How To Catch A Permit On Fly - Permit Fishing 101-Fly Tackle and Techniques-Part 3 of 3

The Undisputed King of Permit Flyfishing, Del Brown. Photo courtesy of Marshall Cutchin. Visit Midcurrent

The Undisputed King of Permit Flyfishing, Del Brown. Photo courtesy of Marshall Cutchin. Visit Midcurrent

How To Catch A Permit On Fly-Permit Fishing 101-Fly Tackle and Techniques-Part 3 of 3

By Tom Rowland

Flyfishing For Permit

Flyfishing for permit is difficult not because the fish are terribly difficult to catch rather that our flies and techniques do not accurately represent what they want to eat.  Permit look at a dead crab the same as they look at a fly.  The profile is interesting but not really what they had in mind.  Flies need to have action resembling the real crabs and until they do, it is my opinion that they will remain exceptionally difficult to catch on fly.
Currently, in order to get a permit to eat fly, anglers need to master several casts and need to be prepared to deliver these casts to the target under a wide variety of situations.  The best permit flyfishermen become very comfortable with a 20-25 mph wind at any angle and are able to get the fly to the target.
The most productive flies currently being tied only resemble a live crab when the lead eyes are dragging the fly to the bottom.  For this reason, anglers need to cast the fly directly in front of the permit in order for the fish to see the fly escaping and trigger the eating response.  Fly tiers are constantly trying new styles and ideas.  The Hover Crab by my friend Simon Becker is a crab pattern that has caught tons of fish and is a very interesting approach.  This fly floats over the top of the grass rather than digging in like a traditional Merkin.  Guides and tiers both will continue playing with ideas and coming up with better and better patterns.  I look forward to the results.

Fly Rods and reels

A 9 foot 10 weight rod matched to a floating weight forward line is the standard outfit.  Leader length varies with conditions but a 9 to 12 foot leader tapered to 12 pound test in standard.
The reel needs to be capable of holding 200 yards of backing plus the WF10F line.  Permit do fight hard but will not stress the fly tackle like a tarpon, tuna or sailfish.  A quality reel designed for saltwater use should be fine as long as it contains a disc drag made of cork or modern materials.

Specialty lines have been created for permit fishing and do work well.  These include severe weight forward lines to aid the fly in turnover under windy conditions.  Anglers should search out all lines and go with the ones they cast the very best because anything less than that is not good enough to have continuous success with this fish.

Casting to Permit

Casting a long way with a fly is definitely important for success in flyfishing for Permit, however, I would rather have an angler who can cast a heavy Merkin 50 feet quickly and accurately than a guy who can throw 100 feet but does so with tons of false casts.  I suggest to all my anglers that they practice like we will fish.  Start in the Ready Position and work out to 50 feet with only 1-2 false casts and hit a target.  This is effective practice and will help greatly.  Strip the line back in, get in the ready position again and repeat.  

To make this even more effective, have 2 targets at different distances.  Start at the ready position and throw to one, strip in and make one false cast and go to the second one.  Avoid the temptation to stand there and wave around 50 feet of line in the air with never-ending false casts or to simply try to throw the line as far as you can.  

A right hand wind (for right hand casters) is part of the sport.  Permit fishing takes place on windy flats and more than 60% of the time it happens to be on your casting shoulder.  You have to learn how to deliver the fly with a heavy wind on your casting shoulder or you will experience frustration and sense extreme frustration coming form the back of the boat.

There are really two effective ways to be successful in these conditions.  The first is to “Walk the line out” and the second is to deliver the fly with the back cast.

Walking the line out

With a heavy wind on your right shoulder, a nice tight loop and 2-3 false casts will bury a big heavy Merkin deep into your face.  We do not want to look like the flyfishing calendar where the guy is throwing a loop that will fit through a screen door for this cast.  In order to deliver the fly, we need a giant, wide open loop that will keep the fly 30 feet over your head.  I am not as concerned with getting hit as I am of missing the shot.  When a fly buries deep into your face and a Permit is tailing in front of you, you have missed your chance and that could have been the best or the only one all day.  

