The Permit Obsession
Lefty Kreh’s classic book led this author down a focused and sometimes frustrating path.
By John Haenke

There is good access to many Australian Flats, all that is required is a boat with a shallow draught and casting deck.

During the mid ‘70s, a small group of anglers in Darwin, myself included, were getting into saltwater fly fishing. For me, the main target species was barramundi, and at the time I was sponging up any information on saltwater fly fishing that I could find.

I purchased a copy of Lefty Kreh’s book Fly Fishing in Salt Water, and not surprisingly, three of the species covered in the book were tarpon, bonefish and permit. The big three, from the birthplace of saltwater flats fishing around Florida and Central America.

We don’t have Atlantic tarpon in Australia, and shallow water flats where you can consistently sight fish bonefish are few and far between. However, permit are relatively common on the coastal flats in tropical Australia, so along with all the other species that frequent our Australian flats they are a good, albeit challenging option.

In his book Kreh describes permit like this:

“The supreme challenge to fly fisherman in the salt. This fish is more wary than a bonefish and nearly as fast, it has incredible eyesight, swims even more erratically, is infinitely stronger, grows bigger . . . and rarely takes a fly!”

The book was written in the late 1960s and at the time Kreh made a very insightful prediction on a caption under a photo:

“As better fly patterns are developed . . . more permit will be taken, but they will always be among the most difficult of inshore species to take on fly.” And he was absolutely right.

Lefty Kreh and his book have had a big impact on the direction of my life.

In those early days, I did not have a quality flats fishing boat, access to quality flats was difficult, and crocs lurked on flats that may have presented wading options. This made it too difficult for me to a make a serious run at permit, but that fish remained in the back of my mind. At that time permit were one of the three species that drove many keen anglers to the Florida Keys. Catching one of these fish was something I wanted to experience myself.

When I asked Lefty which was his favorite fly fishing destination, he told me about Belize. It sounded like a tropical paradise, with extensive flats and mangrove systems and a well-managed sport fishery, with large numbers of bonefish, tarpon and permit, all swimming in gin-clear water. I didn’t know much about Belize, but if the opportunity ever presented itself, I wanted to check it out for myself.

In the mid ‘90s Peter Morse and I were in the middle of shooting the first series of Wildfish, and he lined up a story in the Hinchinbrook area with local guide Steve Jeston. Alan “Fish” Philliskirk traveled down from Cairns to join us as well. The plan was to shoot a flats segment on golden trevally, although Steve mentioned that he had seen permit at times. The thought of targeting unpredictable permit with the time constraints of filming a television show was something none of us had really considered.

A solid Cape York Permit from a school of about a dozen.

At the time, as far as I could gather, only Greg Behune had caught a permit on the fly in Australia. He caught that fish on a West Coast Cape York beach.

It was early morning on that flat in the Hinchinbrook Channel. I was a little stressed, as we were having camera issues—salt spray finally corroded the lens connections and it was on its last legs. Through the viewfinder, vision was marginal in the early morning light. Subtle tails and fin-tips were moving around in the shallows.

Morse and Fish had put in numerous casts with flies that goldies would normally have eaten. But these were refused. It was difficult to get a definite ID on those fish in the low morning light. I remember being completely focused on the fins and tails, getting to the point where I wasn’t expecting a hook-up, when I heard Fish beside me say very quietly, “I’m on.”

The fish headed for deeper water and slugged it out for a while. We assumed it was a goldie. After a very dogged fight, Fish worked it back into the shallows, with Steve exclaiming: “It’s a permit!”

I don’t think he believed it either.

We had just witnessed and recorded a little bit of Australian saltwater fly-fishing history: a permit sight-cast to on the flats, caught on a fairly nondescript pink shrimp pattern that had been refused by so many of its mates. Typical permit!

That story went to air on prime time national television in Australia, as well as countless other countries overseas. Many of the viewers who watched it would have had absolutely no idea how difficult permit can be. This, more or less, was the start of my permit obsession, and it was the beginning for many others as well.

One of them was Mark “Bargy” Bargenquast, who was guiding out of Hervey Bay. Over a couple of scotches one night, I mentioned permit. Always looking for a new challenge, Bargy was very intrigued and told me he’d have one within the month. It took him quite a bit longer than that, but it started his obsession.

Bargy and I spent countless hours, days and months searching the east coast of Queensland and Cape York for suitable flats and productive areas that didn’t get commercial netting pressure, that had protection from the prevailing southeasterly trade winds, that had clear water and good visibility on the right tides. It was a mission, but we learned a lot, refining techniques and fly patterns, and catching our fair share of permit along the way.

Our permit obsession led us further afield too, finally to Belize, where we caught the grand slam of tarpon, permit and bonefish. Belize didn’t disappoint in the fishing arena, and it was an amazing adventure—fishing all day and drinking Caribbean rum at night with the locals.

Bargy and I now live in North Queensland and continue to be permit obsessed. We have both been guiding on the flats, and have learned quite a bit about these frustrating and enigmatic fish, but they are remain a great challenge.

