It’s a reasonable notion, picking the right fly for a day of permit fishing is the easiest thing about actually catching a permit. These black tailed sirens lure anglers across baking flats to the edges of jungles mangroves and remote atolls. Defeated permit anglers teased and torture and tossed slog home after chasing permit resolved to improve; to get better at fishing into the wind, to be more accurate or maybe to learn how to actually hear directions when a permit appears. Luckily fly choice is easier than figuring out where “two o’clock” is when the word “permit” is shouted first.
Permit come onto the flats to eat and not much else, otherwise it’s a pretty dangerous place to be. They are looking to gobble down a crab or a shrimp or some bottom critter. If a permit sees something that says “snack” it will gobble it down quickly. It’s pretty easy to tie a fly that looks like a crab or a shrimp but that’s not the most important features of an effective permit fly. Permit flies need to act like permit food. A crab fly needs to dive like the real thing heading for cover. When it hits the bottom a crab fly should have its claws up defensively, when stripped it absolutely cannot twist or tilt. Likewise a shrimp fly needs to fish true, a shrimp fly that lists side wards no longer looks like a shrimp. Permit are not going to waste their time chasing something that doesn’t look like food.
Effective permit flies also need to be properly weighted. A permit cruises the flats tuned both to dangers and food with its eyes scanning the bottom, a fly needs to get down to the bottom quickly so they can see it. Of course the heavier the fly the more likely it will land with a splash. Unexpected splashes are very scary to permit, the right weight can be more important than the right size. It’s important to have a variety of weights in most permit fisheries. One of the finest permit guides ever to pole the Lower Keys (Captain John O’Hearn) labels every individual fly with its weight to a tenth of a gram!
Color can be important. Seldom are olive crab flies effective in the Lower Keys, a dark olive crab is important to have in Belize. It’s likely to be a tough day if there aren’t any olive crabs around and that is what’s on the end of the line. Often that’s as complex as color choice gets for permit flies. A tan crab on nearly any permit flat is a great choice, worth fishing until something refuses it. There are times when permit seem to prefer a fly with some bright orange or a touch of blue, and discussions about just the right accent colors can be exhaustive. Many permit guides and anglers carry a couple markers to put accents on a fly.
Confidence might be the most important factor when choosing a fly. Permit angling is hard enough but if the captain or angler doesn’t trust the fly it gets a lot harder. Permit refuse all the time for no apparent reason but if the fly is a known factor the refusal is blamed on something else: the strip was too fast, the cast too short or too long, hull slap, too many false casts, the pole crunched the bottom, the rod flashed in the sun…
But the fly stays on the end of the line if it’s caught fish before.