Its not so many years since permit fishing in Australia became the game many fly fishermen want to play, and the history is brief. We always knew there was a version of these fish swimming in our waters, bait fishermen caught plenty along the coast and they were known by various names, “oyster crackers”, or “snub nosed dart”—but the first to be caught on fly was an accidental capture. At the mouth of a north Australian tidal river, charter boat skipper Greg Bethune was un-picking a tangle in his running line while his tan Clouser lay on the bottom on an incoming tide. The line snapped up tight and thinking he had a golden trevally on, Greg fought the fish hard. He’d seen plenty of schools of swimming permit over the years and true to their nature they’d frustrated him, but when this fish came into view, a threshold had been crossed and a new world opened up for fly fishermen.
Several years later, while filming a television series, Cape York guide Alan Philliskirk, fishing with fellow guide Steve Jeston and myself, landed a permit while sight casting to tailing fish on the flats, again we thought they were golden trevally. Later, with more successes behind us I wrote a story on these new fish for a US magazine. It drew some flak from some quarters; a few declared these fish to not be permit, that we were being deceptive, and debate briefly flared on both sides of the Pacific Ocean; were they or weren’t they worthy of the “Permit” name? Some accepted them immediately; others were not so enthused. Its all pretty much history now and we’ve moved on, even beyond them being just “permit”.
Permit belong to the genus trachynotus. There’s a bunch of fish swimming under this name and they could be roughly divided into two groups – like a family with a branch that has a nice and reasonable side, and a family branch that has a particularly difficult and anti-social gene. One lot are predatory and feed mostly on a wide variety of forage species, and mostly in mid water. They’re also generally a lot smaller than the second group and eat a fly willingly. Then there’s the group we now know collectively as “permit”. These all exhibit much the same traits as each other, and those traits are quite different from the first group. They’re mostly a substrate feeder and browse on a variety of crustaceans and mollusks. They’re found in a range of water depths, but they all exhibit one particular trait that makes them so precious to fly fishers, they often feed in very shallow water, and can be very particular about what they’ll eat.
The first ‘Australian’ permit was originally thought to be one species, trachynotus blochii; the fish also known as the Indo Pacific permit, as they’re found throughout both those oceans and are in the fish identification books—but we noticed that the fish we were catching were not the same as the fish in the books and began to suspect we might actually be dealing with 2 species. It was confusing for a time, and we asked, “were the species we’re seeing in the ID books juveniles, or even just a different gender from those we were catching”? It wasn’t until Greg Bethune sent off a sample of the fish he was now catching regularly to a museum and they identified it as trachynotus anak, that our suspicions were confirmed – we were dealing with 2 species, anaks and blochiis.
The two share many similar characteristics and both of them share many of the traits with T falcatus, the Carribean permit. In Australia we’re happy to call them permit and visiting anglers are also happy to call them permit, but these days, to acknowledge the two species, we generally refer to them as blochiis and anaks, because in spite of so many similarities they are after all two different species.
Their habitats overlap in some places, but the anaks seem to be entirely an inshore fish, usually found on the coastal sand flats at tidal river mouths and cruising the beaches between rivers. In some areas the blochiis can be found in the same sort of locations as the anaks, but they do tend to be found more on the oceanic flats in much cleaner water. This is a relatively new fishery and we’re constantly learning as new areas are discovered, leading to new insights and local flies and techniques, usually based around fishing with crustacean imitations, are tried and adapted. Its exciting times.
In a few locations, Exmouth in Western Australia in particular, (on the Indian Ocean) it’s possible to catch both species in a day, but even top guides like Brett Wolf are not yet able to specifically target them by species. Although the blochiis dominate that area, the anaks also appear randomly on the same flats. Then in some locations on the east coast areas (Pacific Ocean side of the continent), around the mouths of tidal rivers, that you would anticipate being populated entirely by anaks, blochiis appear, well at least when we’ve been there. Exciting times for fly fishers.
Although they don’t seem to grow anywhere near as large as their Caribbean cousin, these two permit species exhibit all of that notorious “permitish” recalcitrance. Stealth is always your friend; they invariably demand precise yet delicate casts, often with well weighted flies and enough of a repertoire of retrieves to keep you guessing. The flats here are usually swept with more tidal flow than is found in the range of the falcatus species so flies need more weight and 10 weight rods are the most popular.
Guides and anglers on the east and west coast of Australia have their own preferences and techniques—the debate about how to go about catching these (and which is “the better” of the two, because there are subtle differences) is pretty much endless. One thing is for sure though, like the falcatus, every capture is treasured and feels like a minor miracle and a major victory.
Although the very unique grand slam of catching all three species in a day is not feasible, certainly catching the two species in a day is possible, but only in a couple of locations. Exmouth, in Western Australia, on the Indian Ocean, is the place with the very highest probability. Catching all three species in a year is of course possible and this is a small and very unique grand slam club at this stage.
Tackle – 10 weight rods are favored with a 6010 reel – the SALT rod is perfect – and in Australia we really like RIO’s Tropical Intermediate tipped floating line but the new Permit line is a big hit as well.