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Permits are among the most challenging of fly rod game fish. In fact they have long been the "Golden Fleece" of many saltwater fly anglers. They are exotically beautiful and they live in places where the water is crystal clear. Permit fishing on shallow saltwater flats is highly visual. You see every fish that you cast to. Sometimes you might stalk the same fish for a long period before the first cast is made. It better be a perfect cast... because you might not get another. Casting to permit is possibly the most demanding long range target casting in all of the fly fishing sports. More than a couple of shots at the same permit is very unusual. No one gets very many permit without honing their casting skills. Long casts are the rule rather than the exception. It is hard to get close to your target.
Permits have acute eye sight and refined hearing. They are constantly on the move and unpredictable in mood and direction. A cruising, feeding permit can cover a large area in a short period of time. Casting position in relation to the fish is paramount to being able to make a winning presentation. You often have to wade softly, but quickly for long distances in uneven terrain. All the while you must watch the permit. If you take your eyes off it, it can disappear.
Permit often feed and travel in schools. Sometimes all of the fish in the shool are all visible. More often they are not. A common error is to target a perceived single fish and drop your line square across the backs of several of his unseen buddies. An explosion of water and the contrails of vanishing permit will be your reward. Practiced eye sight and very clean polarized glasses are a musts for this game. Even the most skillful angler will occasionally nearly step on a 16" deep permit in 12" of water. Seems impossible, but it is true. Big permit can move completely undetected in very shallow water. They are reflective and light absorbing at the same time. Their sides are like mirrors, but the back, tail and fins are gray to sooty black. An F-117 has nothing on a permit when it comes to disappearing in plain sight.
If all of these facets of permit nature weren't challenging enough, permit can also be just plain finicky regarding their diet. On average permit are selective rather than opportunistic feeders. They seem have a varied diet, but usually feed exclusively on one organism per feeding period. In this way they are very much like trout feeding on a hatch. Having fished over selective trout helped me understand this facet of permit behavior.
Observing spring creek trout feeding on hatching mayflies is easier than seeing what permit are eating. Permit are bottom feeders and even though much of the food consumption happens in shallow water, it is hard to observe.
I have never killed a permit. I have been told by more experience anglers that permit stomach autopsies don't reveal much. There is an anatomical reason for this. Permits don't have teeth. Instead the have crushers in the back of their mouths. These crushers turn everything into an indefinable mush.
That permit feed on crabs is well known. That they also eat minnows, shrimp and urchins on a regular basis is not as well known. I have been fortunate enough to catch permit while they were feeding on each of these different items. Like the difference in the rise forms of trout feeding on Baetis or Salmon Flies, permit betray what they are feeding on to the experienced observer. Permit tailing for crabs act very differently than the ones that are cruising for bait fish. Being able to define the subtle differences of permit behavior is what separates really great permit fly fishing guides from the rest of the pack. I have been fortunate to be able to hire one of the very best.
Only a few guides and anglers have had the time and patience to observe permit for long enough periods to understand how they feed. One such person is Derrick Muschamp of Placencia, Belize. I have spent nearly 70 days, in 7 trips fishing permit with Derrick. One day during the 1992 trip I landed 5 permit from 6 to 20 pounds. In ten days I hooked 19 and landed 14. I never could have had this unbelievable experience without Derrick's direction and patience.
I can say that we have learned a few tricks together. I always carry a fly tying kit when I travel. It has saved my bacon more than once. Early on in our relationship, I would ask Derrick to bring me samples of the organisms that permit feed on. The first sample was a glass jar filled with water and a couple of nickel size, grayish-brown mud crabs. After a day of me tying and him explaining crab behavior, we came up with a reasonable facsimile, the Placencia Mud Crab. It has evolved on subsequent trips but really has changed little since our first prototype. The first fly caught my first permit. It was the first fish that I put that fly in front of. That made a lasting impression.
Belize has some of the best permit fishing in the world. Some days you can get shoes at twenty or thirty fish. Dull days often produce shots at 4 to 6. The easiest fishing is in several soft bottom lagoons. The Placencia Mud crab as we named our first creation is a have to have fly for this environment. It is designed to sink a foot a second and always land and ride in the hook-up position so to be comparatively snagless. The mud bottom lagoons are barren, but permit are found in more than one kind of habitat.
Belize also has a myriad of hard live coral flats. Some of these flats attract permit on all the right tides. These coral habitats have many kinds of potential permit foods. One of the most prominent permit food items is the Olive Fuzzy Legged Crab. They range in size from a dime to a quarter. Colors range from light grayish olive to dark brownish olive. Our answer has been the Emerald Placencia Crab. It has accounted for several very nice permit. The olive crab is most prominent but by no means the only crab in the coral. There are bluish and tan ones too.
Out on the hard coral flats you will encounter permit feeding in cover that is so tight that retrieving the fly is nearly impossible. Here the only possible presentation is to land the fly nearly on the nose of a tailing permit. Even in more open habitats such as turtle grass, sand or mud bottoms, a fly that is allowed to fall or glide to the bottom in front of a patrolling permit will often produce a strike. As the fly touches the bottom the angler gives the line one or two very short, but sharp strips. The motion is like a crab digging in to hide. If the fly kicks up debris from the bottom it is even more effective. The Antron Crab series evolved to fit these situations and has accounted for many hook-ups. Antrons are designed to remain comparatively snagless when fishing open terrain. In coral gardens let it fall and rest on the bottom. If the permit picks it up set the hook. If not, don't try to retrieve your fly until the permit is well past it. Antrons usually land with the hook up-right and are weighted so they glide like crab like a crab that is trying to find a hiding place on the bottom. They sink as quickly to the bottom than the Placencia Crab series.
Permit will feed on shrimp if they are easy to catch. Both the Epoxy Shrimp and the Ultra Shrimp have accounted for permit. These flies don't have to be fished right on the bottom. Often mid-depth is okay. Early morning or periods of heavy wave action can be good. One good head on shot is worth twenty side shots when fishing shrimp.
Permit will at times selectively feed on Sea Urchins. During these periods, permit will move slowly and tail repeatedly. Just cast your Sea Urchin in front of the fish and let it set on the bottom. Wait for the line to tighten. Determining when permit are actually feeding on Urchins can difficult and needs more study. I once had a 25 pound permit come 20' to my Urchin. He subsequently spooled me and ruined my fly line in the coral. The fight lasted about ten arduous minutes of me wading and swimming after the fish. It ended with a frayed and broken 16 pound test tippet. I will never forget it. When we took the boat over the coral garden where he broke me off, he was sulking over a patch of light colored sand about 15' deep. I have an indelible picture of him resting there in my minds eye.