May 14, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead, OSG Senior Digital Editor
In his iconic work The Longest Silence, noted author Thomas McGuane described fly fishing for permit as an especially challenging pursuit.
“No form of fishing offers such elaborate silences as fly-fishing for permit,” wrote McGuane. “The most successful permit fly fisherman has very few catches to describe to you. Yet there is considerable agreement that taking a permit on the fly is the extreme experience of the sport.”
Fly angler Kathryn Vallilee knows all about such silence and angling accomplishment, having lived near the breeze ruffled flats of Key West, Fla. since graduating from Temple University a few years ago. With her dad living at the bottom end of the Florida Keys, she decided to come south in 2013, enjoy the salty lifestyle and figure out what was next in life.
Part of the what’s next phase of her life has been a rapid education in prowling the salty flats for permit, a journey that recently culminated with Vallilee catching an apparent world record permit on the fly. That amazing fish weighed an astonishing 21-pounds, a specimen that if approved by the International Game Fish Association, will shatter the 6-lb. tippet class world record by more than 11-pounds! More on that benchmark catch in just a moment.
By her own admission, Vallilee admits that she had no idea where her journey would lead when she arrived in Key West, known to many as the capitol of the Conch Republic. But as the months trickled by in the nation’s southernmost town, she met and eventually married her husband, Nathaniel Linville, owner of The Angling Company fly shop.
If Linville’s name seems familiar to readers of Fly Fisherman magazine, it should be – not only is he the owner of a fly shop in the heart and soul of the Florida Keys, he’s also quite adept at catching one of the region’s iconic species, the permit. Readers might remember a story that Linville authored for fly fishing’s leading magazine several years ago detailing the fish catching wonders of Dave Skok’s Strong Arm Merkin fly.
Linville’s belief in the fly pattern is not only editorial fluff to fill a few magazine pages– he has used variations of the fly that Skok started tying for his shop in 2009 to build a sterling angling resume for permit in the Keys. On that resume is a 2014 win in the prestigious Del Brown Invitational Permit Tournamen, wins in the March Merkin Permit Tournament in 2015 and 2017, the biggest permit in the Merkin tourney in 2014, and a 16-lb. permit that is the current IGFA world record for the 2-lb. tippet class.
“He’s my husband and my casting instructor and someone who I really look up to as an angler,” said Vallilee.
Early on, Linville and his friend Bryan “Bear” Holeman took Vallilee out on fly fishing trips that aimed for fun and quick success. After catching a lemon shark in the 50 to 60-lb. range, Vallilee grew increasingly confident and passionate about the new way of life she was discovering.
“In the beginning, Nathaniel just invited me along with friends,” said Vallilee. “We did things like fish for sharks, fish for baby tarpon off the pier at night, stuff like that. We’re not talking about making any really long casts, but it was still challenging for me at the time.”
Fueled by passion and the presence of good people who helped shorten her learning curve, Vallilee quickly progressed as a saltwater fly angler eager to chase the Florida Keys’ “Big Three” of tarpon, bonefish, and permit.
Of those three, the Silver King was the first species to gain her attention in a big way.
“We would go for whatever was good at the time,” Vallilee recalled. “It was more tarpon in the beginning, not so much permit. I was able to hook a few tarpon at that time and get that bug. They are super exciting, they run, they jump, they are a super athletic fish.”
Over time, however, she was increasingly drawn to permit, a species that she laughingly admits she didn’t know enough about to be nervous when she stood on the front deck of a skiff.
“In the beginning, everything was so new, that I hadn’t really developed this belief that they are so hard to catch,” she said. “For a lot of fly fishermen, they are almost mythical. I didn’t have that, so I was not that nervous about it all.”
Along the way, fly fishing turned from being a way she could spend time with her husband and friends to something that was quickly becoming a part of her own personal journey in life.
“When Nat and I got married, I started fishing more for myself,” said Vallilee. “They were my days where I would be going out, going out solo with a guide. It can be a really long process to (to learn how to fly fish the saltwater flats), but I feel like I fished with some of the best guides in the world virtually every time I went out.”
Some of those who helped accelerate Vallilee’s learning curve on Key’s fly fishing include Capt. Simon Becker, Capt. Doug Kilpatrick, and Capt. Drew Delashmit.
The result of her time spent on the water with her husband and those guides showed itself in surprising ways, most notably in tournament competition.
In 2015, Vallilee got an unexpected baptism into tournaments when a shop customer had to pull out of the Del Brown derby. Kat took that spot, eventually landing the tournament’s biggest permit that year. The next year, she was invited back and actually had the lead heading into the final round of the three-day event in the Keys.
