Ultimate Guide • Updated Thu, Nov 9, 2023
This article will cover all you need to know about fishing for permit on your next trip to the Florida Keys. We’ll discuss their behavior, the best times to permit fish, prime permit fishing conditions, preferred flies and tackle for permit, permit fishing tactics, and regulations. In addition, we’ll give you all the resources to book your guided permit fishing trip with a world-class fishing guide. We work with some of the top permit fishing guides on the planet who are experts at coaching you through both the physical and mental challenges of permit fishing in the Florida Keys.
Florida Keys guide Capt. Greg Dini with permit in hand. Courtesy of Capt. Greg Dini.
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If you’re on the hunt for a thrilling and challenging shallow water fishing experience that will raise your heart rate and test your angling mettle, permit fishing in the Florida Keys might be just the ticket. Permit are a powerful, elusive, and highly coveted species of gamefish — often considered a “bucket list” fish for serious anglers. Most of the time, these fish frequent deep water reefs and wrecks offshore, but will periodically venture inshore, onto the shallow flats of the South Florida backcountry to feed with the tide.
Throughout the Florida Keys, there is a tight community of local fishing guides who specialize in this highly technical inshore fishery for shallow water permit. Equipped with fly rods or light tackle, guides leverage specialized shallow water poling skiffs to navigate clients across the shallow flats and shoals of Florida Keys. They will often use poles to push along from tall platforms, specially mounted to the stern of their boats, leveraging this approach for stealth and height for increased visibility on the flats. They stake off, or pole along in search of subtle head wakes, and the occasional glint off a jet black, sickle-shaped tail — telltale signs of permit feeding in shallow water. When feeding in such little depth, these fish are somewhat out of their element. They become incredibly leary and selective, presenting a true challenge to even veteran light tackle anglers. These fish will keep you guessing and often require near perfection on the part of both angler and guide in order to feed one, hook one, and successfully bring it to hand.
For years, the vast ecosystem of the Florida Keys and its abundance of the Atlantic subspecies of permit (Trachinotus falcatus) have captivated serious inshore anglers. With a variety of tools and techniques at your disposal, the challenges of permit fishing become a piscatorial chess match — with a few tried and true winning moves. Leveraging knowledge from across our community of local fishing guides, here’s what we’ve found to be the key to success:
Fly fishing for permit in the Florida Keys is about as exciting and rewarding as it gets. Our guides mostly use 9- to 10-weight, fast action fly rods and saltwater fly lines with aggressive front tapers or shooting heads. These will help cut through the wind on some of the ocean side flats around the keys. Fly reels should have strong, smooth drag systems to handle lighter saltwater tippet and the power of these fish. There are a number of effective flies for permit that imitate small crabs and shrimp. Some popular permit fly patterns include the strong arm merkin, EP ultra shrimp, Avalon permit fly, and tungsten Bauer crab. Permit may be easily spooked, and require precise casting and confidence when shooting the line. Having a practiced double-haul and being confident at ranges of up to 50 feet in the wind will put you in a great position. Check out this article for 10 tips to improve your cast before your next fishing trip.
Live bait is often the most effective method of fishing for permit in the Florida Keys. A permit’s diet consists primarily of small crabs, shrimp, and other crustaceans, which make these your best bets when it comes to live bait. Many of our guides use a freelined crab on light fluorocarbon leader and a circle hook as a simple live bait permit rig for the flats.
When permit fishing in deep water around structure like reefs, wrecks, bridges and channels, jigging with bucktails and soft plastic lures, or using other crustacean artificial lures is effective for permit. Using small bucktail jigs with scented artificials or bait is also an effective tactic for light tackle anglers in shallow water. Mimicking the subtle twitching movements of crabs and shrimp with lures can entice permit to strike. Presentation is everything to permit, so make sure to keep your offering fairly natural to the available forage where you are fishing.
On the reefs and wrecks, our guides use much stouter tackle than when on the flats. Offshore, stealth is less important, and you must battle the fish boatside quickly to keep it from swimming into the structure or getting “sharked.”
In shallow water, use light fluorocarbon leaders between 12- and 20-pound test line. You may want to use a small sinker on deeper flats with heavier current. This added weight requires leading the fish by more on your cast to avoid spooking them.
