Spring has arrived, and a host of migratory species are appearing all over the Nature Coast.
Kingfish and Spanish mackerel are just offshore, cobia are starting to show up, bonito are thick a few miles out, and the big sharks have returned.
Another species that moves in relatively unnoticed this time of year is permit. These coveted members of the jack family reside on many local wrecks and artificial reefs until late summer and provide great sportfishing action for those who know how and where to look for them.
Before venturing offshore to hunt for these elusive fish, it is important to understand their feeding habits.
The arrival of the permit coincides with the time small swimmer crabs begin to ride the full moon and new moon tides out of the west Florida inlets and out to deep water. Once flushed from the bay and estuaries, many of these crustaceans swim around on the surface for days. Because permit feed exclusively on crabs, shrimp, and mollusks, they put themselves in position to capitalize on the wayward crabs.
Schools ranging from four to 200 fish will hover around big structures and rise to the surface to slurp the hapless crustaceans as soon as they are spotted.
No crab, no permit
So, knowing this, catching offshore permit should be easy, right? Well, it rarely is. You must have live crabs to be serious about hooking permit, and such crabs are not easy to come by in this area. Few if any tackle shops carry them, and they just don't seem to swim by as often when you really need them.
One solution is to walk the local flats at low tide, dipping small blue crabs with small nets as they scurry away. We can usually locate a dozen or more in an hour. For handling purposes, remove the claws of the crabs by squeezing each one with a pair of pliers. This will cause the crab to release the claw, keeping it from being broken.
Where to go?
With the choice baits collected, it's time to go offshore. The next step is to determine which wreck or reef, if any, is holding permit. Approach each spot quietly, and drift by with the motor turned off. Watch the surface for the sickle-shaped fin waving on the surface. This is the best and most exciting sign you can hope to find, and it often occurs during slack tide, the period when the tidal flow stops going one way but has not yet gone back the other. Several years ago while kingfishing, we discovered over a hundred huge permit milling like this over a small wreck. We did not have crabs onboard, so we cast a wide variety of artificial lures to them for more than an hour, eventually hooking up using the one rubber crab we had on board. We landed the 30-pound fish but lost the crab, and that was to be our last bite.
Another indication that permit might be present is large silver shiny flashes just below the surface. This is caused by one or more permit from a school coming to the surface and swimming on its side, reflecting the sun on its chrome skin.
If you do not find any visual cues of permit, try drifting a few crabs over the wreck halfway down in the water column. If there are subsurface fish, they will usually pounce on a hooked crab and give themselves away.
When we returned to the same spot the day after using the rubber crab, we had the right baits and knew that the fish were there. Sure enough, when the tide slowed down, up came the big permit. We pitched our wiggling crabs to them and watched as numerous members of the school charged the baits, only to turn away from them at the last second. After seeing this happen repeatedly, we began tinkering with our terminal tackle, the part at the end of the line. We were using braided line, and it had become obvious that the fish could see something they didn't like. We added a 12-foot section of 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader to the end, thinking the fish would not shy away from the line and actually eat the bait. Sure enough, the first rod with the new rig hooked a nice permit, and so did the next three. The fish were line shy and would only strike a bait when there was no braided line visible nearby. For the next few hours, we were hooked up to permit from 18 to 35 pounds. We kept the boat limit of two fish and released many more.
In the Nature Coast, we have seen permit in water as shallow as 20 feet and as deep as 100 feet. Selecting the right spot takes a bit of luck, good information or a combination of the two. The most common depth seems to be around 55 feet.
There is a lot that goes into a permit hunt, but when you find the fish and you have the right bait onboard, the action can be extremely exciting and something few anglers in this area ever get to experience.
Ed Walker charters out of Tarpon Springs. Call (727) 944-3474 or
send e-mail to [email protected]