Permit and Pompano Adventures By: Fred Steynberg

(This article was published in the December 2011 addition of Flyfishing Magazine S.A.)

The ‘old boys’ had it waxed, they had found a new Pompano hotspot  approximately 5km south of Cape Vidal, and used small fresh prawns and shrimps freshly purchased from St. Lucia Parks Board on the way up from Eshowe.  They also had a little sand crab (sea lice) collector in the form of me at about 9 or 10 years old.  Both the sand crab and shrimp baits worked equally well.  Cape Vidal did not have many visitors in the late 70’s and early 80’s and the coastline between Mission Rocks and Kosi Bay was relatively undisturbed.  ‘Our’ fishing ground was a paradise where we spent weeks on end exploring without seeing another soul.  Hunting and fishing was my father and uncles’ hobby and thus became my passion and I was always on the list of things to be bundled into the Landy at every possible fishing or hunting opportunity.

My day came when my father took a well deserved weekend off and shot up to Vidal after hearing news, from others that shared our ‘secret,’ that the odd Pompano was caught.  I was to be his only fishing companion for the short trip and I was looking forward to the extra attention.  Conditions were perfect when we arrived.  Under strict instructions I prepared my rig (a Penn Baymaster and a solid 10’ glass-fibre rod) and bait. After a fairly good cast I spooled off some line to reach my father’s side and prepared for a long wait.  I had often witnessed the ‘old boys’ landing the mystical Pompanos, as many as a dozen in a couple of hours, but I knew that the action could be slow on occasions.  

 I could visualize the Pompano picking up my shrimp bait while standing, rod in hand, next to my father, when slowly my line started moving up in the water column and the weight of a sizable on the hook side of the line gently forced a bend in my rod.  The rest came naturally, setting the hook, running forward to prevent the fish from cutting the line on the shallow reef and subtly guiding the fish out the breakers towards the shallows.  The entire episode went by as if in a dream and reality only struck once I lifted the flapping fish up to inspect it.  It was (except for my single shot .22 Mauser that my father bought for my 10th birthday to hunt vermin and the feisty, pretty Afrikaans girl who often helped me with my homework which I had regularly neglected because of some hunting or fishing trip) the most stunning thing that I had ever seen with its long, sleek, golden-brown fins and large sickle tail, golden-yellow trimmings and mirror like silver body.  The fish weighed about 7lb’s, no record in any record book but definitely one in my young mind.  This Pompano was the Southern Pompano (Trachinotus Africanus) a close relative of the Western Atlantic Permit and Indo-Pacific Pompano that will be discussed below.

Fly fishing for Pompano or Permit

The authur with a Indo Pacific Pompano Pompano fins in shallow flats

Now many years later we hunt Pompano and its close relative, the Permit, on the flats with fly rod and artificial prey imitations.  The game has changed a considerably as the fish that in my youth could not be seen because we fished for them in deeper water with conventional gear, and now on the shallow flats, dance with their dorsal and tail fins protruding right in front of us.  Instead of casting to hotspots and waiting for a fish to find the bait we now wade the flats looking for fish to cast to, hunting our quarry.  Instead of fresh, soft, juicy bait we now present likely looking fly imitations as close as possible to the fish.  Having the advantage of a wise, experienced fisherman next to me, ‘guiding me’, is in the past.  I now have to act like one, a feat that can be daunting to any guide that has to try and get his client into a Pompano or Permit on fly.

There are apparently 20 different species of Pompano, all belonging to the genus Trachinotus and of which the ‘true’ Permit is the Trachinotus Falcatus found in the Western Atlantic.  It is the Trachinotus Falcatus and our Indo Pacific Pompano, Trachinotus Blochii, found in the Indian Ocean that we as fly fishermen target on the flats.  The Indo Pacific ‘Permit’ or Pompano (found on the flats of the Seychelles) has most of its famous relatives, the Western Atlantic Permits’ (found in the Western Atlantic such as the Florida Keys and Cuba) feeding habits and possess all the attributes that make targeting the Permit species a challenge.

The difference between the Pompano and Permit confuse most anglers and in all seriousness are so subtle that they should be allowed to be called collectively, Permit or Pompano.  At a quick glance there are some colour differences that can be use to distinguish one from the other (see photos of Indo Pacific Pompano and Western Atlantic Permit.)

