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Fly fishing for Permit, ‘the longest silence’, as Tom McGuane put it in his truly excellent book of the same name, the pursuit of a fish that drives men to extraordinary lengths, for a fish of little culinary value and virtually unknown to all except saltwater fly fishers, a fish that I, and many others, have pursued avidly on the salt flats of the world for little reward, but just occasionally all the planets line up and it all comes together, the right fly Is presented in the right place at the right time to the right fish, and the result is memorable, as these three days recently were for me.

A couple of weeks ago Julie and I flew out of Gatwick to the Barceló Maya Beach for a couple of weeks, a hotel on the Riviera Maya that we have visited a couple of times before, which offers great service, good value, and isn’t too far from Punta Allen so I can usually sneak a few days In on the flats. I made an initial booking for a couple of guided days with Manuel (mexIcofIshIngadventures.com) and packed my tackle. I haven’t fished Ascension Bay since may 2008 when I had a couple of days with Manuel during which I hooked a couple of good Permit and lost them both; unfinished business.
At quarter past five on a Thursday morning the insistent buzzing of the alarm was not pleasant; on holiday any kind of action before 9am is decidedly rare, but I knew that the fish were calling so I reluctantly dragged myself from the bed, washed and dressed and headed for the car park in the dark, gathering some strange looks from a few hotel cleaners and a desk manager on the way. I had collected a car the previous afternoon for a week, something called a VW cross-fox, which seemed to have decent ground clearance for the Punta Allen road; I usually get a jeep but prices have gone mad, eleven thousand pesos a week, that’s about £600, so the little red fox would have to do.

The air was dark and heavy, there had been some thunderstorms earlier in the week and today promised more of the same, but at least the works on highway 307 have mostly been completed south of Playa del Carmen, and three lanes of virtually empty dual carriageway stretched out ahead; no more games of chicken with loco drivers coming In the opposite direction! A few stars twinkled overhead, but to the east I could see towering Cumulo-nimbus storm clouds silhouetted by the lightening sky of dawn.

All too soon I reached the traffic lights at Tulum, and took a left down the road to Punta Allen; 53 km was the legend, what was the road like this time? 10km passed fairly easily, past the ever growing numbers of eco resorts and holiday homes hidden behind gates and fences with no entry signs and security cameras, climbing slowly over the Topes that proliferate on the roads without seemingly needing planning permission or being restricted in size by any kind of common sense.

Once I passed through the new security barrier, manned by a bleary eyed policeman who nodded reluctantly, the road to the main gate to Sian Khan was fine, and I was soon handing over my 25 pesos a day for a fishing licence; £1=25 seemed particularly good vale for entry to this paradise, and I certainly didn’t begrudge paying it. As I left the gate and headed onto the famous dirt road it was apparent that none of the money was being spent on road maintenance; every day convoys of jeeps race back and fore along the road on ‘jungle adventure trips’, tearing up the surface, and the rougher the roads gets, the more the vendors like it. The road was as bad as I have seen it for several years, particularly the first 15km, and I was not travelling at the speed I would have liked, but I was used to that from previous trips; it seems to take a while to get used to the lumps and bumps, and find the right speed to minimise the crashing without damaging the car.

As the sun rose it was obvious that I was racing along the road on a collision course with a massive rainstorm approaching from the south east; it was getting darker minute by minute, and the water lying on the road was making it ever more difficult to make good progress; you need to be able to see the potholes to drive around them if possible, and when the whole road for 50 metres is underwater that’s a bit of a guess. I crossed the bridge after about 45 minutes, and in parts the road got a bit better, and finally about 0730 I drove into the village just as the rain began to fall.

Manuel was standing outside his store grinning, with Xavier at his side, “hola Jan, good to see you”, and we chatted for a while as the rain fell, okay for fishing today? Yes should be fine if we head south around the storm, great, let’s go! I put my boots on and grabbed my haversack, and we headed across the fields to the boat under its own personal palapa; Xavier put the cooler onboard and I sat down In the chair, swatting the ever present mossies that tried to feast on ****** blood for breakfast as the engine kicked into life and we were off, leaving them trailing behind to await our return. I love the artwork on this boat, covered with fish and flies.

