FLY FISHING’S HOLY GRAIL
As revered as the permit is as a shallow water
gamefish, it’s surprising there is so little information
available about them. We know they can live in deep
water and that they frequent the flats in search of
crabs and other crustaceans (much the same as a
bonefish). Permit exist from the coastal waters of
the mid-Atlantic states south to Brazil. The greatest
concentrations are found in south Florida, Belize and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere (Ascension Bay and
vicinity) of the Mexican Yucatan.
Even the issue of the permit’s spawning season is not documented. Two renowned saltwater fly anglers, Jeffrey Cardenas and Winston Moore, responded in similar fashion to the question about the spawning season.
Cardenas: “Permit are still a mystery to me and I’ve spent nearly 25 years fishing hard for them. Whenever I have one ‘sharked,’ I rush to recover the carcass and I have found roe in them in both late March and late October.” Moore: “My best guess is they spawn in Belize the last half of April through May. However, if you talk to ten different Belizean guides you’ll get ten different theories.”
The Atlantic Permit is a member of the pompano family and has a number of relatives. There is a Pacific Permit in the family, but even less is known about him, as he is not pursued with the fervor of his Atlantic cousin. When the permit is small, its appearance can cause it to be confused with the other pompanos, but there is not another relative that attains his size. Winston Moore has taken one in
Ascension Bay (photo below) estimated in the 50 pound range, and several over forty pounds have been documented. Even a five pound permit is reason for celebration, especially if it’s an angler’s first permit on a fly.
Why are permit so challenging to catch on shallow flats with a fly? The answer starts with their nervous demeanor as they move from deep channels onto “skinny water” flats. On the flat, they become an easy target for a variety of sea birds, sharks and barracuda. This vulnerability makes them very sensitive to any sound or sight that is out of the ordinary. Its huge, specialized eyes provide the permit with tremendous vision to determine what is edible. And, they usually swim in an erratic fashion, making it difficult to determine where to place the fly. Often, a cast to a cruising fish that looks like it will be perfect at the outset ends up being ten yards from the fish as the permit has changed directions while the fly was in the air.
There are two situations that give the angler the best opportunity to get an “eat” from a permit. The first is a school of three to ten fish slowly cruising together. In this situation, sometimes the competitive instincts will overcome their normal cautious approach. The second opportunity occurs when a permit is aggressively tailing with its nose buried in the bottom chasing some delectable morsel. Often a fish in this focused feeding mode will allow the angler to get very close and will respond impulsively to a well placed fly.
It could be argued that the most exciting sight in the arena of saltwater fly fishing is a big, black permit tail waving above a shallow water flat. However, there is no argument that releasing a fly-caught permit taken on the flats is the “holy grail” of fly fishing.
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