The pursuit and protection of our most adored and frustrating fish.
Tommy Robinson remembered his moment of enlightenment. It took place in the '70s, back when nobody believed you could catch permit on a fly. Robinson grew up in Key West, and began guiding before he'd even graduated high school. But on this day he was an angler, fishing from the back of the boat while his friend poled from the bow. "We were poling barges around back then," Robinson said. He held an 8-weight Fenwick in his hand, rigged with a Platinum Blondie striper fly—a chunky bucktail streamer of the Homer Rhode-Joe Brooks lineage. As they moved along the perimeter of Barracouta Key, in The Lakes area just west of Key West, he spotted a permit. "We'd caught permit on live crabs, but not flies," Robinson said. "I cast at it, started stripping, and not only did that fish chase the fly to the boat, but I could see it had its mouth opened by the end. I thought to myself, these sons of bitches eat flies."
KEYS NATIVE WILL BENSON, WORKING THE WATER NEAR HIS HOME ON LOWER SUGARLOAF KEY. IN ADDITION TO GUIDING, BENSON IS A FILMMAKER AND AN ACTIVE CONSERVATIONIST.
By the time Robinson started guiding, he'd seen permit take tarpon flies (cockroaches), as well as Nat Ragland's Puff pattern. "I could see that they would eat flies," he said. "It just took an angler who could handle all the refusals, take being rejected." At the dawn of his career, Robinson signed a lease to a dock in Garrison Bight, a small alcove-like cut where many guides ran out of and still do along Key West's northern edge. A small cut through Trumbo Point spills north into the backcountry, the Gulf side of the Keys, a nexus of flats, cuts, and basins bleeding into Florida Bay, punctuated by old-growth mangrove islands. Turn left and you'll hook west through the Fleming Key cut, shoot across the channel and arrive in The Lakes in no time. Even today, you can take shots at permit just a short distance from town, without even crossing the channel. And 20 miles west from Garrison Bight lay the Marquesas. These three areas—The Lakes, The Marquesas, and "out back"—provided the venue for where the sport, the art, and the philosophical exercise of permit fishing took shape, where its unnerving, ego-shattering pathos was forged. And there are few other places in flyfishing where the history, culture, landscape, and achievements of the sport are so serendipitously woven together and inextricably bound.
Robinson set up shop next to Jan Isley, who revolutionized permit fishing by inventing the Raghead, one of the first true crab patterns and the predecessor to Del Brown's Merkin. A dozen planks and a few pilings farther down the dock were Harry Spear and Steve Huff, two guides— with voluminous world records and tournament results—that together built what we now know as the sport of permit fishing. Huff was the paramount guide to Del Brown, who caught 513 permit in his lifetime, and Spear was a boatbuilding pioneer and guide to the venerated Bill Levy. Their overflow of clients would spill onto Robinson's dock, and he told me, "At a very young age, I had a pretty good business."
Robinson recounted how experienced anglers— which were really the only kind of anglers walking down the dock at Garrison Bight back then— would step onto his boat not even knowing what a permit was. "In the early days people tended to flyfish for bonefish and tarpon, and if they were going to permit fish, then they'd have their own spinning rod," he said.
When Robinson began guiding in 1980, he noticed a collective awareness mounting for permit, then an unsung and spooky creature. Dockside, he asked Huff, Spear, and Isley what they'd caught, how many, and with what. They'd shout back a number, especially if they'd caught a permit, as that made every angler and guide especially proud. "That's when I realized, as a young man, that this could happen and it will happen," Robinson said. "In the course of 30-40 years, it went from ‘You can't catch these on fly. They don't eat flies. Don't even try. It's only luck if it happens.' to ‘Wow, we can do this.' Now, there seems to be a lot more respect for the sport. About 15 years ago, I noticed an influx of people with no prior experience who were willing to try it."
