Fishing in the Florida Keys
Where's your permit? These may be the
three most-dreaded words a homeowner in the Florida Keys will ever hear. Especially
if it comes from the mouth of a building department inspector at the door of said
homeowner (who on the sly decided to slap on a $10,000 addition to his home.) But
I'm sure that never happens here in the Keys.
But there is another permitting process that takes
place down here. Regardless of whether or not one owns property in Monroe County, it
only makes sense that everybody applies for one of these permits. Of course we're
talking about the coveted third leg of the flats grand slam, (Trachinotus falcatus)
A Special Breed
What makes a permit so special anyway?
It possesses neither the lightning fast runs of a bonefish, nor the breathtaking
leaps of a tarpon. Yet there is a mystique surrounding the permit that makes them a
highly-prized target of flats fishermen throughout the Keys.
First of all, permit are extremely sensitive to their vulnerability while up in the
shallows, making them one of the spookiest fish in all of flats fishing. For this
reason they must be approached with the utmost of stealth. Some days (especially the
calm days), it's a challenge just to get the boat close enough for a decent cast.
The bait (usually a half dollar-sized blue crab) must be tossed well beyond
and ahead of the fish, and then be quietly skipped along the surface into a presentation
position near the fish. And if by luck all has gone well up to this point...well,
maybe that permit will eat or maybe he won't.
A permit's unpredictability is just another part of
their mystique. It is not unusual (especially in March during a week-long warming
trend between fronts) to find schools of permit lying motionless near the surface along
the edge of a backcountry flat, or alongside an oceanside coral head. Anglers will
often work themselves into a lather casting fruitlessly to these fish for hours on end
without a strike, regardless of bait, hook, or leader size. Yet, a day or two later
this same pod of fish might just gobble every bait that lands in their area code.
Or there may be times we're casting to singles as they cruise along the edge of a flat on
an early rising tide. Three seemingly perfect casts may be completely ignored by
three successive fish...then number four comes along and nearly rips the rod out of my
angler's hand. Go figure!
Permit are also very unpredictable in their fighting tactics. Though one may expect
an initial long powerful run off the flat, after that anything goes! Some slug it
out near the surface, and some dive for cover, often cutting the line on a tall seafan,
coral head, or old lobster trap. Charging right back at the boat, and even running
under the boat is often part of their routine too.
Endurance is their strong suit; expect a slugfest in which every inch of line must be
earned, especially the last 30 feet or so. Anglers often tire before the permit
does. Many permit have been lost at the boat when an exhausted angler dipped his rod
too fast during the pump and wind procedure, resulting in a classic "tip wrap"
and subsequent break off.
Though one probably wouldn't go as far as to describe a permit as a beautiful looking
fish, they do possess somewhat of a surreal majesty about them. The broad,
iridescent body, the jet black tail and dorsal fin, the bright yellow patch on the
underside extending down into the anal fin...these all combine to make one awesome looking
Most backcountry guides will tell you that perhaps the most exciting sight in all of flats
fishing is that of watching a group of big black sickle tails intermittently breaking the
surface of the water and waving in the early morning sun, as a school of permit forages a
flat. And the sense of anticipation while silently stalking "tailing"
permit is nearly unbearable. When one of those fish spots a well-cast bait and turns
on it...well I'm here to tell you that even experienced guides find it difficult to draw a
breath at times like this. Make no mistake...this is exciting fishing!
Yes... But How?
Gearing up for permit fishing is not that
hard actually. A good 12 pound spinning outfit is about right. It goes without
saying that a top quality drag is important. Make sure the spool is packed
with at least two hundred yards of line. The relatively tall "longcast"
spools are a big help in making long-distance casts to those spooky permit.
It's also very helpful to have a rod that features a fast taper; that is, a rod that bends
a lot up toward the tip but not so much through the middle, and not at all down toward the
butt section. At the end of the backswing portion of a cast, a fast-taper rod tip
will "load up" with the weight of the bait. Then as your casting motion
starts forward, the rod tip will "unload", imparting greater energy to your cast
than if you had chosen a standard taper rod. This extra edge is often the difference
in making a successful presentation, especially when trying to cast a bait into those
stiff, early spring winds.
