Being the nice guy that I am, I insisted that Dave Hayward take the first 30-minute shift on the casting platform of the flats skiff. Of course, the generous gesture was mainly prompted by the fact that the upcoming water looked a bit deep and “froggy” for bonefish.
I figured that by the time Hayward used up his clock we would be on the primo white sand alongside the island up ahead.
Hayward stepped to the bow and stripped coils of eight-weight line from his reel. “Standard drill?”
“Right.” I glanced at my watch. “Thirty minutes or a fish. Your time starts now.”
We were on the first morning of a six-day trip to Playa Blanca Lodge in the Yucatan. Guide Carlos Vasquez used a long push pole to glide the skiff slowly and quietly with the breeze. The sparkling thigh-deep water started looking better.
I looked at the Luminox dial. Hayward had 10 minutes remaining.
The skiff stopped. “A permit at 60 feet,” Vasquez said. “Moving left to right. Cast now.”
Hayward made a good casting, dropping the crab-imitation fly about six or eight feet ahead of the cruising fish. The black sickle tail stiffened and the surface stirred as the permit raced in decidedly un-permit fashion to eat the fly.
Twenty minutes into our trip, and Hayward hooked the greatest of flats prizes —a gleaming permit! Naturally, quirky permit being quirky permit, that was the only one we caught during the entire week. We had various shots at sighted permit, even a few follows, but no more takers.
That most-recent expedition pretty well sums up my frustrating record with permit. I’m convinced that a jinx follows me from tropical tide to tropical tide across the known range of the contrary permit. My history of failure with this single species is appalling.
Let me put this into sobering perspective. I’ve fished primo tropical flats from the Florida Keys and the Bahamas to Cuba and the Yucatan and south into Belize. I’ve caught at least 2,000 bonefish on flies. I’ve caught exactly one permit on a fly.
And it was a small one—the fish, I mean, not the Merkel crab pattern.
The imbalance is ridiculous, given the two species often overlap on the same flats. I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of casts to sighted permit. Some were dreadful chokes fueled by panic and tension, but others were respectable efforts. And some were excellent—without bragging, Lefty Kreh and Chico Fernandez could not have collaborated for better presentations.
Among all those sweaty yards of weight-forward tapers and crafty crab- and shrimp-imitation flies, I’ve bent the rod on exactly seven permit. I’m one-for-seven, and that’s another huge dose of bad luck. I’m not a total rookie when it comes to striking and playing fish; the odds of angling should have favored bringing three or four of those fish to hand.
As I said, there’s some bad juju going on somehow. Magic, and I’m not prejudiced as to color, must be involved.
For example, on one particular heartbreaker the 15-pound mono leader pulled through a faulty gap in the eye of the fly hook. The eye was not properly crimped shut at the factory and the improved clinch knot came back looking (appropriately) like a tiny hangman’s noose. In my entire fishing career I only recall an eye-pull happening twice (the other on a dry hopper fly on a big brown trout in Montana’s Yellowstone River).
The permit is sort of a supercharged pompano. A small one weighs five pounds, a huge one might top 40. In my experience (mainly watching other anglers), the average fish is in the 10- to 15-pound class.
Incidentally, it’s no great angling achievement to catch a permit on a live crab in deep water, say in a free-running pass or over a near-shore wreck. I’ve caught several while using spinning tackle with jigs and bait.
But the permit fishing that has me hexed is done while sight casting with a fly rod to cruising or tailing fish on the flats. The permit are in the shallows to feed on shellfish and baitfish but they can be remarkably skittish and incredibly indifferent.
But now and then one weirds-out and hits with no reservations—an aggressive crash that would put a jackfish or a barracuda to shame. I once was fishing with a guy who fell off the casting deck while attempting a frantic cast at a tailing permit. He gathered himself in knee-deep water, splashing and flogging and cursing. He stripped the atrociously delivered fly twice and the permit shot forward and inhaled it. If that fish wasn’t the “village idiot,” it was a relative from the nearest reef.
Another companion slammed a poor cast directly onto the tail of a cruising permit. The fish swirled around and struck with gusto. I watched in disbelief. If I had violated the fish with a similar cast, it would still be fleeing.
That’s permit fishing.
The world of angling has, in the sum, been good to me. A long career as an outdoor writer combined with a free-ranging lifestyle allowed many great trips to far-flung destinations. My tattered fishing passports date back more than 40 years and account for virtually every significant species in freshwater and saltwater.
Maybe I shouldn’t get so overwrought over my woeful lack of success on permit. They really are not that big of a deal. This, of course, is assuming you can catch them.