Florida flyfishing: First permit … first place!

"Permit are not meant to be caught on flies. I know this for a fact: Over the years, countless dozens of them have told me so."

E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
— from "Whitefish Can't Jump & Other Tales of Gamefish"

It's the fish of a thousand backcasts — if not more.

In fact, legions of saltwater flyanglers spend days, weeks, months and, in some cases, years trying to land a permit on a fly.

And that's just any permit on a fly.

This helps to explain why 40-year old Rhode Island angler Brian Eliason decided to try his luck again in February, stopping off in the Florida Keys after spending a fruitless week in Belize chasing permit on the fly.

Lucky he did, for the end result was not only the catch of a lifetime but a pending world record.

The veteran angler has flyfished since the age of 10, when his father took him to New Brunswick to fish for Atlantic salmon.

But despite three decades of experience and numerous saltwater big-game fish to his credit, Eliason came up empty on the Caribbean flats.

"I was obsessed with these fish after being humbled by them for a week in Belize," Eliason said.

With a quick stop scheduled in the Sunshine State for business before returning home to snowbound Rhode Island, it didn't take long before another permit plot began to hatch in Eliason's cranium.

Since his wife was expecting the couple's first baby a week later, the angler decided to seize the one day of opportunity that lay before him and booked a Feb. 7 trip out of Big Pine Key with guide Jeff Belsik.

Yet, after seeing numerous permit cruising the turquoise hued flats and getting a few token follows, by mid-afternoon it looked like Eliason would come up empty again.

"Most of the time, you have to make a world-record cast to these (fish) and cast all of your flyline out to them to reach them," Eliason said. "They're very, very wary.

"After you've made the perfect cast and done everything exactly right, they'll come over and ignore your fly."

But not all of the time.

As Eliason looked for another casting shot at several nearby permit, he and Belsik suddenly saw a large sickle-tailed fish appear near the boat.

"I looked up and I thought it was a shark," Eliason said. "Jeff, my guide, said no, that wasn't a shark, it was a permit. I had never seen a permit so big. It looked like a giant trevally."

The angler quickly scrambled and cast out virtually his entire flyline as he tossed a size No. 6 tan raghead fly in front of the huge permit.

"The fly landed like a foot in front of his face," Eliason said. "As soon as it landed in the water, it didn't sink even six inches. He rolled onto it immediately and didn't give it time to sink, which is unusual."

Needless to say, the hook set was quick and the battle was on.

"I was in shock that I actually hooked him," Eliason said. "It was like hooking a windsurfer in a 40-knot wind."

Permit or great pompano (Trachinotus falcatus) are concentrated off south Florida, where the biggest specimens are taken. Schooling fish that prefer shallow water to root out mollusks, crustaceans and sea urchins, they become more solitary with age.

Regarded as tough fighters on light tackle, permit are legendary for their efforts to disengage the hook in sand and break the line on coral.

What followed for Eliason was a nerve-racking mixture of chess and tug-of-war. Belsik trailed the fish in his boat and Eliason palmed his fly reel to slow down the big permit's mighty runs.

After a seesaw battle in which the fish repeatedly would head deep, then shallow, then deep again while looking for an opportunity to cut the tippet, the Rhode Island angler quickly began to realize why hooking a permit is tough, but landing one is even tougher.

"This fish is remarkably engineered," Eliason said. "It's almost like he's designed so that if he ever does get hooked, he can use his body to his advantage in the fight.

"That's part of the reason why once you hook them, it's almost impossible to land them."

"I thought, 'Oh boy, if I catch this fish, it will be a miracle,'" he said.

Fortunately, miracles still happen, and not just on 34th Street in December, either. After a fight that lasted more than an hour, Eliason wore the fish down to the point where he finally had it alongside Belsik's boat.

"When I see him (Belsik) grab the tail and lift him into the boat, I was shocked by the size of the tail; I didn't realize they could get this big," Eliason said.

"I looked up and said 'Thank you, God.'"

When Belsik brought out a certified scale, the numbers didn't quit spinning until they read 51 pounds even.

With a girth of 34 inches and a length of 48 inches, there is no record of a bigger fly-caught permit.

In fact, few permit larger than Eliason's have been landed on any kind of tackle, according to International Game Fish Association record administrator Doug Blodgett.

"This 51-pound permit is technically almost 10 pounds heavier than the heaviest permit ever caught on a fly," Blodgett said.

"Fifty-one pounds is an exceptional permit, by any means."

If Blodgett's testing of the tippet material and review of the record application bears out, Eliason's permit could be declared an IGFA line-class world record in a matter of weeks.

The standard for fly-caught permit is a 41½-pounder taken by Del Brown off Key West in 1986. The all-tackle mark — 56 pounds, 2 ounces, boated off Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1997 — is held by Thomas Sebestyen; however, Blodgett notes, an application for a new all-tackle record has been submitted by Renato P. Fiedler for the 60-pound permit he caught recently outside Paranagua, Brazil.

But even if something were to go amiss in the record application, Eliason has no regrets for simply taking photos and measurements before releasing the magnificent permit to fight another day.

"I'm not worthy to kill such a majestic fish," Eliason said.

"When a fish presents so much of a challenge and gives you the privilege of catching him, just to be in his company for that short time, that's experience enough.

"This is the greatest trophy that you can catch on a fly rod."