Belize is a small, astonishing Central American country lying between Mexico and Guatemala. It has some of the most diverse wildlife in the Americas, with a variety of plants, reptiles, birds, and especially marine life. More than a third of Belize is set aside as a nature reserve and the country boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world.
To top off this cornucopia of natural wonders, the endless Belizean salt flats are renowned as one of the best places for permit fishing on planet earth.
If the stars align and you get the chance to fly fish in Belize, take my advice and jump at the opportunity. When you get out to sea, for as far as the eye can see, there is an endless expanse of flats with countless tailing permit.
This is a fly fishing heaven. Tempting, eh?
For the new permit angler, Belize is a great place to land that first fish. And if you are lucky enough and get the job done, you might just be rewarded with a grand slam. Belize is one of the world’s top destinations for grand slam fishing, with the prodigious permit, tarpon, and bonefish waiting to be caught!
As you could read in the previous article, we have been recently visiting two Muy’Ono Resorts – Copal Tree Lodge and the Blue Horizon Lodge. We had a great time with success in the form of my first landed Belizian Permit!
As many readers will have heard, or even better experienced, fly fishing for permit is mentally exhausting, technically difficult, sometimes heartbreaking and most of all addictive. It’s like big-game hunting at sea – targeting your fish and then trying to hook it. It’s no wonder each attempt to catch a permit is described as a “shot,” because this is precisely what your cast feels like.
Tense. Heart thumping. Stealthy. Skillfully accurate. And joyous if the fish takes.
But unlike rifle shooting, each shot is only about 10% successful – and that’s if you are good!
Permit are certainly one of the most tricky saltwater gamefish to target on the fly. They are naturally picky about their food, easily spooked, and seem to mysteriously turn off and on. I soon learned that it’s really hard to understand their unpredictable behavior, but with a few good tips, you can increase your chances of landing a Belizean permit!
Tip 1. Fish the right place at the right time of the year!
There are several places around the world where you can target permit on the fly and Belize is surely one of them! Before you book your trip just try to schedule your trip to the best time of the year. Hot, summer days with little bit of breeze are made for permit fishing. I will personally choose April-July as you will increase your chances for big migratory tarpon as well.
I will also mention that the moon cycles and tides are important as the tides impact when the permit feed on the flats. If you spend your day fishing the flats when the tides are no good it can be challenging to find fish. When we were at the Blue Horizon Lodge, their motto is “Fish the tides, not the clock,” as their guides will only fish when the tides are good. So this may mean starting really early in the morning or fishing during dinner as the tides are always changing with the moon cycles.
The adult permit usually come from the deep channels to feed in the shallow waters preferring sand, turtle grass, and mud bottom with enough food sources. At the Blue Horizon Lodge, we found permit literally everywhere! Endless shallows with feeding permit in skinny water. This place was just a dream for those who prefer wading and casting on tailing fish (over 90% of our shots were on tailing fish in the depth of water just up to our knees). What an excitement!
Copal Tree Lodge in Punta Gorda, Belize was a bit different style of fishing but no less exciting. We were stalking fish from the boat with a push pole in a bit deeper water, but I can say we saw some true monsters there.
Tip 2. Use the Right Flies for Each Scenario
First of all, you have to ask yourself the question “What does permit eat?”
Permit diet is composed mainly of crustaceans such as crabs and shrimps. So the main challenge of the angler is to cast a lure at your target which imitates these crustaceans and their natural movement in the water. I quickly learned that the guides on the Belizean flats are a bit specific when it comes to flies.
In Mexico, for example (another great country for permit), fly anglers often use shrimp patterns with faster stripping. In Belize, the emphasis was much more on crab patterns, but still, it’s still important to have a good selection of both.
I particularly like the following:
SS Merkin Crab – the fly on which I caught my first Belizean Permit! Ideally, you should have them in sizes 4 and 6.
