They call the Florida Keys “The Sportfishing Capital of the World,” and few would argue that moniker considering the year-round availability of saltwater fishing action. More than 500 species of fish swim in these waters, and serious anglers are drawn to this destination for many sportfishing pursuits. Offshore waters attract big-game species, and shallow flats, islands, cuts and channels in the “backcountry” are inhabited by targets coveted by inshore fishermen.
Catching bonefish, permit and tarpon in the same day is considered a “Flats Grand Slam,” and doing so would bring a huge smile to almost any inshore angler. While all three flats stars are strong and great fighters, the permit is usually considered the most challenging species to approach and hook, and the subsequent battle can last a long time.
The Florida Keys have arguably the best permit fishing on the globe. The prime season to fish for permit in the Keys is from March through November. Due to the permit’s toleration of slightly cooler and warmer waters, that is a few months longer than prime times for tarpon and bonefish.
Keys guides prize the fish and know where elusive permit are usually found in the maze of mangrove islands, tiny rock cays, creeks and sloughs in waters less than 4 feet deep. Some of the bigger permit also may be located floating in channels or off flats edges in calm situations, and around adjacent structures, submerged shipwrecks and reefs just off many of the islands. These fish will be in deeper water but still within easy sight of land. The permit most anglers catch on the flats vary from about 8 pounds up to 16 pounds; on wrecks and deeper reefs, 20- to 40-pound fish are common.
Capt. Rich Burson is a South Florida native who has been fishing the beautiful waters of the Upper and Middle Keys for more than 30 years. His RU Fishing Yet Charters offers guided trips for light-tackle and flyfishing enthusiasts in the Key Largo area, the Everglades National Park and the oceanside flats down to and beyond Islamorada. Burson is also an expert at locating and catching permit from the shipwrecks that lie just off the Keys in waters generally less than 100 feet deep.
I met Capt. Rich on a charter I booked a few years back and had an opportunity to catch oversize permit from an old shipwreck called the Eagle. We were fishing between and around buoys marking the wreck just 5 miles straight east of Cheeca Lodge near Upper Matecumbe Key, south of Islamorada. The freighter rests in 110 feet of water and projects about 50 feet from the bottom. It was acquired and sunk by the Florida Keys Artificial Reef Association in 1985.
“The vessel lies on her starboard side on a flat sandy bottom, but in 1998, the Eagle was broken in two by Hurricane Georges,” the captain pointed out as he pulled up on the sunken wreck. “There’s plenty on the Eagle to get hung up in.”
He went on to offer details. The permit’s playground has two large mast assemblies resting on the bottom, each with its own ladder and observation platform. Toward the stern there is a tandem set of cargo booms. The deck railings are at about 70 feet, and her propeller and rudder are 110 feet from the surface.
“The bottom line is that when the permit come up to play and you hook up, you have to keep your fish out of the obstructions below to have any chance of landing one,” he explained to my fishing buddy, Chuck Taylor, and me.
The captain noted that since the water temperature was running around 75 degrees, we should expect the permit to be there. Some, he predicted, would be very big and strong. Permit swimming near the surface give off a blue-silver flash during high-sun times, and it took only about five minutes for Rich to spot a small school near the surface at the edge of the wreck. He quickly readied a couple of live crabs that were 3 inches in diameter, and we each cast the baits in the direction of the permit.
The school had appeared only briefly before heading back down, but my partner immediately hooked up. Ten minutes into the battle, he gasped as the fish made one last marathon run into the submerged ship below. The drag screamed, and the line went pow!
When trying to keep a hooked permit from charging downward to the wreck entanglements, you may lose your rig. That’s a fact. If it happens repeatedly, you may just lose your mind. You can feel absolutely helpless when a monster permit almost takes you to your knees. The drags on our quality, heavy-duty spinning reels were smooth and set correctly. Our medium-heavy action rods, and beefy line and leader were strong enough to handle big permit … in open water, but this one got down into the submerged ship structure way too quickly!
Chuck and I again readied our offerings and joined the guide in his search for signs of more permit. A slight chop made spotting the green-and-brownish fish shapes a little difficult, but permit are less wary in rougher waters. We had to quickly cast as soon as we spotted permit, which we did on our next notice of a school. We both set the hook immediately, and two monster-size permit took off in the same direction. Then one changed course and we had a “fire drill” as our lines crossed.
We soon gained some control and after a very respectable tussle, we landed, weighed and released the two giants. My permit was 24 pounds, and my partner’s fish weighed an impressive 35 pounds! A half-hour later, we caught two more permit, each weighing more than 20 pounds.
Capt. Rich has caught a few permit around 45 pounds, mostly on crabs fished on 20-pound spinning tackle. The most permit he has taken off the Eagle is 12 in one day, but the boat traffic has to be minimal and the schools of permit substantial to have that kind of action. When the fish are biting well, you need plenty of crabs, according to the 50-year-old captain. If live crabs are unavailable, the guide uses soft artificial crabs with realistic coloration.
Permit are found all over the oceanside flats along Key Largo to Key West. Capt. Rich fondly remembers an exciting encounter with a monster taken by a client off the Tavernier Key flats recently. He had caught giants there before and knew the key to catching them was a stealthy approach.
“I noticed the fish on a favorite flat from a long distance and shut down early,” he recalls. “I quickly got my angler all set with a small crab hooked on a 2/0 hook and had him move very quietly to the bow of the boat. I poled slowly from the deep water to the edge of the flats keeping an eye out for a push [wake] or a tail to pop up. I then noticed a huge permit 40 feet away, moving left to right, and it was game time.”
