The Definitive Guide to Permit Fishing
Jun 13, 2019 | 11 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 11 minutes

The elusive Permit has haunted more anglers possibly than any other fish, anywhere in the world. Along with Tarpon and Bonefish, they comprise “The Big Three” of flats fishing. Some say that Permit fishing is the most difficult of the three. Today, you’re going to learn all you need to know about fishing for Permit.

A smiling angler holding a Permit

With eyes of a hawk, unbelievable hearing, and a sense of smell that would make a bloodhound cry, Permit are definitely one of the most difficult fish to catch, fresh or salt water. To top it off, they get moody, sulky, and will sometimes just flat out refuse to cooperate.

Still, each year, thousands of anglers flock to this finny and fickle phantom’s location to try their luck anyway. Why? Because catching a Permit of any size bestows lifetime bragging rights upon the lucky angler, in any fishing circle, anywhere in the world.

How to recognize a Permit?

Permits have laterally compressed bodies, making them appear somewhat flat and thin when viewed head-on. Their fins and tail curve sharply, and their dorsal and anal fins are scythe-shaped. They’re usually a highly reflective, greyish-silver color, so much so that they are very difficult to see in the shallows. More often than not, you would spot a Permit by their shadow, rather than the fish itself.

They have between 6 to 7 dorsal spines, 16 to 20 soft rays, and sport an orange patch on their bellies, just in front of their anal fins. You can generally distinguish Permit from Pompano by their lack of scutes, and a more pronounced hump on their foreheads. Permit are armed with a mouth full of teeth, that they will happily employ to grind up crustaceans and crabs – their favorite foods. More importantly though, they also have no qualms about using these bad boys on careless anglers (more about that later).

The Permit range along the Atlantic Coast of the US from Massachusetts, all the way south to Brazil. They are most abundant along the Caribbean Islands and the Gulf of Mexico. Permit can grow to about 4′ in length and weigh up to 60 lbs. The current world record Permit (60lb 8oz- 27.21kg) was caught at Ilha do Mel, Paranagua, Brazil, on Dec 14, 2002, by Renato Fiedler.

What’s So Special About Permit Fishing?

An angler holding a Permit
Spectacular Permit caught aboard Andros Outdoors Adventures in Andros, Bahamas

In essence, Permit fishing is pretty straight-forward: find the fish, cast to them and hope that they bite. Finding the fish within your range is usually not very difficult. Permit are a fairly common fish, and can be found cruising the reefs, inlets and passes, sailing in the surf, and along the flats.

You can fish for Permit with live bait, lures, jigs, and fly fishing gear. No special gear is required, other than making sure it’s stout enough to handle a 30-40 bruiser with an attitude. Medium saltwater spinning, and saltwater fly fishing gear work best. If only it were that easy, though.

Behavior

What’s particularly unusual about the Permit is the fact that you can find them both in small schools as well as solitary individuals. The craziest thing is, they’ll act completely different in each case.

When solitary, they tend to cruise the shallow flats slowly in search of crabs and crustaceans, oftentimes with their dorsal fins sticking out of the water. They are not unlike sharks in that respect. In such situations, Permit are moody, ultra-suspicious, spooky, and will bolt at the slightest noise, movement, or vibration. They’re famous for ignoring lures and flies, even when you cast practically in their mouths.

When they are in schools, on the other hand, Permits become very aggressive. Sometimes, they even attack wading fisherman and inflict some nasty bites, similar to the likes of Bluefish or Dorado (Mahi Mahi).

Either way, if you manage to hook a Permit, expect them to put up a long, stubborn fight, running deep anytime they can.

Offshore Rigs For Permit Fishing

Offshore fishing for Permit requires little in the way of equipment. A suitable boat, good saltwater medium light rod, and a medium spinning or bait fishing reel, with no larger than 12 lb test line is all you need. In most cases, you’ll be using live bait for offshore Permit fishing. More specifically, you’ll be using live blue crabs – a.k.a. “Permit candy”.

Your first step will be scanning the bottom for wrecks and rock-piles in 30-60 ft of water with your fish-finder. Anywhere that would be a good hangout for crabs is a prime permit spot.

The Gear

Most offshore Permit fishing involves tight-lining, or dropping the bait straight down below the boat. This helps limit the number of hang-ups due to the presence of nearby structure. To rig for using live crabs, use a 7′ medium action rod, with a light bait-casting or spinning reel, with a 20lb test braided line. Tie on 18” of 30lb. Monofilament for a leader, then rig your sinker, and a 2/0-4/0 circle hook (matching the size of the crab you are using).

Permit fishing: An angler holding a Permit he caught offshore

The Technique

You want to remove the large pincers from the crab. This not only save your fingers from a lot of wear and tear, but it also it keeps the crab from hanging on to stuff on the bottom and getting you tangled. It also makes the crab more vulnerable to attacks from the hungry Permit. Next, run the hook under the bottom of the shell on one side, near the big spikes, and run it out the top of the shell.

