Aquamarine, A Permit Tale

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

“Now! Now is the time! Hurry!”

I am perched on the bow of a rocking Hell’s Bay Waterman, on the flats of Abaco, squinting through my bifocals and trying in vain to find the opening in a figure 8 knot. I’ve cut off six different crab flies and lucky number seven is waiting for me to finish this damned knot, while a forty-pound permit feeds in front of the boat. Ashron, my guide, is trying to help. I know this, but it’s not working. Sweat is running into my eyes and I’m starting to get tunnel vision.

The permit stops feeding and I’m finally able to finish the knot. Now we have to wait again. This big permit is doing what’s called “riding a ray.” It’s hovering over a manta ray about six feet across and picking up the scraps the ray misses. It’s sort of the Holy Grail of permit shots. As long as they stay together, the permit will focus on the ray and eat happily. We pole along about seventy-five feet behind them waiting for the ray to stir up the mud by feeding. Drop a crab pattern in that little puff of mud and you stand your best possible shot at hooking up on the permit.

Six different crab patterns have failed to get the desired reaction. I’ve had looks, swirls, follows and charges but no eats. Lucky number seven is a tiny Mop Crab no bigger across than my pinky nail. There is no eighth pattern in my box. There was, in fact, no seventh pattern. This fly came from Ashron’s hat. I’m already kicking myself for that. I’m kicking myself for making some bad casts early on, for not having practiced more before I came, for not calling my mother more often and any other shortcoming I can think of. This is what happens in your head when permit fishing and I know full well that the nagging voice in my head must be quieted before that ray muds again. That’s the devil F-ing with you. Permit ride rays and the devil rides permit.

“Now!” Ashron tells me. I see the puff of mud, I let go of my fly and sweep back my rod and tell the devil, “Watch this.”


It’s safe to say that I’ll never forget the first time I went flats fishing. I wasn’t aware at the time how that day would change my angling life. I was just too excited to think past the moment. Like a kid hopped up on Halloween candy. The thing that sticks with me after all those years are the colors. As a photographer, I had died and gone to heaven. My pallet had exploded with color I never thought possible. I distinctly remember a longing for one specific color. Aquamarine.

When I was a kid, in the 60s, my prize possession was the green and yellow flip-top box with the sharpener on the back. The super-fabulous 64 color Crayola crayon set. I was Vincent VanGogh with that box in my hand or I’d have thought I was if I’d had any idea he’d existed. At age six, a lunatic fauvist with no regard for staying inside the lines, he and I have never had more in common. I loved every crayon in that box, even the white one, but there was one crayon that always wore down to the nub first. Aquamarine.

That first day on the flats of the Florida Keys Joel Dickey and I were looking for bonefish. The gold sand flats of the Keys are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. They glow and shimmer with life, but my eye kept wandering to the deep aquamarine channels around the edges. I didn’t know anything about bonefish, I just knew I wanted to photograph that amazing aquamarine. I wanted to wear my lens down to a nub on it.

“There ain’t no bonefish over there,” Joel told me

So I learned to love photographing those bright sand flats. That water was too beautiful to ever capture through the lens, I told myself, and I wrote it off. It was years before I found out what was in that water. Once I did, I again found myself longing for it. I came to understand that the aquamarine water wasn’t devoid of fish. It just wasn’t water you’d take a newb to fish. It was permit water.

Now that I know what’s in there, I love it even more. Permit fishing is not everyone’s idea of a good time. For some folks though, it’s highly addictive. If you’ve been getting bored with the BDSM scene, you might should try permit fishing. It’s definitely the next level in humiliation. If you enjoy making one perfect presentation after another, only to be met with rejection, it’s the game for you.

Permit are tough, no doubt, but the way we fly anglers target them is tough too. Permit love crabs and fishing crab patterns is a good way to get them, but those flies are hard to fish well. Crab patterns rely on weight for a lifelike diving action. They imitate a crab diving to the bottom for safety rather than swimming. This means you can’t strip them like you would a shrimp pattern. You just have to come tight and wait, watch the fish’s reaction and through observation and telepathy determine whether to give your fly a little bump or a strip set. It takes a minute to get the hang of. When it works, you feel a surprisingly subtle eat.


