Permit Addiction

Solve the Florida Keys Puzzle

FSF Staff March 23, 2009

Webster’s dictionary defines addiction as compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. I propose the addition of tight-lipped permit tailing in the afternoon sun to this list of habit-forming substances. Permit fishing might just lead to a distorted view of all other species and a total collapse of your personal well being. After your first permit comes boatside don’t expect to enjoy fishing until your next fix.

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Photo: Pat Cervone

Most of what I have learned about permit comes from careful observation of the species and free flowing drinks with other skinny water guides. Let me tell you – these guides have a finger on the pulse of this fishery. With that in mind, I will try not to divulge any of the super secret tricks as it could result in serious harm to my health. However, I will offer some great advice that will undoubtedly point you in the right direction. After all, were trying to outsmart a single fish. How hard could it be?

…there is no place on the globe where these great gamesters grow larger than the shallow flats of the fertile Lower Keys.

When it comes to permit fishing there is no place on the globe where these great gamesters grow larger than the shallow flats of the fertile Lower Keys. More often than not finding them is not the biggest problem; it’s enticing them to engulf your furry fly that creates the biggest challenge.

I prefer to breakdown Keys permit into three distinctive sub-groups. First we have wreck permit, which I slightly hesitate to call permit. I think the term “wreck jacks” is more fitting. Second are floaters, these fish are found bobbing around in the sun as they hover near coral heads and channels. Finally we have true permit – the head-standing crab-crunchers that peak the highest interest among fly-fishing’s elite.

You should know permit are available year-round in the Florida Keys with spring being prime season for sight-fishing the flats. Unlike less tolerable bonefish, permit don’t mind cold weather and will also stick it out during the hottest summer heat waves. In March, permit typically gorge themselves on crabs in preparation for their annual spawn. During April and May, these sickle-tail heart-stoppers leave the flats for their annual gathering in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wreck permit don’t do much for me while I’m holding a fly-rod, and you can bet that targeting these fish will lead to plenty of shredded fly-lines and little to no satisfaction of fooling one of the most finicky fish on the planet.

Floaters are the first of what I would call fly worthy opponents. Look for them during lower tidal stages around coral heads and along the edges of channels. These fish have pushed off the flats when low water levels hinder their crustacean search, and will appear to be bobbing around soaking up the sun as they digest their most recent meal. If you want to throw a fly at these fish, lightly weighted crab patterns will offer your best chance for success. Often times they will wait for your fly to float right in front of their face before deliberately moving away in the opposite direction. As discouraging as this may sound, don’t pass up a shot at a floater. All it takes is one fish to turn you into a hero back at the dock.

Now to the main attraction; permit on the flats. For starters moving water is key. Incoming versus outgoing is not as important as having steady flow. Next is finding the right fish. It is extremely challenging to make a cruising permit stop dead in its tracks to eat your fly, so it is better to search for fish that are actively feeding. A good place to start is along the Gulf side of the Keys out to the Marquesas. The fish along this stretch will push up on the flats with the incoming tide. Many consistently successful Lower Keys guides head west and work the incoming tide as it makes its way up the island chain. As you can see, this fishery requires years of experience, dedication and practice. The most important factor is knowing when to leave. In theory, you want to relocate from spot to spot while staying ahead of the incoming wave of fish. If you hit the right tide and time it correctly, you can end up casting to tailing fish all day long, excluding the time spent speeding to the next spot.

If the tide doesn’t allow you to jump ahead of the fish then it’s time to pinpoint and work a handful of local spots. The main problem with permit is that as the tide floods they fan out on the interior flats and disperse into unfishable groups. Ideally, try and pick your spots and setup on the flat before the fish move up and start foraging.

Permit that are working a falling tide are great targets. Under this scenario I suggest you work the edges of a flat and try to pick off fish as they head back into deeper water. This often means fewer shots, but these fish are usually anxious to pick off one last critter before retreating to deeper water.

Water temperature is another integral piece of the permit puzzle. On cooler days, target your efforts along dark bottom flats, which warm quickly under the tropical sun. Often times we run across fish that are not willing to eat until the water temperature hits 70-degrees, which is why a temperature gauge on your skiff is an integral part of your overall arsenal.

On blistering hot summer days locate light bottom flats with deep water in the vicinity. Permit will often move up to feed for only a short time before retreating to deeper, cooler water.

So you’ve found the fish; what’s next? Now it’s time for an off angle cast 80-feet into a fairly stiff breeze. Yes, practice makes perfect, and is exactly what separates the men from the boys when it comes to achieving one of angling’s greatest feats – a flats permit on fly. It’s not about how many shots, but what you do with the opportunities. Fly placement is crucial. If I had it my way I would get two shots at each fish, but this is rarely the case. For my first cast I would lead the fish and try a few slow strips. If the inquisitive inspector moves over and investigates my fly without eating then I will try one long strip. This last ditch effort will sometimes result in a strike as permit are, in fact, jacks, and what jack can resist a fleeing meal? If this approach fails the next step is to land the fly directly on the nose of the fish. This controversial tactic sometimes makes them eat out of shear anger without thinking. A direct hit is my preferred approach for aggressively tailing permit that have their face buried in the substrate. The idea is to get their attention before they have a chance to see you and ultimately spook. Don’t forget; permit have large eyes and will analyze your fly closer than the artist who tied it.

Fit The Pieces Together

Rigging is the last area I will touch on, and this simple task is complicated as can be. How do you rig for a fish that blows out at the slightest motion yet often requires long distance casts into brisk winds? For rods, 8 to 10-weights are a must. If I had to pick one outfit I would go with a trusty 9-weight which provides the ability to toss a heavy, wind resistant fly, yet still offer a delicate presentation. If conditions are blustery, a 10-weight might help turn over a long leader. On calm days with little or no wind, an 8-weight will sometimes provide a slightly stealthier presentation.

When it comes to leader construction I haven’t found a pre-made leader that I am totally satisfied with. My permit leaders are long, with 12 to 14-feet being the norm. I will sometimes scale down to 10-feet on windy days to help with turnover. When constructing your own leader, I suggest you start with a three-foot 40lb. butt section followed by three-feet of 30lb. then three-feet of 20lb. and finally three-feet of 15lb.

Fly selection is a touchy subject. If you stop by the docks during a permit tournament you will find that most guides remove or cover their flies before getting within sight of the competition. The best advice I can give is that permit routinely eat crabs. Look for a fly that sinks and strips level and one that appears and swims like a live crab. If you fish with a local guide there is no doubt that whatever pattern you have selected he will cut it off in favor of his secret weapon.

One last piece of advice I can offer that will help you solve the permit puzzle is to hire a professional before going at it alone. Even if you have your own skiff and plan on a week of permit exploration in the Keys, do yourself a huge favor and spend at least one day with a local who knows these fish and these waters. A local pro will help you identify current patterns and offer a few pointers before you venture out on your own. Let the guide know that you have your own skiff and plan on venturing out on your own. Some guides might even mark a few spots on a chart for you if you ask nicely. These permit guides are a funny group but it’s just part of the uncontrollable addiction.

The life of a permit guide is a constant learning curve. For those of you that haven’t had the privilege of battling with one of these elusive creatures, it’s hard to rationalize the adrenaline filled rush. If you’ve been graced by the presence of one of these sickle-tailed demons, you probably lick your lips in desire at the slightest suggestion of a tail piercing the surface. I’ve caught and guided many clients to quality permit, and I can proudly say that I remain more addicted than ever!

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