When something can go wrong, it will go wrong
Cruising to the next flat, my guide Chico catches sight of a moving school of fish and whips the boat around to put me in perfect position to intercept them. I already have my line stripped out on the bow and I’m ready.
Here they come, a wave of fish at 12 o’clock. I take a deep breath and make the cast. One strip and the line goes tight. Not tight enough. A few seconds later I silently scream while 30 permit swim past the boat and I wrestle with a dinky little bonefish.
Permission to Cry
Every fly fisher on the planet can tell you the exact number of permit they have landed. Del Brown, the most accomplished permit angler in history, landed 513 over a lifetime of relentless pursuit.
For the rest of us, success is measured in opportunities and sightings, rarely hook-ups or landed fish. It takes a special kind of masochism to chase permit. They are notoriously finicky—primarily a reef species with discriminating eyes and four nostrils—and getting them to eat a fly on the flats is arguably either the pinnacle of fly fishing, or the stupidest thing you’ll ever try.
They also cause an addiction unlike any other species. I’ve never seen such a dedicated crowd of disciples as permit fly fishers. Everything about fly fishing for permit has been studied, argued, discussed, tested, and torn apart. The few times people do catch a fish it seems that guide, or this fly, or a certain spot at certain point of the tide becomes a magical recipe that causes obsessive people to lose weeks of sleep just plotting for the next opportunity.
Weeks of permit fishing can pass without a touch. Faith that the next one is going to eat, despite all the evidence to the contrary, does not fade over time, it only grows stronger.
You must have stubborn mental toughness to chase permit exclusively, and just like a gambler at a slot machine, over time you develop a strong belief that “your time is coming.” You’ve paid your dues, you’ve made the casts, and now—possibly on the very next cast—it’s going to happen.
It happens with just enough frequency to know it’s possible, but infrequently enough that every one matters. This is a fish where you can do everything right 100 times in a row and you get nothing in return—not even an acknowledgment of your effort, let alone the pull you’re looking for. Then you hear about the guy who caught one on his backcast on his first day on the flats.
I saw a guy land a permit on a shark fly with a wire leader, and another guy who seemingly hit the permit on the head with the fly, then that same spooked fish decided suddenly to turn around and eat the fly. Those days do happen—they just don’t happen to me.
Shrouded in Misery
My own permit addiction has been shrouded in nothing short of a curse. Please don’t refer to it as “bad luck.” This is a decade-long curse spanning international boundaries in some of the world’s best permit waters with widely acclaimed guides. Bad luck doesn’t nearly begin to cover it—I suspect witchcraft and/or voodoo are at work, and have cursed my
efforts from the very beginning.
Countless times I’ve been robbed by bonefish and jacks that dart in to steal my fly away from a permit that was moving to investigate.
On the other hand, I’ve also had permit rush my fly, only to turn off at the last second. Refused. Sometimes they hover and inspect the quality of my fly from all angles, like a helicopter deciding if they needed to attack. Refused again. Except rejections like that often crush my confidence in that fly, and send me scurrying to my fly box for alternatives. I may not go back to that fly for weeks or months.
Of course, it’s not the fly that’s cursed. It’s definitely me. Some permit do eat the fly just to get my hopes up, but it never works out; bad knots, sharp coral, crushed and broken hooks, and sharks have all participated in the curse, sometimes creating failures of epic portions. That’s pretty much how my permit fishing has gone for many years.
I had hoped to keep these failures private, but the curse became a running joke among my friends, only worsening my shaking knees and pounding heartbeat when someone who knows of the curse is watching me.
While filming an episode of Guided with Mark Melynk (World Fishing Network), Mark made it his mission to end my curse on camera.
We enlisted the help of good friend and guide Clint Kemp, who tried valiantly to break my dry spell, showing me his top-secret flies and favorite permit flats. Day one was a bust, we had four shots and no takers. On day two we were idling into the first flat, and spooked a happy permit riding the back of a stingray.
Clint killed the engine and hopped on the platform. I jumped up on deck, stripped off line, and launched a Hail Mary cast at the fleeing fish. It felt futile, and that’s probably why my heart wasn’t racing, and my cast was right on the money. Sure enough the fish jumped all over it, I was tight to a 20-pound-plus permit, and we had it all on camera.
I avoided several hazards and fought the fish to the boat, elated that I was just about to land my first permit. Just as Clint’s fingers touched the leader, the permit gave one last powerful kick and broke off alongside the boat. An audible pop broke the silence. The show ended with underwater footage of the fish swimming away with my fly in the corner of his mouth, but no leader attached.
A few years ago in Mexico I was lucky enough to do a photo shoot for Costa with Jose Wejebe. The creative minds at Costa were looking for lots of shots, but the primary goal was a permit for the camera. No pressure.
The first couple of days were tough. We saw fish, but they were tight-lipped and showed no interest.
We were filling the gaps with jacks and bonefish, but the permit weren’t cooperating. The pressure was mounting, and on the last day we decided we wouldn’t even cast a sideways glance at anything but a permit.
Both of our girlfriends were down for the trip, and they decided they were going to check out some ruins, and look for manatees, while Wejebe and I hunted permit.
For us, it was another frustrating day of tangled lines and camera-shy fish. I felt defeated, the only solace was that Jose bageled as well.
When we arrived at the lodge, both girls tried to keep a straight face, but the glow on Beth’s face gave it away. I knew what happened before she started to tell the tale. They went looking for manatees, but instead caught a permit.
Two professional anglers with a boatload of camera gear couldn’t catch one permit in a week of fishing, but Beth caught one on a sightseeing tour, and snapped some photos with her iPhone. I told her it’s better to be lucky than good, but it was admittedly a beautiful fish, and something she’s needled me about for the past couple of years.
I did finally break the curse. Kind of. I took a trip to southern Belize to see the permit wizard Lincoln Westby, hoping he would push me over the finish line. On the last day I finally did break the curse, with a fish that Beth points out is much smaller than hers.
Oliver White owns Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas and co-hosts with Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Belushi, Lefty Kreh, Yvon Chouinard, and others, the TV series Buccaneers & Bones on the Outdoor Channel.