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The Permit Problem

Piecing together the puzzle in Ascension Bay, MexicoBy Will Rice


Nestor’s broken English was music to my ears after we’d spent an hour-plus in silence. “Eleven o’clock, 75 feet out moving right to left,” Nestor, my guide, said. My eyes then focused—squinting against the sting of sweat and sunscreen. “Two fish. You see them? Point your rod, you see them now? Make the shot, 60 feet, ten o’clock… now…”

The day was coming to a close much like many other days I had spent fly-fishing for permit in Ascension Bay, Mexico. There were long periods of time spent on the deck of a panga, looking, searching, peering through the water at nothing at all. The inland bays and creeks are a mesmerizing mix of white sand, coral heads, and turtle grass. The fish are here, but they can be elusive.

But now I could see the two permit in about three feet of water. I led the fish and made the shot. My cast was on target, but they completely ignored my fly and kept swimming.

It was outright rejection—not even a look.

I felt like I needed a group meeting. “Hello, everyone. My name is Will, and I have a permit problem.”

To date, my “problem” had taken me to Mexico on numerous occasions, Belize, and, most recently, Honduras. The results were always the same. But I’m not alone.

“Permit are certainly the hardest and most difficult to feed with a fly,” said Jim Klug, director of operations at Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures. “Bonefish are the most cooperative, polite, and accommodating. Tarpon are the most powerful, acrobatic, and explosive. Permit, however, are the most elusive. Kind of like the hot girl in high school who always keeps her distance. We all want what is seemingly impossible to obtain”

Permit—trachinotus falcatus—are not a particulary sleek or pretty fish. I’ve heard small ones described as dinner plates and big boys likened to large garbage-can lids. They look a bit like their cousins, jacks and pompanos, which are more common and much more eager to take a fly. When it comes to eating a crab or shrimp imitation, permit can be downright pretentious.

If you have a permit problem like I do, and you want to fix it, Ascension Bay is a pretty good place to try to make it happen. Ascension Bay is on the Yucatán Peninsula, roughly 90 miles south of Cancún and north of the Belize border. The inland flats stretch for over 300 square miles, and the waters teem with bonefish, tarpon, snook, barracuda, snapper—and permit.

“OK, you see this fish coming in? Two hundred feet coming in at us. Big permit. Big wake. You see?” said Nestor. “Ninety feet out now.  Eleven o’clock.”

The light was flat, the surface of the water was opaque, the wind was calm—the conditions were perfect. The giant wake moved at us and closed the distance; 200 feet was quickly swallowed, and the fish was approaching 75 feet. I looked at the fly line on the deck of the boat to make sure it wasn’t wrapped around anything. With two quick false casts I made the shot. The fly landed a little bit short of where I wanted to put it, but that didn’t matter. The fish picked up the crab in its peripheral vision, and the big wake immediately changed course as the fish moved in to crush it.

“He sees the fly. He’s going to eat it. Streeeeep… Streeeeeeeeeep,” said Nestor in a high-pitched whisper.

I retrieved the fly in long, smooth strips with my left hand—imitating a crab fleeing this massive predator bearing down. And then I felt the take. The permit ate my fly; I felt the hitch as I stripped and set the hook. I pointed my rod tip at the fish and hit him again, creating tension with my left hand. And then—the fish was gone. The fly line at my feet burst though the eyelets, and before I knew it I was 150 yards into my backing.

Finally—I had cracked the code. The permit had accepted my presentation, he’d eaten my fly, and now I had the fish on the reel. Problem solved—or so I thought.

Then my reel failed.

“What’s the matter?” asked Nestor. “Why aren’t you reeling?”

“My reel is broken. It won’t turn,” I replied.

“That’s a big permit. Strip him in,” said Nestor.

There was a massive pile of fly line and backing at my feet, and I was sweating profusely. The sun was low in the afternoon sky, and after 15 minutes I still hadn’t actually seen the permit. As I held my bent rod high and stripped in a few more feet of fly line, the fish made a hard turn and came across the front of the boat. It was as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water down my back.

“Nestor, look at the fish,” I said, he could hear the desperation in my voice. “Is it a permit?”

There was a brief pause as he studied the fish in front of the boat.

“Oh no. That’s not a permit,” said Nestor. “That’s a jack. It’s a nice jack, though. But not a permit.”

And with that proclamation, my permit problem got that much bigger.

Will Rice is a freelance journalist and a contributing editor at The Drake. He has written for the Denver Post, Salt Water Fly Fishing, FlyFish Journal, Pulp Fly, and Fly Rod & Reel, and is a regular contributor to Angling Trade Magazine. 

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Hub City: Cancún, Mexico

Travel Time, Cancún to Ascension Bay: Two hours

Recommended Trip Duration: Plan to spend a minimum of three days fishing—if you can manage six days, that’s ideal.

Lodge and Guide Service (extended stays or day trips): Pesca Maya, or 52 998 848 2496 or 888 894 5642.

Equipment/Gear: Nine-foot nine-weight fly rod with a sturdy reel that can hold 200 yards of backing. The most effective line will be a weight-forward tropical line.

Full-Service Booking Agency: Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, or 888 777 5060. 

Fishing Tips: Before you go fishing for permit with fly-fishing equipment, understand that this is an endeavor that requires patience, mental endurance, and persistence. You will spend a lot of time on the deck of the boat or walking flats looking for fish. Permit can be tough—don’t get frustrated. Remember: don’t hate the playa, hate the game.