Cuban permit

A good Cuban Permit, taken on the fly

There are certain species that every saltwater angler dreams of catching. Milkfish, bonefish and giant trevally are a few. But for most, none rank higher than the permit. Matt Harris finds out why.

I will always remember the day that the permit put the hook in me... I was halfway through a tortuous job, photographing a gaggle of relentlessly miserable babies for a supermarket advertising campaign, when a client phoned up to ask me if I could take five minutes out to look at an email and give her a rough idea of a cost. Getting away from the mayhem for a few sweet minutes seemed an excellent idea, and telling everyone to take a break, I popped upstairs to my office.

I don't remember the pictures I quoted on, or even whether I got the job... I just remember the other message in my inbox, from my fly-fishing pal, Lewis Mulatero. I knew the moment I saw the title of his email that he had just shot way out in front in our race to tick off the absolute "must-dos" in fly-fishing. Earlier that year, I'd been rubbing Lewis's nose in it after catching three fabulous sea-liced salmon each weighing over 30lbs from the mighty Yokanga River in Russia, but now, as I read the dread words "PERMIT me to show you this," I knew that my sparring partner had just seriously upped the ante. I clicked on the mail, and my worst fears were realised - there was Lewis, knee deep on a tropical flat, grinning an impossible grin and holding up the absolute Holy Grail of fly-fishing: Trachinotus falcatus - the permit.

For seven long years since that fateful day, these almost impossibly capricious fish have been ruining my annual pilgrimages to the magical waters of Jardines de la Reina in Cuba. While all around, my companions have been slugging it out with almost indecent numbers of big, brawling tarpon, I have been roaming the drop-offs for long, fishless hours, while my guide peers into the aquamarine and does his level best to give me a shot at my elusive prize. That guide, until this year, has invariably been the inimitable Victor Jose Morales Gonzales - aka Coki. He is a wizard - as close to genius as I have ever seen with a fly-fishing rod, and my absolute mentor as a saltwater fly-fisherman. He has always been astonishingly tolerant, and I owe him a great deal.

Coki always set the boat up perfectly, allowing me use the wind to my advantage, and patiently, he has taught me how to deliver the fly gently and accurately at distance, using a low, side-casting stroke and feathering the turnover so that the weighty imitation drops softly into the water. At first, the long hours of waiting and the hugely high stakes paralysed my casting arm and transformed my 10-weight rod into overcooked spaghetti, but with Coki's stoic guidance, I began to make things work. I started to put the fly gently in front of the permit with reasonable consistency, and occasionally, Coki has even whispered "perfect cast." But do the fish eat the fly? Not on your life. Most times, they don't even acknowledge it. Just occasionally, they might take a tantalising 'glance' before ambling away into the deeper water.

Sometimes, Coki would call a time-out, and we'd go and take it out on a few hapless tarpon. My guide invariably knew where to find them, and one afternoon, between us, we had no less than 23 of these lithe and fabulous fish in the boat. After filling my boots, I passed the rod to Coki and jumped up on the poling platform, genuinely thrilled to watch the little master through my camera lens as he skimmed the fly nonchalantly into impossible mangrove 'keyholes' and extricated a string of these high-flying chrome-scaled berserkers with consummate ease. A true fly-fishing education, and consolation after another five long hours without a permit...

Friends started to suggest that I head to Belize or Mexico, where the permit, although significantly smaller than their big Cuban cousins, are more plentiful, offering dozens of shots a day. I wouldn't hear of it. I had long-since determined that Cuba, my spiritual saltwater fly-fishing home, was the only place I wanted to fulfil my obsessive quest.

Confidence plays a huge part in fly-fishing, and my central problem with permit has always been the fly. Everyone knows that for permit, your fly needs to imitate a crab, right? Well, my issues with this approach are legion.

Firstly, every crab fly that I have ever seen looks like a laughable, Muppet Show caricature of the real thing.

