The Tao of Permit

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Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

What does it take to be a good permit angler?

At the park it was a beautiful day. Three days in a row I had taken my nine weight Helios 3, my snow saucer and my dog down the hill to the long promenade lined with oak trees and carefully stepped off my casting distance. Starting off at forty feet, I’d drop the bright pink yarn into the saucer again and again, then step off ten more feet. I’d cast at fifty, sixty, seventy feet, each step hitting the saucer a little less frequently. At eighty and ninety feet I’d be happy just hitting it a few times. I would have liked to had a few more days to practice before heading to the Keys, but my casting tuned up quickly and I was feeling pretty confident. I focused all of my energy on accuracy. I’d be spending three days with my buddy Bruce Chard looking for permit, and in permit fishing, accuracy is everything.

At the park it had been a beautiful day. Hurricane Michael had blown through just a few days before and we were enjoying the sunny, crisp, bluebird days on the back side of the storm. On the bow of the skiff, in the Keys, things were slightly different. The wind howled thirty miles per hour. It was a challenge just standing on the skiff, must less casting, and poling was a nightmare. Controlling the boat and making a well planed and executed shot was impossible. Every time a fish showed itself felt like a frenzied hail Mary. I’d never take off on a trip without practicing my casting, but those days in the park had nothing to do with this.

I don’t get to do a lot of permit fishing. I enjoy it, I think. It’s a love-hate relationship for sure, but for a handful of reasons it’s just very hard for me to devote the time and money it requires. Like no other type of fishing I know, permit fishing requires time. Permit just don’t eat the fly very often. Even if the angler does absolutely everything right, the vast majority of shots will end in refusal, or more often the fish fleeing in terror. 

Although permit anglers will spend incredible amounts of energy analyzing and debating the meaning of every twitch, dart, and fin flick of every permit they have ever cast to, most experienced anglers will admit they have way more questions about permit than they have answers.

It may be those answers we are looking for when we pursue them, or maybe we just love abuse, but if you are going to chase permit, and keep your sanity, you have to accept that you are simply not in control.

Standing on the bow with a thirty mile per hour wind driving into my casting shoulder, I certainly have no illusion of control. I make some good shots, I make some epically bad shots, I stick the fly in my ass. My line blows off the boat and is swept under the hull, once it wraps around the plug. About half the time I manage a decent presentation and am actually in the game, but it’s a struggle every second, and the seconds go quickly. The wind pushes the boat across the flat at a clip and the fish are coming at us in a hurry. We spot a fish, turn the boat, make the shot, maybe the fish follows and then refuses. The whole process is over in five seconds. 

We actually get a surprising number of shots. Bruce knows how to find fish like no one I know, but you can’t make a permit eat. You just have to keep putting the fly in front of them until a very smart, highly pressured fish makes a bad decision. My buddy Rob Kramarz, himself a great permit guide, always says he made two-hundred-ninety-seven shots at permit before one ate. I have no reason not to believe him. It’s not the kind of thing you’d brag about. Let’s say it takes a hundred presentations on average to find the right fish. If you are only making a good presentation half the time, that’s two hundred shots. If you’re only hitting one in five, well, good luck. 

“Most of the shots I see anglers make at permit, the fish leaves without ever seeing the fly,” Bruce tells me.

It’s not the game for everyone. Especially not in the Florida Keys where the fish are extremely educated. Maybe it’s different in Mexico or Belize but there are still no guarantees. Sure, it’s a physical game. It requires very accurate casting, even in really bad conditions. It requires fast action and instant decision making. It requires good eyes and the ability to read the fish’s behavior. Even if you feed a fish, it’s incredibly difficult to master the timing of the hook set, and if you do, you’ll have a hell of a fight on your hands before you’ll touch that fish. All of that is a huge challenge, but it isn’t the real game.

The real challenge of permit fishing is keeping your head straight. It’s a mental game when you get down to it. It’s about not letting the fish psych you out. It’s about not losing your shit when the conditions are terrible and you have zero time to react. It’s about not beating yourself up when you make two-hundred-ninety-seven shots without an eat. If you can do all that, and still keep your wits about you, and not develop searing self loathing, and somehow manage to enjoy yourself, you might make a good permit angler. Whether you ever catch one or not.

A guide told me once that most permit are caught by accident. I’ve certainly heard plenty of stories to back that up. For the record, my last three days of permit fishing went like this.

I got a lot of shots. I had a handful of serious follows. One fish grabbed the fly but didn’t stick. I caught one bonefish who wandered by and one snapper who ran in front of a permit to eat my fly. I hooked myself twice. My feet hurt, my legs are sore and I need about two good days of sleep. I had a blast. I spent three days with a great friend on some beautiful flats and saw more permit than I have in the last three years. I can’t wait to do it again.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “The Tao of Permit

  1. Yup….sounds about right. On my last trip, my wife and kids had packed a t shirt(fish hippy, I think ) with a permit on it. Its the only permit I held in my hands, but I can’t wait to do it again

  2. “if u want to see really good fisherman breakdown into colossal failure:

    give them 2-4 days of no good shots….then give them 1 shot at two massive tailing permit feeding and perfect weather…and u just might see someone who can cast good at 90ft… cast about 10 feet

    If u want to see great fishing tell that same person ur taking a break from permit:

    and tell them there is a nice school of big bones at 11 o’clock about 75 ft. ”

    – Confucius

  3. Yes, it’s different in Belize and Mexico. The permit there are less intelligent. The guides coax and cuss them in multiple languages but they never respond.

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