Article - Fishing

MIAMI HERALD | by Susan Cocking

Permit 'the most challenging fish in the world'

Costa de CocosXCALAK, Mexico -- After flying from Fort Lauderdale to Cancun, Mexico, driving five hours south, passing through three military checkpoints and parking in the jungle eight miles north of the Belize border, I have learned my lesson: Permit are the same everywhere. Living tranquil lives in remote Caribbean waters do not make them dumber than their harried, northern relatives in Biscayne Bay and the Keys.

I spent two days stalking permit in Chetumal Bay with my 9-weight fly rod, guided by an able and enthusiastic Guillermo ''Willy'' Castro, and all I scored were goose eggs.

And I was not the only one. Two other groups -- 10 people in all -- fished every day for a week and came up with two permit, the largest about 12 pounds.

Both anglers -- Vince Tobia of Buffalo, N.Y., and Len Bowes of Salt Lake City -- were grandly toasted and hailed as heroes, as was Bowes' guide, Fernando Fernandez.

Castro, a five-year guide from Argentina, said our result was typical.

''Permit is a contest every day,'' he said. ``It's the most challenging fish in the world.''

Said David Randall, owner of Xcalak's only fishing and diving lodge, Costa de Cocos: ``Almost every group gets a permit -- that's been true for this season.''

An angler's unflagging hope that he or she will be the permit conqueror of the week keeps the lodge booked months in advance.

And why not? Everything about the place screams easy permit pickings.

A total of 10 guide boats operate on 45-by-65-mile Chetumal Bay, a rich habitat of seagrass, mangrove, limestone and coral. Xcalak (population 200), with its barrier reef and near-shore waters extending 18 miles north and seven miles south, became a marine sanctuary in 2005, adjoining Belize's preexisting reserve.

Fishing for permit, bonefish and tarpon is catch-and-release only. Commercial fishing is prohibited, but local residents can use hook and line to feed their families.

And permit are not the only species in residence. Bonefish were seen and caught on fly rod nearly everywhere during the three days I spent in Xcalak. A half-day diving excursion to a spring-fed coral canyon revealed a school of at least 100 tarpon -- many of them upward of six feet long. Tobia caught and released what arguably could be called a grand slam on fly rod -- permit, bonefish and tarpon -- within 24 hours (he caught the permit in early evening and the other two species the next day).

KEEPING FOCUSED

But I was fixated on permit, having previously come close in Biscayne Bay but never hooking one on fly rod sight-fishing on the flats.

Armed with my 9-weight, several epoxy shrimp and a light-weight crab pattern made of supple, Mylar cord material with springy legs by famed South Florida guide Bob Branham, I figured a Mexican permit would be a slam dunk.

Wrong.

I made a cast to a permit in the 15- to 20-pound class in Zaragoza Channel accurate enough that Castro and I watched it come up and eye the mesh crab. But -- maddeningly -- it turned up its nose and swam leisurely away.

''He refused it!'' Castro said, incredulously.

When this happened the second time, Castro switched my fly to a shrimp pattern tied by one of his previous clients. When that didn't work, we changed to one of Branham's epoxy shrimp. But by then, it seemed my casting had deteriorated to the point that the shrimp didn't get a fair chance. We probably saw more than 20 permit that day -- none of them small -- but I didn't get the fly to them.

The second day was windy, and Castro and I didn't see nearly as many permit as before. But at the entrance to a network of sheltered finger channels, we came upon the perfect setup: two permit tailing happily along the rocky edge of a sandbar.

We slipped quietly out of the boat and waded toward the fish, hugging a mangrove shoreline to conceal ourselves. It was all I could do to keep my knees from wobbling. Castro, sensing my anxiety, held me up by the arm.

The two fish never saw me as I cast to them from about 40 feet away. But the fly landed about 10 feet short. I tried to strip in the line to try again, but the hook was caught on a piece of marl. Castro tried to pull it free, and it broke off.

The permit still hadn't seen me, and now they had moved closer -- within about 30 feet. But I was standing there with no fly!

Castro headed back to the boat to get another fly while I stood riveted to the spot, praying the fish would remain oblivious until he returned.

But no such luck. They either saw me or sensed me with their lateral lines, and they skedaddled -- never to be seen again.

THESE FISH AREN'T SHALLOW

At that moment, the realization dawned that there is no such thing as a stupid permit. Yes, I know they are members of the overly aggressive and intellectually challenged jack family. But somehow they have evolved to the Mensa level -- at least during the time they spend in shallow water.

I suppose I should be discouraged from pursuing this nemesis. After all, it took me a decade to catch and release a bonefish on fly in Biscayne Bay. But most anglers are suckers for a challenge.

Like Bowes said, if this were too easy, nobody would do it.

He's got a point. I feel another project coming on.

Outdoors writer Susan Cocking