Speaking of bait, the half dollar-sized blue crab is still by far the most effective
offering you can present to a permit. A big live shrimp is an acceptable second
choice, and a jig (1/4 oz pink or yellow) or jig and shrimp combo would rank about third.
Perhaps the most popular method of fishing for permit involves hunting for them on the
flats. Because of their size (averaging about 15 pounds), permit require a bit more
water on a flat than do bonefish; a foot and a half to about four feet is their preferred
range. Sometimes they'll school up just off the edge of the flat in six to ten feet
of water. Although they might seem more approachable deeper water, don't get too
close with the boat or they'll "wise up" to your act fast (which is really the
deep-water equivalent of getting spooked!)
Permit that are tailing in shallow water on a calm day offer the greatest challenge.
One's approach must be even quieter than silent, and the cast must be
nothing short of perfect. This isn't as easy as you might think because permit often
like to tail when those new and full moon tides generate a ripping current across a flat.
Cast too far from the fish, and the current will sweep your crab off into
oblivion. Cast too close and your prize will bolt off the flat in terror.
No discussion regarding permit fishing on the flats would be complete without at least
touching on fly fishing for permit. The inherent unpredictability of the permit is
multiplied fourfold when targeting this gamester on fly. The few that have really
mastered this art still get a lot of refusals, but generally speaking, crab patterns are
the way to go. Del Brown, fishing under the guidance of Marathon's Capt. Steve Huff, is
arguably be the best in the world at taking permit on fly. Last I heard, Del's
numbers were at 330 permit on fly! He's had a lot of success with a pattern of his
known as Del's Permit Merkin. Islamorada's Sandy Moret has also caught a great
number of permit on fly. He runs a local fly fishing school and shop (Florida Keys
Outfitters), and sells a number of proven permit patterns (including the yarn crab which
was the hot permit fly last year).
Not Just a Flats Fish
But there are other ways to go about catching a permit. The easiest method of all is
to target those angler-friendly fish that inhabit wrecks out in the Gulf of Mexico (though
this is more of a summertime phenomenon.) But closer to home, there are some wrecks
and rock piles located from several hundred yards off the oceanside shoreline, all the way
out to the reef that will hold permit in the early spring. In contrast to their
brethren on the flats, these fish seem almost compelled to gobble up every crab that
drifts their way, though they can get fussy at times when the sea is calm.
It's also not unusual to find permit schooled around the bridges that span some of the
deeper channels that run through the Keys. Several seasons ago the permit fishing
turned so red-hot in Bahia Honda Channel during the spring tarpon run, that it was easy to
forget about those "silver kings" for a while and have fun slugging it out with
permit on lighter tackle. This fishing is best when large rafts of sargassum weed
are floating by the bridge, (typically in April through June.) The permit can often
be seen prowling through the weed in search of crabs.
And then again, permit will sometimes just show up where you least expect them. I've
had schools of them pop up beside the boat while we were yellowtailing out on the reef in
80 feet of water. Casting the biggest shrimp in the baitwell ahead of the school on
a knocker rig (a popular yellowtail setup) has worked on these fish several times.
I've also caught numerous small permit (as well as pompano) up on the southwest border of
Everglades National Park while trout fishing. And the largest permit I've ever seen
in my life (other than photos) was hooked while jigging for snapper on a small ledge out
in Florida Bay. We fought the fish (which had to be pushing 40 pounds and was a
shoe-in for my for my upcoming brochure) for almost an hour on 12 pound spinning tackle,
when it suddenly made a hard run under the boat and severed the line on the hull.
Darn near cried over that one!
So...if you're looking for a fresh challenge from a gamefish that is classy, powerful, and
doesn't know the meaning of quit, then now is the time to apply for your permit!
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