May 10, 2022
Mo Smith was running out of time. The angler from Cordova, Tennessee, had secured four tarpon and four bonefish for the Southernmost Light Tackle Anglers Masters (SLAM), a two-day tournament out of Key West. Smith needed a prized permit to complete his own slam, a scoring requirement that five other competitors had already accomplished. A dark wall of thunderstorms, however, blocked access to the next essential move. The prudent decision for us was to hunker down and wait it out.
With just three hours remaining of fishing time on this, the final day, the storm line mercifully passed to the northeast, and the sky opened with welcoming, unobstructed sunlight to the west of Key West. Within moments of arriving at a long, current-swept edge, the first black outline showed, swimming slowly parallel to the bank in 4 feet of water. The fish paused to create a signature mud, a whitish mist that elongated and evaporated with the strong outgoing flow. I silently poled into position.
The fish paused to create a signature mud, a whitish mist that elongated and evaporated with the strong outgoing tide.
Smith's crab sank in the bull's eye, two feet in front of the shadowy figure. The permit surged forward to vacuum in the bait. Fifteen minutes later, the 36-pounder (and eventual winner of the largest permit award) was netted, photographed on the provided measuring device, and released.
Smith knew he needed more for the Grand Champion honors, and dropped small crabs perfectly on the plate of the next three permit that sauntered by, fish of 28, 31, and 33 pounds. He was locked in the “zone,” and only two things limited him to four permit: the duration of the fights with these sturdy foes, and the abrupt arrival time of “lines out.” He also won most permit releases and ultimately the entire tournament—not by luck or good fortune, but thanks to casting practice and preparation, much of it a thousand miles away on his farm in Tennessee.
Even during the most casual time on the water, the mere sight of a permit usually induces some degree of panic in the angler. The mystique and frustration surrounding permit over the years largely developed because of a reluctance to adjust to the precision and attention to minutia that catching this great fish requires. Everything must be attended to, from weather, to tackle preparation, to presentation and all points in between.
Where to Find Permit
Decades ago, permit catches were considered newsworthy but largely occasional: an unexpected encounter while leaving a flat, or worse, just when entering on an edge. Some time passed before true “flats” fishing included 3 to 6 feet of water, much deeper than the guides were fishing for bonefish or redfish. One piece of the puzzle that fell into place: Florida Keys guides would frequently observe, “We see more permit during tarpon season than at other times of the year.” The guides were unknowingly well-positioned all along, in the preferred water that the permit actually shared with the tarpon.
Most great permit spots, in shallow or deeper areas, seem to share one common bond: current. Rips, ruffles, seams and bumps are all places permit are comfortable when tides and levels are right for those specific situations. As a bonus, these venues also afford cover while providing some valuable texture to the water, not too much to totally shroud the permit from view, but just enough to blur the advances of an angler.
Permit are often found on grass and composite bottoms, but they are never very far away from rocks and coral.
Geographically, the recognized centers of classic permit sightfishing are mostly in South Florida, and mega-red zones are historically at either end of this available shallow water range. Biscayne Bay is well-noted for its dependable permit fishery, and the Lower Keys, particularly Key West and beyond, are legendary. Both of these fertile regions have an abundance of rocky terrain. Permits are certainly found on grass and composite bottoms, but they are never very far away from their true home ports, constructed of rocks and coral.
Of course permit are found statewide (and elsewhere) in many diverse circumstances. They are visitors at or around almost every inlet or large channel on both Florida coasts, deep reefs, patch reefs, rock piles, major fishing piers, and of course, wrecks. The great Capt. Ralph Delph, who fished for permit on the flats, and also in deep water including wrecks, coral heads, and various other structures, often noted the relationship between shallow water and deep water permit. It has long been held by skinny water permit enthusiasts that populations in the lower portions of the state relocate, en masse, offshore in the spring, presumably to spawn. Delph did acknowledge that at times, some flats seemed to run out of permit, and he found them “out there,” in increased numbers during those special intervals of exodus, frequently, but not always, around the moons of April. The good news for skiff anglers was, that despite grumblings of, “they all left,” (Delph felt this observation was circulated by those with a rather limited number of fishing areas) there were always plenty of fish that remained accessible.
Delph fished the deepwater permit extensively, and one day showed a gathering of anglers some pictures taken out somewhere behind the Marquesas from back in the '70s. If he took the time to flash these shots, the catches should have been of near-record proportions. There were several silvery discs in the photos, which seemed to be all in the 18- to 22-pound range, good ones, but nothing epic. Instantly he could tell his sought-after reaction had not happened. “Look closer, in their mouths,” he said. Three different colored MirrOlures and even an open-faced chugger hung from white-lipped jaws just prior to their release. “Permit,” he said smirking and shaking his head, “on the wrecks, are NOT the same fish.”