When it comes to permit fishing, having a broad range of skills at the ready sets you off on the right foot. Still, to catch permit, you must understand permit. Their unique behavior and temperament — when understood — become further ways of improving your odds out on the water. Here are some of the key characteristics that make permit such an incredible species:
Permit are opportunistic feeders, primarily preying on crabs, shrimp, and small fish on the bottom of white sand and turtle grass flats. They are known for their keen eyesight and ability to detect subtle movements in the water. Presenting your bait or lure naturally and without any suspicious movements is crucial to enticing a bite. Despite being opportunistic, permit are wary when shallow and will flee at the slightest perception of danger. Higher tides during the middle of the day gives permit the opportunity to venture into new feeding spots, making it an ideal time to target this species. Permit will often feed with their heads facing into the current, and their movements may increase on the heavier tide swings.
Permit are notoriously wary and one of the most easily spooked fish. They are incredibly sensitive to noise and movement, both above and below the water. It's essential to approach them quietly and use light tackle and natural presentations to avoid scaring them.
Permit are often found in schools, both on the wrecks and when feeding on shallow flats. When you spot one permit, there are likely more nearby. Being observant and scanning the water for signs of permit activity, such as tailing or waking fish, can help you locate schools and increase your chances of getting a shot. Fish in schools can sometimes be more willing to eat due to the competition for food. Try to cast in the path of the school, or drift your bait or fly into the school with the current. As the school nears your offering, you may want to give it some very subtle motion to attract their attention.
The Florida Keys offer a variety of excellent permit fishing spots, each with its unique characteristics and challenges. Here are some of the best areas to consider when planning your permit fishing trip:
The "Sportfishing Capital of the World," Islamorada is a prime destination for permit fishing. The flats and channels around Islamorada provide excellent opportunities to target permit. During the warmer months of summer, these areas are often teeming with permit, making it an ideal location for anglers wanting to check this fish off their list. Check out AnyCreek’s Islamorada page for an in-depth look at the area.
At the heart of the Florida Keys, Marathon Key provides a diverse range of permit fishing opportunities. Marathon Key’s varying ecosystems — including flats, seagrass beds, and channels — create an ideal habitat for permit. Discover the intricacies of the Marathon Key fishery with the help of the best guides in the area.
Key West, the "Permit Capital of the World,” is the premier hotspot for permit fishing. The flats around Key West, as well as the channels and wrecks in the surrounding waters, attract permit year-round. Key West's proximity to the Gulf Stream also brings a variety of bait, making it an appealing feeding ground for permit. With an abundance of fishing opportunities in addition to permit, Key West cements itself as an angling haven.
Permit are found in the waters of the Florida Keys year-round, although there are specific seasons when they are more abundant and active. Understanding the peak seasons can significantly heighten your chances of encountering and catching permit.
During the winter and spring months, permit are periodically found on the flats, especially during warmer days. As the water temperatures rise, permit become more active, making this period excellent for sight fishing — due to the clearer water of winter. Spring, in particular, sees an increase in permit activity in the shallows and offshore as they prepare for spawning.
Summer months bring warmer water temperatures, when permit can be found on the flats and around deeper structures more readily. Early mornings and late afternoons are prime times to target permit during the summer, as these are their usual feeding times. Permit can also be found in schools during this period, making for exciting angling opportunities.
Fall is another excellent season for permit fishing, especially around the edges of flats and channels. Permit feed heavily during this time to prepare for the upcoming winter months. Cooler temperatures make permit more willing to chase down prey which also can help up your odds.
When planning a permit fishing trip in the Florida Keys, it's essential to consider the prevailing weather conditions. The Keys experience a tropical climate with warm temperatures and occasional rain. Here are some factors about the weather to keep in mind when permit fishing:
Permit prefer water temperatures ranging from 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. During colder months, permit may move to deeper waters or seek refuge in warmer areas. Monitoring water temperatures can help you locate viable spots for permit fishing. Guides may check the water temps at a spot and adjust your fishing plans accordingly.
The Florida Keys are susceptible to sudden thunderstorms, especially during the summer months during midday. Mornings are often the best way to maximize your summer fishing time. Your guide will monitor weather forecasts to avoid fishing during severe storms, and can always lend insights on the weather leading up to your trip. Get in touch with them easily at any point through our messaging feature.
Guides monitor the radar throughout the day to skirt pop-up storms and maximize time on the water. They are happy to offer their suggestions on rescheduling if they foresee an issue, and availability allows for it.
Having the right equipment is vital for a successful permit fishing experience in the Florida Keys. Here's a breakdown of the essential gear you'll need:
Our guides fish medium to heavy spinning or casting rods. A 7- to 8-foot rod with a fast action tip provides the sensitivity needed to detect subtle bites and the power required to handle strong permit. Match your rod with a quality reel equipped with a smooth drag system to tire out permit during the fight.
