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Editor Note: They say there is a natural cycle in fly fishing. An angler begins his career looking for numbers. Later, he or she graduates to time spent looking for quality over quantity. It has also been said that the last stage of the cycle is when one no longer cares about fish and just appreciates “being out there.” Permit fishing, and those who choose to pursue it earnestly, are in a category all their own. They live in a place between the cycles. They are in perpetual limbo, haunted by thoughts of tailing fish and rejected flies. Don Muelrath is one of these anglers, and, as you will see, his affliction is both affable and completely terminal.
“Tail . . . 150 feet at 2 o’clock,” murmured Captain Dean. Then, a little louder, “There’s three tails. . . . Do you see them?” Just then, a cormorant flew out of a nearby mangrove cluster, flying about four feet above the water, directly over the fish, which immediately exploded and rushed off the flat. Yes, now even I could see them.
This report was compiled primarily for those who may wonder what a dedicated permit trip is about. For those readers who are “regulars” to permit fishing, there will be nothing new here, just the results of our week. I spent seven days chasing permit with Captain Dean and the crew of the Rising Tide of Belize, and, hopefully, you will smile a time or two as I share my experiences there. If you’ve ever hunted with a fly rod or rifle in hand, you will relate to the stalking aspect, which makes permit fishing so special; indeed, this is fly fishing’s most challenging, frustrating, and exciting experience.
I have divided this report into three parts. First, I provide a glossary of sorts to help you navigate some of the fundamental terms used when chasing permit. Second, for those who have enough interest to want the details, I give the day-by-day report, explaining our activities and a brief description of where we fished and what situations we encountered. Lastly, there is a summary of the raw numbers for the trip. After my first day, I began carrying a small piece of paper and pen and, a few times each day, with the help of my guide, would update the numbers. Enjoy.
Definitions of Terms Used
Pod—3 to 5 fish together
School—6+ fish, usually 8 – 15 fish
Herd—school of 15+ fish
Small fish—approx. 6 pounds or under. We only weigh them if they’re around 7+ pounds.
Shot—cast to a permit with a reasonable opportunity for an eat, not throwing at the back of a fleeing fish. Multiple casts to the same fish/school count as only one shot.
Push—permit moving on a flat and swimming close enough to the surface, they “push” water in front of them.
Permit flat—usually one to two and a half feet deep, sometimes three to four feet deep, with deep water in close proximity. Often there is a ridge exposed above the water at low tides, with water tapering off each side to deeper water.
Drive-by flat—a flat you don’t want to take the time to pole but that sometimes holds tailing fish, so you motor by at idle speed to check for fish.
Terry and Gary Butts were going to be joining us on this trip, but when we arrived in Belize City, a message was waiting for us—a last minute medical situation would not allow them to fly, so Marte and I boarded the Rising Tide for a “trip for two.” I began the trip with a total of 45 career permit released and was hoping to get to 50 by week’s end.
Day 1: Anchored the Rising Tide our first night in anticipation of the day to come. 6:00 a.m.—perfect conditions, blue skies, winds 6–10 mph, mostly from E and SE. We somehow managed to not see one tailing fish!? I did manage a cast to three schools of a dozen-plus fish. We had several follows and finally got one small permit on Captain Dean’s “Hinckley Crab”—a brown-and-tan creation with a single green stripe down it.
Six times we saw singles, pairs, and pods. All told, I had around seven good shots and saw about 50 fish total. We fished 11 different flats and found fish on six of them. We took our one fish for the day and anchored up for the second night.
Day 2: During the night, the wind shifted to the NW and blew a tropical storm right to us—lightning, thunder, and rain galore. Woke to gray skies and very light winds, still from the NW.
The short story is we fished tailing fish from 6:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. At 9:00 p.m. fell asleep, totally exhausted and a smile on my face from the combination of events during the day. The short story on results for the day was that we saw well over 120 fish total—at least 60 of which were tailing. We saw at least a dozen schools with eight or more fish, plus some pairs and a few large singles. We fished eight flats and found fish on six of them. All in all, we had 10+ good shots, with one eat without a hook set and one small permit released. We saw a school of large tarpon rolling in the channel right next to the permit flat. In another time, we would have quickly become tarpon fishermen.
The long story is the day began at 6:00 a.m. on the flats, and the tide was full—just beginning to go out. The first two schools of tailing fish spooked before the fly hit the water. Plus, the water was slick, like glass. With the rising sun behind us, the line in the air spooked them. Later, on a different side of the flat, we stalked a school of large tailing fish for a few hundred yards but never got a cast to them before they swam off the flat. We had a few good shots at singles, with one eat, minus the hook set. I blew a cast to a school of tails—10+ fish. I cast across their backs. We poled the flat out front for a few hundred yards, but didn’t see a fish, so we moved south to the next flat and found three more schools of large fish. We had two follows on the Meyer Shrimp but no eats.
The tide began to get low, so we tried the deeper flats out front again and didn’t see a fish. We only saw a school of small fish and could not get a look. Later that day, Marte was going snorkeling with Noel at the reef, so I went along and waded the flat inside the reef while they snorkeled. I managed to spook one fish, and headed back to the boat for lunch.