Fully smitten by permit fishing, Vallilee has also fished in the March Merkin event and learned more about the tournament game. She credits tournament veterans Joe Skrumbellos and Matt Fitzgerald as helping aid the next step in her angling development.
“They are humble, friendly people who have inspired me to become a better angler,” she said.
So much better, in fact, that Vallilee would soon claim a women’s world record in permit fishing, securing the IGFA’s 4-lb. tippet class record in Sept. 2016 when she ventured to Punta Gorda, Belize and landed a 3-lb., 8-oz. specimen.
With all of that serving as the backstory for Vallilee’s recent record catch, a visit by one of her guide friends early this year primed the pump for another chapter of permit fishing history.
“Earlier this year, my friend Capt. Brandon Cyr stopped by the shop and told me that he thought we should fish for the 6-lb. permit record,” she said.
Held by Debra Loss, the current women’s benchmark permit in that tippet class weighs 9-lbs., 12-oz. While that permit caught near Key West on April 28, 1999 is impressive, Vallilee and Cyr felt like breaking that record was doable.
Not long after their conversation, Cyr and Vallilee fished together, coming close to claiming the record when a permit weighing 8-lbs was caught.
“It wasn’t quite the record, but I did get to experience what it was like fighting a fish of that size on 6-lb. tippet,” said Vallilee.
When the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a shutdown that kept visitors out of the Keys and turned daily operations at The Angling Company into fulfilling Internet orders, Vallilee took advantage of this spring’s sudden silence to go after the record in earnest.
On March 22, a beautiful day unfolded as Vallilee and Cyr headed out onto the flats. On a day filled with multiple shots at tailing permit, the disappointment was palpable when the first fish broke off with little pressure applied. After that, other fish just simply wouldn’t eat, adding to the frustration.
When Cyr pulled his Chittum Islamorada skiff onto a flat and spied a school of three permit, all that gloom changed in an instant.
“They all looked like a bigger class of fish than we had seen earlier in the day,” said Vallilee. “I threw the #2 fly, tried to keep the slack out since permit like to eat a fly that’s sinking, and made a long, slow strip. Suddenly, I came tight to one of those fish.”
At first, the hooked permit melted away yards of fly line and headed for the backing on Vallilee’s Mako fly reel as the fish tried in vain to keep up with the other two permit in the school. Over time, as the Hardy Zephrus 9-weight rod developed a deep arc, she got the fish turned in her direction as the battle headed for deeper water.
“I got a little nervous about that since when they go down, they can wrap the line around coral, a lobster trap, or something like that,” said Vallilee.
Soon, Vallilee had a clear understanding of what kind of permit was at the end of the Rio Direct Core tarpon fly line she was fighting to regain onto the fly reel.
“When we started getting it closer to us and it go up in the water, it was definitely clear that this was a really nice fish,” said Vallilee. “That’s when it got a little more nerve wracking. Brandon kept reminding me that it was 6-lb. tippet, which was good.”
Eventually, the big permit was worn down and Cyr was able to land it.
“It was such a relief when he got it in the net,” said Vallilee. “We quickly took it over to the shallows on the flat, and Amber, who is Brandon’s fiancé, waded out and took photographs. It was extremely exciting and there were plenty of high fives exchanged since we were all overjoyed.”
When the Boga Grip registered 21-pounds, a quest turned into an accomplishment and Vallilee’s journey into the world of saltwater fly fishing seemed complete, even if she’s already got one IGFA world record certificate in her possession.
“This one does feel different than the previous world record,” said Vallilee. “Part of it is the size of the fish, the other part is that between then and now, I feel like I’ve learned so much about how cool and challenging permit are. It means more to me now because I have more of a frame of reference now for this species.
“They (permit) have really gotten under my skin,” she added. “It means so much for me to be able to do this with Brandon. I don’t mean to take anything else away from the other record, but I just don’t think I really understood it all back then.”
She does now, however.
“I just feel like the weight of all of this has changed for me because I’ve become so much more obsessed with permit,” said Vallilee. “There is no fish that excites me more, especially catching a big one. To do that on 16-pound test is a great thing but catching it on 6-lb. felt like a dream.”
As Vallilee and her husband hope for life and business in the Florida Keys to take a step back towards normalcy soon, she’ll keep heading out onto the flats and pursuing a species that she respects like no other.
In a place where the silence of spring is broken only by the lapping of waves and the whisper of a coastal breeze.
And in Vallilee’s case, the sound of a fly reel’s drag making its sweet music as a few gulls cry overhead.