THE CAST IS CRUCIAL
To avoid the appearance of laying any claim, Robinson was leery of speaking as "the authority" on any specific circumstance from three or four decades ago—a reluctance that runs as a thread of solidarity among permit anglers and guides. In other words, no bullshit. But eventually, more guides started pursuing permit, not necessarily because they preferred fishing for them, but because it was the only fish that guides could reliably target on the flats year-round. "It wasn't so much the fish or the style of fishing, it was the necessity," Robinson said, meaning that guides followed the ebbs and flows of the industry, and would keep doing whatever kept the clients coming back and afforded them a full calendar of trips throughout the year. As to what challenges anglers would pursue at that point, he said, "Permit became the challenge."
Keys native Will Benson was steeped in the permit tradition, a link in the metaphorical chain that runs deep in Key West. Having guided for them full-time since 1999, he has watched much of the evolution take place. As to what changed, "The gear got better. The anglers got better. The boats got better," he said. "Everybody got proficient in catching tarpon and bones, but permit were these fish that were always on the flats yet nobody gave them serious effort. Nobody was dedicating a whole day or multiple days to breaking it down."
Events like the Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament—the "MET"—which was put on by the Miami Rod and Reel Club from 1939 to 2008, helped spur many well-known guides' careers. The concerted effort for permit that was drawn out by these tournaments, highlighted by big names like Lefty Kreh, Flip Pallot, Ralph Delph, Jose Wejebe, R.T. Trosset, and Tim Carlile, drastically expanded the permit knowledge-base. "It blew the doors wide open for permit fishing," Benson said.
Benson's first shot came not in a tournament but near Ballast Key, the southernmost point of the contiguous U.S., where the Atlantic Gulfstream meets the Gulf of Mexico. With Cuba 94 miles south and the Marquesas 14 miles west, Ballast feels like the end of the world, surrounded by horizon in every direction. Its southern edge looks like tendrils splayed into the deeper blue water just offshore, with the light sand bottom reflecting an ineffable cerulean hue, the kind of color that makes you wipe your eyes. Ballast lies on the edge of the Lakes Passage, part of the Key West National Wildlife refuge, girded by some 200,000 acres of shallow water. Within this sprawl of falling and rising thumbs of sand and grass is where much of saltwater flyfishing was forged. And where permit were first pursued.
David Wolkowsky, a local developer who has restored parts of Key West, among other American heritage sites, bought Ballast Key from the U.S. Navy in the late '60s. He built a home on it in 1967 and has hosted many public figures, writers, and friends, including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and the Benson family. One summer afternoon, Benson's dad poled him out in front of the house on the south side of Ballast. Benson was 13, new to flyfishing but with an insatiable interest. As they slid across the flat, a permit came into sight and Benson took his first ever shot at one. The fish ate, and he and his dad landed it near shore, next to his mom and brother, who had come down to watch.
A FEW FRIENDLY WORDS FROM LEFTY
"I thought I knew exactly how much it meant, even then," Benson said, "But I didn't fully grasp it, because I hadn't yet suffered through the pain of rejection. I didn't catch another one for years." As anyone who's ever pursued this maddening fish can attest, everything changes after you get your first one, if you get your first one. Since his first one, Benson has logged more than 23 years and 10,000 hours of guiding to form his opinion: "There's nothing more difficult in the world of fishing than permit."
Last year, Benson and fellow permit fanatic Mike Dawes were crowned grand champion angler and guide in Key West's 9th annual March Merkin. Dawes, a partner in the Victor, Idaho, fly shop WorldCast Anglers, also won the event in 2011, teaming with guide and former Teton Valley resident Don Gable. The 2016 event was Benson's second crown as well, having guided Mike Allen to victory in 2009.
In the '50s, Dawes' grandfather built the well-known bonefish lodge, Deep Water Cay in the Bahamas, and he grew up within that flyfishing milieu. From bonefishing, he naturally had a curiosity about permit. So in 2003, Dawes went to Mexico to try his luck. He told his wife—then girlfriend—that he wasn't coming back until he caught one. "It took a while," he says.