Lunch and a rest on the flats Brett Mannix with a Indo Pacific pompano

The Permit which we hunt on the flats of Cuba, the Western Pacific Permit, often grow  larger than the Indo Pacific Pompano.  Some of them are found in small shoals but the larger fish are generally on their own or in pairs, swimming with or above rays or in and among large schools of Bonefish that were churning up the sand on the flats, looking for food.  They seem to hunt in deeper water (but only by a foot or two) than their cousins in the Indian Ocean which we often find foraging in water so shallow that both the tail and dorsal fins clearly emerge.  In the Americas and Cuba, flat bottom skiffs are used to reach the flats where permit are found and there guides pole the flats, positioning the skiff so that the angler has a chance at his trophy.  These fish are spooky and often move quickly and even skilful fly rodders often need to use all their skills to present the correct fly to the fish at the right moment at the required depth.  Some of these beauties grow in excess of 25 – 30lbs with the world fly rod record at around 41lbs.

The Pompano that frequent the flats of the Seychelles average 6 – 15lbs but larger specimens are not uncommon.  They can be found hunting off white sandy bottoms and foraging around the fringes of turtle grass and move on and off the flats using clear channels or cuts that drain or fill the flats.  They often move into such shallow water that their tail and dorsal fins can be spotted from a distance. These are the ones that make even the most salted fly anglers knees feel weak as they fumble their tackle numbly.  Like the Permit, larger Pompano often feed a little deeper, alone, in pairs or small packs and can be caught in the surf zone on fly but that’s not the real challenge and not nearly as exciting as targeting them on the flats.  Anglers mostly hunt them by wading the flats on the pushing or receding tide when the water is at the depth that allows the fishes’ fins to protrude and fly fishermen can locate their position.

Both the Western Atlantic Permit and Indo Pacific Pompano feed on invertebrates such as crabs, shrimps and often also small fish.  It is however easier said than done to present a crab or shrimp pattern to a pod of moving fins and to hope that .  This method has proved very little success and has caused many fly fishermen to give up in frustration, although it must be said that there are occasions where a ‘dumb’ feeding fish will for some reason ignore the bombardment of flies all around him for long periods without spooking and then all of a sudden eat a fly that was not presented purposefully. Lucky for those anglers that experience this as these incidences are far and few between!  I have witnessed a pod of Permit in Cuba dive on a fly that was badly presented, 4 or 5 fish were trying to push their way to the fly and the strongest grabbed it and sped away from the others...very uncharacteristic.

A pompano about to be returned in the Seychelles

The wiser guides will tell you that there are no bullet proof methods to ensure that the Permit or Pompano will accept a fly but there are some rules to consider before targeting these species:

Consider your tackle

Permit or Pompano are not ferocious speedsters and don’t run more than 50 – 100m at a time after hook-up.  They should also not be allowed to run off the flats into the deeper water as this is where they become vulnerable to sharks.  A good 9 – 10 weight rod 9’ medium-fast to fast action, for the often windy flats, will be able to control a good size Permit or Pompano.  The rod will also carry the weight of the fly line and a weighted fly, often with dumbbells, to its destination.

A weight forward floating line that casts a smooth line and holds little memory should get the line to the fish as fast as possible if need be.  The floating line will allow for easy line pick-up and control without a stripping basket.

The reel should have a smooth drag and hold 150m of 30lb gel-spun or spectra tuff backing.  I understand that anglers like ‘bling’ reels and at most they will get away with excessive reel shine but the reflection off a reel or even an exposed watch face can alert these fish in shallow water.

Permit leader tippet configurations are important for both species.  A tapered fluoro carbon leader of 7’ and additional 2 feet of fluoro carbon tippet will keep the fly line away from the fish while it inspects the fly.  The fluoro carbon leader and tippet will sink fast with the fly and appear invisible in the water.  

Permit are often not tippet shy and I have heard of fly fishermen that have hooked them on 30lb tippet, again this could be the odd fish caught.  The general consensus is to use 15 – 20lb tippet, Permit and Pompano have no teeth, hard gill plates or any protrusions that will fray the tippet.

Tides and locations to consider

It may be unwise to venture onto any flat indiscriminately and without a little ‘research’ and start looking for signs of the fish.  Permit and Pompano return to selected spots because of the access and availability of food.  It is therefore important to make use of a guide that has knowledge and understanding of the habits of the local area. Speaking to residents in the area that you are fishing may also be advisable as people often see the fins of pods in the shallows.

