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The new prize of the salty flats

Stronger and warier than the bonefish, almost as fast, harder to hook, the permit is a coming game fish dandy

The high-fashion status of the bonefish, for some time the most voguish of salt-water quarry, is threatened this year by one of his neighbors—a fish almost as speedy, much stronger and more interesting to fight. It feeds like the bonefish, tail poking above water as it probes into shallow bottoms for the crustaceans that make up its favorite food. One stalks and casts to it in the same way. It is called a permit, and the accent is on the second syllable, as in "permissive"—which it isn't.

It is safe to say that the permit is the least known of American game fishes worthy of respect. Until recently even professional ichthyologists didn't know enough about it to make a fat paragraph in the reference works, some of which contain actual misinformation about the fish. In some books still circulating, the permit's young is classified as a separate species, the so-called round pompano. And just a few years ago one of the most eminent of ichthyologists was reporting that the permit runs to six or eight pounds when, in fact, it goes up to the present world record of 47 pounds 12 ounces, and probably as high as 50.

When spinning and light tackle fishing generally became popular 15 years ago a few perceptive sportsmen around the Florida Keys began specializing in the permit, disdaining all others, even the bone. They tried to keep its virtues secret, but word has gotten around—and much of the earlier misinformation is being corrected.

One of the select few who know the permit well is Captain Johnnie Cass, a guide of 35 years' experience. "The permit," says Cass, who has guided fishermen to 13 salt-water records, "is a challenge to any angler, and to his guide and his tackle."

Fish hooks guide

Cass speaks with fervor for a good reason: the first permit he ever came across tied the then all-tackle world record of 39 pounds eight ounces. It was in March 1947, and the fish was sighted off the docks at Bimini, where Cass guided George A. Lyon Sr. of Detroit and Bimini for 18 years. One of Lyon's guests, Edward T. Ragsdale of Buick Motors, using a finny crab for bait, took the fish on a seven-ounce tip, 30-pound line and a drag-less reel that had to be thumbed. The permit fought for an hour and 25 minutes, and Cass was hooked as firmly as the fish.

"I have come to the conclusion," Cass says, "that this fish is definitely the hardest to stalk and cast to without flushing and is a far superior fighting fish to any other you will find in shallow water. That includes the bonefish, though I don't make light of him either."

To apply himself properly to the permit, Cass built a houseboat, a luxurious 70-footer with a 27-foot beam, in Miami. He towed it to the southern lee of Sawyer Key, which lies in a remote cluster of uninhabited mangrove islets. It is one of the fishiest areas anywhere, rich in bonefish, tarpon, jack crevalle, barracuda, ladyfish and, of course, permit. Nor is it yet crowded with fishermen.

The houseboat, which Cass called the Yachtel Cassamar, is indeed a kind of seagoing motel, with a well-stocked galley and a superb cook. Aboard it Cass can accommodate as many as three couples, though he prefers two. He charges $125 a day per couple or individual, with a five-day minimum. Liquor is bring-it-yourself, but Cass supplies light spinning tackle.

I had brought along a good two-handed spinning rod that an uninformed New York salesman ("Permit? Permit? Let's see now") had sold me as just the thing for permit, though it turned out that it is more suited to light surf casting. Cass sniffed at both rod and reel.

"Too big, both of them," he said. Still, we loaded the reel with eight-pound test monofilament and set the drag at about four pounds, checking it on a five-pound bag of sugar in the galley. And next morning we set out for my first try at permit.

The day before, Cass had taken a 24¾-pound permit, a record in his experience on these flats, though two women guests had previously caught 18½-pounders. The big one was lying in his freezer, a flat-sided mass of muscle, the blue along its back fading into the bright silver of its sides. It looked very like another member of the Trachinotus family, the sweet-eating common pompano, though more streamlined. Cass had taken it on a Mud Keys bank and had fought it for an hour and five minutes.

We left the Cassamar in one of Cass's shallow-draft outboard skiffs at 7:45 a.m., to catch the start of the flood tide at Content Keys. It was a sunny morning, with clouds only on the horizon, and a moderate northeast breeze. The most favorable wind for permit fishing in the Keys is from the east, but Cass said this one was not too bad.

More fun with bait

Fifteen minutes later he cut the motor and began poling through 12 to 14 inches of water. As he poled Cass gave me instructions on casting to permit.

