Permit Pursuits

Permit Pursuits

This is your year—¡Caramba!—to catch a permit on the flats. The right timing is the first step.

  • By: Chico Fernandez
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It’s often said that the weather never gets too hot for permit on the flats. Even in the high heat of summer, when most bonefishing is done early and late in the day, permit are seen tailing during the middle of the day, in weather that is too hot for many fly fishers—particularly if you come from up north and are not used to 90-plus temperatures and high humidity.

But it can easily be too cold for permit. So during winter and spring in South Florida and the Florida Keys, when air temperatures drop into the 50s and below, you may have to wait a while before permit fishing gets consistent enough for you to hop on a plane with a handful of permit crab flies and make the trip south. But you still may have a burning desire to make this your year for a permit excursion. Well, how soon you can fish for them depends on how harsh a winter we’ve had in South Florida.

You see, even during a cold winter (like this year), if we get a few days of hot weather the permit will come from the reefs, in hours it seems, and feed all over the flats. Fishing can be good, even spectacular.

But the problem is that you never know till the last minute when these situations will occur. Most of the permit fishing in December, January and February is a last-minute thing that mostly the locals can take advantage of…and we do. But for you to book a trip months in advance in such unpredictable weather conditions is a gamble I would not advise, if permit is your only fly-fishing target. Best to wait till it warms up some, and then take the chance. And to some degree permit fishing is always a chance, isn’t it?

The good news: short of during a few windows of warm weather in the winter, the permit have not been fished much, so you may want to be here when they come on the flats for good…when they haven’t been pressured. I would say this is probably by March, that in most years you can count on enough warm days to bring the water temperature above, say, 70 degrees or so. Mind you, I’ve seen times when March was impossible; but, year in and year out, I’d take a chance on March, particularly in the Miami area.

Prime Locations
For permit in South Florida, you have the Biscayne Bay area and adjacent keys close to Miami, and the Florida Keys, from the Upper Keys to Key West. This is an area more than 150 miles long and many miles wide. There is lots of room to hunt the shallows and many permit opportunities. Believe me, you want to come.

By the way, the weather-related fish-kill this year in South Florida did not affect permit, because they could reach the warmer waters of the reefs in a couple of hours; but it did affect and kill thousands of snook and other inshore species.

One of the best guides in the Miami and Biscayne Bay area, in my book, is Capt. Bob Branham (954-370-1999). In the last 30 years I know of many big bones and large permit taken from his skiff. He has a wealth of knowledge on permit in Biscayne Bay. I asked Bob about early predictions for the fish.

“No doubt that after cold weather, it takes the permit longer than the bonefish to come up on the flats. I like to see (water temperatures of) 70, even 72 degrees before I feel we have a good chance at permit. And even when they first come on the flats, they may not bite as well for a while. And any quick cold snap makes them go back to the reef. Probably by March you are OK to come, but remember weather is weather and I’ve seen years when April was too cold.

“As far as conditions, give me a new moon or full moon with strong tide movement. Permit seem to take a fly better in strong current. By the way, the Biscayne Bay area usually warms up a little sooner than the Keys, and that is something to keep in mind.”

The other area that is so productive and famous for permit, of course, is the Florida Keys. A friend and guide who has fished the Keys for close to 30 years is Capt. Tim Klein (305-852-1512). Tim and his clients have won many Keys flats tournaments throughout the years.

“For me, March is still too cold in our area to take a chance (coming down here) when you live up north. Better to wait till April or May. And when you book, have the captain pick strong tides, and hope for a windy day so you can approach permit close enough for a cast, and have bright light to see them. If it’s flat calm, permit will sit with their dorsal fins out, instead of tailing and feeding on the bottom. And it’s almost impossible to make an approach then.

So if it gets flat calm, go fish for bonefish or tarpon until the wind picks up.
“But the best permit spot in the spring is probably north or south of Islamorada,” Tim says. “Somehow Islamorada itself is better for bones and tarpon at that time. The area of the Middle Keys and Lower Keys is great for permit, and of course Key West is well-known for permit. However, come fall, Islamorada can be very good.”

No doubt the ideal permit day is a windy one, blowing 12 to 15 mph and lots of sunshine, with few clouds to create glare. Flat calm? You often can’t get within 100 feet before these wary fish spook. Overcast? You can’t see them coming at you until it’s too late. However, find them tailing and you’ve got a chance.