Practice throwing a wide open loop.  To do this, simply stop as you normally would on your cast but then open the stroke of the rod to open the loop.  Stand on dry ground and practice going from a tight loop to a wide loop.  With heavy flies or wind resistant flies, this is the best way to get them to the fish without hitting yourself or throwing wind knots.

Once you have developed the wide loop, you can then learn to walk the line to the fish.  Make a roll cast and let the fly and line land on the water.  Drop the rod tip to the water and then use a water haul to pick up the line and deliver a big wide loop as far as you can with one back cast.  Let the fly and line hit the water again.  You should have about 30 feet of line outside the tip now.  Pick up for a final time with the water haul and with only a single backcast, deliver another wide loop to the fish.  

This is the best way to get the fly to the fish with a big right hand wind.  Novice casters can learn how to do it rather quickly and use 2 casts to get the fly to 40-50 feet.  More experienced casters can use 3 casts to get the fly to 50-70 feet accurately and without any facial injury.  The best can cast 80-100 feet with 2 casts with this method.

Back Cast

The second method is to use a back cast to deliver the fly.  This is not a backcast like in trout fishing where your back is turned to the fish.  Rather, in this technique you always keep your eyes on the fish and your toes pointed toward the fish.  The only thing “Back” about this cast is the position of your hand and arm.  

Your back cast is your most powerful cast anyway.  Learning how to really rip it into the wind will really help you catch more fish.  Once, I went to Christmas Island and experienced a week of right hand wind.  Every fish but 1 that I caught the entire week was on a back cast delivery.  Make sure you get this one down.  

The power back cast is a technique that deserves its own book, rather than just a paragraph here.  We will definitely come back to this again, but in the mean time, give this delivery a try.

Hard roll casts to short fish

In really windy conditions, we often see fish tailing or feeding only 20-30 feet from the boat.  Many anglers make a big mistake by trying to false cast before delivery.  There is no need to do this.  Simply rip a hard roll cast right to the fish.  Practice this often and you can get to where you can hit a target pretty accurately at 30 feet with one downward stroke from the ready position.

Leaders and Construction

Leaders are an important part of Permit fishing.  It is crucial to be able to turn over the fly every time.  The leader also has to be strong and invisible, but none of that really matters if the fly doesn't turn over and get to the fish.  I use Lefty Kreh’s famously simple 50% rule on leader creation for a starting point and then tailor to the weather conditions.  For a 9 foot leader, it is simply:
4 feet of butt section
2 feet of next taper
1 foot of next taper
2 feet of tippet
This is so simple but it works so well.  It is called the 50% leader because we simply start with 4 feet, take half that distance, half again, then double for the tippet.  If you want a longer leader, start with longer butt section.  If you want the fly to land a little easier, simply add another foot of tippet.

Make sure that the leader turns over every time and make small adjustments to get the presentation you are looking for


I have gone to a 100% fluorocarbon leader for most of my permit fishing.  There is a new trend to try to catch fish on dry flies.  When I am doing this, I use a 100% monofiliment leader since it floats so much higher than Fluoro.  This is the only time I am using mono leaders any more.

Where to put the fly

It is important to hit the fish on the head with the fly.  I have caught and seen fish caught with big leads, but 95% of the permit I have caught on fly or my customers have caught on fly have been when the fly landed very close to the fish.  It seems to be best to hit them right in the head, however, due to inaccurate casting, wind or nervousness, many fish are hit in the tail.  I will have to say that lots of those fish have wheeled around with enthusiasm and eaten the fly aggressively.  Hitting them in the tail may not be entirely bad and sometimes can even be a strategy.  If you don't get a reaction from a head shot, try a tail shot.

The Permit is my absolute favorite fish in the World.  I have been extremely lucky to have spent so much time in Key West and the Florida Keys where the Permit fishing is so good.  If you have considered Permit for your next trip or you are deeply overcome with the passion, this fish is a worthy adversary. 


All the best,

Tom Rowland

Have a question? Use our Ask a Question form or send me an email at