Manuel was full of enthusiasm; it had been a few weeks since the main tourist season finished and it was obvious he had missed the fishing,” look at this” he said, “perfect weather once we get past this rain, but we are the only boat out”. We chatted about the seasons and why there are hardly any fishermen in the summer when the weather is usually less windy and the fishing can be terrific, although there is always the risk of rain showers, and even the outside chance of a hurricane. The fishery has developed in this way for two reasons, partly because the early fishers were mostly Americans, and the lodge owners often had properties in North America and Alaska that fish well in the summer and autumn, so they shut up shop in Mexico at the end of May to fly north, and partly because the lobster season opens in July so many of the guides are busy fishing lobster through the summer, but it certainly isn’t because the fishing is not good.

Manuel was adamant that the fish are here to be caught all year around and the summer months often have better weather, and much less pressure on the fish as a bonus, so there is a much better chance of finding fish that have not been spooked by another boat; for myself there is an additional bonus in that as a single angler I can actually fish with the guide I want to, which is difficult In high season when the lodges are fully booked.

We slowed after 25 minutes and I rigged the Tarpon rod with a bunny fly, we would try for a small tarpon first amongst the mangroves on snake Island as a loosener, and I rigged the Permit rod with a crab, as we have seen shoals of Permit here in the past. We poled along the north side as the rain eased, but the water was murky and we soon realised that we weren’t going to see much; a lonely bonefish of diminutive size took pity on me and wolfed my crab down so we were off and running, always nice to get started.

We travelled ever further south-west across a fairly flat sea, maybe 8 knots of northerly wind, and just a light ripple, but the patchy clouds across the sky told us that we were going to have to take our chances when the sun popped out, and soon we drew up at our first Permit hunting area. As we poled across we saw a few fish, but In the way of most Permit, they continuing to swim or feed with no concern until they saw us and shot away rapidly, or spooked as a dark shadow from the clouds drifted over just as I was ready to cast, or spooked as I crashed the fly down amongst them, or spooked as the rod flashed In the sun, In fact they acted just as Permit do across the world, and even when the fly actually landed In the right place, the few that looked really weren’t interested, following half heartedly before turning away when they saw the boat, or lost interest.

By lunchtime we had no takes, just a couple of follows, so we anchored up and had a bite whilst the clouds continued to march past; in the distance there was an odd flash of lightning and rumble of thunder; someone was getting a good soaking! Whilst we ate we chatted about families, how our children were doing at school and university, plans for the future, how the season had been, all the usual stuff, a nice way to pass half an hour before getting back to the fishing.

I asked Manuel what he thought the Permit were feeding on as they clearly weren’t taking crabs, and he said that he thought mostly shrimp but maybe sardines as well; we had seen a lot of schools of small fish scattering on the way across the bay, so we had a look through the fly boxes and selected a Wills Skettel for the afternoon; seems daft to throw crabs at fish eating shrimp, and a Skettel is a pretty good shrimp fly, well proven in Belize; I showed Manuel the gummy minnows I had In my box, and I put a couple in my pocket to try later in case the fish were on sardines and the shrimp didn’t do the business.

We moved to the head of a long sandbar running east west and started to pole along; Manuel explained that we were going to have to deep wade as soon as we spotted the Permit or we wouldn’t get close enough, so I stripped out some line and got ready. I didn’t have to wait long as Xavier pointed out a large dark area about 150yds away, stopped the Panga, and we hopped over the side Into about 3 feet of lovely warm water; the fish were moving to the left so we began to wade as fast as we could to cut them off and get in position, hard work if I am honest, but eventually we got close and Manuel issued that instruction we love “ okay, casting now, to the left ten o clock” at this moment, I realised that casting chest deep in sea water is not easy when your running line has sunk, a floating basket would have been good, but eventually I got the fly in front of the shoal, with a little line handling help, took a couple of strips, and came fast into a fish, woohoo!

I played the fish for about ten minutes, several good runs but obviously not a huge fish, a Permit nevertheless, but I realised as it got close that it didn’t feel right, I was dragging it sideways through the water, and I knew it was foul hooked, neatly through the belly as it turned out, which was a bit disappointing, we thought we had our first Permit of the trip, still, the fight was fun and the line got a stretch. Manuel grabbed him, maybe 2 or 3 kilos, and we eventually managed to get the hook out and send him on his way, the size 4 O’Shaughnessy had a pretty good hold in his skin but he seemed none the worse for that.