Dawes stayed in Tulum, but each day he drove two hours to the end of the road so he could fish Ascension Bay. He had shots but couldn't connect. Back in town, he met an angler who was on vacation with his wife. Each night, Dawes would run into him at the bar, and the guy would ask Dawes how he did, to which he'd reply, "Nada." Eventually the guy asked Dawes, "What's your problem?" Taken aback by the question, Dawes explained just how badly he wanted to catch one. "I think you want to catch one too badly," the guy replied.
More time passed, and Dawes hadn't even gotten a permit to eat, much less tailed one. He saw his friend again, only this night his friend presented Dawes a photograph of four permit the guy had caught that day in Tulum. Within the frame of the photograph, Dawes' bungalow sat in the background, demonstrating that maybe he did want it too badly.
After three, long, tedious weeks, Dawes finally caught a permit and returned home. "That first one opened the floodgates, but it also ended a pursuit that was kind of romantic in a way," he said. From there, Dawes became like many that fall into this substrata of flyfishing: wholly consumed.
WILL BENSON'S QUICK-ACCESS FLY STASH
With all the places he'd frequented since, I asked Dawes the significance of fishing for permit in the Lower Keys. "I think it's very important from a learning perspective to fish a place like the Lower Keys," he said. "It's like the Super Bowl—just by making it there, you're going to learn something." He explained how collecting that intelligence and taking it elsewhere inevitably makes your approach more polished. "I'm not saying that you should only fish in the Keys, but I think it's imperative for that reason." Dawes also shared his belief that the Lower Keys guides are the most innovative and perceptive permit guides.
This hyper-attention to detail by your guide becomes increasingly important when you consider how rare a permit angler's shots actually are. Dawes outlined how, in an average week, you might get 10 shots, maybe six to 10 seconds each. At the end of a six-day week you've probably spent between 40 and 50 hours on the bow if you're fishing solo, and you end up getting maybe 90 seconds of actual, direct, in-the-moment learning. And that's if you had shots.
I asked Dawes and Benson how this masochistic, existential, nearly impossible fishing translates into their lives. "It teaches you to be engaged," Benson said. "You can't be thinking about what happened yesterday or where you want to go in the future, because you really have to be in the zone. It teaches you how to be present."
"What you're really trying to do is just be good," added Dawes. "Permit fishing is life in fast-forward. Everything that you're going to face is happening at warp speed—your highest highs and lowest lows."
In 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) laid out the blueprint for a proposal that entirely changed how Florida managed its permit fishery. In 2011, the Special Permit Zone (SPZ) was established to better accommodate the fisheries across the state, essentially dividing Florida into two distinct zones, still allowing the harvest of permit but with more judicious regulations. The lynchpin of these regulations addressed the different ways people fished for them across the state. In the Keys, where permit on restaurant menus makes guides wince, they were considered a game fish to be caught and released. Elsewhere, they were table fare. According to an economic impact study commissioned by the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT) in 2012, and revised in 2013, the Keys flats fishery exceeds $465 million annually, making up more than half of its recreational fishing economy ($741 million). So why were permit so highly respected amongst the angling community of south Florida but received little to no protection?
"They're revered within the subculture of saltwater flyfishing," said Benson, "because people have spent a lot of time trying to catch them on the flats. But they're a different fish when they get offshore." When permit spawn offshore they aggregate, becoming sitting ducks for spear fishermen and conventional anglers.
"The challenge was whether it was a fish for take— for table food—or whether it was a game fish that attracts fishermen from around the world?" said Kenneth Wright, Chairman of the FWC. "After a lot of debate, the question was answered: It's both."
Clearly, the mindset of the Keys angling community was at odds with the rest of the state, but the implementation of the SPZ addressed that, becoming "a tool to enhance and sustain a recreational fishery for permit," said Wright. But that alone isn't enough. "It's not what the everyday angler can do," he told me, "but what can be done to educate and involve the everyday angler." Even with prudent management and robust fisheries, Wright feels the state is behind the power curve, when it has historically been a leader. But with the immensity of Florida's diverse fishery, flora, and fauna, he remains optimistic.