After lunch, the tide was coming in as Noel and I fished ahead. No fish on the south end. Motoring along, we found an island where the winds died completely and the water was totally slick—you could see a minnow move water! We found five schools. We spooked the first two due to the slick water; stalked two other schools, one for over 15 minutes without getting close enough for a cast; and got a small permit from the other school. All of these fish were tailing aggressively and not moving: perfect. We decided to move and check out two other flats, but there were no fish.
Later, dark clouds blocked the setting sun on the horizon, so we started to head back. Along the way, we chased a school pushing water but couldn’t get a shot. After 6:00 p.m. and getting dark, I found one last school tailing. I managed to get some long casts in, but no eats. If we had caught one, it would have been the latest permit ever taken from the Rising Tide.
Day 3: During the night, winds switched direction again, coming from the west. There was a big electrical storm with heavy rains on the mainland, but we managed to have only light rain. At 5:30 a.m., we woke to 15 mph winds from the west and dark clouds all around. No rain, but strong, cool, west winds had blown the tide out, even though it was supposed to be still incoming. The flats were shallow and dirty. We tried the lee side of a few cays, but no tails. Took a nap. By 12:30 p.m., the skies were blue and the wind had died down to around 8–10 mph. The tide was very low.
The short story is that we saw well over 100 fish(35+ of which were tailing); fished five flats and found fish on four; Got one small permit (no. 48 for me); both no. 47 and no. 48 were taken in sight of the anchored Rising Tide, and we had 10+ good shots at different fish.
The long story is that we spent ninety minutes before lunch on the deeper side of an island. There we saw two schools of small fish and two singles, and we spooked a very large fish with the panga. We managed one really good shot at a half dozen tailing fish. Later, while chasing a school of tailing fish, we didn’t see the other six fish in the school that weren’t tailing and spooked the entire school. After lunch, we started at Dean’s Flat, which is deeper water. The tide was beginning to come in, and we saw four singles and one school—no tails.
Later, we went to another area and spent 20 minutes stalking one single fish. Finally, we got a decent shot and he followed but then spooked at the last second. Then, we spent 20 more minutes with a school of tailing fish. After five decent casts, I finally got an eat and a small permit (no. 48). At the north end of flat, we stalked three large schools (one of 30+ fish) with only occasional tails showing. From that herd, we managed four good shots Fish were all over my fly, but I couldn’t get an eat. We got shots to tailing fish again after 6:00 p.m. for the second night in a row.
A few seconds can make the difference between casting at the back of a fleeing permit or having a solid shot at getting an eat. Spotting fish as early as possible is critical to success in this game. While my experience often allows me to spot fish, for me and my aging eyes, a guide is essential to getting the fullest enjoyment in this game, since he will usually be able to see the fish long before I do.
Day 4: Winds were light from the NW and moved to NE and even ENE during the day. We mostly had blue skies with some patchy clouds.
The short story is we saw over 50 fish (20+ tailing); fished a total of 12 flats and found fish on eight of them; had eight good shots; and had two fish eat the fly, take it into their throat between their powerful crushers, and bend the hook. In both cases, I never felt the fish eat—they must have been swimming toward me and inhaled the fly with momentum. They can inhale and expel a fly faster than we can imagine.
A highlight of the day was on the windward side of the shallow flat, where we began the day (deeper water). We had an exciting 45-minute stalk of a school of eight fish (all around 15 pounds), a pair and a single that were easily 20 pounds, and one tailing single that was 25+ pounds. We got some shots but not a solid one at any of them; it just never lined up right for a good shot.
The long story is that in the morning we fished five flats and saw fish on three of them. On the first flat, we saw two pods—where I blew a cast to the first pod, which had been a perfect setup. On the second pod, I had an eat where the fish turned the hook. I saw one other single.
On the next flat, we saw a school of about 10 decent fish. From this school I had another eat, and it turned the hook again! That’s two turned hooks in less than 90 minutes—frustrated doesn’t even begin to describe it! Later, I saw a pair of singles and another pod but had no luck. We took another late breakfast at 10:00 a.m., and afterward the tide started falling fast. We fished four flats after lunch and saw fish on three of them. I had one great shot at three large tailers, but, once again, none of us saw the six fish between the tailers and the boat, so we spooked the entire school. I also had a follow on the Meyers Shrimp from two deepwater fish that were mudding, but couldn’t get them to commit. In a short session after lunch, we found one pod of small tailing fish and had a few good shots, but no eats.
Day 5: At 6:00 a.m. we had perfect conditions: strong incoming tide, light winds from the east, and mostly blue sky with patchy clouds. The plan was to take “breakfast sandwiches” and fish our favorite flats, and then work our way back. Dean said he didn’t like to fish that area usually because it has gotten crowded with other guides fishing there, but he would give it a try. If we encountered a lot of skiffs, we’d turn around and come back. We got lucky and saw no other anglers.
The short story is we fished nine flats and seven held permit. We saw 12 tailing fish out of a total of 28 fish and managed to get five good shots and one eat, but no hookups.
