The Permit Zone

Only minutes after I met Capt. Greg Poland for the first time in Key West last fall, he told me the story of some angling friends in Miami, who it turned out I knew as well, who had—ten years back—invited him to dinner. And, he said, they served permit.

“That just didn’t sit right with me,” he added, sharpening his flats guide’s eyes on me.

We were fishing the next morning together—for permit. I’m not sure it sat right with me.

Excuse me if I tarnish the reputation of a fish species somewhat, but for all their vaunted glamour and legendary elusiveness on the flats, permit are just jacks—ravenous, ranging, opportunistic Carangidae—with a head and a tail and two sides for filleting. They’ll gulp a squid off the bottom of a deep channel as fast as they’ll chomp a crab near a Keys bridge or a South Florida reef in spring, but then there are those who insist that they must be approached quietly and presented a gift of fur or shellfish on the flats.

Turns out the next morning we had those wily permit eating out of our hands—well, almost. I caught one in deep water to the north of Key West on my day’s first cast, and then we took a break and talked things over and ran out to the flats and hooked and landed two more. It was good fishing, beautiful fishing, and perfectionist that he is, Poland had turned one of the fish into a model for photos, moving it this way, and that way, minute after minute, until I said it: “If we don’t let this fish go soon, I’m going to kill it and eat it!”

Poland was intent, almost purple with intent and concentration. “I don’t care. I want these pictures!”

I let the fish go. We let them all go. We ate yellowtail. Permit are a tough fish to catch, but they’re getting even tougher to kill.

The New Regs: the Special Permit Zone

The new regulations—in effect since August 31, 2011—for permit (Trachinotus falcatus) in Florida state and federal waters are complicated by geographic boundaries that determine what laws are in effect.

The FWC has established a Special Permit Zone (SPZ) in South Florida, encompassing waters south of Cape Florida on the Atlantic coast and south of Cape Sable on the Gulf Coast. Additionally, the FWC’s changes to permit regulations now extend into federal waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic where there were previously no regulations for permit.

The biggest change is the establishment of a closed season on permit possession in the SPZ during the months of May, June and July. This rule intends to protect the spawning aggregations over the wrecks and reefs in South Florida. Next, inside the SPZ during open season months, anglers can retain one permit, per person, with a minimum size of 22 inches fork length. No more than 2 permit per vessel are allowed. No spearing is allowed in state waters—only hook and line fishing, but spearing is allowed in federal waters (during open season months.)

In the rest of Florida’s waters, north of the SPZ, all year anglers can keep two permit per day with a minimum size of 11 inches fork length, but only one of these fish is allowed to be longer than 22 inches fork length. There is a vessel restriction of no more than 2 fish over 22 inches in fork length. There is no vessel limit for permit 22 inches or less outside the SPZ, as long as no individual exceeds the bag limit. As in the SPZ, hook-and-line fishing only is allowed in state waters and spearing is allowed in federal waters.

In its effort to focus more exactly on permit, the new regulations remove permit from the inclusion in a pompano/permit bag. (Previously regulations allowed anglers to keep one pompano or permit over 20 inches—with the presumption that the species might not be distinguished because they look so similar.) But now, the new regulations assume the exact opposite: that anglers can tell the difference between the species. So now anglers could keep their 6 pompano limit in addition to their permit limit—depending on their geographical location.

“As to whether the new regulations assume anglers can tell the difference between permit and pompano,” says Melissa Recks, of the FWC Division of Marine Fisheries, “I would simply say they require anglers to know the fish they are catching. Just as anglers must be able to tell a mangrove snapper from a cubera snapper in order to fully exploit the snapper bag limits, they must be able to tell a permit from a pompano in order to take full advantage of those bag limits.”

The changes to permit regulations are part of an increasing trend of the FWC to implement regional regulations within Florida, as with snook, seatrout and, for the first time this year, redfish.

What We Don’t Know Might Hurt Them

“It’s amazing what we don’t know about this species,” says Kathy Guindon, biologist at the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, but as a lead orchestrator of a new series of studies on permit, Guindon is going to find out.

Last year saw the start of Project Permit, in which Guindon and her colleagues have teamed with Bonefish Tarpon Trust (BTT), Costa Del Mar and willing anglers to tag and track permit around Florida and beyond. It’s an effort to determine the genetic stock of permit in the state of Florida, and to track the movements of permit spawning over wrecks and reefs “to see how connected the movements are between the inshore waters and those offshore wreck and reef positions,” says Guindon. “So we started this dart tag program to track the movement of individual fish that are presumably from these offshore spawning aggregations.

We just don’t know the movements of the fish yet,” Guindon says, though they are getting recapture information back from last year’s tagging efforts.

If someone wants to participate, Guindon says to email or call toll free 800-367-4461. In the kit there is an instruction sheet and data sheet which contains a web address where you can enter your information. There is also a fin clip to send in a sample of the fish’s DNA—along the lines of Guindon’s well-known tarpon DNA studies.

