Permit Fishing – Chasing the Legend of the Flats

Last updated on October 31st, 2022

Permit Fishing – Inshore Nirvana

inshore permit fishing

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Permit fish (Trachinotus falcatus)

The Permit is one of the most prized game species of the western Atlantic ocean and perhaps the best shallow-water sport fish in the world – mainly due to the fact that they are so damn difficult to catch!

These fish are incredibly elusive and have fantastic senses, in particular sight, which of course makes them more than a challenge to get one on the line!

Permit are silvery in general, with laterally compressed (flat) bodies and a bluish-green tint on the upper part of the body and a yellow/gold underbelly or breast. They are also distinguished by their large sickle-shaped tails and dorsal/anal fins.

If you’ve ever fished for Permit you will not soon forget the fight. They will give you the challenge of your life once hooked, with their great power, fast, long runs and uncanny ability to change direction on a dime during the fight. Pound for pound they are at the top of the scale in terms of hard-fighting fish.

Permit are commonly found in the 20 – 30 lb range, though the all-tackle Permit world record is 60 lbs (27.2 kg) set in 2002 in Brazil. 

Permit Fishing Locations

Though they spawn offshore, this elusive species is usually found in shallow, tropical grass and sand flats. They can also be targeted close to shore along beaches as well as around inlets and shallow reefs and wrecks. Young fish are more likely to be found in the surf zone where there are plenty of small invertebrates for them to feed on.

Often considered a South Florida/Florida Keys gamefish, the Permit can actually be found as far up the Atlantic coast as Cape Hatteras, with a few being spotted as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Permit are regularly seen as individuals, in small groups or in schools that number hundreds of fish. But usually, where you have one there will be others too.

Globally, they are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from the locations just mentioned to most of Central America and the Caribbean islands to Brazil. Some of the best destinations for Permit fishing in the world include Placencia and Turneffe Flats in Belize, Ascención Bay, Mexico and, of course, Key West, Florida.

A very similar species is also found In the Indo-Pacific part of the world, with Australia becoming another hot Permit fishing destination for many fly anglers in recent years.

Australia is blessed with 2 different species of Permit fish. Trachinotus anak and Trachinotus blochii (also known as the Indo-Pacific Permit and Snubnose Pompano) are very similar, but nonetheless two distinct species of Permit.

Simply referred to as anaks and blochiis, the first is larger and essentially an inshore fish found around coastal sand flats and beaches and is said to be a little more elusive, while the latter is smaller and can be found in deeper waters and ocean flats. Both species, however, are smaller than the better known Atlantic Permit, or Trachinotus falcatus.

permit fishing location key west

Key West Permit – Photo Provided by Ben Shepardson, Lake View Studios

Permit Fishing Tackle and Tips

Permit are easily spooked and because their senses and instincts are so keen – more so than just about any other fish you are likely to encounter and perhaps even surpassing the legendary “gray ghosts of the flats“, the Bonefish. So, fishing for Permit oftentimes feels more like a hunting expedition where you are carefully stalking your prey, where patience and stealth are key to success.

Permit on the fly is like reaching another level of fly fishing, like hitting a hole in one in golf or pitching a no-hitter in a baseball game – the feeling is that exhilarating. But getting the elusive fish on the line is no walk in the park; it requires work.

Fly Fishing gear should include an 8-1/2′ to 9′ long 8 or 9 weight fly rod with a reel capable of holding 100 yards or more of 20 lb of fly line backing.

Spinning or baitcasting gear should include a 7′ medium action rod and a quality reel packed with plenty of 6 lb -12 lb test line. If going the surfcasting route, the tackle should consist of a medium-heavy surf rod anywhere from a 9 ft – 14 ft paired with a well-sealed sealed saltwater reel spooled with 15 lb – 25 lb test low-visibility monofilament line with a fluorocarbon leader. Better yet, though more expensive, go full-spool fluorocarbon line for maximum stealth. 

A braided line is also a good option because its zero-stretch quality will give you a more solid hookset on Permit, even at a great distance. Keep in mind, however, that braid will have higher visibility underwater (though somewhat mitigated by its thinner diameter). If you do decide to use a braided line for Permit fishing, make sure to tie a very long piece of fluorocarbon leader to it.

Baits and Techniques for Catching Permit

If you are fishing in the surf, be mindful that they will likely be in schools and aggressive rather than shy, but casting smack in the middle of the pack is not the best approach. Instead, look for the fish that is on the fringes a bit and make your cast there.