We climbed back onto the boat and poled on down the flat until another school was sighted and we set off again, time to see if we could get one to eat the fly! Within 10 minutes we found another group and set off on foot; I had a few casts with no response then as the fly landed the fourth time I had the most perfect head and tail rise from a nice Permit doing an impression of a trout eating lazily on a stream in the mayfly season, rather surprising but I set the hook and he was off across the flats, taking the line and maybe 70 metres of backing In a searing run once he realised something was wrong, then tearing around the boat in a big circle. I had seen the rise and his tail came right out so I knew he was a big fish, my best Permit so far certainly if I could land him, so I played him fairly hard without going mad, keeping the pressure on and pumping him back when I could, but letting him run when he wanted to; he made several good runs without ever being more than 100 meters away, and after about 25 minutes Manuel was able to sneak up as he tired and grab the tail with both hands, a lovely fish of maybe 6 kilos, nicely hooked on the Skettel, and we high fived whilst Xavier took the pictures, then sent the fish on his way; to say I was chuffed would be putting it mildly, a cracking fish and on the first day, but Manuel was not done yet.

“Come on Jan, time for another” he said, “when the days come they are feeding like this, we have to keep at it, you don’t know how long it might be before it happens again”, so we had a quick drink and continued our search for more, only stopping for a short break when the light went under a black cloud, then back again as soon as the light Improved. We had a couple more goes at shoals, missing a couple of pulls before I hooked up again, and soon another Permit was nestling in Manuel’s hands, a lovely little fish or 3 kilos or so, great little fight.


Soon the skies darkened and we set off home, what a brilliant day, 2 Fine Permit, and a bit of fun with a third that was foul hooked, we were stoked, it’s just great fishing with a guide who is so enthusiastic and really works hard to give you the opportunity to catch these fish.

Once I had showered and changed we went down to the old dock for dinner and a few beers, chatting with some Americans who have gone native and eating some fresh local fish with all the trimmings; we had a good laugh as I had misheard Manuel and thought the restaurant was called the old duck, so I asked why, when he pointed to the remains of an old pier outside I realised my mistake!

The next morning Manuel was outside at 7 am, full of excitement, it was a lovely day with not much wind and he was raring to go; so I threw some cornflakes down my throat, he grabbed some tins of tuna for lunch, and we set off again, straight across the bay for an hour this time to the same flats we fished yesterday.
The light wasn’t bad but we didn’t see as many fish, different tide to the afternoon of course with much less depth, but we still had a few shots without much response, the Skettel wasn’t doing the business today, so after an hour or so Manuel said let’s try a gummy to see if they like it; he had just tied it on when he said quick get in the water quiet as you can (that’s a joke, if you have ever seen me get in the water; watch the video of that whale jumping Into a yacht, you get the Idea), but I did my best without sending a tsunami racing across the bay, and we took maybe twenty steps before I sent my silifry on his date with destiny. The fly landed and I stripped it maybe three or four times before the line came tight in my hands and we were connected to a Permit again, and a decent fish too which rapidly set off for the horizon. This was a really stubborn fish, slightly smaller than the best yesterday, but when we landed him, after a spell of Permit juggling, he was maybe 5 kilos, fresh and clean and shining silver like a sheet of tinfoil with the gummy nestling in his lips, maybe a first for Ascension bay?

Matching the hatch. The fly I used is steve farrars siliskin fry - link here http://www.aswf.info/images/siliskin.pdf

The light went before lunch and the rest of the day just didn’t work out, that happens sometimes; we went looking around the lagoons for Tarpon but found very little, spooking two big Permit in the process, then back to the flats just in time for it to cloud over In the afternoon; even a trip to a bonefish flat was unproductive and with the drive back to the hotel to follow we called it quits about 3pm as a huge rainstorm approached and raced back to Punta Allen. I changed and grabbed my stuff, then booked a couple of days the following week before setting off on the bumpy drive home in the Increasing rain, giving Manuel and his younger son a lift back to Tulum to see the rest of his family for a couple of days, and getting back to my hotel about 1845. Manuel was pumped, “Permit are my drugs” he said, “we had a fantastic day after a break so I feel great”.

The next few days we had some pretty heavy rain at the hotel, and when Tuesday came around I wondered exactly how bad it would be, and if I would actually be able to fish the next two days, but once again I set off at dawn, actually a little later at 6am as I knew the road conditions now. At ten past eight I pulled up outside the shop again, Manuel was waiting there; he said he hadn’t been sure if I would come given the weather, he had given me the option the week before if it was bad but it didn’t look unfishable and I was determined to try again, a decision I was please to have made by the end of the day.

