The Mental Game of Permit and Steelhead Fishing

2 comments / Posted on / by

Photos by Louis Cahill

Photos by Louis Cahill

By Tucker Ladd

I will be the first to admit it — I have a permit fishing problem.

While that is a hard enough itch to scratch, living in the urban wilderness of Denver, CO, I have also developed a bit of a steelhead fishing problem in recent years. While more often the idea of standing on the bow of a flats boat supersedes the thought of standing waist-deep in 40 degree water, the satisfaction of hooking either fish is something that seems to haunt me daily.

What I have always loved and appreciated about fishing for both permit and steelhead is how these fish challenge, reward, and break you as an angler. But it’s not just what these fish do to the psyche of an angler that makes pursuing them similar. There are also similarities in the practice of trying to catch one of these elusive fish on a fly.

It’s all a mind F*&# 

DSC_0546Let’s face it, there’s a lot of “down time” when fishing for either of these species. By “down time” I mean the duration of time spent in between catching either fish. Now sure, there are those epic days when one may hook, and even land multiple fish in a day, but these days are certainly few and far between.

Any normal day of fishing for either species requires a mental toughness, to not only get through the down time, but stay focused, alert and always ready for when the fish eats (steelhead) or presents itself (permit). Any angler who has regularly pursued either fish has their own technique or methodology for working through this mental challenge. And let’s be clear, it is a tremendous challenge.

Day 1 is always easy. You’re fresh on the water, the possibilities are endless, and you’ve got that feeling of “this is the day!”

Day 2 you’re feeling challenged, but the previous day’s fish sightings or bumps are keeping your energy up and your attitude in check. Even if you didn’t see or feel any fish, the “newness” of the experience is keeping you going.

DSC_9515-2Day 3 can go a couple of different ways. Scenario 1 is you have already caught and landed a fish, so you feel a sense of calm that the proverbial monkey is off of your back. You’re casting or looking for fish with more confidence, which also translates to fishing with more confidence. Scenario 2 is that you haven’t seen any or many fish, or maybe you were fortunate enough to get a few good shots or bumps but the lack of action is getting you down and weighing on your mind. Even worse, your fishing buddy has already caught some fish, leaving you feeling even more desperate for action.

By Day 4 the quality of your trip is 100% in your control, but keeping positive is beginning to be a struggle. You’re tired, mentally exhausted, and the idea of staring down a flat for hours, or casting and two-stepping endlessly, is beginning to sound more like a chore than a privilege.

DSC_0026The morning of Day 5 & 6 is a grind, regardless of how many fish you have seen, felt or caught. This is likely your last, or second to last day, so the end of the trip is in sight. This is both a blessing and curse, as your body and mind are ready for a break, but you are not ready for the unfortunate inevitably of stepping back into your normal day-to-day reality. This keeps your mind on task, as well as providing a bit more energy and willingness to continue the repetitive nature of this pursuit. The idea of, “one last fish,” prevails over the failures and lost opportunities of the week, and it almost seems like you’re getting a fresh start (but not really).


It’s not a numbers game… 

There is only one species of fish that committed anglers keep a tally of how many they have landed, and that fish is the permit. Del Brown still holds the record (513 to be exact), but who’s to say that there isn’t a humble flats angler out there who has surpassed this benchmark. Regardless, you don’t encounter trout or bonefish anglers who can tell you how many of these species they have landed in their life, and there’s a reason for that.

As someone who has spent considerable time fishing for both permit and steelhead, I am a firm believer that before you step onto a flats boat or wade into a steelhead river, you must be prepared for the good old goose egg, day in, and day out. Sure, you’re going to have banner days, but those will inevitably be followed by dry spells that can go on for weeks, if not months. But anyone who has spent time pursuing these fish knows that the satisfaction of touching a fish following a long fish-less period, is probably one of the best feelings in the world.

The tug is absolutely the drug 

I know that this saying has always been applied to steelhead, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the permit tug is equally as rewarding as a steelhead tug. Arguably different, but equally as cool.

What many people don’t fully understand is that this saying isn’t referring to some amazing power or force contained within these fish but, instead, to the culmination of effort, time, persistence, skill, and in most instances the almighty dollar, that went into catching one of these fish. So the subsequent feeling of a fish on the end of your line has tremendous meaning when so much has gone into getting there.

_DSC2867The other “addictive” factor to both fish is the sensation (visual or tactile) that comes with the eat. With permit, this is the visual sensation of watching the fish turn on, swim to, and hopefully eat your fly. The timing and sequence of this varies, but the ability to remain calm through this progression is most certainly a learned skill. With steelhead the eat is most always sensory (unless you’re fishing a dry fly), when you’re looking for anything from a subtle tap or tug, to a violent grab. Regardless, the ability to make good on the hook set is the point of victory or defeat for any angler in this pursuit.

What I have always loved and appreciated most about fly fishing is the endless opportunities to grow and learn.

There is no “mastering” this sport, because there is no finality to what one can learn and ultimately apply. That is never more true than when in pursuit of steelhead or permit. It can be brutal yet, for some ungodly reason, whether in victory or defeat, we always seem to step back up, or wade back in, for another round, keeping our fingers crossed that the next pursuit will deliver the drug we’re ultimately looking for.

Tucker Ladd
Gink & Gasoline
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Follow Gink & Gasoline on Facebook:

2 thoughts on “The Mental Game of Permit and Steelhead Fishing

  1. Musky should also be included in the mind game scenario. Some days there will be multiple fish, other days just 1 fish, others just encounters, and then there’s the goose egg of not even moving a fish. But we’re all still addicted to the hunt and the thrill of the encounters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...