Permit are perhaps the intriguing, challenging, and frustrating game fish found on the flats. Even the most experienced fly anger still feels an adrenaline rush and accelerated heartbeat when the guide says “Permit, 50 feet, 11 o’clock moving to your right.” Permit are essentially a shallow water schooling fish found in flats as shallow as one foot deep to reefs and wrecks 100 ft deep.
Permit are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from as far north as Massachusetts to as far south as Brazil. They are most commonly found off the waters of Florida and the Caribbean Islands south to the reefs and flats in Belize. Permit have compressed bodies that make them appear tall and skinny with deep chests. They are silver in color and have brown or grayish colored fins. Most permit display a yellow-orange spot by their anal fin. Permit have deeply forked tails, which is often how you spot them when they are feeding on the flats.
Permit are the ultimate game fish for fly anglers for the challenge they provide both pre and post hook up. Permit are blessed with incredible eye sight and are notorious for being easily spooked, so a cast that lands too close or too hard can send them off the flats and into the deep water in a hurry. On calm clear days they can also spot you on the bow of the boat so too many false casts can give you away and send them running. At times the only way to get close enough is to wade the flats, but walk quietly or the coral and rocks crunching under your feet will send them packing. For this reason permit fishing is as much hunting and stalking as it is fishing. Let’s say you have managed to get close enough to softly present your fly, now it’s time for long slow strips until you feel that bite. Unfortunately for us fly anglers permit have mouths as tough as leather, they take off on lightning fast runs once hooked, and they will rub their head against coral, rocks, and the bottom to try and throw the hook. For this reason permit are usually the missing piece in fly anglers’ quest for the Inshore Grand Slam. Most permit caught in Central America, especially Belize, are in the 20-25 lb range but monsters of 40+ lbs are seen on occasion. The all tackle world record is 60 lbs.
WHAT THEY EAT: Similar to bonefish, permit feed on crabs, shrimp, sea urchins, shellfish and rarely smaller fish. They will root the sandy bottom looking for crustaceans or cruise the shallow flats looking for crabs. Guides and anglers should look for ‘tailing’ fish, permit with their tails sticking out of the water as their heads are down feeding. This is one of the tell-tale signs that they are busy eating and it’s time to get a fly in front of them.
WHERE TO FIND THEM: Permit are found in warm, shallow water throughout the eastern Atlantic but are most populous here in the Caribbean from Florida to Belize. They are often spotted tailing on sandy bottoms, grassy bottoms or the flats in water less than two feet deep. They can also be found in schools in deeper water around structure like reefs and wrecks.