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Going For the Grand Slam
Nothing rewarding in life comes easy, which is why catching a permit, bonefish and tarpon—in a single day—remains one of saltwater fly-fishing’s ultimate challenges.
By Gil Greenberg
Credit Pat Ford

Most saltwater fly-fishers have caught bonefish. Some have tamed the mighty silver king. And these days, with advances in tackle and tactics, a lot of people are even catching permit on the fly. But how many can claim they’ve caught all three on the fly, in a day, and are recognized by the IGFA as a flats grand slam angler?

For saltwater anglers who fish Florida and the Caribbean with regularity, there is no bigger badge than landing a flats grand slam. Catching the “Big 3” during a single session takes planning, skill and, more often than not, quite a bit of luck.

Repeat after me: Proper planning and preparation prevents piss-poor performance. Learn it. Know it. Live it. Here are the core skills that prepare you for a run at the grand slam, no matter where you choose to fish these three alluring, yet highly challenging species.

Permit

Permit are the princesses of the ocean. They spend their days hanging around beautiful coral reefs, then flood onto the flats to dine on crabs and other forage. They have a well earned reputation as being highly spooky and they can spit out flies faster than my dog extracts heartworm medicine from its kibble.

My best advice for permit is to make friends with the wind. Most of my successful permit days involve less than ideal conditions when the wind runs 12 to 18 knots.

Because permit are generally targeted in deeper water (two to four feet) you’ll need to cast heavy flies that get down fast. I tend not to lead permit as far as I would a bonefish, as permit like to see the fly land on the bottom. Usually a lead of three-to five feet is ideal, depending on depth and surface conditions. This allows the fly to hit bottom about three-to five seconds before the permit reaches it. I prefer flies like the Baur Crab and Alfexo Crab in deeper water. In shallow water I prefer a Raghead or Merkin-style crab because they tend to make less of a plop when hitting the water.

Being able to put your fly in a tea cup at 80 feet would be nice but, realistically, if you can put your fly in a car tire at 50 feet, consistently in 20-knot winds, that’s good enough to get you a fish. If you’re not there yet, work on your double-hauling and take a casting lesson. With a bit of time and practice, hitting that benchmark shouldn’t be too difficult. When you’re finally making a cast and shooting line, form a ring with your index finger and thumb. This way you are in constant control of your line. Once the fly hits the water, slowly tighten up any slack, and let the fly sink.

As soon as you’ve made the cast, lock onto those fish and watch their body language. You should know the moment the fish sees your fly. You may need to make a couple strips to get the fish’s attention, but I prefer to fish a static fly, stripping just enough to maintain tension so that I can feel a bite. You’ll need to calculate how the current is affecting your fly, your fly line, and how your boat is drifting. Keep your strips long, smooth and very slow. If the boat is drifting towards your fly, or the current is pushing your fly towards you, you’ll need to strip slightly faster. Conversely, if the boat is planted and the current is drifting away, or your boat is drifting away from the fly, you may not need to strip at all.

As the fish approaches your fly, watch its body angle. Fish don’t have necks. In order to pick a fly off the bottom, the whole fish needs to change its angle. When this happens maintain your composure. Continue doing what you’re doing. The signs of an eat can be subtle, anything from seeing the fish’s mouth open, to a slight puff of sand. Sometimes it just looks like the permit is giving the bottom a quick peck. Permit have soft mouths so setting the hook shouldn’t be too much of an issue. A long, firm tug straight back should do it. Once you feel the weight of a fish, apply slight pressure with your stripping hand, and make sure your line is clear, not wrapped around your legs or fingers or any of several bazillion things that lines like to attach themselves to, right at the wrong moment. If you have a partner in the boat, have them ready to assist with clearing the line.

Fighting permit isn’t overly complicated. But these fish are in the jack/trevally family, so they can peel line, and the larger fish in particular have quite a bit of stamina. Use side-pressure when possible to tire these fish, but be prepared to switch to a higher angle if necessary. Be aware of your surroundings and try to steer the fish away from mangroves, coral heads and bommies. Most permit take off for deeper water. This can be a good thing but watch out for reef breaks and coral covered drop-offs that easily shred light tippet. Once you land a permit snap a few photos and get ‘em back in the water quickly. You’ve got more fish to catch.

Gear-wise I usually fish a 9 or 10-weight fast-action rod, lined with a Rio permit taper. In absolutely nasty conditions I switch to a more aggressive line, like an Outbound Short. I’ll fish a 10-foot tapered fluoro leader with an additional two-to four feet of 16-pound-to 20-pound tippet, all connected via a uni or blood knot. I prefer the standard non-slip loop knot for my leader to fly connection.

