• Published:January 3, 2018
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We'd been scanning the surface for about five minutes when a crewman in the tower shouted, "There they are!"

Sure enough, the gilded apparitions for which we'd been looking finally slid into view. Permit! Those deep-bodied fighters with black fins, big eyes and yellowish undersides haunt coastal and offshore wrecks along Florida's central Gulf Coast where they delight anglers with spirited light-tackle engagements.

Capt. Billy Nobles and crew had intended to find permit over a wreck in 25 feet of water west of Englewood, Florida. Once we figured out that the fish were bouncing back and forth between two sections of the sunken shrimper, we knew how to make the adjustments that would keep the rods bent for nearly an hour.

TARGET ACQUIRED

Permit roam Florida’s flats and bays in singles and the occasional small pod, but wrecks scattered along the central Gulf Coast harbor greater numbers of increasingly heftier fish. Unlike the nomadic inshore fish, offshore permit tend to hold tighter to a spot of structure, thanks to the shelter and abundant crustaceans to feast on.




“I have GPS waypoints for wrecks at three miles, five miles, 15 miles and 25 miles,” Nobles said. “The farther out you go, the bigger the permit get.”

You’ll find plenty of productive spots on local charts, but keep in mind that these fish frequently change their address so don’t be afraid to move. Maybe they’re seeking more or different forage; maybe they simply flee fishing pressure. Whatever the case, be prepared to do some running and gunning until you dial in the active areas.
"When the water's moving slower they'll roam around the wreck. This makes it easier to target them."
-- Capt. Billy Nobles
“The key is being where the fish are,” Nobles said. “They’re either there or they’re not and sometimes it’s just trial and error. In the Tampa Bay area, I hit 12 wrecks one day before we found them.”

WHEN IT’S RIGHT

Depending on winter’s severity, northward migrating permit may reach the central Gulf Coast as early as February and stay through October. Rough seas stirring nearshore waters, or too many boats will push permit to deeper spots, while calm conditions often find happy permit “finning” with their sickle-shaped dorsals slicing the surface. Such visual aids facilitate sight fishing, as do golden flashes.

As Nobles explains, about an hour before or after a tide change produces the sweet spot for permit action so make sure to check the tide tables on FishTrack before you plan your trip. Permit won’t want to fight swift water, so a steaming current pins them lower and tighter to the structure, while also requiring pinpoint presentations with a significant snagging risk.

“When the water’s moving slower they’ll roam around the wreck,” Nobles said. “This makes it easier to target them.”

Fishing action typically spikes right before a weather change — either a cold front or a summer thunderstorm, but don’t push your luck. Big winds and/or lightning can create navigational nightmares for small boats. A quick glance at Buoyweather will help you gauge the day’s wind and swell activity.

SHELLFISH ON THE MENU

You’ll find permit amenable to shrimp, but so are barracuda, jacks and other nuisance species. Best bet, use small blue crabs or “pass crabs” to get the key target of permit and a limited number of bycatch. Bait shops often stock crabs, especially during tarpon season and it’s common for tarpon anglers in Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay to carry leftover crabs to offshore wrecks for bonus permit action.

During spring and summer months, savvy anglers will also collect free pass crabs during the strong outgoing water of hill tides (full moons). While motor drifting the passes to scoop baits with a long-handle net, inspect every clump or blade of grass, as crabs often hitch rides.

GEARING UP

With a No. 1 light wire hook set through an outside corner of its shell, a crab casts easily and remains frisky. Removing the claws prior to fishing eliminates painful mishaps during the rush of a hot permit bite.

Nobles prefers medium-action spinning gear with 15-pound braided line and five feet of 25-pound leader for wreck permit. Fluorocarbon’s low visibility avoids spooking leader-shy fish, while its abrasion resistance proves invaluable when a big fish runs for the structure.

To jump start the bite, or coax up fish that have sounded, chum the site with chunks of larger blue crabs, or bait crabs that die in the well. If stubborn permit remain deep, add a small split shot above the hook or fish the crab on a 1/8-ounce jig head.

FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT

Permit can be a frustrating fish to entice to bite, requiring great patience. But once they decide to eat, the action can be nonstop. Strikes are sudden and fierce, with multiple hookups always a possibility. Each fish will test both tackle and angler with swift sprints and determined resistance. Your job: Outlast the temper tantrums and smoothly work the rod with a fluid cadence of pumping up and reeling down.

The key is to figure out how the fish are moving, and set up so you can cast into their movement pattern. If the fish are jogging between pieces of the wreck like ours were, you don’t want to sit on top of the wreck -- move with the fish and position your baits strategically.

“I’ve found that when you run a super hot drag, they tend to run down to the wreck,” Nobles notes. “But if you use a light drag, they tend to run out. They have blistering speed and the fight is second to none. Just when you think you have them whipped, they’ll peel out some more line.”
For information on Gulf of Mexico permit regulations make sure to visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

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