According to Aaron Adams, BTT's director of science and conservation, the FWC's recent permit regulations were spurred primarily by a lack of data regarding populations, spawning patterns, and overall health of the fishery. There were only three studies of permit fisheries done in the '60s and '70s. Research then went dormant until 2000, when Adams' colleague, Rachel Graham, published a study of permit spawning in Belize. That same year, the FWC devoted resources to a permit study that was published two years later. The dearth of data was reflected in Florida's regulations—or lack thereof— affecting all recreational species, not just permit. The other thing prompting new rules were guides and anglers concerned about a lack of regulations impacting their livelihood. Luckily, the FWC followed the precautionary principle of erring on the side of caution, a windfall for Florida's fisheries.
The bulk of BTT's permit research has focused on establishing patterns in habitat use and movement. By tracking fish as they travel between feeding locations and spawning grounds, they hope to curtail the harvest of permit outside the SPZ, which spans state and federal waters south of Cape Sable on the West Coast (Everglades Natl. Park, west of Flamingo) and south of Biscayne Bay on the East Coast to the end of the Keys. For the past six years, data has been collected from a dart-tagging program, with over 1,200 fish logged. But BTT recently shifted emphasis to an acoustic tagging program spanning more than 40 miles from the Content Keys to the Marquesas, which will exponentially increase data collection. Permit are now among the group's top priorities.
Garnering interest in the tagging program has been a struggle. After drawing excitement initially, it soon tapered off. An angler himself, Adams understands the reluctance to take out a tagging kit, record the information, and release the fish. But ultimately that hard data is required for the state to take action and belies comprehensive reform. "That gives us leverage," Adams said. "Luckily, we've benefitted greatly from having a good relationship with the FWC."
The past chairman Rodney Barreto and Wright were very receptive to amending regulations and management practices regarding permit. As to the role that everyday anglers play in this, Adams advocated for logbooks as a critical, longterm contribution. "It's been really hard for us to get guides to keep consistent log books," he said, "which would allow us to track the health of fisheries over time." (Adams cited that when regulations were modified for Barracuda in Florida, a guide's 15-year logbook helped sway the argument.) With most fisheries, Adams explained, "They basically rely on dead fish on the dock to estimate catch rates and other information. With a catch and release fishery, you don't have that kind of data."
Of all the ways an individual can participate— from tagging kits to log books to joining BTT— contacting your congressional representatives and FWC commissioners remains the most effective. But telephone calls—long thought to be a significant influence—may no longer be the leading method. According to Kathryn Schulz's, "What Calling Congress Achieves," in the March 6th issue of The New Yorker, a 2015 survey by the Congressional Management Foundation found that "personalized e-mails, personalized letters, and editorials in local newspapers all beat out the telephone." Of course, legislators pay most attention to those who reside within their district, so take note of where your time is best spent when placing a call. "It's not sexy," Adams said, "but it's one of the most effective and available actions a person can take to affect legislation." I reached out to Congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) of Florida's 26th district, which includes the Keys, to see if permit were on his radar. Joanna Rodriguez, Curbelo's communications director, spoke with me at length about Everglades restoration and the challenges facing Florida Bay. Understandably, the health of specific fisheries is secondary to issues like the Everglades. However, despite Fanjul Corporation—owner of Florida Crystals and one of the most prominent roadblocks to Everglades restoration—being a top contributor to Curbelo's campaign last year, Rodriguez told me what few other Republican or Democratic lawmakers were willing to say: "Water flowing south from Lake Okeechobee needs to be stored, properly filtered, and prepared for discharge to continue flowing south through the Everglades and out to Florida Bay. Access to clean, reliable freshwater is critical to protecting our permit fishery." The sentiment was a vein of silver in the shaft.
As Adams told me, "The biggest challenge for us in South Florida and elsewhere is that there's not enough anglers involved." He said, "I guarantee that if every single guide and fisherman in south Florida picked up the phone and called the FWC commission, the governor, and their representatives and gave them an ear-full about an issue—like the Everglades or the permit fishery—they'd pay more attention to that than an economic study."