Every guide with whom I spoke for this column agreed that May and June, during the middle of the big-tarpon season when most fly fishers only have big poons on their minds, is a great time to fish for permit on the flats.
As far as my favorite time in South Florida for permit, I think I’d take autumn, when most anglers have gone back north and it’s just us locals on the flats. Now, if you want to fish abroad, I’ve had great luck out of Belize, in the Turneffe area and out of Ambergris Cay. I’ve also taken many permit in the Yucatan, especially the Ascension Bay area.

Permit Flies and Tackle
Overall, the best flies for permit are weighted flies that hit the water and dive down, like a crab or shrimp trying to escape by reaching the safety of the bottom and burying themselves. For the past 15 years or so, we’ve been using mostly crab patterns for permit, and they are great, no doubt. But many anglers today are doing well with weighted shrimp patterns. Captain Branham is a shrimp-pattern fan, while I think Captain Klein is more of a crab-pattern man. I too am more of a crab fan, but in the last year or so I’ve also used weighted shrimp patterns with good results.

As far as specific patterns, there are so many, mostly small variations of the same theme, that the list would be endless. Still, the classic Merkin (Del’s Permit Crab) is a great fly, as are a variety of epoxy-head shrimp patterns; and I’ve taken a few permit with weighted Spawing Shrimp patterns. A collection of green or tan crabs and brown or tan shrimp makes a good starter kit. Know that each guide you fish with will have flies that are well-proven in his area. And local fly shops in Miami and the Keys also have the flies you need for the area.

Because permit flies are usually bigger and heavier than bonefish flies, we need a heavier fly line to cast and turn them over in the windy conditions that permit fishing requires. I’ve found that a 10-weight is a good all-around permit rod for South Florida. From time to time, I see an angler using a 10-weight rod with an 11-weight fly line to make casting easier, but I don’t like the heavy feel of that outfit.

As a matter of fact, if the fly is not too big, say a size 1 or a 2, I’ll even fish them with my 9-weight. And for smaller permit in the Yucatan area of Mexico, where I cast a small size 4 bonefish-crab fly, I’ve even taken permit with 6-weight rods; but that’s another story.

I change my leader length with wind conditions. If it’s too windy for me to cast easily, I may use a leader as short as 9 feet. On a mild 10 mph or so day, or for tailing permit (which tend to be spooky), I’ll probably use a 12-foot leader.

In South Florida, I always use 12-pound-test tippet, between two and three feet long. This is strong enough to land any permit, and still thin enough to allow a weighted pattern to drop with good speed. And I always tie on a permit pattern with a loop knot to allow the fly to drop fast; a clinch-type knot slows down the sink rate.

Feeding the Fish

Most of what a permit eats—crabs and small shrimp—moves very slow, often just laying on the bottom. So retrieves are slow. The classic method is to cast a crab pattern close enough so the fish sees it, and to watch for a reaction as the crab dives to the bottom. Often the fish rushes the fly and takes it on the drop.

If your cast is not close enough, the permit may not notice your fly. In this case, just strip it slowly until you see, by body language, that the fish has detected the fly; then stop stripping and let it fall.

Often a permit will swim to a crab fly that is just laying on the bottom, look at it for a while (what seems like an eternity to a fly fisherman) and pick it up. It’s great when that happens! Other times, you may want to retrieve the crab very slowly and see if the permit follows and takes it.

Captain Branham offers some good advice on crab-pattern retrieves: “If you let the crab drop, or leave it on the bottom to get a strike, many good crab imitations will work. But if you are going to try and retrieve the crab, even at mid/slow speed, make sure your crab pattern does not spin when being moved. Most patterns with legs and claws on one side will spin. And if they spin, chances are you will not get a strike.”

I concur with Bob on this one—many patterns are beautiful and extremely realistic but they don’t “swim” well. A Merkin, with rubber legs on both sides and a feather tail, swims pretty well, for a crab fly.
If you have weighted shrimp patterns, which are usually long and more streamer-like, you may try the cast-and-sink method; but you can also let the fly sink to the bottom or close to the bottom and then retrieve it slowly. I’ve taken lots of permit this way.

Despite the fly-fishing advances that have occurred since I first targeted permit in the 1950s, fishing for them can be hard. I don’t think of it as a hobby; but more as a passion. For some even an obsession. If you want to join the club, do yourself a favor and practice your casting with a 10-weight rod, a 10-foot leader and a crab fly with the hook cut off. Practice, practice, practice.

Chico Fernandez is author of Fly Fishing for Bonefish. He lives in Miami and is one of fly-fishing’s best-known teachers.