Bauer Crab – probably the most popular and productive one in Belize. An essential crab pattern for your box. You should gear up with this fly in sizes 4-8 in various colors such as tan, olive, and mottled tan/olive. The Bauer Crab sinks very fast despite its knotted square, dark brown, rubber legs, which gives it a lovely realistic silhouette in the water.
Contraband Crab – this is a modernized version of a Bauer crab which is not heavy as the other crabs. In shallow waters, it lands softly without excess splashing.
Aphlexo Crab – This fly has been originally created for parrot and triggerfish but over the years it has become a very productive permit fly.
Permit seem to observe their prey more than other fish, so it can take quite a while before they finally take the fly. It’s important not to lose your mind, so many failed casts can easily lead to frustration. Some people try to catch permit for days, weeks, or even years before they have success, returning to the best permit lodges all around the world – so don’t give up! The moment you finally hook one, and it tears off 150m of your line, is a moment you will never forget.
And once it’s happened, you will want it to happen again………and again.
Tip 3. Listen to Your Guide
While wading or fishing from the boat, your fly fishing guide is an essential role in your success. Surely you can catch your permit DIY style, but a great guide will definitely increase your chances and there are some TOP class guides at Copal Tree and Blue Horizon Lodge, believe me. As we all know natural elements are inherently challenging and unpredictable and no one can assure you a good day.
But, with a great guide, you will always be closer to your prize fish. Great guides have the ability to see the fish a long time before you will be able to. They will also prepare the situation for the best shot possible! It’s sometimes great to try whatever you feel might work (after all, you are the one who is holding the rod) but as we guides know… sometimes the guide is fishing through the hands of his/her clients and I can say in the permit world it’s doubly true!
Tip 4. Don’t Strip Much and Adjust Your Strategy
When your fly hits the water the most important thing to do is to let your fly sink – the amount depending upon the depth of the water and of the fish. You should always cast just in front of the target so that your fly isn’t overlooked, but on the other hand, don’t hit the permit!
Too far – failure. Too close – failure. So the ability to cast accurately is essential.
Fish always need to notice your fly, but don’t spook it by splashing water, or even worse, hitting its head with a heavy crab fly. I once saw my fishing buddy take a long cast at a single fish and his fly, which wasn’t especially large, landed right on top of his target. With a huge splash the permit leaped, nearly clear of the water, such a fright did the quite small splash cause. These are nervous fish.
If you are casting into a tailing school (they are usually less suspicious) you can cast right into them. They are happy and feeding. But, I usually try to avoid this as it is much better to cast in the direction of where the fish is moving. Your ambition is to get the fly into the face of the fish.
Casting in front of a moving school is much harder than it sounds as permit move very quickly and are constantly changing direction. Your guides will be experts at spotting schools, looking for “nervous” water where a school just disturbs the surface.
For crab patterns, you should use a long-slow continuous strip, until the permit get interested. Watch carefully (good polarized glasses are essential) to see whether the fish starts to behave as if it has found lunch, following your fly.
When this happens, the first option, and the most commonly used in Belize, is just stop stripping and letting your crab fly sink. Give the fly a bump again and wait and again until your target hopefully takes the fly. It’s always a good thought to imitate the crab’s behavior and try to imitate what the fish naturally expects to see.
If the permit refuses to take the fly (and, trust me, your heart will be racing), don’t be afraid to adjust your strategy or change to a faster, jerkier stripping with shrimp patterns.
The other tip to remember is that all the time you need to be tight on your fly, so you can feel everything. It’s vital to avoid any slack in your fly line, and be ready for a strip-set!
5. Don’t lose your mind!
In the permit fishing world, I consider this short note as the most important advice so far. They will give you hard time and you will definitely experience some heartbreaking moments but I can assure you that your effort will be worth it and it will all come together one day!
Article by Katka Švagrová, a traveler, journalist, ambassador, and fly fishing guide. Check her out on Instagram at @katka_svagrova.
All photos from Jesse Packwood, check him out at @jessepackwood.