The tradition continues at Sweetgrass Rods;
crafting fine bamboo fly fishing rods

Thanks for the wonderful craftsmanship. You guys are amazing.
Frank D.

The Pursuit of Permit

Permit FishThere are probably easier ways to catch permit than moving to the remote tropics to pursue them, but then again I have never heard it said that catching a permit is remotely easy. I recently read an article about a guy who spent over nine thousand dollars on guide services before he accomplished the feat. Then there is a local angler here who finally got one after thirty years of trying. But that is not to say it can't be done more reasonably either. Several friends of mine have landed permit here and there in the process of searching the flats for bonefish. There is even talk of an angler who came to this area a few years back and caught eight in one week just poking around on his own. The story goes that he has been down several times since and hasn't seen another. And on the wall at Sweetgrass Rods hangs a permit caught by my partner Glenn in the 60s while fishing the Florida Keys. It was one of the first known of the species to actually be taken on a fly - quite a significant accomplishment when one considers there are no "silver bullet" methods yet discovered that makes them easier to hook fifty years later.

Referred to as the "ghost of the flat" the permit is a saucer shaped silver dynamo with big eyes, thinly forked tail, a skinny dorsel fin, and a heightened sense of sight and smell. Long revered as one of the most difficult to catch fish that frequent the Caribbean flats, it is precisely this trait that has attracted a quirky brand of angler seeking the ultimate fly fishing challenge. This cunning quarry is wary, tricky to approach, and loathe to take even the most well presented fly, which is usually some sort of creative crab pattern. There are really no secrets to catching a permit either. It is more a matter of persistence, stealth, and seeking out as many opportunities as possible to get it right.

Dan Blanton wrote an article a decade ago entitled "In Pursuit of Permit" that honored Del Brown, arguably the most dedicated permit fly angler ever. Del fished saltwater at least one hundred days per year, sixty of them were spent chasing permit. At one point he set a goal of catching 500 before he died. By the time he passed in 2003 when he was in his eighties Del had landed 513 permit. This incredible number represents an astounding commitment of time, money, and energy. But more than anything it is also a testamonial of one man's singular drive to attain a goal that most people on the planet could never appreciate, let alone understand - perhaps, in fact, the fly fishing equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. The practical knowledge he shared over the years about fly fishing for this phantom has been invaluable to others smitten with the same passion to chase them. In the end, however, it was his intuitive mastery of the total process, as if becoming one with the fish, that was most impressive. When an angler once asked Del how close should the fly be presented when one encounters a permit, Del's Zen-like response was, "Just close enough."

In my life it was the obsession to catch a bull trout in the 70s that fueled a magical journey eventually leading to where I am now, so I could relate to Del's quest to a certain degree. I was also led astray and steered in another direction in the 80s by our Twin Bridges' resident physician Dr. Bruce Beithon after he shared with me the goal he had once set for himself to catch one hundred steelhead on a fly rod, a feat he eventually did make happen on Idaho's Salmon and Clearwater Rivers. I was so impressed with Doc's story that it compelled me to take a steelhead detour myself for twenty years down a road that led around the Great Lakes, up and down the West Coast, and even over to Russia. And somewhere in there I also got distracted by my childhood dream of catching an Atlantic salmon which consequently resulted in nine very long drives from Montana to Canada's maritime provinces to satisfy that urge. So after reading about Del Brown's monumental sojourn my interest was piqued. Not that his achievement could be duplicated in anyway, but one last fish-quest in my declining years would only seem appropriate for a guy who defined a major portion of life by chasing one species of fish or another with a fly rod. The goal was simple, and it was to catch just one permit.

It has been said that fly fishing is a metaphor for life, but I have read where some ridicule this very notion. The same consideration, however, could also be applied to life-long passions like exploring continents, seeking lost treasures, sailing the oceans, climbing mountains, or engaging in any other all-consuming venture that would define one's existence in a unique way. Although there are those who may deem these options as a frivolous avoidance of life's necessities, at the very core these driven pursuits actually symbolize the essence of what life is all about on many levels, and these lifestyles should serve to inspire us all. It is in the pushing, the striving, the seeking, the reaching for but never quite attaining quality of the path less followed that potentially leads to success, even if it is only in one's mind, while just possibly nurturing a state of peace and contentment in the process. On the other hand, I suppose, one could just choose to be a couch potato or any equivalent. As for me it has been fly fishing and all its related side roads. And in the pursuit of a permit, I have found, it is more a metaphor for life than anyone could imagine.