My fly drops right next to the mudding ray. Not in the mud, but close. I see the black sickle tail spin round and angle down out of sight. I wait.

“Long strip,” Ashron says in a remarkably calm tone.

I make a long slow strip and there it is. Bump, bump, tug. I force the rod tip down into the water and pull tight with my line hand. Now the big fish knows something is wrong and he turns hard. I lift the tip of the rod and pull it to the side as the fish turns to run. Everything is going according to plan, finally. Then there is an odd, rubbery feel in the line and it goes slack. He’s gone. When I bring the fly in the hook is straight. Oh, the devil is loving this.

I don’t get angry or upset when I lose a fish. I don’t recall exactly when that stopped. One day it just didn’t matter like it used to. I think I just started to love fly fishing for a different reason. It’s not that I don’t care if I catch fish. I do. I just stopped beating myself up about ones I don’t catch. My desires became less about the last fish and more about the next fish or the special fish.

It’s changed the way I fish, and the fish I pursue as well. I no longer gauge success by numbers of fish or even size of fish but by the unique experience each fish offers me. I know that sounds like some fruity nonsense, but it’s true. It’s what has drawn me to steelhead and tarpon and now to permit. I’m not a great permit angler. I’m getting better and I think it’s the learning and the challenge I enjoy. That forty pounder was the biggest permit I’ve seen with a rod in my hand. I fed him and I felt him pull, and for now, that’s enough. But not for long.

I know one thing for certain. I’m hooked and I’ll be spending a lot more time wearing this crayon down to a nub.


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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15 thoughts on “Aquamarine, A Permit Tale

  1. Gah, I’ll be hitting belizean flats in like 20 days. This story definitely makes waiting harder. Nothing like the flats. Good stuff

  2. Permit on the flats know how to tease. You know how the tide is running so you know the direction from which the fish will arrive. You know where the edge of the flat is so you know where the first appearance might be. You can’t see anything because your at water level and the surface is steel grey. But you look anyway. Then, about 50 yards away, way beyond casting range, you see that long, thin fin stick up out of the water and slowly flop back and forth. Those fish really know how to tease.

  3. Louis this is one of the Best articles I have read on the blog in sometime.

    “It’s changed the way I fish, and the fish I pursue as well. I no longer gauge success by numbers of fish or even size of fish but by the unique experience each fish offers me.”

    That speaks volumes about you as an angler, and if more people had only that expectation of fishing I think it would be amazing. Keep up the good work.

  4. And, it really doesn’t matter the fish. You cast to the exact spot anticipated, the correct lead distance, maybe a tiny mend, the drag-free drift over a foot or so, the timing for the next rise-feed is perfect, the tippet is upstream, the fish takes the fly, you give it a moment to turn downward, you set the take….and feel just a wisp of lip tug and no more. What could ever be more satisfying. It really is why we fish.

  5. Numbers and size do not compare to the pursuit of the “perfect fish”. The perfect fish is a combination of the perfect setting, the perfect conditions, the perfect time, the perfect fly, the perfect cast/presentation, the perfect intention (no accidental fish), the perfect take, the perfect hook set, the perfect fight, the perfect response to the prefect fight, the perfect landing (no help), the perfect fish (appearance), and the perfect release. The perfect photo is optional (no rods in mouth).

  6. I posted a link to this on FB. I have fished permit a lot and this is very well written. I loved it. In my post I said: ” “Fishing for permit is like going into a bar and seeing the most beautiful woman you have ever seen sitting at the bar alone. You sit next to her, strike up a conversation and buy her drinks all night long, even though you know there is zero chance she is going home with you.”

  7. Great story! I to feel the pull of the permit! & I’ve yet to get an eat… But when the guide mutters palometa & swings the boat into position & your clothes are flappin in the wind, your desperate to see, eyes tearin up , knees shakin, adrenaline pumping, trying to keep you balance, concentrating on making that perfect cast… You nailed it Louis! Too cool.

  8. Pingback: A First Look At Abaco, Bahamas | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

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