Generally speaking, try using live bait with little to no weight and throw this onto the surf area where you can see the fins – aim to cast it ahead of the school rather than directly into it, as this could possibly scare them off.

In their natural habitat Permit fish are mainly crabeaters, but they will also feed on shrimp, small fish, and various mollusks. Though small crab is preferred, any of these (live is better of course) make good baits for these fish.

As for artificials, good Permit lures include weighted saltwater flies (since Permit are normally bottom feeders). For obvious reasons, crab and shrimp pattern flies should be at the top of the list for fly anglers.

Spinning and baitcasting presentations should include small soft plastics that mimic crabs or shrimp as well. Pompano and skimmer jigs also work well. Regardless of the bait, keep in mind that Permit have excellent eyesight and won’t be fooled by anything that does not look or act natural.

Remember that live bait such as crabs or shrimp would react slowly, fleeing at a slow speed that should be closely mimicked to increase your chances of a bite. How you retrieve the line can vary, including stationary fly, slow strips or long pauses.

A tried-and-true presentation for Permit is to get the fish to chase your lure, then stop your movement and let it sink to the bottom (then hopefully followed the swirling sound of line being peeled from your reel!)

Flats Permit fishing offers incredible opportunities but it is also where your technique has been at its sharpest. For one, you will likely find a solitary Permit rather than a school, making them much more likely to scare when disturbed.

The use of sight-fishing for Permit is as important here as it is elsewhere, as their senses will be on point, meaning you really need to find them before they spot you. Considering the water will be shallow and clear, this can prove to be quite the challenge for even the most experienced fishermen.

You can wade out in the flats, although this can be one of the easiest methods for spooking them. So sometimes long casts are called for as you won’t be able to get too close. Also, you run the risk of stepping on other marine life such as a stonefish or sea urchin, so it can be rather hazardous.

Flats boats or fishing skiffs, in particular, are effective in these shallow waters. Lightweight push poles are a must here as any noise or excessive water disturbance will likely send a wary fish on its way. Sitting down while casting will also allow you to get very close to the fish.

Kayaks are also a great idea as they can also silently approach the fish, but you may struggle to find room for all of your equipment.

Permit Fish as Table FarePermit Fish flavor and cooking

A Permit is essentially a big ol’ Florida pompano and like its little cousin, you are not going to find it at your local fish market (they are a restricted species prohibited from being commercially harvested or sold) – so if you want to eat Permit, you’ll have to catch your own.

True, they’re different species, but visually size is the main difference since the Permit grows several times larger than Pompano. In fact, when they are as small as a few pounds, distinguishing them apart can be difficult.

And if you know anything about tasty fish or just enjoy trying new fish recipes, you’ll want to know that Pompano has long been considered one of the most succulent of fishes for the table.

Given that Permit are basically just large pompano, you might assume that they are also delicious. You’d be right. Don’t let anyone tell you they aren’t good to eat. The Permit fish is best eaten when it is on the small side; larger ones should be released. You can expect firm, fleshy white fillets from these tasty fish – just perfect for the grill!

Closing Thoughts

Saltwater anglers are well aware of the Permit’s mythical status, as well as its reputation for being the most difficult of the “Big Three”, which includes Bonefish and Tarpon, to catch.

The large, keen eyes of the Permit give this gamester excellent vision and just hooking into one requires plenty of patience and skill. But when you do you will understand why anglers all over the world have come to regard the Permit as the ultimate inshore gamefish!

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2 thoughts on “Permit Fishing – Chasing the Legend of the Flats

  1. Harland

    Will be in Marathon the first week in March. Normally, I fish fresh water in the state of Missouri and sometimes get to Ontario. Canada. Question being. What should I fish for when in Marathon in March? Staying at a rental at Vaca Cut, closed to the Gulf. Don’t have a boat, but have a dock to fish off.

    1. Dorado

      Hey Harland! Fishing in the Florida Keys is a year-round activity, but by March/early spring things really begin to heat up. Marathon is no exception. Right from your dock there on Vaca Cut you can expect to catch mangrove snapper, small species of grouper, hard-fighting jack crevalle and, perhaps, the most challenging of all – tarpon! Another great option for boatless fishing while in Marathon is the Vaca Cut bridge. Take your chair and a cooler and head down beneath the bridge and cast around the pilings on the incoming tide…you won’t be disappointed.

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