A dart tag implanted harmlessly in the left dorsal area of this permit may be used to help chronicle the fish’s movement and growth rate, if recaptured.

Questions that will be answered by this phase of the study include: How far do these fish range? Is it possible that permit spawning off the Yucatan or off Belize could drift over to Florida? “We have DNA samples from those areas and we will soon know answers to questions like these,” says Guindon.

The second wave of studies will focus on determining more about the basic biology of permit.

“There are some holes in what we do and do not know about the species’ life history,” Guindon explains.

“What we do know about the life history, the age longevity, the maturity schedules comes from work finished early in the last decade. Those researchers looked at 536 permit, and those fish ranged in size between 65 and 916 mm, but few smaller permit were collected. We learned that size at sexual maturity for females is 22 inches and that males mature around 19 inches. But when you looked at the size of fish in that study there were few in the 12- to 20-inch range, so we want to go back and evaluate if those maturity sizes were correct or if these fish mature at a smaller size and younger age.”

The general understanding, Guindon says, is that the spawning season is May through July (which is why those months are closed in the SPZ) but “the thing is that in that study we only were able to find 15 fish that were indicative of active spawning. We’re looking for more fish that are spawning to better understand the true arc of the spawning season.”

Another element of the studies, Guindon says, is to get a better idea of catch- and-release mortality.

From these studies conducted by Guindon and her colleagues, there will be better understanding of the permit’s life patterns in the coming years.

What We Know—Five Tips for Permit Fishing

Put Capt. Greg Poland of Islamorada down in his skiff anywhere in the backcountry from the Seven Mile Bridge to the Marquesas Keys this time of year, and he’ll catch permit, and if you follow his lead, so will you.

1. Fish Moving Water When a permit is tailing and feeding, the fish can even be oblivious to what else is around. When it’s windy, you can get very close, says Capt. Poland, but above all, he says, fish during strong running water, when the permit feed in the flats and channels.

“I like it to be hard to pole the boat in the running water. That makes a good permit flat. If it’s a calm day, be as far away as you can make a good cast. If it’s a sunny, windy day, you can be up on top of the fish. Many, many fish are caught within a boat length and a half from the fish,” says Poland. “Fish a 3/0 circle hook tied to 20-pound fluorocarbon leader of about 6 feet. If the fish is in deep water then I use the splitshot right up next to the hook. If it’s a tailing fish I don’t put the splitshot on there.”

2. Get Ready to Be Quiet

If you’re noisy while permit fishing, you won’t know how many fish were there that you didn’t see because you spooked them. Poland quiets down way in advance of the fish, giving his anglers plenty of time to get ready to make the best cast possible.

Live crab hooked in the corner of shell is kept at the ready, in the water next to the boat.

“Center the person in the boat and get your drinks, your camera, all ready before you start poling down the flat,” he advises. “Pole into a spot and out of a spot. You’ll never catch fish if you run into a spot. You want to act like you’re sneaking into their house.”

3. Cast to Catch

“Have your crab in the water. Drag it in the water, keep the bail open. Keep your eye on the fish. Don’t take your eye off the fish. Stop a bad cast right away. Don’t wait for it to the hit the water and waste time. I’ll let a crab land, but if the permit doesn’t respond to it then reel it away and then get it back quick. On the recast, watch your fish. Lead him. Point the rod like a rifle barrel and have the guy on the platform sight the fish and lead your rod to it. If the fish does not see your bait presentation, then quietly get it reeled up and recast as quickly as possible.”

4. The Boat Makes the Trip

What if you want to catch permit on the flats but you don’t pole your boat, or it’s not a flats boat? Anchor in a channel by likely permit flats and watch the edges of the channels, where the permit will come up onto the flats to feed, Poland advises. Sometimes you’ll even see the fish come up to the surface and check you out. Cast!

Poland fishes a Chittum Islamorada 18 skiff, and he vows that the boat makes a big difference in what you can do on the flats. “Pole the edges of the flat, and be as quiet as you can. This is where the newer flats boats really outperform the classic old skiffs,” he says. “They float in shallower water, half the water of boats from ten years ago. On top of that, builders are making boats quieter by raising the spray rails and the chines out of the water so the water glides up the side of the boat, like a racing sailboat, then back down.”

5. Know the Conditions

Poland likes to fish on windy, bluebird days, to get to the fish under the cover of the water’s chop yet also be able to see the fish.

“I like it blowing 15 to 20 mph, but I want blue a sky, or else a view looking in to a dark storm cloud. If it’s flat calm, it’s tough. They’ll spook, so you’ve got to cast it upcurrent and let it sweep downcurrent to them. Worst of all, I hate it when there are those big white puffy clouds and you have high water. It just puts so much glare on the water and it’s hard to see in the water down deep.” – FS

First Published Florida Sportsman April 2012

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