Using just enough weight, drop the crab rig down until it hits the bottom, then reel up about half a turn or so. You can jig the crab up and down gently every few minutes, just to be sure it is not hiding. When a Permit grabs the crab, you will know it. It’s best to have a light drag, and let the fish run out a little before tightening it down and pumping it in.

When they feel resistance, many times Permit will run back into the structure. It’s better to have them in open water. One of the advantages to this type of fishing is that even if you don’t hook any Permit, you are unlikely to come home empty-handed. Yellowtails, Groupers, all kinds of Snappers and Pompano are likely to grab your bait as well. You can also use artificial jigs and crabs, but in this situation, live blue crabs will be your best bet.

Surf Permit Fishing

In the summer, you can catch Permit in the surf, as they cruise the surf-line in schools on their way out to deeper spawning waters for the fall. You can often spot the schools by their fins sticking out of the water, as they attack hapless crabs, sand fleas, and shrimp. At this time, they won’t be particularly spooky, and will err on the aggressive side. You’ll want to use a 10′-12′ light surf rod, a bait-casting or spinning reel, and a 12-20lb line.

Rig a live crab or shrimp – with no weight if you can, or just enough to cast with – and toss the bait out into the surf. If you can see a school, try to toss the bait well in front rather than right into them, because lining a fish will always spook it.

Permit fishing: Monster Permit caught aboard Rolle and Firefly Bonefish, in Freeport, Bahamas

There’s no need to wade, and in fact, it’s better and safer if you don’t. Wading might tip the school off that something is amiss and make them head for deeper water, and the schooling permit has been known to attack waders. Although their teeth are primarily designed for crushing, they can still give a nasty bite.

Schooling Permit can also attract bigger predators like barracuda, and even sharks. I don’t think either of these make a habit of biting people, but mistakes happen. A flash of movement in the water can trigger an attack, so it’s best to stay on the beach.

In the surf, although live crabs are still the best bait, many artificial lures that resemble crabs or shrimp can be productive. BackBane Skimmers can be particularly good at times. Although they don’t look much like a crab, something about their action in the water seems to enrage Permit and Bonefish. D.O.A.’s Softshell Crab and Shrimp lures also make for intelligent choices.

Flats Are Where It’s At For Permit Fishing

Permit Fishing on the flats

Flats fishing for Permit must be one of the ultimate fishing challenges – to tackle the Ghost on its own terms, in its element. On the flats, in 2 or 3 feet of crystal clear water, and with sound traveling better underwater than in the air, the playing field between you and the Permit is relatively even. It can hear better than you, see better than you in the water, smell you, and feel the slightest vibrations in the water. Your only edges are your brain, and patience.

On the flats, Permit are usually solitary, and extremely wary. Any indication that something is up will send the fish scurrying for deeper water just a shade faster than instantly. Contrary to popular belief, the reason Permit are so skittish on the flats is that it is not in fact their natural habitat. They normally haunt wrecks, rock-piles, grass-beds and such, but the flats offer too good of a crab hunting ground for them to overlook. But they definitely feel exposed, and will bolt at the slightest disturbance.

Permit fishing on the flats involves sight-fishing. This means you have to see the Permit before it notices you – no mean feat in 3 ft. of crystal-clear water. They can often be located when “tailing”, or swimming with their tail or dorsal fins sticking out of the water. Schools of Permit fan out over the flats, so you will be targeting individual fish most of the time. There are 4 ways to accomplish this:

Wading

Probably the least desirable method, but sometimes unavoidable. No matter how careful you are, humans are not aquatic organisms. You will be stirring up dust, putting scent in the water, making noise, and giving them something to see under the water. Be prepared for really long casts, because you will not be approaching them very close at all. Also, be on guard for the extra hazards wading involves, such as stepping on a Stingray, Stonefish or Sea urchin. You should also be careful about attracting the attention of a curious Shark, or getting caught in an outbound current or tide.

Flats or Pole-Boat

These small, shallow-draft boats are perfect for flats fishing. Poles are used rather than oars because they are much quieter, and disturb the water less. As long as you are careful to approach the Permit from down sun, so as not to cast a shadow on the bottom in front of you, you can get surprisingly close without spooking it. Pole-boats are flat-bottomed, making them super-stable for standing up to cast, but be careful: when you stand up, you become more visible to the Permit. The only drawback to these boats is that they are small, and any sudden rough seas can swamp them. Rare-but it does happen.

Shallow-Draft Bay Boats With an Electric Motor

These larger boats are a little noisier, but still quiet enough to get reasonably close to the fish. Primary advantage is that, should the rough seas come upon you suddenly, they are large enough to handle it, and get you back to shore. They are also more comfortable for extended periods of fishing.

Kayaks: My Favorite

Kayaks are the ultimate small watercraft – sleek, fast, and virtually unsinkable. Also, they are as silent as it gets. You can build up speed and then glide up to the Permit’s vicinity without a sound. Since you sit low in the water, all the fish sees is a somewhat large fish-shape, not necessarily a threat. Every Permit I have ever caught has been from one of my kayaks. There are even kayaks, such as the Hobie models with their patented Mirage Drive, that operate with pedals. The only drawbacks is that you don’t have a lot of room for much gear (but you really don’t need much), and not much room to keep your fish, should you plan to bring it home, but these drawbacks can be overcome with a little creativity.

