Angling’s Greatest Feat

Fooling the Jack of All Jacks

Capt. Mike Genoun July 2, 2015

That’s it, you’re dead serious! You’ve reached a point in your angling career where everything seems complacent and you really need to elevate your game. It’s time for an exciting new challenge that will push your skills and patience to the limits. It’s time you consider pursuing permit on fly.

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Photo: Pat Ford

The task at hand is no easy feat. Permit are powerful swimmers with an incredible sense of sight, smell and sound that scrutinize their prey perhaps more carefully than any other. Coercing such a sharp-eyed opponent to inhale an artificial crab in crystal clear water barely deep enough to conceal its own presence is considered angling’s greatest feat. To pull the wool over their eyes time after time requires far better than average skills, an in-depth knowledge of the fish’s characteristics, and relentless dedication to pursue permit to the exclusion of all other flats species. If you really consider the odds, you’ll probably have better luck chasing thousand pound tuna!

Del Brown proved permit were worthy of trophy status and that success could be achieved on a regular basis. He truly revolutionized the fishery with extraordinary angling feats and world record catches that may never be duplicated.

To get it right, the sun, the moon and the stars need to be aligned. Wind speed needs to be just right. The skiff needs to be perfectly positioned to allow the angler in the bow to make a dead-on cast to tailing fish clearly within sight. In this arena close doesn’t count!

Along with sniper-like precision, the landing just ahead of the lead fish needs to be feather soft, and the fly must perfectly mimic the real deal. Even then, when success seems imminent, the percentage for a take is extremely slim. Trophy permit roaming shallow flats may just be smarter than you and I.

Early in fly-fishing history, the jack of all jacks was typically considered bycatch and frequently pursued with proven bonefish tactics. The logic made sense and resulted in a fair number of fish, but more often than not the odd looking ball of hair scooting in front of the permit’s face sent fish running for cover.

The late Del Brown got it right. Legendary fly fisherman and creator of the most successful permit pattern in existence, the Merkin, Del realized long ago that fooling these titanium tackle-testers with any level of consistency requires a very special set of skills and unique approach. Brown went on to successfully catch and release over 500 permit on fly—most of which with his very own creation. Del Brown proved permit were worthy of trophy status and that success could be achieved on a regular basis. He truly revolutionized the fishery with extraordinary angling feats and world record catches that may never be duplicated.

Permit enjoy a varied diet, but crabs make up the majority of their protein intake and at first glance, the Merkin certainly mimics the favored forage in terms of appearance. More importantly it reacts like a juvenile blue crab, and that’s primo secret numero uno!

Juvenile blue crabs cruise the surface with the tide, often in the company of loose grass and debris. When the crustacean senses danger, it instinctively dives to the bottom and lies motionless in the substrate, praying camouflage rather than speed will be enough to elude the threat. The Merkin mimics this behavior more naturally than any other permit fly. The numbers and the pattern’s reputation simply don’t lie.

Still, success isn’t as simple as it sounds. Reaching 50 pounds, the carnivore hunts crabs in gin clear water for a living and knows the crustacean’s habits well. Rarely will a perceptive permit look twice at something that doesn’t mimic natural behavior. Of course, none of this matters much if you are not in the right place at the right time. With these silvery slabs of pure angling joy, opportunity is everything.

Habitat is crucial, with the Lower Florida Keys through the Marquesas the epicenter of this complex fishery. Water temperature plays a huge role and although permit will stomach a range of temperatures, a reading in the low 80s is ideal. Note that slight fluctuations are tolerated, however rapid changes in water temperature from something like a stalled cold front will send these tropical fish scurrying for more suitable surroundings.

If you were writing a book, bright blue skies with little to no cloud cover provides both the angler and the guide with perfect visibility—critical to achieving success. If you can’t see fish, you aren’t going to catch them. Never will you hear a guide bragging about taking a permit blind casting. 

Wind speed is also vital. In most cases, fly fishermen despise excessive wind. When stalking permit, guides pray for a 10- to 15-knot breeze. The wind and resulting surface chop muffles unnatural noise and provides permit a sense of security as they venture onto shallow flats. Ideal conditions also stir up the bottom and expose shellfish and worms.

With the stage set, permit typically enter a flat and work the down current side of the bank as the tide floods. If there is an adjacent channel with deeper water nearby, the percentage of spotting these ghostly silhouettes increases exponentially.

Perhaps the most crucial component to success is a competent guide. Achieving angling’s greatest feat requires a team effort with angler and guide working together. One can’t do it without the other and both deserve equal recognition for every successful outcome. A seasoned guide specializing in this unique fishery knows where to look for permit and when. He understands territory and tide, seasonal patterns, feeding habits and more. He is a permit specialist and an expert with a push pole in his hand, capable of silently maneuvering a skiff into the perfect position while simultaneously calculating numerous factors, including the angler’s casting ability, the fish’s behavior and the climate. Experience cannot be substituted.

You’re on the bow with fly rod in hand and one of the most highly respected guides perched behind you. At this stage it’s all up to you. If you can manage to maintain your composure and react accordingly, and with confidence when an opportunity presents itself, then you may just be able to pull off the perfect illusion.

Scan the distance and look for dark, sickle-like fins piercing the surface. Your head should be on a swivel, sweeping from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock. Don’t stare at any one spot unless you really believe you’ve spotted something. If you’re convinced it isn’t a tiny branch or false impression, notify the guide who may be looking elsewhere. Peer through the surface close to the boat as well for big black eyes hovering without a body. This is the shadowy image created by the permit’s mirror like reflection. Nervous water tells a story too, and once you’ve seen a permit wake it will be etched into your memory bank forever.

Most likely the guide will zero in on a target before you. If you don’t see the fish, point your rod tip to the 12 o’clock position and allow the expert to direct you. Do not react until instructions are provided. It’s all about trust at this point. You’ve worked hard and your time has come, but this is no place for second guessing. Once the guide maneuvers in for a shot, punch the fly with confidence and land it as close to the tailing fish as possible without hitting it on the head. Breathing will stop and time will stand still.

Convinced the fish is about to spot its next victim, remain motionless and let the fly descend. If all goes well, the hunter will swing into position and devour the fake. Now that you’re connected forget about the fish for a few hectic moments and focus exclusively on clearing line. Once you are on the reel most of your worries are over. Permit have rubbery lips and a sharp hook will penetrate easily, but will rarely come unglued. Expect blistering runs toward deep water and a battle similar to any broadsided fighter, with the fish constantly flanking against the direction of pull. Now all that remains is finding your rhythm and not pushing your tackle beyond its limits.

While a single article can only shed a tiny bit of light on the complexities of this stimulating fishery and only touch on the emotions associated with stalking permit on fly, accomplishing angling’s greatest feat is certainly within reach. The only question remaining is if you have what it takes.

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