There is no other fish that requires more stealth to catch. Having spent countless days watching their behavior and body language, I have come to the following conclusions:

  • Permit have exceptional eyesight, and they are extremely sensitive to noise. They wouldn’t survive on the shallow flats if they weren’t aware of everything that goes on around them.
  • Permit can hear an electric motor well out of range of the best fly casters.
  • Permit can hear a hull slap the water at the same distance.
  • Permit can hear your wading boots crunching on a rough coral bottom, and they can sense bow waves coming off your legs while wading.
  • More than likely they also have an amazing sense of smell.
  • One of the things many anglers are not aware of is the fact they often don’t spook like other fish. When they know you are present, they often keep doing whatever they are doing. But they will not eat your fly. They look relaxed, but don’t be fooled—when they are onto you, the chance of getting a bite is just about zero.
  • For the same reason it’s often the first cast that gets the fish; the more casts you put in, the better odds they’ll pick up on your presence.
  • If it’s shallow and the bottom is firm, I prefer to wade if possible, obviously taking into consideration crocs and large sharks that inhabit many of our northern flats. A boat is much easier for the fish to see, and generally makes more noise than someone wading carefully.
  • Even though they sometimes get into water so shallow they have to turn on their side to swim, most permit are found in a depths around a meter to meter-and a-half, which means a boat is the best option. (In a boat I use an electric motor to get into the general area, then I drop a small Bruce anchor, no chain, and then wait to ambush the fish if I know which gutters, channels or even small saddles between sandbars they travel through. Sometimes I’ll drift depending on the conditions.)
  • If the fish are traveling, it’s a case of getting the fly—usually a crab pattern—in front of them where they can see it: usually a few meters in front. But it’s better to be too close than too far. If the water is reasonably deep, they will often eat the fly on the drop, if the crab is weighted correctly and looks natural without spinning or twisting. Be ready, watch the fish’s body language. When I’m guiding, the most common mistake is an angler doesn’t realize a fish has eaten the fly.
  • To hook permit, the best advice is keep tight on the line. If you think the permit is about to eat, a slow, steady strip, even double-handed, sets the hook. This also imitates what a crab will look like shuffling along the bottom or swimming down to the bottom. Sometimes a permit will follow the fly to the bottom and tail on it. Again a slow, steady strip sets the hook.
  • Permit can suck in and spit out a fly in a fraction of a second if they think something is wrong.
  • If permit are feeding hard, grubbing on the bottom, tailing, they are focused on the bottom and are less likely to spook. Drop the fly closer to the edge of where they are feeding, let it sink, then give it a slow, steady strip.
  • Sometimes, especially in glassy conditions or around the turn of the tide, permit are found just hanging on the surface or mid-water, presumably resting. They can be very spooky in this scenario and if one spooks, they all spook. Target a fish on the outside of the school.
  • The ideal situation is a fish traveling in shallow water coming at you, unaware of anything unusual. Place your fly in its path and let it settle to bottom. Then give the fly a twitch to get the fish’s attention. Start that slow, steady strip. When the permit moves on the fly and tilts, you probably have him.

Flexo or Velcro crab flies need to be weighted correctly, depending on the depth of water you are fishing.

There is nothing I’m more fanatical about than tying a crab fly for permit. Having a natural looking sink, and getting the right sink rate is paramount.

There have been many, many patterns tied to fool these fish, but in all these years nobody has come up with a fly that doesn’t get its fair share of rejections. That’s all part of chasing permit.

Apart from using shrimp patterns on small permit on the oceanic flats, I’ve narrowed my personal choice of fly for the larger fish down to Flexos and Velcro crabs. I tend to use the Flexo in shallow water because they land softly, without the plop that can spook fish.

When tying this pattern, small or medium lead dumbbells can be tied to the hook-shank inside the tubing. Chenille legs with a little flexible UV resin added where they connect to the body helps strengthen the fly and stops the legs from folding in. If the legs are held out near the body, the crab has a much more natural sink, with the legs acting like a parachute—you don’t want that crab to go down like a brick.

At the end of the day, this is what it is all about.

Many people think permit only eat a crab off the bottom. In my experience, they’ll eat a crab anywhere in the water column, from the surface to the bottom.

Crabs can be tied in varying sizes and weights, on a #4 hook through to a #2. Traditionally, larger hooks were often used, but I find the smaller, lighter crabs are more effective because they have a more natural sink and they are easier to cast.

There are plenty of strong fine-gauge hooks on the market. I steer away from shiny stainless hooks, I’m sure the flash spooks permit at times, especially in clear, shallow water. This is also why I only use lead eyes. Bright, shiny dumbbell eyes spook permit, I have no doubt about that. My crabs aren’t pretty, but they catch fish.

When fishing deeper water, I use a velcro crab tied with the same things in mind, but I add more weight, usually medium or large lead dumbbells, which I flatten with a hammer before tying them to the hook shank. This reduces bulk. The Velcro crabs sink faster in deeper water than the Flexos.

Last but not least, I test every crab pattern in a bucket or laundry sink before I fish it, making sure it sinks with the hook up, and with the natural-look legs out.

When wading for permit, I use a weight forward floating tropical line designed to throw heavy flies. Sometimes I use a sink-tip.

From a boat, I use a weight-forward floating tropical line, with a sink-tip around 15 feet long. For leader, a good quality fluorocarbon in the 20- to 40-pound test range is good. Sometimes I go down to 16-pound tippet for smaller fish in clear shallow water.

Fly fishing in saltwater has been and still is a big part of my life. It was that introduction through Lefty’s book that really got me started, and I wasn’t alone—many thousands of anglers also were inspired by his words. Thank you, Lefty

Tight Lines, but not too tight. Words of wisdom from Lefty.

John Haenke
John Haenke has spent most of his life behind a camera, capturing on film and video some of the best fishing Australia and the South Pacific has to offer. Nowadays John specialises in guiding fly fishers on the flats and for trophy barra in the beautiful Whitsundays in North Queensland, Australia.