Permit Fishing boat on the flats

The Gear

However you decide to stalk your quarry, you will need the proper equipment. For spinning, you’ll need a medium 8′-9′ spinning rod and suitable reel, spooled with at least 200 yards of 10-12lb test mono, or braided line. Braided line has less diameter than the equivalent weight of mono, giving you more casting distance. You will need all the casting distance you can get, at times. You will also need an 18” to 24” 20lb test mono-filament leader, to offset the visibility of the braided line. Mono is relatively invisible underwater. The best way to attach the leader is with a Bimini Twist, or Spider Hitch knot. Live crabs work very well on the flats. Good lure choices include any crab imitations, and BackBane Skimmers.

For some, catching a Permit on a fly rod represents a lifetime achievement. You can, of course, lob a live crab out on a fly line, but there are many fly patterns that attract permit. An 8-wt rod with a shooting taper fly line is perfect for Permit, Bonefish, and even small Tarpon. You’ll need the shooting taper for some of the long casts you will need to make, so you may want to practice on the ‘Double-Haul’ cast beforehand.

A 10′ to 12′ long, 10-12 lb test leader is plenty for Permit fishing. A line basket will help you control your line during those long retrieves. You’ll want a reel with a good disc drag, and at least 100 yards of backing on your reel. Permit can be stubborn at times, and take out a lot of line. Good fly patterns for Permit include the Crazy Charlie, Gotcha, the Bastard Crab, Legless Merkin, Avalon Fly, Belize Crab, Bonefish Critter, Mangrove Critter, Raghead Crab, Chernobyl Crab, EP Crab, Yucatan Special, and more.

Permit Population in Florida and Mexico

World’s Most Premier Places for Permit Fishing

You can find Permit all along the Atlantic Coast of the US, as far north as Massachusetts, and south to Brazil. They also inhabit the waters along the Gulf of Mexico coastlines and even some of the Pacific coast south to Mexico. However, there are some areas that are stand out as premier Permit fisheries. These top destinations include:

1. Belize, Central America: located just north and east of Guatemala, Belize has the lowest population density of any Central American Country. But what it lacks in population, it makes up for in Permit. It is considered the ‘Permit Capital of the World’, and each year, thousands of hopeful anglers arrive on its pristine flats to try their luck. Belize has around 250 square miles of fishing area. The Permit here average around 15-18 pounds, but 40-pound Permits are not unheard of, and most people believe there are some 50+ pounders out there somewhere.

2. Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico: in the heart of the ancient Mayan Lowlands, the Yucatan Peninsula is an archeologist’s dream. It is also a magnet for would-be Permit experts (if there is really such a thing), with over 500 miles of coastline, and beautiful crystal-clear flats. Permits over 20 pounds are not uncommon.

3. Florida Keys, USA: from central Florida to Key West, this is undoubtedly the premier destination for any serious Permit angler. Miles of beautiful beaches, acres of crystal-clear flats, hundreds of guides specializing in Permit fishing, and angler-friendly fishing regulations – what more could you ask for? Permit along the Florida Coast and the Keys average over 20 pounds, making this the area with the largest average size for Permit.

Permit Fishing not Challenging Enough? Try the Grand Slam!

 fly fisherman holding a fish

The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) has created several clubs to honor the most dedicated, hard-headed, and skilful fishermen. Club Membership is extended to those who catch 3 or 4 designated species in a single day. Three of the designated species qualifies for membership in the Grand Slam Club, and 4 in the Super Grand Slam Club. The species must all be caught by a single angler, and all in one day.

Permit falls under the Inshore Grand Slam Club, which also includes Tarpon, Bonefish and Snook. Catching these fish qualifies you to spend $50.00 on a Club Membership, and you get a really nice certificate – along with bragging rights for a lifetime

If you ever get the urge to tackle the most stubborn, cantankerous, uncooperative, and just plain aggravating fish in the world, give Permit fishing a try. It’s more than worth it.

So, have you managed to catch Permit? How did you do it? Got some tips you could share? Let us know in the comments below!

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Comments (5)
  • Will

    Nov 13, 2015

    Do you need a permit to catch permit?

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      Xavier

      Nov 24, 2015

      Witty!
      And, as always, the answer is…. IT DEPENDS 🙂

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  • T.O.

    Jun 10, 2016

    How much do you think this one weighs? I caught this off of Miami Beach at night drifting with live shrimp. Fought for a good 20 minutes. Our guide thought about 40-45 lbs.Big Permit caught off Miami Beach drifting with live shrimp

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      Cat

      Jun 17, 2016

      Nice catch! We’d agree with your guide on the size – that’s a very nice fish 🙂

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  • jill crampton

    Jan 19, 2018

    I am doing an embroidery of a Permit fish for my Permit fishing Godson and want to know are the scales on the fish very visible. All the pictures I have seen on the internet do not show scales atall clearly I have never seen one Jill If anyone could answer my question it would be very helpfull

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