Secondly, I hate the way that crab-flies are presented, which is by stripping them only until you have the fish's attention, at which point you let the wretched thing drop to the sea-bed, in an attempt to imitate the crab's habit of burrowing down in to the sand to disguise itself. This must surely allow the permit, with its legendary cunning and its huge, saucer-sized eyes, all the time it likes to examine, and most likely scoff at, your daft concoction of carpet yarn, rubber legs and tempered steel.

Thirdly, a free-falling fly presented at range from a drifting boat in often choppy water means that the angler has a great deal of trouble in keeping tight to the fly without moving it. More than once, I have been half-convinced that a permit had eaten my fly, but without any tightening in the line, and without Coki calling the strike, the moment has gone in a flash and the enigmatic permit is cruising away from us while I'm left to wonder at what might have been.

This year, I finally decided to break from the herd... permit are not exclusively addicted to crabs, after all. One of their other staples is the mantis shrimp, a big, chunky mouthful that zip around the tropical shallows at quite a rate, sending out a big, loud "eat me" message to just about every fish in the sea. Jim Orthwein's Golden-Eye Mantis Shrimp Fly has accounted for some huge bonefish, so why wouldn't their bigger cousins come and have a go?

What really appealed to me is that mantis shrimp move so quickly. An imitation could surely be fished at speed, blurring the rough edges and the big steel hook and provoking the fish to make a decision before a rather juicy snack had disappeared into the next postal code. I've fished with some brilliant Australian guides who swear by shrimp flies for Trachinotus blochii, their own Indo-Pacific permit, and I started to toy with the idea of using something similar.

As so often happens, other anglers were already having similar thoughts: Will Casela's Skittal, a large, rabbit-fur shrimp imitation has started to catch on in Belize, and, in May of this year, I wandered into Farlows of Pall Mall to find my pal, Sean Clarke, brandishing his own Mantis Shrimp fly, an imitation that had caught six permit in one week, again in Belize. Sean grinned widely as I feverishly photographed the fly with my camera-phone, and that night, the tying bench was unceremoniously swept clear.

As the sun started to wink through the blinds, I sat admiring my handiwork: I'd augmented Sean's pattern with prickly moose-mane antennae, and some mobile arctic fox fur 'claws', hopefully giving that all-important illusion of life. The flies looked good enough to eat, and I couldn't wait to tie one.

One week later, I was laughing with my good friend and All-England Loch-style champion, Martin Webster, as we were up early and first out of the traps, zipping across the glassy waters of the Jardinas Archipelago in our sleek Dolphin skiff.

A big watery Caribbean sun started its lazy climb into the Cuban skies, and as Martin reached for his camera, I reflected on the fact that I would perhaps never again fish with my hero: to my huge disappointment, Coki, undoubtedly the best guide I have ever fished with, has finally retired from full-time guiding, his back unable to withstand any more long hours punishment up on the poling platform. The excellent Avalon operation have instead recognised the little man's genius and employed the maestro as a teacher to the younger guides now working at Avalon's sister operation at the Island of Youth.

However, all was not lost: Martin & I had lucked out. As we traded banter and babbled excitedly at the prospect of another week in the magical playground of Jardinas de la Reina, the guide sitting behind us and racing us across the turquoise flats was Bemba. At almost any other destination in the world, Bemba would be top dog: he has an uncanny nose for the fish at any given state of the tide, a concise and economic way of directing the angler as to where to place his fly, and a warm and irresistible sense of humour that makes him an absolute joy to fish with. For too long, he had languished in Coki's shadow, but now, with the little master retired, surely this was Bemba's time to shine. We couldn't have done better...

Bemba quickly showed us his mettle, putting us on tarpon almost instantly. Martin, first up, was soon wrestling a dementedly angry 50 pounder into the boat, but by the time I was up front, the fish had moved on, and Bemba, who knows me well, told me to stow the big tarpon pole and fetch out a ten weight instead. "Now we go for permee,'" he grinned.

I was still tying my mantis shrimp imitation on when Bemba suddenly, magically, exclaimed "Mac, lookee! Eleben o' clock. Long way. Is two permee."

