The Unpredictable Permit
We all know how lucky we are to have such nice weather in the winter in the Keys in comparison to the rest of the country. Everywhere on social media and the news you see a small amount of gloating and jealousy from those who live here and those who don’t. It is all in good fun because the opposite is true when the late summer sun scorches us and the north is enjoying beautiful, comfortable weather. With all of that being said, we did have a difficult winter this year as cold temperatures and high winds repeatedly shut down the flats fishing bite. Now, as spring approaches, there is change on the horizon. Wind will still be a consistent element to deal with, but rising water temperatures will trigger more and more activity on the flats.
With this change, arrives one of the most fun, challenging and frustrating fishing that happens here--chasing the ever unpredictable permit. I would like to say that I have a unique insight for the best way to target these fish. I have caught my share, but permit truly remain a mystery. I have had drinks with veteran guides who are friends of mine and the topic of fishing for permit will arise. Even after a couple of shots, I am no where closer to learning any insider information. When it comes down to it, nothing can compare to years and years of experience to try to unlock the code. Dammit these guys are tight lipped!
Well, once we get a couple of days in a row of warm temperatures in early March, we should start to see more and more permit pushing up onto the flats. This month is when they aggressively feed to fill their bellies before heading offshore to spawn on the wrecks in April. There are so many variables while hunting permit, but, when it all comes together, it is an amazing experience.
As far as rigging goes, it is pretty straight forward. For my spin tackle I use a 4000 size reel with good, high-visibility 15 lb. braid. I connect a long 20 lb. fluorocarbon with an FG knot. This knot has proven to be very strong and slim when tied correctly. I can cast and reel long leaders through the guides with ease. Then, I tie a 2/0 short shank live bait hook on and pin a small crab to it and we are ready. For the fly rod, I usually use a 10 wt. rod with weight forward floating line. I work down from a 40 lb. butt section to a 15 lb. tippet to make a 12 foot long leader. Fly patterns vary widely. It seems everyone has their special one that works. This is up to you. If you are confident in the way it looks in the water, use it. If there is any doubt in your mind as to how well it rides, lose it.
First, let’s find some. I approach this step by looking back in my notes to find a starting point for the day where I have found fish at a specific tide. If you are new to it, I suggest experimenting with long flats on an incoming tide. Again, you never know where these guys might show up. I will use the “stick and move” technique. If a certain flat seems lifeless (no sharks, rays, etc.) I won’t stay too long. This may be a smart move, or just my impatience. Either way, if I don’t like the way it feels, I’m outta there.
Okay, let’s say we’ve found some fish. Now what? What is the best way to present a bait or fly to prevent a blow out or them not seeing it at all? Again, there are many variables to consider. Usually these variables must be processed and compensated for in a very short period of time. If it is very calm, the bait may need to land a little away in the path of the fish. If there is a good breeze, a closer shot might not spook them. One thing I can tell you is, after a long search and you finally find a fish to cast to, you WILL mess the first one up. Accept this and you will be okay. Take a deep breath and move on. Buck fever is alive and well on a permit flat. I try to keep it simple. If the fish are cruising, lead them and hopefully one will find it. If tails are up and faces are in the mud, hit ‘em right on the head. Sometimes the bite is aggressive and unmistakable. With the fly rod, raise it up high and get your line clear. After that, enjoy the ride. Other times, the bite will be no more than a subtle thump. It is important to stay in contact with your bait so when you feel it you are ready to set. When I’ve asked guides when the best time to set hook is, they tell me, “Go ahead and set riiiiight before he eats it.” Thanks a lot!
I hope this vague guide for catching the most challenging of flats fish is helpful. Just put in your time and you will be rewarded.
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