According to Del Brown, one of the most important ingredients for permit success is opportunity, the implication being that practice makes perfect. In Mexico and Belize there are a number of guide services and lodges that specialize in tracking down permit. The guides know where to look, so they can buzz their pangas from one flat to another covering many miles with the hope of finding numerous opportunities. I booked such a trip to Belize a few years back and for the first two days my fishing partner and I were fortunate to encounter enough permit to work out all the kinks. We considered that practice. So by day three we were brimming with the confidence of a grade A student taking a math exam. But as bad luck would have it, stormy weather blew in for the rest of the trip making it impossible to find fish. Consequently, the remaining six days were a monumental lesson in saltwater frustration. We were so close to making it happen. Yet like many other aspects of life, success is not only a matter of much effort, it is also dependent upon good fortune as well.

I migrated to the tropics as a grand experiment to see if there was one last adventure left in me. I also figured that the move would provide another chance to accomplish my goal of catching one permit before I die, but to do so on my own terms. After the Belize trip busted years ago, it was time to make amends. And without the aid of a boat, it would require miles and miles of walking in order to accumulate enough opportunities to even have a decent shot. I know it can be done because my young friend from Montana had the same goal. Matt Boland finally landed a permit in May on the flat in front of the house after months of looking. Earlier this year I met a fit and trim fly tier from Germany who spent four months fishing afoot every day and he landed a few - his best year in a decade of trying. For me, I keep searching, but the drive and endurance to do what it takes at my age are very much diminished.

It is not that I haven't had a chance. While fishing with Matt this past June we did intercept at least two tailing permit on a far off marl break. Since Matt had recently landed the aforementioned permit, he graciously deferred the honor of stalking them to me. It was a thrill to actually have a legitimate opportunity. And after making a stealthy sneak, a good cast in the vicinity of the circling tails resulted in one of the normally elusive fish swimming over, picking up the crab pattern, and bolting for the reef. Unfortunately, it only took one run before the fly came undone, leaving me heartbroken - but hopeful. So close again. Since then the opportunities have been scant, chasing tails in the distance...but never quite catching up with them.

In the pursuit of permit I have learned that at a certain age maybe some goals are just unattainable. I have also learned that at a certain age maybe one has to face his limitations, and living in the tropics might be one of them. Pondering life, as I often do, I walked out on the flat yesterday, and there they were - two permit tailing right in front of me. It was almost spiritual. In what seemed like a set up for a storybook ending, I was able to slowly creep into perfect position. Then I readied both the rod and the fly. The first cast wasn't quite far enough. And after calmly retrieving the crab pattern, I steadied again. On the second cast the fly dropped, but this time it was apparently too close and both fish retreated into deeper water. Then they disappeared completely. Hmm, I thought, as I recalled Del Brown's advice to cast the fly, "Just close enough." I guess that sage tidbit will make more sense the day I hear the sound of one hand clapping. Until then, I will have to be content with knowing that I was once again so close, but not quite close enough. Sometimes that's life in a nutshell. And as the curtain falls on my tropic days, I can at least say I gave it my best shot.

Sweetgrass Bamboo Rods on Nelson's Spring Creek
Fishing Buddies

Comments 3

GMflyfish on Monday, 13 October 2014 17:18


Thanks for letting us share the dream. I still remember the first time I asked Gelnn about the permit. We all miss seeing you at the shop. Come up in the summer for a break and to build a few Pentas.
Tight Lines


Jerry Thanks for letting us share the dream. I still remember the first time I asked Gelnn about the permit. We all miss seeing you at the shop. Come up in the summer for a break and to build a few Pentas. Tight Lines Gregg
Kathy Scott on Friday, 07 November 2014 17:38

Great read; looking forward to the next.

Great read; looking forward to the next.
Guest - Chris Taylor on Sunday, 14 December 2014 13:07

Jerry, thanks for sharing...hope to see you soon back home in the shop.

Jerry, thanks for sharing...hope to see you soon back home in the shop.

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