Permit The Ultimate Challenge on Flats of the Keys

By Nick Carter

If it’s farther away, it must be better. While there’s truth to this concept that sends anglers around the globe seeking out remote and spectacular fisheries, there are also flaws to this way of thinking.

It’s like the bank fisherman who strives to chuck baits as far offshore as possible only to cross lines with the boater casting tight to shoreline structure. While you’re at home dreaming of Indo-Pacific atolls, there’s an angler on the other side of the world flipping through magazine images of the Florida Keys.

It’d be a shame to forget that geography gifted North Americans with some of the most productive and gorgeous flats habitat on the planet. Nobody knows this better than Capt. Luke Kelly of Key Flat Charters.

Kelly has spent his life fishing the Keys. He operates year-round backcountry and flats charters out of Sugarloaf Key Marina. It’s about 20 minutes north of Key West on A1A, slap in the middle of the mangrove islands and vast crystal-clear flats of the Lower Keys.

This is a place where anglers watch from the casting deck of a small flats boat as tarpon, bonefish, permit and other species cruise and hunt in knee-deep water. A flats slam of all three species is possible any day of the year, and while the power and aerobatics of a big tarpon might be the ultimate thrill in angling, permit are the ultimate challenge… especially with fly tackle.

“Permit are highly sensitive and can sense the slightest vibration. It’s the challenge of this hunt that makes it all worthwhile,” said Capt. Luke. “With little room for error, anglers must be precise and stealthy during their first attempt, as second chances rarely exist when targeting permit on fly. Considered by many as the ultimate catch during a fly-fishing career, permit demand the best from anglers and guides.”

Kelly said convincing a permit to take the hook is the most difficult aspect of the pursuit. They are abundant in the Lower Keys, especially during the late February through April pre-spawn, when 10- to 40-pounders invade the flats. The easiest way to hook one is to accurately present a live crab with light spinning tackle. Permit feed aggressively when they feel comfortable, Kelly said, but they spook easily.

“Once alerted by boat or angler, that’s it, the jig is up,” he said, “and the permit never gives second chances.”

The odds of a hook-up reduce dramatically for anglers who take up the challenge with an 8- to 10-weight fly rod. A good double-haul is required to achieve the long accurate casts necessary to put a shrimp or crab fly in front of a permit. From there, it’s up to the angler to give life to the fly during a short time-window of opportunity.

“Proper technique found successful in hooking permit on fly varies greatly with any given situation,” Kelly said. “Permit eat a variety of different things, all of which act differently in the wild. Anglers must be willing to think outside the box at times when trying to fool this ultimate gamefish into eating something artificial… It boils down to a challenge, and should be viewed in no other way.”

Contact Capt. Luke Kelly and Key Flat Charters for light tackle and fly fishing trips for tarpon, bonefish, permit and more. / (305) 304-3152 /

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