"It's the same as casting to bone-fish," he said, "except you have to be even more careful. Cast three or four feet in front of him and a foot or so to one side. Never, never cast in back of them. They are in shallow water with no protection, no deep stuff to hide or maneuver in, and they are very timid about any disturbance to the rear. When a permit takes the bait and starts moving away try to set the hook. It may not do much good, because if he is moving straight away from you, the bend of that hook [a 2/0 Eagle Claw] will just be resting in the corner of his jaw and the point will have no place to go. Still, it's best to try. The time to really hook him is when he turns at the end of the run. Hit him hard then, several times."

The bait was the usual finny crab, about the size of a silver dollar. Cass sometimes uses jigs, but he and Ted Williams, who visits him occasionally, agree that it is more fun to take permit on bait.

"With a jig," he explained, "he grabs it, you set the hook and that's it. There's more suspense with bait. The permit hunts 100% by sight, which makes him fine for artificial lures, but most of the lures are either too heavy or they don't make the right noise when they hit. Because he hunts by sight, you might have to cast as many as 20 or 30 times to a tailing permit before he quits looking at the bottom and sees your bait."

We saw small sharks and big barracuda cruising over the flats, but for 10 minutes there was no sign of permit. Then we spotted one tailing about 100 feet off our bow. I stood up suddenly for a better view. The fish spooked. A few minutes later I saw another, but before we could get within casting range it moved away. That is the hell and heaven of this fish. It is so wary that the most anyone has caught in a single day of fishing from the Cassamar is three. Only 77 were taken all last season (November through July), and some of those were taken because Cass did the casting.

Small but powerful

In another 10 minutes Cass, who has the eyes of an osprey, saw a permit, which he said was about 50 feet away. Even with Polaroid sunglasses I could not see the fish, which was not tailing, but I cast in the direction indicated by Cass's forefinger. I could feel something hold the crab, but it did not seem like a strike and Cass, who had lost sight of the fish, suggested I might have hooked bottom.

I held the line firm. It relaxed, and I reeled in very gently, about two turns of the handle. Then the crab began to move out quite slowly. I let it move until the captain yelled at me to strike.

I set the hook as hard as I could. The fish instantly took off on a long, swift run.

"He isn't a big one," Cass said, but it felt like a big one. I was too excited to estimate how far the fish raced on that first run, but it seemed mighty far. When he finally did stop I set the hook again, as Cass had instructed, and this time the fish began the characteristic twisting, lunging, turning, tumbling fight of the permit. I had never experienced anything so wildly unpredictable.

I began to pump the fish in at every brief sulking period. It was impossible to get in more than two or three turns of the reel handle before it would be off again, each time in a different direction, the thrashing action of tail and body stirring up bottom, churning the clear water to a muddy turbulence.

After perhaps five minutes, the runs became shorter, another indication to Cass that it was not a large fish, though they were still spectacular enough for me. Retrieving line was slow but exciting. Ten minutes after the strike I brought my permit alongside, still struggling, and Cass lifted it out.

"About 3½, maybe four pounds," he said. To me, it looked bigger. Besides, I could not understand how anything weighing only four pounds could have fought like that. But the permit's broad sides give it a special advantage over the long and relatively slender bonefish. The permit turns its side at right angles to the pull of the angler, thus making it more difficult to draw it through the water. After I had studied this one, a silver beauty with dark blue fins and tail, Cass released it, and it swam slowly away.

Minutes later Cass poled us into a whole school of tailing permit. He estimated there were 50 to 100 of them. But now I lost control. I became a fumble-fingered, knee-quaking bungler. I could not cast with any sense of direction. I slapped the bait into the water just behind the school. That did it. They streaked away.

Cold wave ends it

That morning we visited the flats and reefs of a number of keys and saw several sharks, some barracuda and one terrified bonefish. But the permit had disappeared.

An hour and a half before sundown, with a freshening wind from the north, we set out for another string of flats. We saw three permit, but they saw us too and, with the suddenness of a magician's prop, they vanished.

They were the last we were to see on that trip. The permit is extremely sensitive to falling temperatures, and that north wind was coming off a cold wave engulfing the Middle West. Next morning it was blowing 25 knots, there were small craft warnings and the permit hid out in the deep warm channels. Even the pelicans weren't bothering to fish. Nonetheless, I knew now what Cass meant when he said: "I'm devoting the rest of my life to the permit." It makes a pretty good vocation.