After seven frustrating years, my campaign to catch a permit on fly rod while sight-fishing on the flats finally has come to a successful conclusion. On October 3, just after 11 a.m., I hooked, fought, caught and released an 111/2-pounder that, by the way, was also tagged for scientific research. And what made the accomplishment even sweeter is that it took place in my home waters of Biscayne Bay.
The credit belongs to veteran flats guide captain Carl Ball of Fort Lauderdale, who joined me in this project about four years ago. Together, we came close to getting the job done on several occasions, before mercifully closing the deal last week. And Ball wasn’t the only one. I have fished with more than a dozen really accomplished guides since 2005 who found me plenty of permit on the flats of Miami, Key West, Bimini, Belize, Honduras and Mexico. It wasn’t their fault that I fell short. I think the difference this time was that I just came across the right fish. It was just dumb, eager and hungry enough to pounce on the fly without hesitation.
For those of you unfamiliar with the difficulty of catching a permit in shallow water on a fly, let’s just say it’s right up there with winning a seven-figure lottery prize, hitting a hole in one at Augusta National, or batting a grand slam in the ninth inning of a tied World Series. Among avid fly fishers, it’s the Holy Grail, “rock star” of the flats, and the crown jewel of saltwater angling.
As a flats guide in Placencia, Belize, once told me: “Guys can tell you roughly how many tarpon and bonefish they’ve caught on fly rod, but they remember exactly how many permit they’ve caught — where, when, every last detail.”
The permit has achieved this vaunted status because of its natural wariness when in shallow water. This silvery, oval-shaped cousin of the jack family with the black sickle tail spends most of its time in the offshore waters of the Gulf, Atlantic and Caribbean. It only ventures onto the flats to feed — mostly on crabs and shrimp — and only when tide, wind and water temperature are to its liking. While feeding, the permit is on high alert for any signs of a predator in its watery universe — kind of like a fugitive who sneaks down to town from the deep woods to sift through a garbage can in the dark. If anything looks hinky to the permit, it is gone in — literally — a flash.
Now, in my mind, I can hear Biscayne Bay flats guide extraordinaire Bob Branham scoffing, (as he has many times), “But it’s only a jack!”
Yes, captain Bob, but unlike its simple-minded relatives, the permit takes on about 100 IQ points when it arrives in the shallows. I have even seen them refuse perfectly-cast live crabs in the lightly-fished flats of the Bahamas. In my world, the odds of their gulping a manmade creation of fur, felt, glue, lead and feathers presented in a couple feet of water are roughly the same as the Dolphins’ chances of winning Super Bowl this season.
So here’s how it happened:
Ball and I spent most of the morning staked out next to a shallow channel where school after school of permit moseyed unhurriedly on the incoming tide. Due to wind direction and the angle of the sun, I was forced to make back-casts to the fish, which looked like roundish brown blobs hovering just beneath the surface.