A couple of hundred metres distant, two unmistakeable sickle-tailed treasures were cruising away from us at a gentle pace. To start the motor would instantly send them rocketing for the deeper water. Instead, Bemba poled furiously in a wide arc that took us off to the edge of the flat. Almost imperceptibly, we started to gain on the fish, Bemba's powerful strokes with the pole bringing us towards a salient where the fish would be forced out towards us by the tip of a mangrove island. It was a consummate piece of guiding and set up the perfect ambush: Bemba slowed the skiff and dropped to a theatrical stage whisper as the fish meandered our way.

My first cast was a mess - I went too early, unable to contain my excitement, and stretching for impossible extra yards, the cast collapsed. Luckily, with Martin and Bemba's encouragement, I had time to hastily retrieve the line, and as the fish came into realistic range, I managed to get my act together and deliver my carefully crafted fly within six feet of the lead fish.

The next few moments were as special as any I have ever experienced with a fly-rod in my hand. So often, I've made a perfectly good cast to these infuriating fish, only to see them scoff disdainfully or bolt out of sight. May 25th, 2009 was different: I tweaked the fly just once, and in a magical head-spinning rush, the lead fish raced forward and engulfed my new talisman with an uncharacteristic and almost comical voracity. All those long years of frustration and those myriad storms of rueful expletives evaporated in one special instant as I lifted the rod and was, at last, attached to the Holy Grail itself: a permit.

For 25 long minutes, I played that fish - my heart vacillating wildly between my throat and my front teeth, but finally, unbearably, I drew the fish slowly towards us and Bemba leaned out carefully and grabbed my prize by the wrist of its fabulous tail. It was done. Inhibitions went out of the window, and I hugged Bemba fiercely and shook him warmly by the hand, seeing that he was as genuinely thrilled as I was. As I held the fish up for Martin's camera, I'm not ashamed to say that it was more than just the lactic acid that was making my arms shake.

Watching that pearl of a fish glide easily back into the crystal waters, I knew that I'd finally climbed my fly-fishing Everest... I'd joined the club, and would no longer have to bite my lip or skulk off sourly when other anglers gathered round to proudly recount the capture of their own permit. I was utterly elated.

There is a postscript to that magical day.

While Martin very generously waived his shots, as is the custom, Bemba and I managed to catch a bonefish, a tarpon and, finally, at around 3pm in the afternoon, a fish that is almost impossibly rare at JDR - a snook - thus making us the very first to manage the coveted Super Grand Slam in the 15 long years that sport-fishing has been taking place in these hallowed waters.

Having watched the gorgeous, lemon-finned snook swim strongly away, I fished three icy Crystal beers out of the cooler and drank to my new hero. Bemba was absolutely ecstatic, having achieved a feat that even his old friend and arch-rival Coki had never managed to pull off. Draining his beer with a smile, he insisted with real passion "I more happy than you!"

My old pal Joel, the barman on the neighbouring Tortuga mothership, made my night. On hearing the news, he grabbed a skiff and drove out to our boat, the Halcon, in the dark, in order to deliver a very special bottle of vintage Cuban rum "on the house".

My angling pals were all disarmingly thrilled for me, and we drank icy mojitos and smoked Cohibas long into the warm tropical night.

The rest of the week passed in a scrambled blur of fizzing reels and knuckle-busting craziness. Martin and I put no less than ten cartwheeling tarpon into Bemba's skiff in one absurdly frantic hour that was framed by the soft half-light of our last dawn session.

However, too soon the trip was over. Shaking Bemba's hand one last time, I wished him luck with his new baby, stuffed a well-deserved tip into his hand, and told him with a wink to say "hello" to my old teacher, Coki, with all that was implied. We jumped on the bus, and I grinned all the way back to Havana, where another Mojito-fuelled party ensued.

And then, suddenly, I was home, and stumbling up the stairs to the computer in my top-floor office.

Ignoring all of the urgent work-mails queuing up for my attention, I plugged in the first of my photographic CF cards and started to carefully download all those golden memories.

I filled in the IGFA application for a Super Grand Slam Certificate for Bemba, and then, still grinning manically I started to tap out an email to my old buddy, Lewis, now living in New Zealand. It was, perhaps rather predictably, entitled: "Permit ME to show YOU this..."

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