Capt. Rich instructed his client with whispers. He directed the angler to the permit, now at the 2 o’clock position, and told him to put the bait about 10 feet in front of the fish. The big permit charged the crab.
“I saw him eat it,” says the captain. “I yelled, ‘Wind, wind and keep the rod tip up!’ The fight was on!”
It lasted more than 15 minutes before the guide netted the 30-pound permit for his client. Such success depends on the weather, wind, tidal and water color conditions, according to Capt. Rich, as well as putting in the time to locate the beasts. Ideal conditions on the flats are a high tide going to a falling tide, and a fairly strong sun to see the fish in 3 to 5 feet of water.
A Key to the Keys
The entire chain of Florida Keys, as well as Key West, offer great permit fishing. The Keys are typically categorized into five sections, as each island community has unique fisheries and topography.
For shallow-water anglers, Key Largo (Mile Markers 107-90) is one of the finest destinations for seeking the elusive flats slam. The Airport Flat edges are prime permit grounds in the spring months, and the edges with a shallow to deep drop-off at Tavernier Key are often productive for big permit. Permit also are on the Key Largo shipwrecks/reefs: the 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove; 327-foot U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane; 285-foot Merchant Marine freighter Benwood; the relatively shallow Civil War wreck called The Elbow, a 752-ton steamer sunk in 1866; and the remains of two other wrecks, a tug and a barge scattered in the area.
The Islamorada section of the Keys (Mile Markers 89-66) includes the Upper Matecumbe, Lower Matecumbe, Plantation and Windley Keys, and the “offshore” islands of Indian Key, Lignumvitae Key and the Peterson Keys. It offers great reefs, flats and access to the Florida Bay backcountry. Top guides will pole the edges of Crab Key and the Peterson Keys through 18 to 24 inches of water on calm days in May and June looking for the spike-up dorsal fins. Of course, the 287-foot freighter Eagle often has roving gangs of permit, but so does the Nervous shipwreck located about a mile and a half farther out.
Marathon (Mile Markers 65-45) is the true “middle Keys” of the island chain, and a premier tarpon fishing destination with its famous Seven Mile Bridge. Permit are often found on an outgoing tide around Vaca Key flats on the east end of Marathon in calm conditions. Poling the edges of Boot Key on the west end and tossing small crabs or shrimp is often productive. The area has deep-water habitat at the Marathon Hump where the Gulf Stream current upwelling forces bait to the surface. The top shipwreck for attracting permit is the 188-foot USS Randolph military ship turned research vessel which was renamed Thunderbolt.
Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys(Mile Markers 45-4) are located just off American Shoal, a series of sunken U.S. Navy ships called the Destroyers. Ranging from depths of 180 feet to nearly 600 feet, the shipwrecks offer plenty of action. The best may be the 210-foot Adolphus Busch Sr. near Big Pine Key and Cudjoe Key. The Content Keys north of Big Torch Key can produce big permit on calm days. You’ll want to have the sun at your back to see the spike-ups out there and at nearby Big Spanish Key.
Key West (Mile Markers 4-0) is the southernmost city in the U.S., and it also offers exceptional nearby shallow-water habitats for permit. Expansive grass flats, big flood tides and abundant populations of the permit’s favorite food source, crabs, have made this a go-to permit destination. Archer Key, west of Key West, is a great spring spot when seas are calm. The Marquesas Keys, although quite a ride straight west of Key West, are normally well worth the time in getting there. Also check out three vessels, the 75-foot shrimp boat Joe’s Tug, 187-foot Cayman Salvager and 524-foot missile-tracking USS Vandenberg.
Florida Keys Trip Planner
The 125-mile-long Florida Keys island chain is linked to mainland Florida by U.S. Highway 1, the Overseas Highway. Visitors can fly into Miami International Airport or Fort Lauderdale International Airport, and from there can reach the Keys by airport shuttle bus or rental car. Travelers can reach Key Largo, the gateway to the Keys, in about an hour from Miami.
There are plenty of guides in each section of the Keys, and there is an abundance of excellent marinas from Key Largo to Key West if you bring your own boat. Many are integrated into resorts that have boat ramps. The living coral reef and a few shipwrecks are usually just minutes from shore anywhere you go. For anglers on foot, the Keys bridges are fishing platforms that are a combination fishing pier/artificial reef, and permit and numerous other fish visit them.
Capt. Richard Burson of RU Fishing Yet Charters offers trips from two boats, a 19-foot Ranger skiff with a 150 hp outboard and a 22-foot Ranger Bay boat, which he keeps at the Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina. Charter rates, which include bait, tackle and fishing licenses, vary from $500 to $900. For more information, contact Capt. Rich at email@example.com or visit rufishingyet.com.
Things to do off the water include visiting botanical parks, historical parks and monuments, and diving and treasure museums. You can swim with dolphins at the Theater of the Sea, scuba dive or snorkel around most Keys, and hand-feed tarpon from the dock at a couple of places. Key West offers colorful attractions including pastel-hued, conch-style houses and historical sites. Contact regional visitor offices at 800-FLA-KEYS or visit fla-keys.com.
The Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada is a luxury resort and a top destination for serious anglers. It offers 214 rooms and suites, 24 acres of lush gardens, two pools, a saltwater lagoon, three restaurants and a 525-foot pier (the longest in the Keys), where many of the guides in the area pick up guests. Those staying ashore and wanting to wet a line have unlimited use of fishing equipment, sea kayaks, bicycles and more. A host of other activities includes a full-service watersports facility, a 9-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and an environmental kids program. For more information, check out cheeca.com.