AN ANGLER’S HUNT FOR PERMIT
Take a minute and check out a great summary from a recent Yellow Dog traveler and his hunt for permit on Turneffe Atoll. As we all know, permit are one of the most elusive species in the oceans, and this piece is a great testament to the will and desire it takes to hunt these beautiful fish. The author also explains even though he might not have brought to hand one of these beauties, the experience itself of hunting truly large permit is a trip in its own. Thanks for the great story Mark!
JUNE | TURNEFFE ATOLL, BELIZE | BY MARK WOLFE
It’s a tough call…no an impossible one to answer, “What’s your favorite fish to catch on-the-fly?” Since I am a Pisces, the answer is it’s the fish that you are nearest to or are looking at, or better yet, the one you’re “hooked up” with. They are all truly special–perhaps magical. Perhaps it’s only because we best appreciate the one that’s closest, that we often fall in love “so to speak” with the fish we experience firsthand. For me that romance often has to do with bonefish, tarpon, permit, and redfish. On this fling to Turneffe Atoll (a.k.a. Turneffe Island) in Belize I am looking for that permit.
Turneffe Atoll is a remarkable coral atoll about 30 miles east off the coast of Belize City. A stunning coral reef encircles the entire elliptical-shaped island for approximately a 70-mile stretch. Turneffe is unique to the Western Hemisphere given its size and that it was formed by coral over literally hundreds of thousands of years (unlike the drama of volcanic formations that were all born in evolutionary instants). Inside the reef, marine life is teeming with conch, lobster, turtles, and a host of finfish. Beyond the reef, which is only 200 yards or so from my cottage’s front porch, the waters character is totally different. Depths of 100 to 250 feet are within a very short distance, and the inky blue/purple sea projects mystery, raw power, and endlessness.
My anticipation of the first day on the water is just getting feverish as I step outside and see two permit meandering comfortably well inside the reef. The morning’s flood tide has brought them in close, but I need to meet Dion, my guide, in 30 minutes at the dock. We are soon on our way, heading through the Northern Bogue and then south toward Blackbird Cay area for tailing permit. The first run on a full week of flyfishing is a special feeling. I find myself trying to recall technical do’s and don’ts in order to keep my emotions from conjuring glorious images of giant fish and Zane Grey-like encounters. With permit, you manage your expectations, since they have a well-earned reputation for elusiveness. And even in this permit capital, that’s just how they behaved. Oh, Dion found them. He found them that day and each day following for the entire week like the world-class guide he is. But these permit like so many others wouldn’t eat.
I could blame the weather, which was not helpful or perhaps the full moon. Were the permit feeding at night? My fly box and leaders got a complete workout. My casting and presentation steadily improved. But nothing would work, and the fish did not care enough to come into the shallows and tail–not once. With strong winds and the fish in 10 to 12 feet of water, the push pole was out of the question. These fish were pre-occupied, and Dion’s frustration quickly matched mine.
There’s a reason for everything. Mid-morning of the last day, we spotted a school of about 75 fish. Like all the rest, they wouldn’t come onto the dance floor, and stayed outside. As we approached we noticed that these were huge fish. On the outside of the well-formed group were the “smaller” fish, averaging about 15 pounds. Inside were 20-25 pounders with some even larger. We no sooner were admiring their size and number when several large females rolled over on their sides just 3 or 4 feet below the surface to “face” the bright sun now high in a cloudless sky. With their sides so large you couldn’t encircle them with both arms around, they flashed like giant light bulbs in a multi-color display. The normally small and subtle yellow area surrounding their anal fins now was a deep yellow and covered almost a third of their sides. This coloration faded perfectly into an equally large area of rose-like soft pink highlighted with continuous brilliant silver. A flurry of male activity quickly ensued, and after lots of methodical bumping and backs in the air, the water’s surface began to fill with eggs and milt. For 30 to 40 minutes, Dion and I speechlessly watched the spawn underway from about 80 feet.
We couldn’t stop talking about what we just saw as we ate our lunches a few hours later. If I had an underwater camera and a snorkel mask, would I have dared to intrude or disturb this amazing scene? Just as we were wondering how big the biggest fish might be in that group, Dion noticed about 15 fish coming into 4 feet of water for the first time all week. Once we got closer we spotted a burst of glass minnows break out of the surface. With my only glass minnow fly, the first cast got nailed, but it was a jack. These guys just seem to show up at all the wrong times. But my fly was intact and the next cast worked. As I stripped just under the surface, a big permit came up and exploded in a burst of speed and pounded the minnow in a split second. Finally, I had a date. She was off to the races and the tremendous strength of the fish was apparent as it took off on a 300 foot run. All of the sudden, she completely stopped. I immediately knew that I had to make a decision. Should I try to muscle her with the now still reel even though the line and rod had all the pressure I could put on? Or should I wait a second and hope her next move would engage the drag? In that instant I realized that my leader had several of my usually less-than-perfect uni-knots tied to a soft tippet. I had no idea how strong the hook was. So I decided to let this fish lead the dance for the next turn.
That was the wrong decision as most accomplished permit anglers have already guessed. But even though the encounter lasted only 5 minutes, and the week’s effort was not fulfilled, I did get to experience the power of a truly big permit. I saw the magic of the permit spawn, the beautiful world of Turneffe Atoll, and had the company of a wonderful Belizean guide. My favorite fish on-the-fly? For now it’s the one who chased and ate that glass minnow.
If you are a permit lover (or bonefish angler), you will love Turneffe Atoll. In my opinion, The Turneffe Flats Lodge is truly special in many ways.