In June 2018, Aaron Pierce petitioned the Fish Records Committee of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association to add permit to its list of fish eligible for catch recognition. He had just caught a 4.81-pounder on the beaches of Terrebonne Parish.
It wasn’t Pierce’s first permit; and it likely won’t be his last, either.
Permit, the glamor fish of tropical flats fishing, are more common in Louisiana than most people realize. Most who catch them pass them off as just another pompano.
Pierce’s fish was modest-sized, considering that the IGFA world record is an even 60 pounds, compared to 8 pounds, 4 ounces for pompano. But it is likely just the first of more entries as people become aware of the fish’s presence in Louisiana.
Keys to ID permit
At first glance, permit do indeed look like their closest relative, the Florida pompano. Both are greatly flattened side-to-side, with a silvery body color, a small mouth and matching dorsal (back) and anal (belly) fins. But there are some major differences.
First is size. If your fish is 10 pounds or larger, you’ve either got a permit or the largest pompano on the face of the earth. A major tell is to look at the dorsal fin. On a permit, it is long and sloped back towards the tail of the fish. On a pompano, it is short and upright.
Then look at the belly color. A permit has a relatively small orange-yellow patch immediately in front of the anal fin. The entire belly of a pompano is colored and it’s definitely yellow rather than orange-yellow.
A final feature is difficult to explain unless one has both fish side-by-side to compare, but a permit has a significantly deeper body than does a pompano.
Where do permit live?
Reference books show the range of permit to extend from southern Massachusetts through the entire Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, on down the coast of South America to southern Brazil. But the coastal waters of Louisiana can never be confused with their prime habitat in the Florida Keys.
They are a warm-water species and as such, Louisiana fishermen can’t expect to find them except during summer months. In Florida, they are seldom caught in the winter north of mid-panhandle on both Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
Within that framework, permit are where you find them. Exotic fishing tales lead many to believe that they are creatures only of the flats — in shallow, gin-clear water over glistening white sands.
But the truth is that, while permit occur there, they also haunt mud bottoms, grass beds, natural and man-made reefs, wrecks, oil platforms, deep channels, rock jetties and holes near the coast.
In deeper waters, up to 100 feet, they often form schools that circle outside (not over) a wreck or an artificial reef as far out as 100 yards from the outside edge of the structure. When it is calm, their dorsal fins can be spotted sticking out of the water.
Under these conditions, Florida fishermen cast a small live crab under a cork to them and hang on for action. They provide powerful fights with steady runs and many quick changes in direction. A 40-pound permit appears almost freakishly large in the boat.
What are good baits for permit?
In their natural habitat, permit use their blunt noses to root in the bottom to hunt for supper — small clams, snails, crabs, shrimp, small fish and worms. If it’s living and not a plant, it is fair game.
Experienced permit fishermen say bait choice is easy. “Permit will eat anything — as long as it’s a live crab.”
Most prefer to use the smallest crab they can get, nothing over 2 to 2 ½ inches measured point to point. Permit often turn up their noses at larger crabs, but seldom refuse a smaller one.
It is important that the crab be alive, which means that it should be hooked as close to the edge of its shell as possible. And leave the pincers on for a natural look: Permit have small mouths, but large and observant eyes.
Live shrimp is also a good choice of baits, and one more in tune with Louisiana fishing practices. Both shrimp and crabs should be presented as naturally as possible, with minimum or no added weight.
Soft plastic lures on ¼-ounce jigheads will also produce strikes, although not as many as live bait. And of course, there is the fly. Fly fishermen, who take a perverse delight in doing things the most difficult (challenging?) way possible, consider catching a permit on a fly rod the holy grail of saltwater fly fishing.
How do permit taste?
Well, they look like pompano, so they should taste like pompano.
Indeed they do. Permit, pompano and palometa (but not African pompano) are closely related members of the jack family. They all have oily, but mild, white flesh, best suitable for broiling, grilling or baking, as well as for sashimi or sushi.
A caveat from one dedicated permit eater in Florida is that permit larger than 10 pounds have a slightly more “chewy” texture. His solution is to hold the fish on ice for a couple of days to let natural enzymatic processes tenderize it for him. He calls them “perfect for the grill.”