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The Permit Puzzle

by Chico Fernández
photos by Chico Fernández
Don't be too cautious when presenting a fly to permit. Hook 'em or spook 'em.

Chico Fernandez on PermitTHE LIGHT WAS PERFECT as I aimed my telephoto lens at a skiff working across the flats. The bow angler made some beautiful practice casts, and I was sure the photos were going to be nice.

All of a sudden, the poler pointed to the right, and the angler started to cast again. But this time, there was no loop. His backcasts were hitting the water, and finally, his leader caught and wrapped around the rod, ending any possibility of a shot. Even at a distance, the angler looked four inches shorter in his humiliation.

I turned around to my friend, who was smiling broadly. “A permit,” he said. “They saw a permit.” And sure enough, a few seconds later, the angler started to practice his cast, which was once again beautiful.

A little late, but lovely.

I cast my first fly to a permit in the mid-to-late 50s, and today, with quite a few permit to my name, they still make me nervous when I am getting ready to cast. There is something about permit fishing that just makes an angler uneasy. Maybe it’s the fact that you could face a fish well over 40 pounds, and that same large fish can often be hard to see in the flats. Or perhaps it’s the fact that they can be incredibly spooky even on a windy day; forget a calm day. Even after a great presentation, they might come to the fly as it drops, carefully inspect your offering long after it has reached the bottom, and then reject it and go about their business of looking for real food. It can leave you with the shakes.

As hard as it can be to find permit, and as tough as they can be during a fight, I find the presentation and the retrieve the most critical. The toughest thing about landing a big permit is hooking a big permit.

The Presentation

Given a good breeze — which is ideal for permit because it helps conceal your profile — you are going to have to talk yourself into being fairly aggressive in your presentation. You must cast close enough that the permit sees or hears your fly when it plops and, more important, sees it sink to the bottom. Remember that the only defense a crustacean has when confronting such a swift predator is to dive to the bottom and dig in. To a permit, this looks like a crab or a shrimp (depending on your fly pattern) trying to skip out on dinner.

So don’t lead him by too much, just a couple of body lengths or so is enough. And while you will occasionally spook a few fish by being aggressive and getting too close, you will also hook more fish than by being too cautious. There is nothing worse than an angler casting all day to a few permit that never knew he was there. Spook them or hook them.

If the cast did not land exactly where you want it to, yet is still too close to pick up and cast again, then retrieve it slowly. A long pull might put it were you want it. Or you can just retrieve until you see the fish react, and then let it drop.

One exception occurs when you are chasing a permit or a school of permit feeding into a strong current, which will be waiting for crustaceans to drift their way. Here it may be wise to lead the fish a little more than usual and let the fly drift into them.

The Retrieve

Once you have made a good cast, you must interact with the fish. That is, watch his reaction to the fly from the moment it plops on the water to the take. Try to read the fish’s body language during all of this, because every fish reacts differently, although this is certainly an area where experience is the ultimate teacher.

Chico Fernandez Permit

The author (above) prefers the longest leader possible for the prevailing wind and a butt section measuring up to half the length of the leader to help turn over the heavy crab flies normally used for permit fishing.

If he sees the fly dropping and comes over for a look, lay it on the bottom as he investigates. If you feel you must move it, or you can’t stand it any longer, move the fly very slowly and such that it is off the bottom. Dragging a fly across the sand will spook them.

Other anglers may fish the crab a little faster by swimming it with a long, slow pull.
Then, if this does not work, they will go back to the drop-and-wait. But whatever you try, do not use sharp or abrupt strips. This appears very unnatural to a permit and more often than not will spook them.

As you make your retrieve — even while you are letting the crab fly sit on the bottom — make sure that you have no slack in the line. This way, the moment the permit picks it up, you will feel the take and are ready to strip-strike. If you don’t maintain line contact, a permit will pick up the fly for a few seconds and then spit it out without you knowing. Happens all the time, to the frustration of the guide who is begging for the angler to strike.

