Fly fishing for permit in Belize, or for permit in general, is unpredictable, as some of you might painfully acknowledge.  Once we get at the top of our game, these fish disappear or won’t have anything to do with our fly.  Time on the water is as valuable a teacher as anything.  I’ve been lucky enough to spend long winters in Belize and be a part of a family-run lodge called the Blue Bonefish.  It’s allowed me to spend a lot of time both catching and witnessing lots of permit caught on the fly.  These fish keep you guessing, and the weather and tides can be huge factors in success.  No one has totally figured out permit, and even though I’ve personally taken 52 on the fly in Belize and been a part of many more permit experiences, these fish keep teaching me a bit more each trip.  That’s what keeps a permit angler coming back—that unpredictable fish.  Versatility is what I’ve learned on the water, and the lessons I’ve learned can help you cut the learning curb in the Caribbean, particularly in Belize, for that unpredictable permit.

FLY FISHING FOR PERMIT IN BELIZE: PERMIT FLIES

When fly fishing for permit in Belize, crab flies work for sure, particularly the SS Permit Crab.  The thing with crabs is that it’s really hard to match the way a crab moves in the water, and most crab flies have an awkward wobble when stripped and look unnatural.  This is probably why a lot of people cast the crab out and let it sit, since moving the fly tips the fish off that there’s something wrong with this thing.  Because of this, you’re more limited to the “heave and leave” style presentation.  If you can find a crab fly that looks like a crab and moves like a crab (that’s the key), then you’ll catch permit with that fly.

Fly fishing for permit in Belize.I personally fish a lot of shrimp patterns for permit.  I love the versatility of shrimp patterns for permit because they look so much more natural in the water when you move them, and I move my fly a lot when I’m going after permit, depending on the fish’s mood.  I tie a lot of spawning shrimp patterns in tan with orange rubber legs and sometimes orange yarn similar to the Avalon fly, Peterson’s Spawning Shrimp, and the Hot Legs Gotcha.  Like with a Woolly Bugger for trout, I want my permit flies to be impressionistic and not necessarily look exactly like one prey item.  The fly should land softly, have the appropriate weight for the depth, have nice movement with materials like Arctic fox etc., and have some color for a little attraction—I love orange.  Finally, the fly cannot foul because if it does, then it’s game over.  Make sure the rubber legs are placed appropriately to avoid fouling.

Fly fishing for permit in Belize.As far as the other qualities of the fly, make sure your hooks are high quality hooks like Gamakatsu and Daiichi, since you can easily dull hooks on coral etc.  Hook size will normally vary from #1/0 – #6.  This is pretty straight forward, but use bigger and heavier flies for deeper water and bigger permit and smaller flies for shallow water and smaller permit.  The weight should vary from medium/large bead chain to heavy lead.  You need to stay flexible and adjust to each condition, and I’ll actually take multiple rigged rods if conditions might change suddenly.  You don’t really need weed guards on the flats we fish on Ambergris very often, but in some areas, it’s a must, as with lots of flats in the Florida Keys, so you should have some flies with weed guards when going after permit in Belize. My go-to pattern is usually a #2 spawning shrimp style pattern.

PRESENTING THE FLY TO PERMIT: THINK LIKE THE PREY

TYPES OF PERMIT AND HOW TO SPOT THEM

Fly fishing for permit in Belize.When fly fishing for permit in Belize, there are two general types of permit you’ll be looking for: schoolies and bigger fish, which usually come in ones, twos, and threes.  Schoolies are usually easier to catch and will be from about 12 pounds and below.  “Schoolie” permit present particular challenges, however, in that they have a lot more eyes to sense danger, so make sure to lead these fish enough that you don’t spook one of the school.  I cast farther away from these permit, particularly in shallow water.  The bigger fish are quite a bit more unpredictable and are found in deeper water normally.  These permit can be very aggressive at times as well.  On a recent trip, my buddy and I had just found a really nice permit on a windy light-colored flat with large limestone-looking patches.  He led the fish by about six feet, and as the fly sank, the permit rolled onto its side like a spawning salmon and grabbed the fly out of the water column.  He strip-set on the fish but pulled the fly out of the fish’s mouth.  Quickly, he stripped the fly again and let it fall.  The fish then pounced on the #2 spawning shrimp again, and this time we got him, an awesome 25 pound plus permit.

The best way to spot permit is to have really good eyesight and an innate ability to spot fish.  If you don’t have this, then here are a few tips.  Like with all saltwater fishing, look for nervous water, but even more important for me is to look for the dark from their tails.  Make sure to have great optics, and don’t underestimate the importance of experience.  The more you are on the water, the better you’ll get at spotting permit.

