Permit: The Wariest Fish on the Flats

By: Terry Gibson

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Back in 2010, I had the chance to dive in the restricted research areas of the Dry Tortugas National Park, on a hump that is one of the most important spawning areas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The scientists were putting sonic tags in adult mutton snappers, which were aggregated by the thousands there to spawn. We saw a lot of different species displaying reproductive behavior, including one of the state’s most iconic species, the permit.

I could not believe how these huge schools of fish would let me swim right up to them and take pictures. They are so wary in shallow water where fly and light-tackle anglers sight-fish for them that it was hard to believe I was photographing the same species.

Late spring is one of the best times to target permit. When they aren’t spawning offshore, they move in to the flats. Offshore, anglers catch these “reef jacks” on wrecks and high-relief natural reefs. That’s fun, but the real challenge is catching them in just a few feet of water, by making a pinpoint cast to individual fish with a crab fly or live crab. You make the cast ideally when the fish is tailing, nose down, with its black, forked tail exposed.

Just about all sight fishing for permit takes place in the Keys or in Biscayne Bay, which laps against the shores of Miami and Homestead.

If you want the ultimate test in terms of making a convincing presentation to a really wary, powerful fish, come try your hand at permit fishing. You can catch them on the flats year-round. Opinions vary about the best season, but for my money I’m planning a trip in May and another in early October. Water temps seem to be perfect for them during those months.

Here are some top permit-fishing guides and outfitters:

Capt. Joe Gonzalez, Miami

Capt. Jorge Valverde, Homestead and the upper Keys

Capt. Tad Burke, Islamorada/upper Keys

Capt. Bear Holeman, Summerland Key

Saltwater Angler, Key West

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