Permit have achieved somewhat of a mythical status in the fishing world. They are said to be wily. Spooky. Selective. Whatever the case, largely considered more rare and elusive than bonefish or tarpon, they are regarded by many to be the crown jewel of the world of saltwater flats fishing. They are also generally thought of as exceedingly difficult to take on a fly. When discussing permit, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission essentially recommends that fly fishermen just stay home, noting that anglers might just as well "keep their artificial lures in the tackle box", given that only "on rare occasions, a patient and persistent fly fisher may land a permit."
The reality, fortunately, is a great deal less dramatic. Permit, which -- like bonefish -- feed on small crabs and occasionally shrimp and other creatures on shallow sand flats, are readily taken on the fly, especially in places like Mexico's Ascension Bay, which is widely held to be the premier destination for permit-hungry anglers. Permit cruise Ascension Bay in great numbers and the fish see relatively little pressure due to the bay's remote location.
On the northern end of Ascension Bay lies Punta Allen, three or four hours of travel south from Cancun. Of Punta Allen's few angling outfits, perhaps no operation has landing permit on the fly more dialed in than the Palometa Club. Every boat that leaves the club's shores each morning has two guides aboard, regardless of whether there are one or two anglers in the boat. The guides have developed a unique system that favors chasing permit on foot over fishing from the boat, electing to toss one guide and angler into the water on the chase while the other guide spots fish from the boat's poling platform. It is not only a more intensive, active and adrenaline-driving way of chasing permit, but one that increases the number of shots anglers yield from each encounter, and thus one that has dramatically increased the number of permit hooked up and brought to hand.
Arriving on a Friday, we're greeted with the information that the group that departed that morning landed eight permit the day before. 18 for the week. Success awaits.
Yet, as the boats pull back onto the beach at the end of our first day we're quickly reminded that while the mythology of permit being unattainable has grown well beyond reason, the challenge involved with putting it all together and bringing one of these amazing fish to hand is unquestionably real. The variables — sun, clouds, wind, fish and angler — are all still there. And four days later, the unexpected north wind that greeted us upon setting out on our first morning on the bay continues to blow. Sightings of our quarry have been few and far between. The steady north wind has presumably pushed the permit off shore, limiting our chances to a few hurried shots at rapidly passing schools.
As the fifth day kicks off, even though there's some excitement at breakfast because the north wind has backed off a bit, I'm beginning to wonder what all the fuss is about. Truth be told, being a relative greenhorn on the flats, I don't have the fish eye that the guides or my fishing partner have. As a result, I'm not even sure I've even seen a permit yet. I find myself wondering if we should forget about this nonsense and go back to the unexpectedly large bonefish that have been taking us into our backing all week.
But then it happens. As we pole the boat, the guides spot a lone permit, cruising one of the bay's countless, limitless flats. And, for the first time, I see it too. The silhouette of the fish's massive sickle tail is unmistakable in the sun bleached, gin clear water, and I feel dizzy. Despite its seemingly significant distance from us when it was sighted, it is mere moments before the guides have the boat in position and I'm being rushed into the water. The chop of the bay is up to my armpits as we chase the fish on foot and Julio, one of our guides, is repeatedly pleading that I pick up the pace while simultaneously finding a way to do so more quietly. Through labored breaths I do my best to explain that these are mutually exclusive options, a suggestion which is quickly dismissed as nonsense. After a another minute or two of chase, the fish turns and we get our shot. In fact, we get two. The first is, much to my great surprise, right on target but I strip too soon and don't let the fly sink to the bottom. The second practically hits the fish on the head, and it's gone. Just like that.
As we scramble back onto the boat, I get it. Even though my first permit doesn't come till the next day, when we land four — two of which disappeared backing at a rate that made me sincerely worried I was going to get spooled by a 15 pound fish — despite blown opportunities on dozens of feeding permit, I realize I'll be back to chase permit again. Only next time, I'll be joining the rest of the junkies in scoffing at the idea of chasing bonefish, jacks, tarpon, cuda and so on. Honestly, who would bother when permit are about?