The wind was fresher as we set off again towards Snake Island; there had been no more anglers since I was out the week before, and we decided to catch a few bones before moving along, giving the weather a chance to improve. There is a little bank at the west end where a shoal is often in residence, and I quickly pulled a couple out on a skinny shrimp, at which Manuel said “okay let’s go look for Permit now”, he doesn’t have much time for bones if there are Permit to catch, but I managed to keep him there for another 15 minutes whilst I caught a couple more, then we were off again to the furthest south banks to hunt the Palometa.

The light was not great when we arrived, and clearly there weren’t as many fish about as the previous week, and they were moving fast; we jumped in when we sighted one shoal, and waded as fast as we could to try and cut them off, but we were still not in range when the water reached my shoulders and they were still travelling away from us, I was surprised that Manuel wasn’t completely submerged and we had to let them go, just as a massive rainstorm hit us and the water turned white as the rain battered us.

We returned to the boat and let the rain pass, then set off again, soon sighting a small group of fish but failing again to cut them off as they scooted around the far side of a bank out of range, then spooking another shoal that sped away, I was knackered, its hard work trying to wade fast in deep water.

As we watched the shoal we had been following stop about 100yds away and settle down again, I thought I saw something on a dark patch of coral about 20 metres to my right and watched it intently, just a small black flickering, like a strand of kelp waving on the coral, but it didn’t look like weed; I pointed it out to Manuel but he took a glance and said no, then went back to tracking the shoal. As I continued to stare at the coral I was sure that I saw a dark shadow moving and I called Manuel again; he stared for a while then suddenly said “yes, big single feeding, quick, casting” and I threw the fly where I had seen the movement; the fly landed broadly in the right area and a large fish suddenly appeared from the shadows behind the fly, he had a look and began to turn away so I short stripped the Skettel a couple of times and he suddenly shot forward and took it; it was like watching in slow motion, but amazingly I remembered to set the hook.

For a while, nothing much happened, it felt like I had hooked the coral, then inexorably the rod pulled down and the line began to peel off the reel, this was a big fish, a cracker, and I knew that it was going to be a while before we got this one to the boat. Manuel turned to me and said “well done, this one is your fish, you saw it” as the line continued to leave the reel. This fish never went mad, just used its power to stay away from the boat, it went out maybe 80 or 100 metres then began to slowly circle whilst I pulled as hard as I dared against a size 4 hook, worrying constantly about how big a hole it was making, and if it would pull out. Every now and then the pressure would ease and I would slowly recover twenty or thirty metres of backing, twice I got the end of the line on the reel, but every time the fish just took it back steadily and continued to circle the boat. After half an hour I had got the fish to maybe 50 metres away, and I began to think I might get this one in.

Forty minutes in and the line was on the reel, and as it came towards us Manuel began to charge towards the fish, spooking it and making it run again; he did this several times until it wasn’t running from him anymore, and he crept up behind it and grabbed the tail with both hands and held on as the fish thrashed about, finally giving in and allowing him to lift it from the water.

This was a stunning Permit, far bigger than any I had caught, and we shot loads of pictures in and out of the water; I asked Manuel what he thought it might weigh and he joked with Xavier and I that at most lodges this was a twenty five pounder, but we knew it wasn’t that heavy; we settled on 8 kilos, 18lbs. more or less, it was obviously a big heavy fish and had taken 52 minutes to beat against a powerful rod and plenty of drag, my longest fight on fly tackle.

I held the fish for quite a time until it felt strong, then it slowly moved away back to the deeper water to recover, and we climbed back into the boat to reflect for a while, then have lunch. I feel incredibly grateful and lucky to have had that experience and stored the memory of those few perfect seconds between seeing the fish and hooking it; it’s like something from a daydream that keeps replaying in a loop. Every now and then in fishing you have an experience that is as near perfection as you could ever dream of, payback for all the spooked fish, broken leaders, screaming winds rattling the shutters and cloudy seas, hours of searching, blown casts, missed strikes, wrong flies and refusals, the hard miles, blank days, and thousands of dollars spent travelling around these remote locations chasing shadows, all leading towards that little sound bite of perfection, a memory that will live with me forever.

The afternoon was always likely to be an anticlimax, Manuel worked incredibly hard trying to find me a Tarpon for the slam, but wasn’t to be; we travelled into all sorts of remote lagoons and channels, fighting through tiny access routes, but they just didn’t want to play. We went back on the flats but the clouds killed that, and we finally returned to try Snake island again; Manuel found a small group under the mangroves and we chucked just about every fly in the book at them but they just weren’t having it; one fish flashed at a fly but the hook didn’t stick; to be honest I wasn’t really bothered, the Permit was more than enough. We fished on until 6pm but eventually we gave it best as the weather deteriorated and the driving rain began to fall, getting heavier as we sped home until it was a full blown tropical downpour that didn’t let up all night.