Tarpon

Anglers fish tarpon in a variety of scenarios, but to achieve the flats slam, we’re talking about targeting them in relatively shallow water. And the quintessential experience is to sight fish these brutes on the flats. While this is by far the most difficult scenario, it is also the most rewarding. Unlike permit, most tarpon are quite willing to eat a well presented fly, and while accuracy is very important, you are casting to more of an area, trying to intercept a fish, rather than casting directly to it. The farther you cast the more opportunities you’ll get. Being able to launch a fly 60 feet, with Hoolahoop accuracy, is adequate in most situations. If the fish are heavily pressured, say in the Florida Keys, accuracy and distance become more important. Quickly delivering the fly is important too, so try to limit false casts to one or two.

Generally, you’ll fish deeper flats, channels and holes when looking for cruising, laid up or rolling tarpon. Cruising fish are my favorite because they are the most aggressive. When you spot a cruising fish, visualize its trajectory and cross this path at 90 degrees with your leader, making sure your fly line remains out of sight. I’ll generally lead a fish five-to 10 feet, depending on current and conditions. After making the cast, I slow my strips so that the fly crosses the tarpon’s path within two to three feet of its nose. Most important, remember that tarpon are predators. When presenting a fly, make sure the fly isn’t headed at a tarpon. You want to make the fly flee away from a tarpon, encouraging that fish to chase.

Once you’ve got a tarpon’s attention, medium to long strips usually do the trick. If the fish doesn’t respond, a couple sharp short strips, or “taps,” get the fish’s attention. Keep a tight grip on your fly line—when you get the eat, it will be hard and fast. Once that happens, point your rod at the fish and strip set like you’re trying to drive your hook point into concrete. Then do it again and again. Clear your line and hold on tight—it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

When fighting tarpon try to maintain side pressure opposite of the fish’s direction. Fight the fish from the butt section and the reel rather than the tip. This means dig your fighting butt into your gut and keep your rod tip at a low angle. If you’re doing it right, the bend in your rod should be closer to the butt section than the tip. If you find this confusing, search “Andy Mill fighting tarpon” on Youtube and you’ll get a much more detailed explanation.

While tarpon aren’t dirty fighters, you need to always be prepared for them to jump. When the fish begins to break the surface, point your rod tip at the fish to reduce tension and the likelihood of the hook being spat. This might sound counterintuitive, as anglers are always told to maintain tension, but there are exceptions to every rule. Once the fish lands back in the water, immediately tighten up again. This is called “bowing to the king.” With proper fish fighting technique, you should be able to land the largest fish within a half-hour to 45 minutes.

Laid-up or holding tarpon can be a bit more difficult than cruising fish, and may require a bit more enticing. Make sure you know which direction the fish is facing and try to cast 18 inches in front, and 18 inches past the fish’s head, while never allowing your fly to swim towards it. Keep in mind you may have to adjust based on the current. Use short, sharp strips or “taps” to get the fish’s interest and increase the length the strips once the fish starts moving on the fly. If the fish has any interest, you should get the eat quickly.

Rolling fish on the flats are generally found in deeper holes and small channels. You can try and sight-cast rolling fish with an intermediate line, but you should be prepared to blind-cast the water column working a three-axis grid. I generally start by sight-casting the fish with an intermediate line before fan casting the area. I’ll then switch to a full-sinking line, and count down five seconds before retrieving. Once I’ve covered the area with a five-second count, I’ll start at the top and add 10 seconds to my count. I’ll continue to do so until I’ve covered the entire water column. Sometimes these fish are actually holding close to bottom.

If targeting tarpon on the flats is not an option or has been unproductive, blind-casting channels, bridges, and pressure points can pay dividends. Work these as a grid, in the same manner you would work rolling tarpon. Backcountry, mangrove-lined estuaries hold large numbers of juvenile tarpon and often a handful of larger ones as well. Most guides have “tarpon holes” where they can consistently put clients on smaller fish. While some anglers would consider this cheating, these can be good spots to put a tarpon in the boat quickly. Generally, the techniques mentioned above work just as well in the backcountry.

I prefer a fast-action 11-weight rod over a 12-weight rod when targeting adult tarpon on the flats. When sight fishing I use a floating line with a clear 10-foot intermediate tip. I use the Rio Tarpon Taper for this, but many other brands offer equally effective lines. A tapered 9- or 10-foot leader with a 40-pound class tippet and 18 inches of 80-pound abrasion resistant bite tippet works well.

