The Permit Obsession

John Haenke takes on the ultimate saltwater fly fishing challenge

So when did it start — this obsession with a fish? During the mid ’70s in Darwin, a small group of anglers, myself included, were getting into saltwater fly fishing. Initially for me, the main target species was barramundi, and at the time I was sponging up any information on saltwater fly fishing that I could find. I purchased a copy of Lefty Kreh’s book Fly Fishing in Salt Water, and not surprisingly three of the species covered were tarpon, bonefish and permit — The Slam. The big three, from the birthplace of saltwater flats fishing around Florida and Central America. We don’t have Atlantic tarpon here in Australia, and shallow water flats where you can consistently find bonefish are few and far between. However, permit are relatively common on the coastal flats in tropical Australia, so along with all the other species that frequent our home flats, they are a good, albeit challenging option. In those early days, not having a suitable boat for flats fishing, difficult access to quality flats, and crocs lurking on flats that may have been a wading option made it all too hard. But this mysterious, challenging fish called a permit still remained in the back of my mind. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would travel with Lefty on an incredible trip through the Kimberley, Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea, filming his adventures here in this part of the world and learning so much about fly fishing and fly casting along the way. His willingness to share information of course led me, then a youngster in my thirties, to ask a thousand questions. Lefty was always gracious in answering them, further igniting my passion for fly fishing and travel. WILDFISH In the mid ’90s Peter Morse and I were in the middle of shooting the first series of Wildfish, and he had lined up a story in the Hinchinbrook area with local guide Steve Jeston. Alan ‘Fish’ Philliskirk was to travel down from Cairns to join us as well. The plan was to shoot a flats segment on golden trevally, although Steve had mentioned that he had seen permit there. At the time, as far as I can gather, there had only been one permit taken in Australia on fly — caught by Greg Bethune, on a west coast Cape York beach. After Greg had untangled a cluster in his fly line, he started stripping the line in and came up tight, and to his surprise landed a permit. True story. It was early morning on that flat in the Hinchinbrook Channel. From memory, I was a little stressed as we were having camera issues — salt spray had corroded the lens connections and it was on its last legs. Through the viewfinder, vision was marginal in the early morning light as subtle tails and fin tips were moving around in the shallows. Morsie and Fish had put in numerous casts to these fish, with flies that goldies would normally have eaten, only to get refusal after refusal. It was difficult to get a definite ID on them with the low morning light. I remember being completely focused on the fins and tails, getting to the point where I wasn’t expecting a hook-up, when I heard Fish beside me say very quietly, ‘I’m on!’ The fish headed for deeper water and slugged it out for a while, and we assumed it was a goldie. After a very dogged fight, Fish worked it back into the shallows, with Steve exclaiming: ‘It’s a permit!’ I don’t think he believed it either! We had witnessed, and recorded, a little bit of Australian saltwater fly fishing history (see FlyLife #12); a permit sight-cast to on the flats, caught on a fairly nondescript pink shrimp pattern that had been refused by so many of its mates. Typical permit! OBSESSION This was the start of my obsession with permit, and it was the beginning of an obsession for many others as well. One of them was Mark ‘Bargy’ Bargenquast, who was guiding out of Hervey Bay at the time. Over a couple of scotches one night, I mentioned permit. Always looking for a new challenge, Bargy was intrigued and told me he’d have one within the month… it took him quite a bit longer than that! Bargy and I spent countless hours, days and months searching the east coast of Queensland and Cape York for suitable flats and productive areas. It was a mission, but we learnt a lot, refining techniques and fly patterns, and catching our fair share of permit along the way. Our permit obsession led us further afield too, finally with a trip to Belize (of course inspired by Lefty and his stories of this amazing fishery). It was a great adventure — fishing all day and drinking Caribbean rum at night with the locals was an experience we won’t forget! It doesn’t matter where you go though, permit are permit — you have to earn every one you catch. Bargy and I now both live in North Queensland, and continue to be permit obsessed. We have both been guiding fly anglers on the flats, and have learnt quite a bit about these frustrating and enigmatic fish. STEALTH No other fish that I know of requires more stealth to catch. Having watched their behaviour and body language on the flats over countless days, I have come to the following conclusions… Permit have exceptional eyesight, and they are extremely sensitive to noise. They can sense an electric motor well beyond casting range. They can hear hull slap at much the same distance when there’s a breeze with surface chop. They can hear your wading boots crunching on rough coral, and they can sense bow-waves coming off your legs while wading. More than likely they also have an amazing sense of smell. One of the things many anglers are not aware of is that permit often don’t spook like other fish. When they know you are there, they often keep doing whatever they are doing, but they will not eat your