Fly Fishing for Permit: A 101 Guide

By Rob Mukai

When fly fishing in saltwater, there are numerous species, each with its own allure. The aerial acrobatics of tarpon, the spooky invisibility of bonefish, the freight train pull of a jack crevalle. But the one fish that seems to cause more addictive behavior in fly fisher people is the permit. The black tailed devil has sparked more obsessions than any other. The Trachinotus falcatus is not a particularly rare or elusive fish. In our fishery in Xcalak, Mexico, they are plentiful. Now when I say plentiful, it’s not like the A section of the Green River in Utah with 10,000 fish per mile. But on a good day you could cast to 20 plus groups of fish. It’s not like they are crazy fighters, although a 15 lbs permit will probably take you well into your backing at least 2 or 3 times before you get it in. And it’s not like they are giants like sea run tarpon that can go over 200 lbs. Although I have seen permit that probably pushed 40-50 lbs. and would be nigh on impossible to land even if you were lucky enough to catch one. I think part of it is because you are sight fishing for them, it feels a lot more like hunting than fishing. It does get your heart going when you see them. And buck fever is a real issue. But mainly, I think it is because they are so hard to catch with a fly rod, that when you finally do get one to eat your fly and everything goes right and you can grab it by the tail, you feel like you have done something special. It is so special, it is one of the few fish that everyone knows exactly how many they have caught. There is also a saying that “there is no such thing as a small permit. All permit are permit.” Even the 2-3 pound dinks are tough to catch. I actually did some statistics on a permit trip and came up with about a 6% land rate per shot. So if you cast to about 18 groups of fish, you are doing well to land about one.

That is not to say catching a permit is impossible. Although I do know people who have been fishing for them for 10 years and still haven’t caught one, I also know people that landed the first permit they ever cast to. Besides being lucky, there are a few things that you can do improve your chances and I will outline a few of them.


If you can only do one thing before you go hunting for permit, it would be to work on your casting. A good double haul can improve your chances immensely. If you can’t get your fly in a place the fish can see it, you don’t have a chance.

Distance – Practice a double haul of at least about 50 ft. I know, to a trout fisherman 50 ft. sounds like a lot. But if you think about it this way, it really isn’t that bad. Your leader is going to be about 10 ft. your rod plus arm are about 10 feet. That means you only have to throw about 30 ft. of fly line. In most tropical lines, the weighted part of the line is more than 30 ft. so you will only have to throw the heaviest part of the line.

Accuracy – Once you can get the 50 or more feet pretty consistently work on your accuracy. Work to hit a hula hoop at 50 feet.

Shooting – Finally, learn how to shoot line fast. Being able to shoot line on the back cast as well as the forward cast will help a lot. Many times the permit will be moving and you don’t have a lot of time to false cast to get your distance. Try to work from your ready position to 50 ft in about 2 or 3 false casts.

Practice – The best way to practice would be to cast from the front of a boat. But because that is not possible all the time, try to get to the point where you are pretty comfortable with your distance and accuracy. When the permit show up, chances are the wind will be blowing, you will have buck fever, and your cast will not be as pretty as when you were on the lawn, but the more you practice the smaller the drop-off will be.

Ready Position

Before you get on the bow of the boat, you should know a couple of things. Figure out how many pulls from your reel it takes to pull off about 40 feet of line. That way when you get on the boat you know how many you have to do. So when you do step up on the bow of the panga, strip off about 40 ft of line onto the casting deck. Now cast all the line on the deck out. Doesn’t matter where (just don’t cast at 12:00 or you will hit your guide ;). Then strip the line back and pile it neatly on the casting deck. What this does is it puts the line that is going to go out of your guides first on the top of the pile reducing the chance it will tangle. Now get into a good casting stance, check to make sure you aren’t stepping on any line. Make sure you have at least 10-15 ft. of fly line coming out of the end of your rod tip. This will help you load the rod and get more line out faster. Hold the fly in your hand. Now you are ready. When you want to cast, drop the fly and go straight into a back cast.


Permit aren’t particularly leader shy. I have seen people catch permit with a straight through 25 lbs. leader. However, to help you cast and turn over the fly, I prefer a 16 lbs tapered leader with about 18 inches of 15 lbs tippet. That will work well for the majority of fish you will see. I use a 6 turn blood knot from the leader to the tippet and a non-slip mono loop knot to tie on the fly.


For permit fly fishing, in general, your rod weight doesn’t matter too much for fighting the fish. You will be fishing in shallow water and the fish will not be able to dive requiring a lot of lifting power. Most of the work will be done by the drag on the reel. So for permit, I do recommend a 9 weight rod. Again, it is not needed for the fish per se, but because the permit flies tend to be heavier and you will be casting into the wind a lot of the time, the heavier weight rod will help you throw your fly a little further. As noted in the intro, if you get to cast to 20-25 groups of fish in a day, you doing pretty well, so you don’t need to worry about your arm falling off from casting heavy rod all day. An 8 weight is fine as well, but it’s just a hair less power to throw the heavy fly into the wind.


I’m not going to recommend a brand of reel, but for permit fly fishing, this is your most important piece of gear. This is what is going to stop your fish. Your rod is really not going to help all that much when fighting a fish. Make sure your reel has a sealed drag. Assume it will get dunked in the ocean. And saltwater wreaks havoc on metal. A sealed drag will keep the corrosive saltwater out of the important bits. Along with it being a sealed drag, it should be a smooth drag. A jerky drag can break you off, and that is the last thing you want when you have your first permit on the line.

Fly Line

I’m not going to make a brand recommendation here either, but make sure that it is a tropical weight line. If you use a cold weather line down here, you will find that it starts to go really limp and it starts getting sticky. This will cause all kinds of tangles and frustrations. I know that fly lines are expensive but definitely get one that is made for the tropics.

Overlining – I actually don’t do this, but I know that for some people it helps to slow down a super fast saltwater rod to go up a line weight over the recommended. I will leave that up to you and your doctor.


Permit eat crustaceans, mainly crab and shrimp. Their feeding behavior is, they cruise higher in the water column then tip up to grab food off the bottom. You can see some of this behavior in this video. So what you want out of a fly is something that either swims or will drop in the water column in front of them. An example of the later is a kung fu crab, or any of the merkin crab variations. Fishing a crab, you really want to drop it pretty close to the permit’s face so they can see it drop in front of them. Let them find and tip on it. If you move it do it in a slow steady strip. Remember this is a crab running along the bottom not a shrimp or baitfish. An example of the former is the Acocote Drum Majorette, which for now you can only get at Acocote Eco Inn. It is an imitation of a swimming crab. So it can be fished in shallow water, or deep water but you can swim it, instead of just letting it drop to the bottom. The other type of fly you can do that with are mantis shrimp patterns. We like the EP mantis shrimp, or Veverka’s mantis shrimp. Fish all three of these flies with a long slow steady strip. Again, swimming crustaceans, they do not pop like a regular shrimp or baitfish.

Well that’s it. Now you know everything there is to know about catching permit. J/K. It’s one of those things where the longer you do it the more these fish fascinate, frustrate and become a source of obsession for you.

Fishwest is doing a hosted trip to Xcalak, Mexico at our Inn. We have one of the best permit fisheries around, and we are one of the least pressured fisheries as well. I caught my first permit here. And I liked it so much I moved down here. If you would like to join us, for the permit trip of a lifetime give us a call at 877.773.5437 for more information or by clicking HERE.