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Thomas McGuane: Chasing permit in the Florida Keys

Going for a Crafty Fish in the Keys

By Thomas McGuane / March 29, 1992 / New York Times OUTDOORS

Serious fly fishermen are all aware that catching a permit marks a personal epoch in the sport. Permit are members of a family that includes jackfish and pompano. They are powerful, keenly sensitive fish that visit the warm water shallows where they can be sight-fished by light-tackle anglers. This is extremely difficult fishing even though advances in the patterns of flies used have improved the odds.

Productive new fisheries have opened in Central America, and some anglers have found easygoing fish, usually small-school fish, ready to take a fly. But generally, the permit is a stern taskmaster who allows the angler absolutely no margin for error. And the definitive permit is still a fish from the Florida Keys where anglers have struggled for many decades to make sense of its habits.

Capt. Blair Wiggins travels to Key West Florida to fish for permit on the fly with Capt. Will Benson. Permit caught in the Marquesas Keys. Benson Image.

Capt. Blair Wiggins travels to Key West Florida to fish for permit on the fly with Capt. Will Benson. Permit caught in the Marquesas Keys. Benson Image.

I’ve been fishing for permit for 20 years and I am simply not going to state how many I have caught. I once lived next to the permit flats and I have caught some. Fishing alone, with friends and with guides I have had the meager success that generally must suffice. But each one of those fish has meant so much and the struggle has been so enduring in memory that I know I’ll go on struggling, however feebly, to catch another permit for as long as I fish.

This year I again borrowed a spare room from my brother-in-law in Key West, Fla., scattered my clothes and tackle about, established the code for the CNN news loop, bought The Key West Citizen and a book of tide tables; in general, raised all the antennae for local orientation and prepared myself for four days of fishing with my friend and guide Gil Drake, who has dedicated himself to understanding permit and now has invested 30 years in it.

We left Key West and headed southwest along the Gulf of Mexico flats in a glaring stillness. I stripped off enough line to present the fly and stood in the bow as Gill poled us across what seemed a large, vague area of shallows. It is really anything but vague and until you acquire enough knowledge of flats fishing to convert this lack of definition into the intricate and highly patterned habitat that it is, the sport is little more than a series of accidents and it may not even be that. It may be impenetrable tedium from which you emerge desperate for your home waters.

A squadron of permit appeared on the flat, feeding steadily, tips of dorsals and tails making incisions in the slick water, their deep, mirror bodies taking on their surroundings as they moved. At a range of about a 100 feet, Gill began to position the skiff. I checked and rechecked the loose fly line on the deck, made my best effort at estimating our closing speed and raised my rod to begin casting. The fish exploded in the general direction of Mexico.

With this slick, transparent water, we were hoping for intent, feeding fish. Any fish that was looking up at all was going to see us. We hoped, too, for an afternoon breeze, but it never came. Instead, we found through the long day numerous permit, some of substantial size; but all well out of reach in these conditions. Some went off like arrows, some in a boil and some simply dematerialized in the glare. They induced futile casting and other defiant gestures but when the water jug was empty and the last sandwich swallowed, we felt as far from catching a permit as we did when we began.

Bill Klyn (L), Co-Chairman of Membership for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, presents author Tom McGuane with the Curt Gowdy Media Memorial Award at the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust’s 5th International Symposium in 2014. Photo by Pat Ford.

Bill Klyn (L), Co-Chairman of Membership for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, presents author Tom McGuane with the Curt Gowdy Media Memorial Award at the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust’s 5th International Symposium in 2014. Photo by Pat Ford.

Gil and I talked about how we’ve changed the way we fish for permit. The flies are heavier and more realistic. We cast much more directly to the fish, as close as possible, instead of the long leads that we used to throw, out of fear of spooking the fish. Knowledge of tides and seasons, as well as the extremely specific “trails” used by permit, has improved. Catching a permit on a fly has gone from nearly impossible to extremely difficult. The fish are around in good numbers, thanks to a persistent practice of releasing them. Key West remains at the center of stateside permit fishing and if the attempt to ban Jet Skis from the White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is successful, we may look to a long future for this exalted fishery.

The breeze picked up the next day and we were better able to approach fish. Of course the wind makes accurate casting harder. And there were fewer fish around. One fish after another refused the fly, several lifted in the chop as I cast, and saw the boat. One fish tried to tail on the fly but lost it in the grass. And then the sun went down.

The third day brought a sense of struggle. I caught a nice cobia off the back of a stingray early on; but it did little to mitigate our frustration with phantom permit. I had several opportunities through the long hot day and none of them came to anything. You find yourself looking at jet contrails, wondering when they’re going to open up Cuba, trying to remember the names of the bartenders at the Anchor Inn on Duval Street in 1971. The light was at a low angle and the cormorants were homeward bound. We crossed a shallow flat at the middle of which was a kind of trough. A nice permit was swimming up the trough with the lazy movements of a feeder. I could just make out the edge of fins around the deep, shadowy body.

I made a cast and the fish responded. Gil from his vantage point on the platform called out suggestions for working the fly. My hope was still low when I felt the slight tightening in the fly line. I struck and the fish streaked off so fast that I had loose fly line 10 feet in the air. Then he was on the reel and a satisfying whir from the drag indicated his progress throughout a long, fast first run.

Fighting a permit is pure worry. I thought about my knots and about the line-to-backing splice I had done the night before. I thought about the hinging effect on the knot at the fly, a Duncan loop, after a day of casting. I wondered if I hadn’t taken sportsmanship a bit far in fishing with a barbless hook. I desperately wanted to land this fish.

I began to believe the permit was coming to the boat but at the range of 60 feet . . . Click to read more

NOTE: Featured Image was taken at the Palometa Club, Ascension Bay, Mexico: Joe Seelig gets his 20th of the season. Palometa Club image.

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