In the morning the sea was still rough and the rain was still falling; Punta Allen looked like Venice, and I knew what was coming. When Manuel came along to the room it was obvious that we weren’t going anywhere, the sea was cloudy and rough and there was no sign of the rain letting up, and we agreed that we would not fish, so my trip was over, but what a trip, 3 days, 5 permit bought to hand with two new Personal bests, topped by the whole experience of that super fish, how do you beat that? We didn’t get to fish Espirito Santo as we had hoped, but as it happened we didn’t need to as Ascension was fishing so well.

I usually get somewhere every year for a few days, but this was definitely my most successful trip abroad. I haven’t fly fished as much as I used to in the last year or two, and it showed in my casting, but it all came right in the end, and didn’t cost a fortune either. One thing that struck me is how every trip has a killer fly, different every time, and this time it was the Skettel, which hasn’t worked in Ascension Bay on previous trips but did very well this time. Now I know there are fish there all year I might try again outside the usual season. If you want any more information send me a pm and I will tell you what I can. The fishing can be booked in the UK through matt at www.flyodyssey.co.uk or Oz at www.uksaltwaterflies.com/index.html
 

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Team Hardcore (Scotland)
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cracking read and cracking fish mate
 

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fantastic report jan ,really got a feel for the whole experience with the quality of writing .absolutely stunning fishing ,congratulations on the pb permit ,they have to be on every anglers list of fish to catch.
cheers rab
 

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great report with some great pictures threads like this makes forums worth looking at:1a:
 

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best ive read in years,,well done that man
 

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Specimen Hunter
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superb read Jan, you can see you like litrature :)

funny thing is i was just thinking about you the last day and how i hadnt seen a report from you,

well done matey looks like you had a fantastic time and memories that will last a life time, Manuel looks like he is having as much fun as you, i bet he was a great guide

regards
scott
 

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If Carlsberg did catch reports..... cracking Jan :clap3: :clap3: :clap3:

...and the weather looks a bit warmer than photo's / reports from your normal haunts ;)
 

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Great report and photographs Jan! And congratulations! Having spent any number of days pursuing the elusive 'Mr P' on the Flats with a fly I know just how fascinating and frustrating it can be but, in your case now, just how rewarding. (I can vividly remember the elation when a friend got one on the Flats at Turneffe Atoll, Belize.) And to put things into context you're part of a reasonable 'exclusive' band to have achieved that - so many of the fly caught Permit now are taken when they're aggregating for spawning over offshore structure.

What I found of particular interest was your description of tactics and choice of fly. Read earlier books, largely focused on tactics developed in the 'Keys, and they're all based on life-like crab patterns, imitating the 'drop to the bottom' and then 'playing dead' with perhaps the odd twitch. But a bit like your guide, and ones I've fished with in Belize albeit with Crab patterns, movement can , at times, be the key.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Thanks for the kind and generous comments; I am still on a high that may take some time to come down from, a couple of blanks should do it.

Interesting comments about fly movement, i know most of the books seem to recommend no movement or let the crab sink fast, but all the permit i have taken have involved moving the fly, the guides in AB seem to like a slow strip, rather a stange movement for a crab, but when using a skettel i like a short sharp movement, like a prawn jetting backwards, makes sense to me that it would move in that way when threatened. Using crab flies in Belize a few years ago, stopping the strip and letting the crab drop just seemed to make the fish loose interest and swim away.:nono:

One thing is for sure, feeding Permit are easier to catch than cruisers anyday, i was just lucky to be there when they were actively hunting food.:clap:

I found the link to the minnow i used, its Steve Farrars sili skin fry, link here http://www.aswf.info/images/siliskin.pdf

Tackle was a Sage TCR 9 weight with a litespeed 3.5 reel, 9 weight SA floater, 300yds of 50lb Tuf line backing,9 foot Seaguar tapered leader to a ring and 3 feet of 15lb flouro tippet. Fly was Fulling Mill Skettel in a size 4, and a sili skin fry on a size 4 varivas.
 

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Great report Jan,did a bit of fishing in mexico a couple of xmas's ago,brilliant fun,big fish and in sunshine too lol.Well done mate:clap:
 
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