The long story is that in the first area, we saw one tail only. We found four other fish, but couldn’t get any shots at them. We had one good push, and I had a good cast leading them, but it turned out to be a school of bones. Later, we saw two large singles but didn’t set up for a cast.
At the next spot, we saw singles, pairs, one pod, and one school (8–10 fish). I had some really good shots, but they just would not eat, except one that got away.
Day 6: At 6:00 a.m., conditions were great again—east wind about 11 mph, and mostly clear sky. The tide was coming in. We decided to fish all the same flats that had provided the big numbers for day 2. In the beginning, we only saw a few fish moving—no tails. The only place we found tails and had shots was on the south end, near a creek mouth. Very strange.
The short story is we fished 14 flats and only saw fish on five of them. We saw a total of 26 fish (only four tails), managed to get four good shots, and got one nine-pound permit (no. 49) while casting to the front of a single fish pushing. He streaked off 100 yards of backing before we got the motor started and chased. He was 150 yards into backing by the time I began retrieving line. The way he fought, we thought he was larger! The highlight was when I got two good shots at a tailing 20+ pound fish rooting hard on the bottom. I should have got him!
No need for a long story. It’s hard to believe these were same flats as on day 2, especially with better overall conditions this day. Permit fishing just leaves you wondering so many times!
Day 7: On the water by 6:00 a.m. and conditions were good—same as the day before—but the tide came in a little later, and the winds were lighter (5 mph). We had a mid-afternoon flight, so we planned on getting five to six solid hours on the water before departing.
The short story is that this day was similar to day 6. We fished our favorite flats and found relatively few fish, even with ideal conditions. We fished seven flats, three of which held fish; saw about 30 fish (two large schools and two tailing singles); and I got two shots. But this would be the first day of this trip without an eat.
The long of it goes something like this: The day started fast. On the first flat, we spooked a school as we approached the flat. Soon after, we saw a fish tailing about 200 feet away. He tailed twice more as we approached and then disappeared. Then, we found a large tailing fish that kept disappearing and reappearing, moving left and right, feeding aggressively. We approached slowly, and after about 15 minutes were within distance. The cast looked good. The fish turned on the fly. At this point, I was all set for a big finale with no. 50, but he suddenly exploded and rushed off the flat. Guess he saw something he didn’t like. After about three hours, heavy, dark clouds appeared in bunches on the horizon. We began dodging thunderheads as they moved toward the mainland. We were getting wet and weren’t seeing any fish, so we headed in to finish packing and set off for the airport.
At week’s end, I had fished some of the world’s finest permit flats, and Marte had snorkeled in several spectacular coral reef environments. In all that time, I did not see another angler, and Marte only encountered one other snorkeler. It was almost like our own private, 30-mile stretch of the Belize barrier reef and the cays and flats inside it!
Thirty-one years ago, we arrived in Belize for our first Belize mothership trip. (“We” is our son, Scott, and me.) Back then, we carried four spinning rods set up to fish for the variety of species we expected to encounter, and we brought an 8-weight fly rod to fish for bonefish. We didn’t have the fly rod skills to fish for the other species with a fly, only bonefish—if we could find them close enough. We learned to saltwater fly-fish over the next 10 years, primarily in Belize, and, eventually, we would carry five fly rods rigged for the different species and situations available in Belize. After evaluating all my saltwater experiences, last August I came to the conclusion that the great majority of my most exciting saltwater stalking experiences with a fly rod in hand were in fishing for permit.
During our past 70 or so Belize trips, we spent most of our time fishing for a variety of species available in Belize (tarpon, snook, bonefish, etc.). We would usually spend a few days moving our mothership to the best permit flats to fish for permit. Adding in a few permit taken in Ascension Bay and 10 Pacific permit from the Ningaloo Reef over our past three trips there, I had released 45 total permit before this trip. I’m 74 years young and decided I needed a new and worthy fly-fishing goal to liven up my saltwater pursuits. That decision was to set a goal of releasing over 100 permit before my 84th birthday.
I no longer carry all those fly rods on my Belize trips—just a 10-weight rod with the “Hinckley Crab” tied on. I have now officially joined the growing crowd of dedicated permit addicts. Blame this in part on the inspiration of Art Hinckley, a superior angler who has released over 120 permit, mostly in Belize, fishing with the same guides used for this report!
General Trip Summary
• total number of permit seen—404+
• number of tailing fish encountered—133+
• number of “shots” taken—46+ (counting as only “one shot” multiple casts to the same fish or school)
• number of flats poled—66, not counting “drive-by flats,” most flats being 1–2.5 feet deep, with some 3–4 feet, depending on the tides.
• number of flats where at least one permit was seen—39
• weather—generally good except for two days
• highlight—to have this experience without seeing another angler the entire week
• I have fished with these guides for over 20 years and they know these flats in detail; they know what flats may hold fish on different tidal situations and which to avoid in certain conditions, and their ability to spot fish, tails, and “pushes” is amazing and is critical to your overall success.
Postscript: For more information on the Rising Tide operation, go to http://flyfishbelize.com/general-info-prices.