On that point, any permit angler should have a constant line of communication with the guide or poling partner. Remember that he or she is much higher than you on that poling platform and, if it is a guide, has seen many more permit than you.

One exception to the slow retrieve is a school of small permit in the flats, and by small I mean fish under 10 pounds or so. These younger fish act more like jacks than mature permit, so it is almost always better to use a faster retrieve and even a fishier fly, such as a Clouser.

Cast in front of the moving school (like teenagers, small permit always seem to be moving) and let the fish approach the fly. Then, without any sharp strips that may scare them, strip, stop, and strip. If you get no hits, mix it up with a few strips, a long strip, and so on. By then, the spirit of competition among small permit will usually trigger a strike. And remember to strip-strike before you lift the rod, and to look at your line and not at the fish while clearing your fly line.

In the way of leaders, I like the longest I can handle in the prevailing wind condition. And half of that is butt section to help turn over the typically heavily weighted permit flies.

Most of my permit leaders range from about 9 feet for very windy days to almost 14 feet for fairly calm days. If it’s super calm, I do some other type of fishing (or head back to shore for a big lunch).

The single best tippet size for me is around 12-pound test. I say “around” because some manufacturers’ tippets are heavier than others for the same test strength. Too heavy a tippet, and the crab will not dive as fast and does not act as natural. But I do see anglers using 16-pound tippet, and that’s okay if the diameter is not too big. Others even go to 20-pound tippet, but not me.

Permit Flies

Everyone has their own killer permit fly, but in most areas, the basic crab designs seem to do the best, followed by some shrimp patterns. Rather than show you any of the crab flies I use, I think it is more important to point out that you should have your crab flies in two weight sizes. One should be lightly weighted with brass eyes or bead-chain eyes, and you should have another group tied with lead eyes. So, for example, you would have a light-colored Merkin in a light weight and heavy; a dark color in a light weight and heavy, and so on. This way, if the tide is high when you get to the flats, you go heavy. If the tide is low and the fish are tailing in fairly shallow water, then you pull out the lighter flies so you can land softly and still get to the bottom.

Tackle for Permit

Permit require one of the warmwater fly lines specifically designed to put up with very hot weather and high humidity. Most of these lines have a hard core (either braided monofilament or a single mono core) to keep the fly line fairly stiff in permit weather. Unlike for bonefish, it doesn’t get too hot for Mr. Permit. So in that high heat, ordinary fly line will hang on the guides like wet linguini and refuse to shoot. They also tangle often, making any line manipulation a nightmare.

A 9- or a 10-weight is the best line for delicately presenting heavy crab and shrimp flies in shallow water. Any heavier and you are pushing it; besides, what fun would it be to fight a permit with a tarpon rod?

Use a 9-foot saltwater taper rod to match your fly line. Unfortunately, some manufacturers have rods that are, at least in my opinion, too stiff for the recommended fly line. So you may have to use one line size larger on some rods. But try to stay with the 9- and 10-weights, if you can.

Despite the fact that permit grow several times larger than bonefish, they tend not to run as far as fast. Even if you hook a 40-pound permit, you should be fine with a fly reel that holds around 200 yards of 20-pound backing. And of course, a smooth drag is a great help and a pleasure to use. However, I have landed lots of permit while using reels with light drags or clicker drags, just for fun.

Either way, the fight may be long not so much for the blistering runs but for the permit’s stubborn, jacklike fight. Before you can experience that, however, you have to learn the necessary patience to entice them to eat, and that can come only from fishing for them as much as possible.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Chico Fernández is a renowned fly fishing instructor, lecturer, and author who developed or helped develop many of the modern saltwater flyfishing techniques and fly patterns in use today. He is also on the editorial board of MidCurrent. Chico's most recent book is Fly-Fishing for Bonefish (Stackpole Press, 192 pages, August 2004). This article was first published in Saltwater Fly Fishing Magazine.
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  • Kyle G

    What a great article. Thank you! Trying for my first Permit this April and now I feel I have a place to start.