fly. If you watch their body language they look relaxed, but don’t be fooled — when they are onto you, the chance of getting a bite is just about zero! For the same reason, quite often it is the first cast that gets the fish — the more casts you put in, the better the chance they will pick up on your presence. If it’s shallow and the bottom is firm, I prefer to wade where possible. A boat is much easier for the fish to see, and generally makes more noise than someone wading carefully. But although they sometimes get into water so shallow they have to turn on their side to swim, most permit on the flats are found in a depth of around 1 to 1.5 metres, which means a boat is the best option. In a boat I use an electric motor to get into the general area. I then deploy a small Bruce anchor, no chain, and wait to ambush the fish if I know which gutters, channels or even small saddles between sandbars they are moving through. Sometimes I’ll drift, depending on the conditions. PRESENTATIONS If the fish are travelling, it’s a case of getting the fly — generally a crab pattern — in front of them where they can see it. Usually a few metres in front. Better too close than too far — at least you should get a reaction. Many people think permit will only eat a crab off the bottom. In my experience, they will eat a crab anywhere in the water column. If the water is reasonably deep they will often eat it on the drop, provided the fly is weighted correctly, looks natural, and doesn’t spin or twist as it sinks. Be ready; watch the fish’s body language. When I’m guiding, the most common reason for anglers not hooking up is that they don’t realise the fish has eaten the fly! The best advice is to keep tight on the line. If you think the permit is about to eat, a slow, steady strip, even double handed, will set the hook. This also imitates what a crab will look like shuffling along or swimming down towards the bottom. Sometimes the fish will follow the fly to the bottom and tail on it. Again a slow steady strip will set the hook if it’s too deep to see what is going on. They can suck in and spit out that fly in a fraction of a second if they think something is wrong. If they are feeding hard, grubbing on the bottom, and tailing, they are focused on the bottom and are less likely to spook. Drop the fly closer to the edge of where they are feeding, let it sink, then a slow steady strip… and with a bit of luck you will come up tight. Sometimes, especially in glassy conditions or around the turn of the tide, they can be found just hanging on the surface or mid-water, presumably resting. They can be very spooky when they are doing this, and in a group if one spooks, they all spook. Try to single one out on the outside of the school and have a shot at it. The ideal situation is a fish travelling in shallow water, coming at you unaware of anything unusual. Your cast lands in its path, settles on the bottom, you give the fly a twitch or bump to get the fish’s attention and the permit then moves onto the fly and tilts on it. You have already started a very slow, steady strip and you come up tight! Fish ON! FLIES There have been many, many flies tied to try to fool these fish — it’s all part of the obsession — but no one has come up with a fly that doesn’t get the usual rejections, spooks, follows but no bites… it’s all part of chasing permit. Apart from using shrimp patterns on small permit on the oceanic flats, I’ve narrowed my personal choice of fly for the larger fish down to Flexos and Velcro crab patterns. I tend to use the Flexo in shallow water — they land with a much softer presentation, without the plop that can spook fish. Small or medium lead dumbbells can be tied to the hook shank inside the tubing. Adding a little flexible UV resin to the chenille legs where they connect to the body helps to strengthen and stop the legs from folding in, giving the crab a more natural appearance when sinking. The legs act like a parachute — you don’t want that crab to go down like a brick. Crabs can be tied in varying sizes and weights, on a #4 hook through to a #2. Traditionally, larger hooks were often used but I find the smaller, lighter crabs to be more effective. They sink in a more natural manner, the hook-up rate is better, and they are easier to cast. I steer away from shiny stainless hooks — I’m sure the flash spooks permit at times, especially in clear, shallow water. And I only use lead eyes, because bright shiny dumbbell eyes can spook them too. My crabs aren’t pretty, but they catch fish. Fishing deeper water, I use a Velcro crab tied with the same things in mind, but I add more weight, usually medium or large lead dumbbells, which I flatten with a hammer before tying to the hook shank, thus reducing the bulk of the crab. The Velcro crabs sink faster in deeper water than the Flexos. Last but not least, I test every crab I tie in a bucket or laundry sink to make sure they sink with the hook up and legs out. THANKS LEFTY Fly fishing in salt water has been and still is a big part of my life, and it was the introduction through Lefty’s book that really got me started. So this book and this man have had a big influence on the direction I’ve taken in life. Thank you Lefty, even though you are not with us anymore, I’m sure you would be chuckling if you heard me say you were one of the reasons for my permit obsession — the Holy Grail of flats fish, the fish of a thousand casts. For anyone reading this and thinking permit might be a nice challenge, take care, you just might become obsessed as well. But you may also find that with a bit of stealth, a natural looking crab and that slow steady strip, permit are not as difficult to catch as some people think…

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