The Pursuit of Happiness
If you focus too much on permit, you might miss one of Chetumal’s best experiences.
By Rex Hannon

The author hoists a nice triggerfish.

If you’re a saltwater fly fisher and the permit is your species of choice, you better prepare yourself for sleepless nights and days when you question your ability and equipment.

I can think of very few other species that can take you on such an emotional rollercoaster. The Permit Guru Mike Dawes once said that if you do everything correct, make a good presentation, don’t miss a strip, keep a permit’s interest, and you still don’t get the strike, you have to accept that as a win.

Undoubtably, permit are the most challenging fish on the flats, and rightfully so. They are wary and attuned to their surroundings, and catching one is a great thrill. Unfortunately, many anglers place too much pressure on themselves to succeed. I have witnessed very competent anglers become bumbling stooges after catching a glimpse of a permit.

Fortunately, permit and triggerfish are often found in proximity when fishing around Chetumal, Mexico, which offers an opportunity for success when the permit aren’t willing to play.

The Yucatan Peninsula’s permit and triggerfish are often seen sharing the same habitat. I find the best time to target both species on the coral reefs is at low tide, simply because less water makes it easier to see these fish. But I have had very good outings during high tide also. If you slow your stalk, watch along the shoreline and around structure, keep your eyes on the rollers coming over the reef edge, you will increase your opportunities. And fishing both tides ups your odds of success simply by keeping your fly in the water as much as possible.

I have also learned that permit and triggerfish take similar offerings. I have caught both on shrimp and crab patterns, along with specific bonefish patterns. Presentation is the key. A well placed cast, along with a retrieve that’s often dictated by the reaction of the fish, with no unnecessary movement, often results in success, or at the very least a learning experience. After all, it is called fishing not catching.

You can get locked into permit and bonefish when wading the flats. But don’t overlook other species, like triggerfish, sharks and barracuda. These fish can turn a slow day into a memorable experience.

A few months ago I fished with Will Robins, who owns Fly Fish Costa Maya in Chetumal, Mexico. We’d made plans the night before to meet at first light, and make the long walk along a section of the Maya Riviera coast to a secluded shallow coral reef that holds good numbers of triggerfish and our target species, permit. We were still a few hundred yards from the northern end of the reef when we saw signs of life, the big black rubbery looking tails of a feeding school of triggerfish. They were coming directly towards us, the morning sun reflected off the slow moving rollers that were just inside the reef and illuminated everything beneath. This was sight fishing at its best.

Will approached the school, perhaps 15 to 20 triggers, from the front, and I from halfway between the lead fish and the trailer. Will’s first cast was on target and the lead fish, in typical triggerfish manner, drove the fly to the coral bottom. But, just as Will was about to drive the hook home, it happened. We noticed just a few yards from this fish was a big black forked tail! Will immediately pulled his hook away from the trigger.

The light conditions were perfect for me to watch this show. The cast was laid down just a few feet forward of the feeding fish. The first strip caught the permit’s eye. The fish moved to inspect, still not committing. In fact, that permit just levitated above the fly, watching. With another strip, again the fish moved to within inches of the fly. Nothing. This scene continued until both the fly and the fish were just a few feet away from Will. Then, as they often do, that permit just turned and disappeared into the slow moving waves. The triggerfish had disbanded so we continued farther down the reef.

Within minutes, as if on cue, the large black tails reappeared, the triggers regrouping to continue their feeding trek north. I was just a 30-foot cast away from several fish, unnoticed. I surveyed the field of view before making the cast, and there again appeared a black forked tail, right among the others. I told myself to remain calm, took a deep breath and laid out the offering. The fly went unnoticed at first, but the first strip drew attention. Unfortunately a very hungry and very large trigger saw the fly too, and that was the end of my shot for a permit. The fish rushed the fly, devoured it and then took off on a long run. I applied a lot of side pressure to keep the fish from exiting over the reef and minutes later had that fish in-hand. We snapped few photos and sent the bruiser on its way. I can tell you from experience that the Chetumal area offers world-class size triggerfish, with 10-pounders coming to hand with some regularity.

Permit and bones are the sexy flats species and they deserve that reputation. Keep them on your hitlist but be prepared for any opportunity. Once you get your permit and bonefish, you might want to turn your attention to triggerfish. They are easier to catch than permit and grow to large sizes, much larger, in fact, than the permit pictured here.

Don’t let the triggerfish’s physically awkward appearance fool you—these reef warriors are great fighters, and they seem to fear nothing. They are also much stronger and faster than you would expect. So when one takes a fly away from a potential permit, don’t fret too much.

Will and I spent the remainder of the day taking shots at as many as 30 triggerfish, breaking off several and releasing two more. We saw several other permit cruising in deeper water along the shoreline, but we couldn’t get an eat. I can tell you that we did everything perfect on this day and still had no takers. In the end, though, we had a wonderful day, walking the flats together in a beautiful area where the fish are abundant and the shots are many. We’d landed a few triggers and missed out on some permit. In the end, I’m ok with that.

Rex Hannon
Rex Hannon was born in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, the only son of an avid fisherman. He and his father haunted the many blue ribbon trout streams that dot that region. Their home was just 30 minutes from Penn State University where George Harvey began what was the first accredited fly fishing class in the country. He was replaced by the legendary fly fishermen Joe Humphreys. The author began fishing the Lake Ontario tributaries for salmon, steelhead, and trout in the 1970s and was schoolmates with the Metz family, who were instrumental in bringing the worlds finest hackles to the fly tying industry. Hannon is on the pro staff for Regal Vise. He lives with his wife, Margherita, in Jenson Beach, Florida.