5 Tips for Shallow-Water Permit

Landing a permit on fly is one of the most venerated accomplishments in fly-fishing
All photos by Blue Horizon Lodge

Written by: Damien Nurre, Blue Horizon Belize

Permit are difficult–but not impossible–to catch on fly. They have big eyes, are more wary than bonefish, and are pickier than tarpon. Many anglers spend years in their quest to catch their first permit. These wonderful fish have a mystical reputation among our angling community, and for a select few, landing a permit is a calling that keeps bringing them back to the flats. For me, casting at a tailing permit in crystal-clear water is the pinnacle of fly fishing: it may not have a high catch rate, but being up-close and personal with a wild animal like that has a special kind of appeal. 

Don’t be afraid to land your fly close enough for the fish to actually see it.

1. Hook ’em or Spook ’em

The number one reason guides tell me that a permit didn’t eat was because the client’s cast landed too far away from the fish. You need to land your fly close enough that one of two things happen: the permit either eats your fly, or speeds away. It takes a bit of mental discipline to risk spooking them like that, so you should practice for this scenario before your trip by using 14-inch plates as targets at 40, 50, and 60 feet. If you can turn a permit into that plate–and be okay with spooking 9 out of 10 of them–then you’ll be in the game.

2. Use a Fly Line with a Longer Belly

I find these lines offer the ability to get a quick second, third, or even fourth presentation to the fish. For instance, if the fly lands a few feet short, or maybe just behind the fish, the longer-belly line requires fewer strips to bring it back to the point that you can pick it up and casted again. The more time your fly spends in front of a hungry fish, the more likely it is to get eaten.

Real crabs don’t move very fast, so neither should your fly

3. Less is More when Retrieving

Your crab flies should behave the same way live crabs would behave: move a short distance, sink to the bottom, and remain still. Little to no movement is going to be the most productive retrieve. After you present the fly to the fish, try to have the patience to only strip in the slack, keeping the line just tight enough to feel a strike, but not so tight you are moving the fly much at all. The more you move the fly, the less likely a permit is to be fooled by it.

4. Watch, Don’t Feel, for the Eat

If the fish tips in the general area of your fly, or if you see the fish start to “vibrate” (you’ll know if you see it), set the hook. Even if you haven’t felt the fish eat, that fish is probably eating. A permit can eat a fly, crush the hook, and spit it back out–avoiding getting stuck by the sharp part–without the angler ever feeling it.

Takes can be very subtle, so pay close attention to the fish’s body language.

5. Make Your First Shot Count

Your first cast is the best chance for catching a permit. The more times you pick up and recast, the more likely that fish is to spook. So don’t take a shot just to take a shot, but be patient and stalk the fish. Study their behavior and anticipate their next move, waiting for the moment they turn toward you. The most favorable shot is a head-on presentation, so if you can line that up, and make a good cast on your first attempt, your odds of catching a permit increase dramatically.

Damien Nurre is the general manager for Blue Horizon Lodge in Placencia, Belize.

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