Permit Me to Boast According to Simon Penn, Broome’s permit fishery is as hot as its weather. I never expected to catch a permit. Ordinary flyfishers just chased and ate – seems anything will eat a crab – then ran don’t do that sort of thing. Catching permit is reserved for and jumped beautifully, but by the time I had it to hand the the doyens of the sport, those who dedicate their lives to permit were long gone. travelling the world seeking out such quarry; fishermen who cast a fly vast distances, deliver it imperceptibly, then My arrival at the same stretch of sand a week later coincided twitch it with the dexterity to fool such hallowed prey. To see with the bottom of the tide. The fishing was decidedly quieter a real, live permit in the water after many years of reading and in several hours I managed just a few small queenfish. about these almost mythical creatures is surreal. To be so Then the permit showed up. A small school of perhaps a presumptuous as to cast a fly at it and entertain thoughts of dozen fish hugged the shoreline, again milling, mooning it deigning to bite are preposterous. and rolling on the surface as they moved in the opposite direction this time, heading into the broad creek mouth from The presence of permit around Broome in the northern the ocean as the tide rose. With adrenaline coursing, heart Kimberley region of Western Australia has been known palpitating and fingers fumbling I knotted a length of 15 lb for some time. Catching them on flies is also nothing new. fluorocarbon to the end of the 20 lb tippet, taking the leader Skipper and guide Dan O’Sullivan perhaps first brought the out to a good 12 feet, and attached a shrimp fly. fishery to prominence with regular captures at Eco Beach in Roebuck Bay and north of Broome on the Dampier I kept low and well ahead of the fish. But long casts with the 42 Peninsula. More recently local flyfishers such as Troy Sinclair lengthy leader and weighty fly on an 8 weight rod proved and Paul Haddy have put in plenty of work finding fish to the testy and after only a few casts an inexplicably intricate tailing point where they can be reliably located. Non-flyfishers also loop knot formed in the tippet. With one eye on the fish, I tell of incidental captures of ‘pumpkinheads’ while soaking cut off the knotted section of line and hastily tied on another baits or even spearfishing. Apparently they taste delicious. 15 lb section. Haste and knot-tying never make the best of bed-fellows and with some trepidation I resumed casting. My own odyssey started on foot along the broad, white, sandy beaches of the creek mouths north of town where others I drew on everything I had read about fishing for permit. Put had found permit and, more encouragingly, caught them. the fly out in front of the moving school. Far enough away My arrival coincided with the first of a run-out spring tide as not to spook them but close enough that they can see it the water began moving out of the wide creek. Occupied for descend. Let it reach the bottom. Now don’t move it. DON’T hours catching the small giant herring, queenfish, blue nose MOVE IT. Resist that itch to strip. salmon, trevally, long tom and whiting that flitted about the shoreline, I was startled to look up and be confronted by a Nothing. big, dark mass moving along slowly out from shore. A short, sharp strip to catch their attention. Nothing. Wait. Surely not. There had to be hundreds of permit in the school Wait longer. Another short, sharp strip. Nothing. And so on as it drifted slowly along parallel to shore. The fish were in and so on, until the school has progressed past the fly. Then a few metres depth but were up on top, sharp fins poking a sprint up the beach to get back in front of the fish, and through the surface of the water and broad flanks flashing repeat the process. in the sunlight as they rolled about. While the school was definitely heading somewhere, the fish seemed in no hurry, Casting at such hallowed quarry, I certainly harboured some milling and circling as the great mass moved downstream hope of catching one. But deep down inside I really wasn’t with the tide. The fish were out of casting range but I tracked expecting success. Far greater anglers than I have been them from shore, determined to be ready to let fly the driven to distraction by the fickleness of these fish. Just to moment they moved within range. But when a metre-long have seen and cast at permit had been a thrill and at this queenfish swims by within spitting distance of the sand, stage I could have happily admitted defeat at the hands of what can you do? Will power wilted in the midday sun and I a worthy foe. So when I felt a solid take you could have lobbed a Merkin in front of the queenie and stripped fast. It knocked me down with a feather. Striking back to set the hook, the line went limp. The leader The fish made an initial dash back to the school after feeling had broken at that iffy knot. Desperate not to lose the steadily the point of the hook. When the expected sanctuary of the departing school I tied another fly straight to the end of the school failed to materialise, the fish made off on a run that section of leader and managed a few more casts before the fish was certainly strong, but neither long nor lightning fast, moved into deeper water, and out of reach. I figured I’d blown putting the flyline onto the reel but pulling up just short my chance, but again just getting a hook-up had seemed an of reaching the backing. From there the fish was worked achievement, as short-lived as it had been. I could have died gradually toward shore between shortening runs. With the happy just knowing I’d tempted one of these fish to strike. initial hook-up unseen in water more the colour of whisky than the clichéd gin, I had lingering doubts as to whether the As I trudged back along the same stretch of beach, another fish was indeed the dreamed-of permit. Undoubtedly many brown smudge made its way toward me a mere half-cast from an angler has called ‘permit’ only to be embarrassed by the the sand, those tell-tale fins waving like flags in the air and trevally, queenfish or emperor on the end of his line. But as leaving no doubt as to the identity of the fish. Again the same those unmistakable dark edges outlining the big v-tail and routine of casting in front of the school, letting the fly sink to the proud dorsal fin materialised out of the murky water, there bottom and sit there, giving it a short, sharp strip as the fish was no doubt it really was the prized permit. From there it moved past, repeating the routine until the fly was clear of the was a matter of being patient as the fish settled into a routine school, then running ahead and doing it all again. If getting one of bullocking to and fro just out from the shore before tiring hook-up on a permit in a session had seemed a momentous enough to be dragged onto the sand. It was a modest fish achievement, a second solid strike left me flabbergasted. And of just over 60 cm to open my account, but the feeling was this time the leader held and the fish stayed stuck. a mixture of elation and relief. 