Permit need enough water to feed in and enjoy the change of tides as the water is often too shallow for predators large enough to target them, and they can go about their business undisturbed.  They thus do not spend the entire day feeding on the flats and their presence varies from location to location, but I have found that they are more prevalent on the pushing tide and the receding tide.  They use channels which drain and fill the flats to sneak on and off their feeding ground and as an escape route when spooked.

Stalking tactics

When targeting Permit on the flats around Mexico, Cuba and other parts of the Americas, guides use flat bottom skiffs to get to their favourite Permit spots and from there ‘pole’ the flats.  The advantage of the skiffs is that both the angler and guide are elevated and can see much further.  The angler is also in a position to lay a lot of line on the deck for a quick cast.

When wading the Seychelles' flats, anglers often come across feeding Pompano but a better tactic is to stand at the ready close to the channels that they use to commute on, before the tide is at its best.

When waiting in a feeding hotspot then often the fish will move into casting distance or close enough for a gentle approach.  These fish will feel the vibration of wading anglers or hear the crunch of coral and move off out of casting range. Pompano don’t like to be surrounded or herded and will eventually take an escape route.

Presentation and flies

As mentioned, scenarios can differ and Permit may at times act in uncharacteristic ways.  On the flats of Cuba for example, Permit are often found feeding on top of or alongside sting rays. The sting ray digs into the sandy bottom and occasionally sends crabs and shrimps fleeing.  This is what the Permit waits for and they are on this prey in a flash. Guides will advise to cast a line in front of and slightly over the ray as the Permit will be following in the same direction and will be able to see the fly.  Crab or shrimp patterns can be used but most importantly is that the fly reaches the correct depth at the right time and that the specific invertebrates’ movements are emulated.  Around Cuba flies such as the Grand Slam crab, McCrab and Polemeta crab work well and if not left to sink to the bottom for solitary fish to pick-up without movement,  they should be stripped long and slow, simulating a fleeing crab.

A famous Cuban guide developed a fly a few years back that resembles a local shrimp that can be found in their waters, a Permit delicacy.  The fly is called the Avalon fly and has to date caught over a 1000 Permit on the Cuban flats.  The fly is left to sink a little, depending on the depth that the fish feeds in, and then stripped two to three short, quick strips followed by a long strip.

The Pompano in the Seychelles when found in feeding pods will accept Grand Slam crabs, McCrabs, Polementa crabs, fleeing crabs and a variety of Velcro crabs. Delicate presentations a couple of feet in front of a feeding fish is necessary.  I have hooked fish in this location with crab imitations while allowing the fly to sit on the bottom without movement, waiting for the fish to find the fly but also when retrieving slowly, still keeping the fly deep.  I once found a single fish feeding off a narrow strip of turtle grass onto a white sandy bottom and watched him following my fleeing crab pattern for about 5m before I stopped the retrieve and the fish was able to suck the fly in.

It is important to stop the retrieve so that the fish is able to consume the fly, especially when using a weighted crab pattern.  Some anglers swear by stripping small bait fish or shrimp patterns (like the Gotcha) relatively fast through the water after a presentation that leads the fish. This method does work but be sure to note how and on what the fish are feeding at the time before deciding on a fly or retrieve.

Striking and fighting the fish

When a bait fish or even a shrimp pattern is presented to Pompano or Permit and stripped in the correct way the fish will often grab the fly and set the hook while it is speeding away.  A gentle strip strike will secure the hook even more.  The ‘take’ on crab patterns that are left stationary can at times be difficult to detect and an angler must watch the movement of the fish intently.  Pompano and Permit will dip down to pick the stationary fly off the bottom and often the protruding tail and the momentary stop of the fish will signal the moment.  It is then important to immediately set the hook with a strip strike.  When slowly retrieving a crab pattern the fish will show signs of acknowledging the fly by moving in a tense manner and the protruding tail fins’ movement will speed up as he hurries towards the imitation.  The retrieve then needs to stop, allowing the fly to sink to the bottom so that the fish can take it.  The same strip strike is required.

Permit and Pompano have soft mouths and a strike that is too hard may rip their lips, not only freeing the fish but also damaging it.  The same goes when the fish is on the reel and too much pressure is applied.  It may be wise to allow the fish to run first with very little pressure and slowly increase the pressure as the fish tires.

There are no hard and fast rules when anglers target these wonderful fish but sticking to a couple of basic rules will ensure a higher success rate.  Often anglers get despondent after casting to a Pompano or Permit without result but persistence and an open mind is necessary.  They are not often called the ‘1000 cast fish’ for nothing.