APPROACH

Fly fishing for permit in Belize.Once you’ve found the permit, you need to get within casting distance.  Wading for permit lets you get much closer and allows you to stay versatile.  It allows you to keep tight on the strip and to set up where you have the best cast with respect to the wind.  In the Western Caribbean, larger boats are the norm for guided trips, and these boats are much louder with hull-slap from the waves and other factors.  For this reason, the guides usually approach with the wind.  When the permit are coming at you, this can make it harder to keep a tight line on the permit when stripping, since you are coming into the fish at a faster pace.  This isn’t as much an issue when the wind isn’t howling, and wading is great when you can do it, but it’s not for every situation.  The key is knowing when to wade and knowing when to fish out of the boat.  There are negatives to wading, since you can’t see the permit as well and you’re less mobile if you have to chase the fish, without roasting your hip flexors.  If I’m casting from the boat, I cast from 65 feet to as far as I can cast, so that I don’t alert the permit to our presence.  You can get substantially closer, wading.

LEADING FISH

Everyone wants the magic formula for leading permit, but no one way works in every situation.  Large schools of permit versus bigger singles require different leads.  In windy deep conditions, cast close to the fish within 1 – 3 feet, particularly if the fish is a single or in a small group.  In shallow water and big schools, lead the fish from about 6 – 10 feet.  I’ll cast well ahead of these permit and just wait for them to come up on the fly.

MOVING THE FLY AND READING FISH

Fly fishing for permit in Belize.Once your fly is in the water, there is one fact that cannot be overlooked, “permit have to see your fly”.  Get that fly in the fish’s face.  However, when you cast, you want the cast to unfold just above the water but not slap down on it if you can help it. It’s easy to do casting downwind but very hard into it.  At this point, the biggest advice I can give you is to think like the prey.  This is how you should move or not move your fly.  Shrimp and crabs, for that matter, don’t move a lot until they’ve been spooked, and so let the fly drop with a nice long strip.  When the fish sees the fly, give the fly a little bit faster strip as if it’s realized it’s going to be lunch.  The fish should be there on the next strip, if not, let it hit bottom.  Then give the fly a bump and wait.  I move my fly quite a bit during this whole process, since that’s what the prey does.

You need to be tight on your fly, so you can feel everything going on.  Try to watch the fish’s mouth as much as possible and you’ll see him take the fly even high up in the water column.  If you can’t see the fish’s mouth, then try to watch how the fish is tipping.  Either way, you should still be able to feel the fish take.  If you think, he’s on it, strip-set and live with the consequences.  You may just get another shot.

ESSENTIAL GEAR AND RIGS

Fly fishing for permit in Belize.As far as gear is concerned when fly fishing for permit in Belize, you need a quality reel and rod, but your skill is more important than the rod when it comes to casting, so yeah, you need to practice.  I fish both 10 and 9 weights depending on the wind.  With my line and leader set-up, I’m quite particular .  I fish a clear floating fly line like the Cortland Liquid Crystal, which I like for one main reason but other minor reasons: I think the fish see the line less in the air.  I really believe in the clear line, but you can’t track your fly as well, so use what you feel more comfortable with.  I attach as long of a leader as possible to this.  My leader is a full fluorocarbon leader (RIO’s Fluoroflex Saltwater/Bonefish) in either #20 or #16 depending on the wind and presence of coral (heavier for stronger wind and with coral around) and to this I’ll add 3 to 7 feet of tippet, once again based on the wind (shorter for stronger wind).  My leaders end up being 12 – 16 feet long with my tippet being anywhere from a 16 – 12 pound rating (RIO’s Fluoroflex Plus 0x – 2x).  If I had to go with a guide spool of tippet, I would use 12 pound, since I really think the smaller diameter increases your odds with these fish for whatever reason.  Whether they can see it less or it gives the fly more action is not as important as the confidence I’ve gained from actually doing better with smaller diameter tippets with both permit and bonefish.  You need to know your skills with fighting fish though, so don’t bite off more than you can chew.

BEST SHOT AT CATCHING A PERMIT

Fly fishing for permit in Belize.Finally, if you want to catch a permit—if you’re just lying awake at night thinking about catching a permit, and you want my recommendation on your best shot at catching one, I can offer you this advice.  Concentrate on the large schools of permit that you can find around Belize.  Your goal is to find a school of unmolested permit under ten pounds.  Make the decision whether to wade or not, depending on the situation, and then cast a #4 – #6 spawning shrimp style fly way in front of them with enough room for error.  Strip like I recommended, keeping everything tight and working with your guide.  Then once you hook into the permit, the fun is over…these fish do not play nice, but there are worse problems to have!

James Johnson is a young but already experienced guide and has been around fly fishing since he was four years old. He has the enviable position of spending his summers in Alaska, winters in Belize, and spring and falls in Michigan on the Pere Marquette. He officially started guiding in Alaska and Michigan at the age of 16 but was working around his family’s lodge from the age of 12. He has extensive saltwater experience, fishing the Florida Keys, throughout the Bahamas, and an inordinate amount of time in Belize where he helps run the family lodge, the Blue Bonefish. If you have any questions about permit in Belize or any of his other guiding adventures, contact him at flyguide.jj@gmail.com.

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