43 A DIFFERENT STORY Three or so months after that landmark first fish my personal permit tally stands at six – admittedly a meagre conversion rate given the hundreds of casts I’ve subsequently made to hundreds of fish. These are quite different conditions to those romanticised in much of the literature, where ultra- spooky permit feed over shallow flats, anglers cast to individual fish and watch them scrutinise the stationary fly before either snatching it up, or more usually turning up their nose. The fish I’ve chased are not feeding but are moving between locations mid-tide. Where and when they feed is still a mystery, but is most likely at the bottom of the tide, when they are outside the creeks and offshore or along the beaches. On one level their behaviour is predictable and seems based around their habit of moving into the creeks as the tide rises and then moving back out into the ocean as the tide falls. On other levels their behaviour varies markedly. At times the fish will move through in a huge school of hundreds of fish, proudly up on the surface. At other times only a handful of fish will make an appearance, coming through in dribs and drabs, hugging the bottom, a barely discernible brown smudge or the occasional flash as a broad flank catches the sun giving them away. The speed at which they move seems 44 linked to tidal movement. On the bigger tides of 8 metres or more it can take a good sprint along the beach to get ahead of the fish and into casting position while on neap tides with only a couple of metres of movement a slow walk can keep an angler alongside a school. Perhaps most amazingly, they’re very, very difficult to spook. I’ve walked and run alongside schools of fish for hundreds of metres, raining down cast after cast on their backs from close range, and never managed to spook them. At worst they might move a little further off shore and sit a little deeper in the water. With a boat the fish can be followed for longer and into much deeper water than wading will allow but the presence of the boat does make the fish a little more liable to spook. If patience is a virtue, then only the virtuous need apply for permit fishing. With roughly six hours between the bottom and the top of the tide, the fish can make their way through at any time within that window, which can mean a long wait staring at water. Once the fish arrive it’s then a matter of persevering with cast after cast and trying every retrieve variation. LEFT: Permit are the drug of many fly fishers. Their colouration, habits and mythical staus means anyone who catches one spends at least some time staring, and a lot of time smiling. OPPOSITE: Del’s Merkin Crab – the quintessential permit lolly. frustration when nothing was working, a Merkin stripped flat out has even resulted in a hook-up. Incredibly, several fish peeled away from the side of a moving school to chase the fast-fleeing crab imitation. One hit, then another, and a solid hook-up before the fly dropped out mid-run. A 9wt rod is about right to handle the weighty flies and any wind that may spring up. A floating flyline with an intermediate tip helps get the fly down to the bottom even in a couple of metres of water, while the floating running line is easier to shoot when wading and is less likely to sink and Plenty of small queenfish and the odd trevally or barracuda tangle around feet. attend the permit schools and, more than happy to snatch flies, these too will test your patience. The euphoria felt as PERMIT PUZZLE the line pulls tight quickly turns to disappointment when the lack of weight on the other end quickly betrays that it is not Very little seems known about the biology of permit in the hoped-for permit.0 The queenfish are a scourge not just Australia and there has been some interesting discussion of because of the time taken to get them in and release them, late as to the true identity of the fish being caught here, and but because their rough teeth badly chafe the fine tippets even the possibility of there being more than one species used when hunting permit, meaning the fly usually has to be of permit in Australian waters. The Broome fish seem to re-tied – all immensely frustrating to perform as you watch closely resemble those found around Cape York, with a the permit swim steadily out of range. more bulbous nose and shorter dorsal fin than the American fish, and perhaps also different to those caught in places like WEAPON OF CHOICE Exmouth and the Great Barrier Reef. The Broome fish also often display the same degeneration A 1/0 weighted epoxy shrimp pattern fly has accounted of the dorsal fins and gill plates as observed in Cape York for most of my fish. The fly is roughly based on those fish, be it from wear and tear or some biological factor. developed by Geoff Skinner and Rob Laspina. It’s an 46 epoxy shrimp tied hook point-up and with dumbbell eyes There are certainly many elements of permit fishing I’m tied Clouser-style near the hook eye. More recently I’ve yet to experience – pursuing feeding, tailing fish in skinny turned to that quintessential permit fly – the Merkin crab water – and that trophy-sized specimen so far eludes me. – and have now taken a couple of fish on a 1/0 version. But having accomplished the inconceivable and actually A brief dalliance with size 2 Squimp flies in a couple of caught permit, I see no reason why I can’t go on to join the natural colours drew follows but no touches as yet. pantheon of greats like the late, great Del Brown. Six fish down, 498 to go. Interestingly, all of my fish to date have come on a retrieved fly. While the short, sharp strip interspersed with long pauses has accounted for most fish, a long, slow draw that drags the fly along the bottom has also been successful. In a fit of ABOVE: Epoxy shrimps have proven effective in the Broome fishery.