Please take the following information with a grain of salt. I am in no way a permit on fly expert. I have caught a few, on fly, probably close to a dozen, but none of them were what you would call large. I have, however, caught numerous permit on a spinning rod and some of respectable size. I recently came across a photo of my ex-wife and a beauty (not her, the fish) that I caught before we were married and I was trying to impress her. I believe I caught seven permit that day, but all on a spinning rod.
You see, there are permit, and then there are permit. The classic sight of a beautiful permit slowly gliding across a crystal flat, almost imperceptible except for the eyes and those coal black fins, was a scene that haunted my dreams for years. Just getting to that point felt like it was almost a miracle. Then, the almost guaranteed snubbing of my flies was, at first, torture. So much so I considered stowing my fly rod and picking up a camera, just to capture something to take home for all my efforts.
What really got me was how many permit I had already caught, but under very different circumstances. Permit, depending on the conditions, can be much, much easier to entice onto the end of your line. In fact, a while back, there was a somewhat famous local guide who specialized in fishing Biscayne Bay, and he would guarantee a permit on fly, or the trip was free. The tactic that he had perfected was to target the permit not on the flats, but just off the side of the flat in the channels. His flies were his own creation, and they were special, but it was how he wanted the fly retrieved that was most unusual. He believed in “Bringing out the Jack in them”.
And that leads me to how I learned to love fishing for, and catching, permit, on a jig. Hang with me - for what I believe I learned in that process will sooth a lot of future pain for those of you intent on getting one on fly.
It was around 1980 and I was fresh out of college. I had a “new” boat in the yard but it was going to be a bit of a project to get her back on the water. To the eye of this beholder she was beautiful. It was, in fact, a granddaddy to the specialized flats boats of today. Sadly, I would never fish out of that boat.
Between upgrades and saving for more parts, I would head out and chase “land locked” tarpon with my flyrod. I soon realized I was not alone in this pursuit. There was another young man doing the same, and we would occasionally wave from opposite sides of the canals. It turned out he lived in the same condo as one of my fishing buddies, so it was inevitable that we would meet.
Trading stories and photos, he revealed that he too was a South Florida native, but he had grown up in the Florida Keys. His photos were impressive, and even more so when he stated that he had never owned a boat. All of the fish in the photos had been caught from bridges. Would I like to fish down there with him? Would I!
It may not be common knowledge, but the Keys are a string of islands around 120 miles long and in between are around 40 bridges of different lengths. One is somewhat famous: the “Seven Mile Bridge”. I know another is over 3. The original bridges had only two lanes and they were so narrow that truckers had to pull in their mirrors or lose them. Fishing from them was done from extended wooden walkways called “catwalks”. I had fished from them once or twice as a kid, but my new friend was an expert. And, it just so happened, at right about that time, new modern bridges that had been recently constructed were being opened to traffic. The old bridges were decommissioned but left standing… and were probably the most unusual and productive fishing platforms that have ever existed.
Imagine hiking out a long bridge over waters that varied from shallow flats to channels to almost open ocean in the Florida Keys. The water is crystal clear and you are strolling along somewhere around 10 feet up in the air. The bridge structure has been there for decades, and is therefor essentially a reef. The bridge bisects currents that flow from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and then back, generally twice a day. Sometimes the current are strong, other times slack. Can you imagine what a sight-fishing utopia that was? Probably not, you had to experience it to believe it.
Tarpon and permit were my most common target, but there were snook at night too. Lesser, but more common species were mackerel, snapper, and grouper. Schools of Jack Crevalle commonly intercepted your bait and barracuda and sharks were always a threat to hijack your catch. I even caught a few bonefish from the bridges.
Many anglers took advantage of it while it lasted, and there were many different ways to fish, but my favorite was simply to sight fish with a spinning rod and jig. The best part was that the fish had to face the current to hold their location. Many preferred to stay in the shadows and/or behind the structure to hide from the current. Permit like to sit upstream of the bridge, in plain sight, and so you the angler are behind them and they don’t know you are there unless you spook them.
I learned a great deal of what I know about fishing from what I witnessed from those bridges. It was all there right in front of your eyes. I cannot even begin to guess at how many tarpon I hooked. Of course, “catching” them was impossible. We first debarbed our hooks in hope that they would throw them, and later just cut off the point completely. The idea was to get them to eat, then jump, and hopefully throw the jig so you did not have to retie your leader.
Permit were also there for my education, and horrors of horrors, I will admit that I took one home occasionally for the table. But, here is the thing that I can tell you that will help you the most: permit are crazy!
Imagine you are behind a permit that is blatantly obvious in the water, holding in the current, an easy cast upcurrent from the bridge. You can cast a jig (or even a live crab: their favorite!) out in front of them and let the current bring it back right into their face. The bait drifts back with the current… and the permit ducks to the side and lets it pass! You make that presentation over and over, lets say 19 times, and each time the permit will slide out of the way, and then back to its spot. On the 20th cast, as the bait drifts back one more time… the permit will bolt forward and inhale it as if it is starving and has not seen a morsel of food for days. I saw that scenario unfold so many times that I can only come to one conclusion: permit are nuts.
Now, take that lesson to the flats. How many times have you presented a fly to a permit only to see it pass right by? If my calculations are correct, you will need to present your fly to around 20 fish before one will act like a fool. When and where I fished in the Keys it would take me over 4 trips to see and present to 20 permit. My results were right in the percentages.
Now I can share a few more hints about permit on fly that I believe to be true. Remember, these is just my opinion, I warrant none of them, but believe them wholeheartedly.
The fly angler will likely lose his first hooked permit at the boat. After the eat, and the run, and the dogging in the current, the fish will finally be coming to the boat and the angler will be thinking about how great the photo is going to look! The permit then sees the boat, and for the first time it is now really scared. All that up front stuff was the permit just being confused. They have so much more stamina than anyone can believe at first, until you experience runs 2, 3 and 4.
The fly of choice is not about color, or whether it has claws or eyes or whatever. The thing that makes a good permit fly is how it sinks. Permit believe a fly that swims to the bottom and hides like a crab. It is sort of an angled spiral to the bottom. Get your fly to do that on the end of your leader and you have a chance.
And, if you really want a great chance at a permit, pray for some wind then find one that is tailing. When their tails are up, their eyes are down. It don’t get better than that. Put the fly upcurrent right when the tail drops. That situation is the only time I have ever been anywhere close to confident that a permit on the flats may take my cast.
Now, for the embarrassing lengths I had to go to for my first permit on fly? I went back to the bridges in my canoe and tried to catch them in the deeper water and the current. I knew where they would be, but I was still getting skunked. Then, while rerigging or something, I let my canoe drift quietly with the current, and when I drifted out from the shadows of the bridge a small school of permit swam up and milled around my dark green hull as if they were inspecting a clump of weeds. Without moving hardly a muscle, I flicked my crab fly into the water with my finger and there was a competition for which fish was going to get it first. I then promptly lost the fish to the bridge poles. It took a while, but eventually I learned that the fish would follow the canoe hull quite a distance from the bridge and I landed my first on a flyrod.
Does that count?
It did for me.