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March 22, 2007

Prime-Time Permit

Springtime's the right time to find them over wrecks off Southwest Florida's Gulf Coast.

I was in a slump - one of the worst in my life. I was suffering through some of the slowest fishing any fisherman should have to endure. Sure, sometimes the fishing is slow. And sometimes you just hit the wrong place at the wrong time. What I'm talking about is being in the right places at the right times with the right captains and guides, and still coming home empty-handed.

It was ugly. I lobbied Congress, redoubled my efforts on the conservation fronts (maybe the problem was a lack of fish) and did a fish dance. Like any crazy angler, I had to keep trying to break the curse.

So when Capt. Kenny Hyatt of Tampa said, "Come down in March if you want to see some real pods of permit!" it sounded like one of those too-good-to-be-true stories.

I had just been telling Hyatt about the tremendous permit fishing I'd enjoyed with our editor in chief, Doug Olander, in Key West the previous spring (probably the last good day I'd had!). Hyatt would have none of it. "I'm not talking 100 small permit," he scoffed. "I'm talking 500 to 700 big permit."

But these weren't permit scattered over flats or off beaches; rather, we would need to make a 3- to 7-mile run to find them over wrecks off St. Petersburg.

I'd fished with Hyatt once before, about five years earlier with Raiford Trask, his brother-in-law and founder of Cape Fear Rods. But that time we targeted tarpon on fly.

Could this permit trip do the trick for me? I was anxious: Permit, after all, can be tricky, finicky targets.

Find the Time and the Place
Hyatt has fished these waters since childhood, guiding from Tampa Bay to Boca Grande for the past 10 years. One way or another, he's out on the water close to 300 days a year.

The permit season generally starts in the St. Pete/Tampa area in March, he says. The fish head south toward Boca Grande in late April to early May. Hyatt has caught them as early as mid-February and continues to charter for them through July. In the skipper's opinion, permit follow this migratory pattern probably because crab and shrimp flush out of Tampa Bay prior to hitting Boca Grande.

As luck would have it, the weather kept the permit away from St. Pete most of the spring I'd planned to fish, and by the time it moderated, schedules got in the way of joining up with Hyatt. Like the fish - and many guides on the west coast of Florida - Hyatt migrates south toward Boca Grande in May and June for a tarpon season you could set your watch to. He told me the permit tend to do the same; we just needed to find the right wreck a few more miles farther offshore at that time of year, and we'd be bending rods till our arms couldn't take it anymore.

I met up with the captain at Stump Pass Marina in Englewood on a beautiful May morning. Hyatt didn't feel there was any rush to be first on the water because he knew the fish were there, and no one was fishing them, with the masses looking for tarpon.

We idled out of the inlet on Century's new 22-foot bay boat, ideally equipped with a Yamaha 225 hp four-stroke and a Humminbird 987 fish finder. Hyatt likes this hull's streamlined ride that offers him the versatility to fish for tailing reds inshore and compete in Boca Grande tarpon tournaments nearshore. At the same time, he gives it an A+ for its big-water capability when heading out in the open Gulf. A bay boat of this sort can handle captain and four anglers comfortably - but I was happy there were only three of us, figuring it would allow that much more room to unload the monkey from my back!

Be Prepared
Depths remain shallow well offshore along most of the Gulf coast of Florida, but do tend to run deeper farther south. Off Englewood, the gradual drop-off deepens at a rate of 1 or 2 feet per mile. The mostly sandy bottom is dotted with rock and coral structure as well as wrecks.

As we approached our destination, approximately 12 miles offshore in about 45 feet of water, we spotted another boat already trolling the wreck. Fortunately, the boat's passengers seemed to be having fun targeting barracuda (as we could see dozens of them) rather than anchoring or drifting across the wreck.

Hyatt remained coy as he slowly pushed the Yamaha controls in and out of gear to fully assess the current and position the boat optimally with respect to the wreck. In fact, winds were all but nonexistent, and the current moved at just a knot or so to the southeast. We weighed anchor approximately 100 yards to the northwest and drifted within about 30 yards of the wreck before tying off the anchor line to a bow cleat. "What you don't want to do is motor over top of the wreck," says Hyatt, "or you'll end up spooking the fish."

With the right conditions and angler skill level, these fish can be taken on crab-pattern flies. When a lot of grass is on the surface, I stick to floating line. When the fish go deep, I use a slime line or heavy sinking line to get the fly where the fish are. This would not be a day to target permit on fly: They were staying down toward the wreck. (And did I mention that I'm not all that adept at throwing the fly?)

Hyatt prefers crabs 2 to 3 inches across the back, sideways. He always hooks the crab from bottom to top in the corner of the carapace. "It seems that with small crabs, about as big as a quarter, the size of the permit tends to decline," says the captain. Hyatt has no problems with circle hooks, but for throwing crabs or shrimp, he uses only 1/0 and 2/0 9174 bronze Mustad J hooks so the crab can swim naturally and isn't too weighted down. "Circle hooks work fine, and some customers bring them along on the trip, but there are still too many anglers who come out here and feel the need to set the hook once the bait is hit."

Hyatt equips his boat with Daiwa spinning reels (from 3500 to 6500) and 7 1/2-foot medium-action rods. "Shimano 4000s and Ambassador 400s work well too," Hyatt says. "I like the Daiwa 4500, which supplies ample drag to get the fish to the boat and avoid any shark that might be lingering in the area." He usually fishes 20-pound FireLine with a 20-pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon leader. "That's light enough to cast far and strong enough to get the fish up," Hyatt says. It took a few casts to place a crab in a position satisfactory for our captain. I let line out, allowing the lively crab to do the rest.

Fish On!
It didn't take long for the crab to swim and drift the 30 feet toward the wreck to seal its fate. When the line became tight between my thumb and forefinger, I flipped the bail and set the hook. Before I could call my slump over, I had to keep the 10-pounder connected until we could get him boat-side, at which point we exchanged hurrays and snapped pictures before releasing the beautiful permit in fine shape.

We tossed crabs toward the mass of fish, and within seconds, two more hookups were recorded. Another 10-pounder and a 15-pound permit were brought to the boat. After a half-dozen nice fish, we encouraged the captain to join in on the fun. Usually Hyatt just puts his customers on the fish, which is certainly half the fun - as anyone who's ever had the opportunity to take someone fishing knows. But we were more than happy to have him participate, which also meant scoring some tripleheaders and more photos to commemorate the day.

The action, as wild as Hyatt had promised, continued for several hours, with some of the permit approaching 30 pounds. Our arms were in fact tired, but the smile couldn't be removed from my face. We decided it was as good a time as any to head east, so we put away the cameras and the equipment and settled in for our 30-minute cruise back in a 1- to 2-foot chop.

As we approached the inlet, we spotted the same boat that had enjoyed its day targeting the 'cudas. And as smooth as Hyatt was in setting up around the wreck, he cruised comfortably by the boat and asked the passengers if they wouldn't mind keeping the little gem of a location to themselves, assuming they had noticed the success we'd had catching permit.

As for me, my slump was history. For that, I had to thank Hyatt for his knowledge of a sure thing: Florida's Gulf coast proved itself a worthy fishing hole for prime permit in the spring.