Overcast skies and gusting winds over 20 miles an hour are hardly ideal for finding permit, but with legendary Belizean guide Lincoln Westby poling the boat, I still liked our chances.
Not 25 yards down the slim coral shoal we were tracing, two shadows moved in from the adjacent depths and crossed our path. They were a pair of 20-pounders, and Westby turned the boat, affording me a better casting angle. I sent a permit crab fly sailing toward the fish, but before it touched down, the permit exploded and dropped back off the edge. Shaking our heads in disbelief, we resumed our search.
Most Experienced Permit Guide
After 44 years of guiding, Westby returns to the sites of some 2,000 permit hookups, aided only by memory and a compass atop his panga's -console, to offer anyone willing to risk sanity and self esteem plenty of shots at fish regularly surpassing 20 pounds, within earshot of waves breaking against the barrier reef.
Fishing Permit Alley
Fabled Permit Alley, where Westby earned his reputation, comprises a collection of coral shoals and sandbars — some 75 yards wide and a quarter-mile long, others barely 50 feet wide and 50 yards long — that bear little resemblance to the flats where anglers stalk permit in the Florida Keys, Mexico, and other parts of Belize for that matter.
Seven to 9 miles off the coast, sprinkled along a 20-mile stretch between Dangriga and Placencia, these narrow shallows rise from 50 to 70 feet of water where Spanish mackerel, bonito, bar jacks and jack crevalle constantly tear into schools of baitfish beneath frigate birds hoping for an easy meal.
Belize's Best Fly-Fishing Action
Cameron Davenport, who has fished Permit Alley on several occasions, landing four permit, recounts his latest success. “We came up on a school of 10 tailers late one afternoon. It was windy, and we tracked them for about 10 minutes to get the right angle. When I finally got a shot, I put a crab fly in front of them, and a 15-pounder saw it and grabbed it.”
Jim Klug, veteran of many permit quests, also tasted sweet victory on these shoals. “I had a pretty memorable day down there recently when I caught two fish on a high incoming tide. The largest was 18 to 20 pounds. It ate a Bauer Crab and took off for deeper water.”
Permit Telltale Signs
As expected, protruding tail and dorsal fins were easiest to detect. But whitecaps, sea fans dancing with the tide, and coral heads strewn throughout added to the challenge of pinpointing permit, many of which surfed in and out with the waves, like pompano along a beach, without disturbing the surface.
Luckily, it didn’t take long to start spying those distinctive black, forked tails, the key to zeroing in on subsurface permit. As well, the contrast of their dark backs over the patchy bottom let us track them and determine which way they were heading.
Permit Guide's Advice
My nerves steadied after the initial couple of permit encounters. Yet two quick looks and a brief follow were all we had to show for our efforts, after stalking some 15 fish and casting at almost half.
My retrieve needed work, and Westby promptly offered counsel. “Make a long, slow strip first to take up the slack, then stop and let the fly sink to the bottom. Next, watch the permit’s reaction. If it doesn’t rush the fly, make a couple of quick, erratic strips to get the fish’s attention, and again let the fly settle. That’s how a crab would respond to a predator’s approach.”
Doug McKnight, who plucked a 14-pounder from a Permit Alley shoal last July, confirms that’s the ticket. He scored by feeding a Danger Muffin, one of his own crab patterns, to a waking fish, doing precisely what Westby instructed me to do. “We weren’t sure it was a permit at first,” McKnight explained. “I just cast the fly 4 feet ahead of the push and let it drop to the bottom. The fish ate, and we fought it for a couple of minutes before we finally confirmed it was a permit.”
Peak Time for Permit
Day two obliged with sunny skies and nearly three times the permit. Many, however, seemed antsy. While our guide did his best to keep us within range, the fish zigzagged, rarely traveling a predictable path I could anticipate with a cast.
Midday provided our best chances as the wind dropped and the high sun minimized glare on the water. It also coincided with the top of the incoming tide, which brought more permit up on the shoals and bars. By then, our photographer, Bill Doster, was also spotting fish. It was he who pointed out a trio tailing to starboard, just beyond reach.
Westby closed the gap, and I dropped an olive Money Crab 3 feet from the pack. Remembering his instructions, I let the fly -settle after taking up the slack. No interest, so I gave the crab pattern a couple of twitches, hoping to elicit the desired response. Instead, two of the fish moved to my left, so I got ready for a follow-up presentation and heard Westby lament loudly, “Noooooo!” I’d lost track of the third fish, and apparently, I took the fly right out of its mouth.
Chances at Permit on Fly
The next three days brought our permit sightings to nearly 100, providing over a dozen shots at cruisers and tailers, and also a few more near misses. Nevertheless, our quest for permit on fly in central Belize did not culminate with a catch. However, Lady Luck smiled on a fellow from California — admittedly not an avid fly-rodder — who on our last night at Thatch Caye recounted how he’d caught a permit, the first he’d ever laid eyes on, on a rod he borrowed from a friend. Ouch!
On our Tropic Air flight back to Belize City, I took stock of the lessons learned while fishing those unusual yet beautiful and fertile permit grounds where I frequently felt like I was fishing offshore, despite floating 18 inches above the bottom. And one thing I know for certain, I’ll be back soon to take another crack.
Whether you are new to the permit game or a veteran of many go-rounds with those exasperating creatures, Belize deserves serious consideration when you plan your next angling expedition.
Top Crab Patterns
It requires a good crab imitation to fool a permit. The best drop to the bottom like the real thing. But different conditions, depths, and types of bottom call for different patterns. Here are three of the best choices:
BAUER CRAB: Will Bauer came up with this fly specifically for Belize permit.
DEL’S MERKIN: Del Brown’s legendary fly has tallied hundreds of permit catches.
CRABBY PATTY: This realistic fly sinks fast and is ideal for slightly deeper water.
Several airlines fly directly from the U.S. to Belize City, the nation’s capital. Tropic Air offers numerous daily flights within Belize, including to Dangriga, from which anglers transfer to Hopkins Bay and Thatch Caye, two excellent resorts near Permit Alley. Yellow Dog, a top angling-expedition outfitter, booked our lodging at both locations and guide Lincoln Westby of Blue Horizon Fly Fishing.
Yellow Dog Fly Fishing 888-777-5060
Hopkins Bay Resort 800-603-7610
Thatch Caye Resort 800-435-3145
Blue Horizon Fly Fishing 800-313-1672
Tropic Air 501-226-2012