At a park down the road from where Benson lives on Lower Sugarloaf, the afternoon sun poured over us as he and I sat talking about our day on the water. We'd caught a beautiful bonefish just five minutes from Garrison Bight, and after a quick release we made a move to the next spot, where Benson promptly spotted a permit. The fish was at 10 o'clock, 70 feet out, moving to the right and away from the boat.
Different guides have different philosophies on how best to present a fly to a permit, with slightly different approaches based on the kind of fly you're using and what the fish is doing. Is it tailing? Floating? Cruising? Following a ray? But most of the time, unless it's running straight at you, your best bet is to try and hit it on the head. If you're using a crab pattern, the movement of the fly should be limited, almost still as it falls. With a shrimp pattern you may lend it more movement. I was throwing a hybrid pattern, which splits the difference on those presentations. Pointing my rod, I tried desperately to Zen out and prepare to cast. My internal voice mumbled, of course my first shot is into a stiff, unforgiving wind, with the fish swimming away. Fuck.
"WHEN AN ANGLER IS ON HIS DEATHBED AND HE'S SO LOONY HE CAN'T REMEMBER HIS WIFE OR KIDS' NAMES, THERE IS ONE THING HE WILL KNOW: HOW MANY PERMIT HE CAUGHT ON A FLY. HE'LL ALSO KNOW HOW MANY HE LOST." — TOMMY ROBINSON
Benson spoke calmly, and I made my cast, but the loop broke down and flubbed just behind the fish. I stripped in quickly as Benson thrust us forward again and told me to wait, the fish even farther away now. I took a deep breath in an effort to calm myself. "Go," he said. I picked up my line, hauled, and listened as Benson said, "Drop it." This time the loop remained tight and the fly landed next to the fish, but it kept pushing along the edge, unbothered. I was "done."
I remembered something Robinson had shared with me: "If you took the challenge away from permit, if they ate like jack crevalles, we wouldn't be having this conversation." He had talked about how this fish destroys people, how they fall apart— "crater" as one of his clients puts it. Perfectionists, Type-A personas, and natural talents all dissolve when faced with a shot. The ones who succeed, he said, "rise to the occasion and go for the next shot." Benson and I pushed on, laughing about the mental flossing that makes up permit fishing, the challenges less colored by sight, casting ability, or equipment than the wherewithal to remain cool. Forty years from its outset, the guides and anglers who make up this small, cult-like niche seemed uncertain of whether the fishery would continue to flourish. But everyone I spoke to adamantly advocated for long-term, comprehensive steps to protect it.
They shared the belief that permit fishing (like all kinds of fishing) was less about landing a fish and more about the pursuit, about the philosophical push within ourselves, to challenge ourselves incessantly, endlessly, to unearth some subterranean part of ourselves. And that the fishery is like any other fishery in that it is you and me who become its safeguard, its steward, and in some cases its detriment. Anglers can no longer call themselves anglers without getting involved off the water, contacting state representatives, keeping tabs on management practices, and remaining engaged just as they do on the water. All anglers play a significant role in this fight, in curtailing mismanagement and neglect, and in fostering a community that will sustain these fisheries not just out of economic necessity but for the cultural value and haven they provide. And that will ultimately happen in myriad, unsexy ways—down the ballot, in Tallahassee, and by picking up the phone.
In he and Dave Teper's 2011 permit film, Satori, Benson opened with a monologue that included the following: "It's a total obsession. You seem to never be happy until the next time you catch one." Later, he observed how landing a permit is a personal triumph for many of his clients: "It's not while they're fighting the fish or even holding it up for a picture," Benson said. "It's when that fish swims away. That's when the enormity of the accomplishment hits them all at once."
And as soon as it does, you want to be right back out there, fly in hand, not just to catch the thing, but to think about catching the thing; to be faced yet again with the challenge of getting it right.