For blind-casting I use an Outbound Short line with an intermediate head. For deeper water I switch to a 500-grain Leviathan, which has a fast-sinking head and intermediate running line. I’ll usually run eight feet of 40-to 60-pound fluoro leader all the way to the fly, but if big fish are present I add 18 inches of 80-pound bite tippet.

For juvenile and backcountry tarpon I generally use a nine or 10-weight rod with the same lines as mentioned previously, but in a 9/10 weight. I run a standard 9-foot long 20-pound test tapered fluoro leader with 40-to 60-pound bite tippet.

Flies are very guide and destination specific, but generally my boxes are full of the classics. Tarpon Toads, Bunny Leeches, Cockroaches and Black Deaths, as well a few modern synthetic baitfish patterns, work well. Most of my flies are tied on 2/0-4/0 Gamakatsu Sl12 hooks. For backcountry and juvenile tarpon I’ll throw smaller patterns, including Clousers and white Muddler-style minnow patterns.

Bonefish

Bonefish are, without a doubt, the easiest of the big three to catch. But, for some reason they never seem to show up when you need them most. Bonefish are extremely dependent on the tide. Generally during the bottom of the tide they take refuge in deeper holes and channels. As the tide trickles in they follow the flow as it creeps over their feeding grounds, which include flats, lagoons, sandbars and shoreline. As the tide hits its peak, bonefish feed heavily, often taking refuge deep in the mangroves where they are out of reach of anglers. Then as the tide begins to fall, they magically reappear, following the outflow across the flat. Generally bones are most comfortable feeding in six inches to 24 inches of water. Larger fish, in particular, are often found in deeper water around the edges of the flats.

When choosing a fly, its weight (which directly influences its sink rate and “plop” factor) is more important than the actual pattern. Select a fly that hits the bottom between three to five seconds after it lands. In most conditions, with moderate winds, say 7 to 15 knots, I try to lead fish around three or four feet and cast slightly past the fish. In calm conditions I extend to four feet to eight feet and try and get the fish to chase.

Bonefish can be funny. When they are in a hungry mood, they often charge a fly after hearing it “plop.” Other times they spook and race off the flat. Luckily, bonefish are abundant and after a couple shots you should be able to dial in their mood and present accordingly.

Stripping for bonefish is situational. When fishing a sand or muck bottom, I generally use short, sharp strips to get the fish’s attention, followed by a long, slow strip to secure the eat and feel the bite. Unless the fish is swimming directly towards you, wait until you feel the bite before setting the hook—there is a good chance the fish will pick up the fly and maintain course making it difficult to feel the bite. In this situation I recommend watching the fish and speeding up your retrieve so that your fly is moving fast enough to feel the bite. Experienced anglers are able to watch the fish and set based on body language, but this takes experience and is extremely difficult when dealing with multiple fish or a school. If you are not comfortable reading a bone’s body language, then strip, Mon, strip!

If you can cast 40 feet into a Hoolahoop in moderate wind you can catch bones.

Gear-wise, a 7/8 weight rod with a bonefish taper line works great. In extremely windy conditions, or if I’m targeting big fish in deeper water, I’ll switch to a permit line. A standard nine-to 10-foot leader with 10-to 12-pound fluoro tippet works for most situations. Go heavier if needed, and especially when you fish “hairy” water with oysters and mangroves. I often use 16-pound when targeting double-digit fish.

Planning for Success

The trickiest part of attaining a flats grand slam is catching each species as efficiently as possible. Time management is key, and this means planning your days around the optimal bite times for each species, which are directly related to the tide. While every fishery is different—and ultimately you should listen to your guide and follow their plan—it is important that you select the best tides, dates and destination to reach your goal.

When I target trophy fish of a single species, I prefer the large spring tides associated with the new and full moons, but when it comes to grand slam fishing, I prefer slightly smaller tides that allow for more time on the flats. These in-between tides generally occur three or four days before and after the full or new moon.

Just about every angler who has spent significant time attempting a flats grand slam agrees that permit are the biggest challenge. So, start your day with a permit hunt, and try to land one in the morning. I generally prefer permit fishing during the top half of the incoming tide. Therefore, I try and pick a day that has a pre-dawn low or a high tide around noon.