Using braided lines with a fluorocarbon leader is ideal for permit fishing. Braided lines offer sensitivity and strength, while fluorocarbon leaders provide invisibility and abrasion resistance. A line in the range of 15- to 30-pound test is suitable for permit fishing, allowing you to handle both the fish and the challenging saltwater environment.
Circle hooks are popular choices for permit fishing, as they result in fewer deep hooksets, making catch-and-release more effective. Live blue crabs, shrimp, and mollusks are excellent natural baits for permit. When using lures, opt for crab and shrimp imitations, as these are the primary food sources for permit. Soft plastics and jigs in natural colors can be highly effective when permit are actively feeding.
Lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing is essential for staying comfortable in the warm and humid Florida Keys weather. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants offer protection from the sun, and a wide-brimmed hat and neck gaiter provides shade for your face and neck. Polarized sunglasses are essential for reducing glare on the water's surface and spotting permit. Look for models with high-contrast, polarized glass lenses for the best optical performance when sight fishing. Non-marking, slip-resistant shoes are necessary for safety on the boat's deck.
Carry water, snacks, sunscreen, and insect repellent to ensure you stay hydrated and protected during your fishing trip. Your guide will provide you with some water, but extra is always good — especially during the heat of summer.
For a more comprehensive look at tackle suited for fishing in the Florida Keys, check out AnyCreek’s Ultimate Gear Guide.
It is vital to adhere to fishing regulations to preserve permit populations and sustain the fishery for future generations. Regulations are subject to change, so always check the most recent guidelines from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Here are some key points to keep in mind:
To legally fish for permit in the Florida Keys, anglers must possess a valid Florida saltwater fishing license, which can be obtained online or from licensed vendors. The Florida Keys permit fishery primarily operates on a catch-and-release basis, emphasizing conservation and sustainable practices.
The Florida Keys and the adjacent waters of Biscayne National Park and the Everglades are subject to special permit fishing regulations. These include a closed season on harvest between April and July, stricter daily limits, and other limits on fish caught within the boundaries of the parks. Our guides put tremendous emphasis on catch and release fishing so keep this in mind when setting expectations for your trip.
When fishing on a for-hire vessel that has a valid charter boat or captain's license, fishing regulations are different. Any passenger on that vessel is covered under the captain’s license, meaning you won’t need to acquire an individual fishing license. If you also plan to fish on your own during your visit to the keys, you will need to purchase your own valid fishing license to fish for permit in the Florida Keys.
Permit fishing in the Florida Keys requires skill, patience, and attention to detail. Here are some pro tips to enhance your chances of landing trophy permit:
Permit have exceptional vision and can easily detect movement and noise. Practice stealth on the skiff and minimize noise to avoid spooking them. Keep your feet planted when casting. You’ll work with your guide to spot the fish. Look for silhouettes or shadows beneath the surface of the water, and keep your eyes peeled for wakes and tails. Remaining vigilant can help you anticipate their movements and improve your chances of a successful catch.
Permit often require precise casts to present your bait or lure effectively. Practice your casting techniques, accuracy, and distance. The goal is to consistently place your offering in front of permit without disturbing them. Casting practice in different wind conditions can also strengthen your skills. Click here for 10 other tips on improving your fly cast prior to your trip.
Permit are discerning feeders and can be selective about their prey. Pay attention to the natural food sources available in the area, such as crabs, shrimp, or mollusks. Match your bait or lure to the prevalent food source to increase your chances of enticing permit to strike.
Permit fishing can be quite challenging, emotional for some. Your guide will always offer you coaching on what to do and how to deal with the pressure of targeting permit on the flats. Always remember to keep yourself collected and composed. “It’s just a jack,” is one popular mantra. Always listen to your guide and let them coach you through the shot. Be willing to learn, adapt your approach, and shrug off a missed shot if it doesn’t pan out. Remember that the fish sometimes wins, and that’s okay. It’s just part of the game when permit fishing the flats. Click here to read more about how one top Keys fishing guide, Capt. Ian Slater, prepares for the mental challenge of flats fishing.
Local guides and experienced anglers in the Florida Keys possess valuable knowledge about permit behavior, hot flies, and the best fishing spots. Lean on their expertise, techniques, and you’ll be well on your way to a successful day of permit fishing. We’ve already compiled some of the best resources on the Florida Keys for you, so be sure to check out our pages on Key West, Key Largo, Islamorada, and Tavernier. Additionally, if you were interested in fly shops, here’s a guide to the best fly shops in South Florida.
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