Wreck-related fish will spike out, wake, or flash. If it is calm enough and slicked out, they might even “bob,” an interesting spectacle, currently unexplained, in which permit gently stick their head out above the surface, so subtly it leaves almost no ripple on the water.
Pay close attention to the immediate zipcode around a wreck, especially in the Gulf. Hooking up and battling a large permit or two can ignite and accelerate unwanted predatory activity from the likes of goliath groupers, or worse, demonic bull sharks. Once they execute the initial kill of a hookup, the scenario nearly always deteriorates into a horror movie, and out of reverence for the great permit, it might be time to relocate entirely.
In more applicable sightfishing water, from 1 to 4 feet deep, permit are among the very best at sensing approaching water displacement. Also, to add another degree of difficulty, their out-of-water vision is excellent. When stalking them, always be careful to avoid unnecessary movements of any kind, particularly when closing in on casting distance. Weight shifts, stepping, and the shot-killing move of turning the boat to provide a better angle, might be felt or seen, and are all potentially fatal to your efforts.
How to Fish for Permit
So many failed sight permit shots with any tackle are dismissed using the same familiar crutches: “Wow, they are so tough,” or, another favorite: “They're just not eating.” The near-total control of each encounter, especially with the right live crab, is far more dependent on precision than most would care to admit. Great equipment is, of course, terrific to own and use. But it will not make you cast any better. Successful pure sightcasting is only about accuracy, with very little luck, ever.
Accuracy comes with repetition. In golf (and with the best clubs in hand) you will rarely improve your handicap by even a single measly stroke by playing once per month, without going to the driving range and practice tees and putting greens between rounds. Sightcasting is the same. Fishing more can certainly improve some angling skills, but a minimum (or more) of regular practice, with spin or fly is invaluable, if improvement and catching more permit is truly a goal. Proficient spinfishing is also about proper trajectory. Remember, crabs are not aerodynamic. They are not designed to fly, and will sail off line if thrown feebly. Laser-like paths are always preferred; a high arch not only has the likelihood of veering off course, but is going to land badly. Permit are not fans of percussion.
Practice will pay off when the chances come. A single fish demands a tight, well-directed shot, obviously in front of the animal. Moving schools of permit, whether on the prowl or tailing or mudding, present possibly the very best targets. Just by virtue of numbers, one in that formation is going to be careless, and certainly all members of the group are going to be inspired to eat due to the competition factor alone. But the placement of the cast will set the mood in your favor. A shot to the side of the formed group, or out off a corner will frequently be rejected. The squadron itself is safety and security. Launching into the “pocket,” like a well-placed roll for a strike at the bowling alley, allows the integrity and the shape of the school to remain intact, and simply cave in forward. Pulling the corner fish out of the wad, even if he follows, or branches off to check things out, will disrupt the natural shape and flow of the others, alerting them that something is not right. The larger the members of the gathering are, the more accentuated this dynamic of dependence becomes.
Best Baits for Permit
Permit will eat crustaceans right off the surface, particularly when in a channel, a deeper basin or tide-lining and hunting in floating weeds. But in the shallows, when they are tailing or mudding and focused on the bottom, they cannot resist a sinking crab, shrimp, jig or fly. Making the correct read, and dropping something at the right distance from them, relative to the conditions and speed of movement in that specific encounter is the key. Not so close to spook but not so far that it's out of their sight: That's your mantra.
The ultimate bait, of course, is a lively crab. In many tidelines, most of the crabs that permit (even very large ones of over 30 pounds) are knocking out of the grass are tiny, some just barely the dimensions of a dime.
When they are tailing or mudding, they can't resist a sinking bait.
It was in one of these rips, well-formed in the center of a major bridge channel in the Middle Keys that I watched Jim Holland Jr. from Vancouver, WA lock up with the permit of a lifetime. You may recognize his name as the IGFA record holder of the largest tarpon ever taken on fly, a 202-pounder. Holland is usually standing with flyrod in hand, but on this May afternoon with his father Jim Sr., the winds were firmly in the 30s and the desired visible and swimming tarpon were not happy.
The Hollands reluctantly succumbed to the conditions and freelined a tiny, bonefish-size live crab suspended under a cork back into a scattered group of rolling tarpon. Only several feet into the drift, there was a significant silver flash at the bait, and the cork descended, line came firmly tight, and the fish raced seaward with the turbid outgoing tide.