Once I’ve crossed off permit, I look for tarpon. There are two exceptions. The first would be if there is a bonefish flat close by and the tarpon grounds require serious travel time. In these situations it can be worth quickly picking up a bonefish—you don’t want to run out of time for a bonefish after you’ve landed permit and tarpon. If bonefish are around and you won’t burn too much time finding them, give them a shot. The second, would be if its nearing the end of the day, the tide is still coming in and I’ve got limited time before it gets too high for bonefish. In this case, I’ll often risk it and try to pick up a quick bonefish before the tide gets too high, and then roll the dice with tarpon at the end of the day. I’m often successful blind-casting channels and holes in low light for bones, but spotting them on a high tide without the sun is very difficult.

Back to tarpon. Tarpon are usually a lot less tide-dependent than bonefish and permit and really don’t mind the high tide as long as there is some sort of current. If conditions are good, try to get one on the flats. If not, blindcast channels, holes and pressure points. When you hook up, remember to fight the fish with the butt section of your rod and reel, rather than the rod tip. Land the fish fast and get over to the bonefish flats before time runs out.

If you’ve made it this far, give yourself a quick pat on the back—landing a permit and tarpon in one day is no easy task. Unfortunately, you’re likely short on time and fishing sub-optimal conditions, so you’ll need to pick up a bonefish quickly. In Cuba, Belize, Mexico and Honduras, most guides take you to some sort of rocky surf break and target resident schools of bones that can be found working the surf nearly day and night for little crabs and bristle worms. My advice is skip the surf and hit the sand and muck flats if you’ve got sunlight and a decent tide. Those surf fish see multiple flies all day long and can be extremely picky. You can always beg/bribe your guide to stay out a little longer and you can come back to those surf bones if the other spots don’t produce—the schools aren’t going anywhere.

The 24th to the 27th would be a good window to target a grand slam. Moderate but moving tide, with an early morning low allows a large window of prime tide to target permit. I usually prefer a new moon (especially in April/May). In August I find a full moon fishes fine.

Choosing the Right Destination

If you’re looking for your first grand slam, visit destinations that have awesome permit fishing. Why? Well, it’s simple. Permit are difficult to catch wherever you are, so picking a spot that is permit focused helps stack the odds in your favor. Lodges with proven track records give you the best bet because they have quality guides and a proven system.

Belize’s Turneffe Atoll is one of our favorite grand-slam destinations. It has predictable weather patterns, an abundance of permit, experienced guides and fantastic non-angling activities. The ideal season runs from April to August when grand-slam anglers get multiple shots at permit and migratory and laid up tarpon on the flats. And there are plenty of bonefish within a football field length of the lodge.

Belize River Lodge, which is located in central Belize, is another good spot to attempt a grand slam. Located literally 10 minutes from Belize’s main airport, (Philip S. W. Goldson Airport, BZE), this is a good spot to spend a couple days grand-slam fishing before heading to other areas of the country. Belize River Lodge was one of the first fishing lodges built in the Caribbean and has been putting anglers on grand-slams for over 60 years. Needless to say, they know a thing or two about grand-slam fishing. While the permit fishing here is not quite as easy as you might find in some other areas in Belize, being located on the Belize River gives anglers the opportunity to fish back-county waters where hooking into tarpon is all but guaranteed. Anglers also have opportunities for snook and jack crevalle, making this a great destination for super grand-slams as well.

Southern Belize is known for its world-class permit fishing. However, it has very consistent bonefishing and some fantastic un-pressured tarpon spots. While run times and the distance between fishing locations make targeting a grand slam a little more difficult here, it is still very doable.

Mexico’s Southern Yucatan hosts a plethora of lodges that offer world-class grand-slam options at very good value. While the fish tend to be a little smaller than farther south, the fishery is enormous and unlike many other places on this list, very wadable. Finding an experienced, professional guide is the key to success here.

While not the most accessible location, Cuba is a great place to take the grand slam. Getting to your fishing lodge is an adventure that often involves bus trips and ferries, but that effort is more than worth the price of admission. The Cuban government has done a fantastic job of protecting its nature parks, resulting in some of the best un-pressured grand-slam fishing in the Caribbean. Jardines de la Reina, known by anglers as JDR, is a marine park the size of the Florida Keys and a perfect example of how a fly-focused sport fishery should be managed. While there are no land-based operations here, we work with several mothership operations that can take you to some of the most remote and productive flats in the northern hemisphere.

Please note: I don’t usually follow IGFA regulations and generally fish for my own enjoyment. Nothing makes me happier than catching-and-releasing a fish unharmed. If you want to gain IGFA acknowledgment of a grand slam, you’ll need to read their guidelines thoroughly.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.