packs. Off Miami and across Florida Bay permit are regularly targeted on dilapidated shipwrecks where they compete over live crabs drifted back on appropriate size jigheads. For such a glorious game fish, once hooked many of these shimmering beauties end up an easy meal for local goliath grouper.

Though permit are primarily crustacean eaters, feasting on crabs, shrimp and shellfish, when the opportunity presents itself a hungry permit will readily pounce on an unsuspecting baitfish. Similar to crevalle and amberjack, permit are powerful opponents that exert every bit of energy until the bitter end. When you consider 20 to 30-pounds is average this is a determined adversary that will put your skills and tackle to the very limits.

While permit are usually found relatively close to shore, even in some slightly brackish venues, we know these fish spawn offshore. This helps explain why juveniles are often found in the surf zone where there’s an ample supply of small invertebrates and shellfish for the adolescent fish to wrap their rubbery lips around. This is also where the greatest confusion takes place, as juvenile permit mingle along the same shores and interior rivers with their close cousin, the Florida pompano.

The pompano is a different animal altogether. So worthy, they named a city after it. Frisky and typically cooperative once located, pompano are not regarded for their large size and they are certainly not exceptionally challenging to persuade. Rather, they are fairly easy to catch by anglers of all skill levels all the way up to Delaware and are highly regarded for their outstanding table fare. Pompano are typically aggressive feeders with an easygoing eat-everything-crunchy-or-mushy attitude. Another prominent member of the jack family, when water temperatures cool and the pompano bite heats up it’s not uncommon to land a dozen or more quality fish averaging between 1 and 4-pounds as they rarely swim alone. Pompano predominantly inhabit inshore and very near-shore waters, in crystal clear and in turbid environments, especially along sandy beaches, around oyster banks and throughout shrimp infested grass beds where they make perfect targets for light tackle anglers. While technical poling skiffs are the standard for permit pursuits, kayakers and wade fishermen alike can easily take full advantage of a hot pompano bite fishing a variety of easily attainable natural baits or affordable artificial jigs. A soft plastic D.O.A. shrimp is a deadly favorite as are odd shaped Doc Goofy jigs and round swivel jigs. Ironically, pompano are absent from permit-infested tropical regions like The Bahamas and Belize.

Like permit, pompano also spawn offshore. Once they require more substance in their diet, juveniles head into the shallows where they feed heavily on mollusks and crustaceans, especially shrimp and sand fleas. Seasonal movements are influenced by water temperature, while centralized local movements are influenced by the tide and availability of forage. Unlike permit which are primarily released, pompano typically end up on ice with a vibrant commercial fishery currently up and running.

Many anglers, young and old, have a difficult time deciphering between the two species. The confusion is certainly understandable when you compare a juvenile permit to a mature pompano. With the same feeding habits, similar body shape and the same basic coloration, it’s easy to get the two confused. I recently made a visit to Sebastian Inlet. Fishing the north jetty with black drum in the crosshairs, the pompano bite erupted with the changing tide, or so dozens of excited anglers assumed. Upon close inspection of the many 12-inch fish landed, it was apparent every single one was a juvenile permit. It’s good to see the population thriving, but sad to see anglers harvesting a precious commodity mistakenly identified as pompano. Certainly within their legal right, I am just wondering if these same fishermen would have released the fish knowing they were actually permit.

Ultimately, my goal is simple—to make sure you can decipher between the two. From that point, the choice is yours.

Fish Facts

Like typical snowbirds, Florida pompano migrate south in the winter and north in the spring.

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