We barely unclipped from our anchorage in time, with only several wraps of line left on the spool of the 20-pound spinner. Following almost on plane and in tense pursuit, Holland Jr. managed to gain back line when Jim Sr. noticed, “She hasn't jumped yet.” Nearing the half-mile mark of an amazing first sizzling run, the boat closed the distance to within 50 feet when the fish raised higher and showed its abnormally broadside near the surface for the first time. A triple gasp at the sight of a massive and unexpected permit, very far north of 40.
The giant settled into a slow-paced deep swim, like a big amberjack, scraping the bottom for almost 30 minutes before finally yielding to Jim Jr.'s pressure. The hook was barely visible but reachable, and my entire hand fit comfortably into the mouth of this extraordinary trophy. After a picture and release, the permit sprinted away and into the channel to grow even larger.
The advent of thinner braided lines has been helpful in enabling us to cast these crabs that are much smaller than the “silver dollar” size traditionally used. Petite baits make far less splash, and present closer and more efficiently to the wary target. Live shrimp, and not necessarily giant ones, are also very effective, and a small split shot can be added to any live bait to assist in sending it farther out, and down.
When to Fish for Permit
Yet another opening to more permit is heat. Permit embrace steamy water possibly more than any other premier flats species. It is never too hot for them. The original Del Brown Permit Fly Tournament in Key West (Del is known for landing over 500 permit on fly) moved on the calendar from spring to the middle of the summer to take advantage of warmer water. Catches soared. The off-shoot March Merkin, also a fly permit event, took over the old Del Brown dates in March and experienced what early spring cold fronts and chilly water can do to these sensitive fish. Twice, the three-day Merkin, with 20 or more boats participating, has been won with a total of one and only one fish!
Fly Fishing for Permit
A clear or clear-tipped flyline allows for much closer placement of the fly, so critical in permit presentation. However, on some glassy calm days, no doubt the sound and footprint of the flyline itself can blow out permit, no matter how invisible the line.
Lighter-pound test leaders and fluorocarbon are sometimes other ways of shifting focus back onto equipment and away from proper delivery. Permit are not leader shy. Over the course of tarpon season you'll frequently hear tales of permit inhaling poon flies not even designed or rigged for them, with 40-, 50- and 60- and in the “olden” days, even 80-pound shock tippets. Also, many of the spring, summer and fall live bait tarpon fishermen who use live crabs extensively catch plenty of permit, many as bycatch, on heavy leaders and large hooks. Again, not anywhere close to standard permit terminal gear.
To appeal to the permit's fondness for food items plummeting toward the bottom, most flies are designed to have a respectable sink rate. Some of these “flies” are more than castable on light to medium spinning rods. The bigger dumbbell eyes (some more closely resembling an old Joe Weider free hand curling weight) can tip the scales at upwards of 1/8 of an ounce and are difficult to throw, twice as tough with a brisk wind. Best to attempt flinging this leaded-down pile of yarn with at least a 9 weight, and many do it with a 10 or more. Pain is the first noticeable symptom of going too light. The bullet-like bug stings on impact when misdirected. And once it's wet, it's more complex to pick up and deliver. Most great permit flies are generally bulky, thick, and retain water like a mop. It's a radical departure for a flats first-timer, specifically a stream fly angler who is used to throwing trout patterns that may weigh less than bugs they're designed to imitate. After knotting one of these heavyweights on, the first few attempts generally aren't delivered optimally.
These buxom crab patterns should dip and slide like real crabs. If you can properly execute the drop and make a tiny exploding mushroom cloud of sand or mud at the end of the plunge, the result should be favorable. Shrimp patterns should erratically mimic shrimp; intermittent quick, small bumps and strips of the fly. The ever-futile search for THE magical fly that all permit will uncontrollably rush continues, but the truth is this: There really isn't one. Consistently successful permit fly anglers and guides like to deliver whatever the fly is, very tight to the fish, assuring they see it. Make them make the decision right now, by quick reaction, not lengthy inspection.
Some popular permit flies actually float! Skimmer-type patterns may emulate a paddling and escaping crab on the surface. Such bites are explosive and exciting to watch, as the entire head of the permit will protrude out of the water, simultaneous with that unique and spine-tingling slurp, resounding somewhere between a tarpon busting and a shellcracker delicately kissing.
Ideally, disengage a hooked fish in the water, but for a picture keep the fish submerged until the photographer is completely ready. One hand firmly around the tail for control and the other hand under the head or chin, being overly cautious not to stick any fingers into or inside gills. To release, hold the fish a foot or two off the surface, point down and slightly out and firmly launch, almost tuna style, and the fish will hit the water running and accelerate to a brisk pace towards safety. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2019