The Permit Whisperer

Justin Rea has a love/hate relationship with a fish that doesn't play fair on the fly
By Chris Dombrowski,

When Justin Rea first moved from Idaho to the Florida Keys to guide, swapping his drift boat and oars for a pole and skiff, he expected to meet a few veteran captains who might mentor him for a year or two while he learned the trade in the Conch Republic. Instead, he found a lip-locked fishing network that welcomed him much the way a pistol-wielding Nicholas Dance did Thomas Skelton in Tom McGuane’s Keys novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade: “I just wanted you to see what I would blow your head off with if you ever tried to guide out of any dock west of Marathon.”

On the Snake River’s South Fork in Idaho, Rea had been tutored by Henry’s Fork legend Mike Lawson, but he quickly realized that no charter captain from Key Largo to Duval Street was going to help him learn the flats. So he started living on the water, literally, spending roughly 70 hours a week on the poling platform, leading a solitary life until he established an almost familial relationship with the permit.

How Rea so readily took up with a species of fish that routinely refuses to play fair with anglers suggests a kind of inevitability — he caught his first permit on a fly within weeks of his arrival. More than any guide in recent Keys history, Justin Rea can say that the elusive fish has responded to his overtures. Over the last decade, Rea has won the prestigious Del Brown Permit Tournament more times than any guide in the history of the tourney, leading Bahamian angler Greg Vincent to three wins: 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Evolving toward permit fishing

Although Rea says he has been permit fishing long enough “to have lost my anxiety about it — to have become familiar with the unfamiliar, to feel good about catching one every day we’re out there,” he allows that permit are as complex and miserly to him today as they were when he began fishing for them nearly 15 years ago.

When the narrator of Black Tailed Devils, a 2011 permit-fishing film by 406 Productions, asks Rea, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘permit on the fly,’ ” the captain answers, “Love/hate. I love ’em, and I f---ing hate ’em.”

In the next scenes, other anglers respond similarly, their profanities likewise bleeped out. “Sick and sadistic,” one guide says. “I hate the motherf---ers. Hate ’em.” “Put that camera down,” says a fisherman who has just blown a shot at a 25-pounder.

“Most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says one of Rea’s clients. “The best angler in the world can come down here and be stone cold for 10 days, five years. It’s a numbers game. You gotta put the time in. Time is everything, and it costs dough. Do-re-mi. A fisherman coming to catch a permit will happily walk into Key West and drop 10 grand in a week for one permit.”

Justin Rea's rise among permit guides

“Live crab,” responds a veteran guide with a bitter sense of finality, as if to say, “Forget catching one on a fly.”

The chief reason for Rea’s rise to the upper echelon of permit guides is his patience with the cheekiness of the species, a virtue passed down from his mother, Beryl Rea, also known as “The Trout Scout.” She guides for trout in the Sierras — her rookie year of guiding, like Justin’s, was 1993 — and says her son’s fascination with water and fish began when he was a baby and uttered his first word, “fuff” (fish).

“At 2 years old, he caught a fish on his own and wouldn’t give it up to anyone, so we let him sleep with it — at least part of the night,” she says. “We spent summers at my grandparents’ cabin on Mammoth Creek [where] Justin and his brother would disappear for the day, coming home only when they had their limit of trout.”

Rea credits his mother for teaching him diligence, but in this age of relying on the Internet to become an instant expert, he holds his cards close to his chest. “I’m not putting anything on Facebook,” he says. “If someone looks in my fly box at the dock, that’s grounds for fisticuffs.”

Rea demands a down-to-the-claw accuracy in the color of his crab flies, all of which are custom-tied. “I can’t tell you much about my current patterns, but I will say that I started modifying the original Merkin from day one so that the hook would ride properly.”

He developed and teaches his clients the “improved gooch” cast, a sidearm delivery that keeps a presented fly from air-bombing fish. He tracks across miles of water from flat to flat, hunting down permit with no thought of gas prices because “permit are not going to come find you the way a bonefish might,” he says.

Early on while fishing solo in the Keys, he developed a habit of self-questioning (maybe borderline schizophrenia) that continues to this day. “I’m constantly asking myself questions while up on the platform,” he says. “What are they feeding on this time of month? Crabs? Swimming crabs or blue crabs? Or are they eating sea urchins?

“It’s one thing to try your hardest to catch them, but it’s another thing also to register their reactions to your strategies when you’re not successful. Most people get so wrapped up in the mystique of the permit that they stop paying attention.”

Greg Vincent — Welsh-born owner of the Bahamian H2O Bonefishing lodge and three-time Del Brown champion angler — has fished with Rea for several years and finds his greatest strengths for finding fish to be his adaptability and overpowering physicality. “Against the wind, against the tide, he reads the water for what it is,” Vincent says. “He never slips off a potentially productive flat because it’s difficult to navigate. I’ve been on the boat with him when he’s broken two push poles, and that’s not bending them under the boat or catching them in the rocks. That physicality is a big part of his game. When the conditions require pure stealth — mill-pond calm — the boat’s never snapping. No noise from the pole.

“The thing with permit fishing is that it’s never the same,” says Vincent. “You need to adapt to certain situations. That’s first nature for Justin. He doesn’t settle [for comfortable mediocrity]. The first time we won the Del Brown we caught five fish, all on different flats.

From Marquesas to Florida Keys flats

“I remember our first day down in the Marquesas. I got so pissed off I threw all my toys [gear] out of the boat and just sat down. If I remember correctly, that day we had 19 legitimate shots [at permit] and no fish landed.” Rea never stopped working. “His intensity was infectious. Intense in a good way.”

Hard-working. Adaptable. Intense. All great guides exhibit those qualities, but Vincent says the great ones also must be able to draw on a big dollop of luck when they need it.

At one Del Brown tourney, another team caught four permit the first day to Rea and Vincent’s one, Vincent says. He and Rea stormed back the second day with five permit, taking the lead, but on the last day they lost the lead — though they didn’t know it.

“It was literally 2 o’clock on the last day. Lines out at 3:30. Slick calm,” Vincent says. “We figured we only needed one fish for the win on a day with such conditions, but we still needed one fish. Just after 2, Justin spotted a good fish at the edge of the flat. I made a serviceable cast, and we hooked up.”

The fish ran for the channel and buried itself under a big turtle that had surfaced for air. “For at least a minute, all I could see was the permit’s tail fin as the turtle fired off [exhaled]. The permit stayed super-glued to the bottom of the turtle.”

Instinctively, Vincent shoved the rod tip into the water to keep the line as horizontal as possible so the turtle’s shell wouldn’t cut the tippet. Luckily, the turtle didn’t veer as they chased it. “Finally, finally,” after 5 minutes, “I could start applying some pressure, and the permit cut right and the turtle cut left,” Vincent says. “A 15-pounder won it for us.”

In the ledger of great permit landed, this tournament-winner ranks high for Rea but not as high as a trophy fish he caught a few years ago with his mother’s help. Rea had gone out fishing with his mom in the boat. “I was doing a little recon and anchored the boat near a particular channel to see if permit were moving where I thought they would be,” he says. “So I wade out to the edge of this flat while my mom sits in the boat reading a book.”

He was just about ready to turn around after 10 minutes when he spots two big permit. He tosses the fly in front of them and hooks one, but it runs hard over the edge into the channel. Rea can’t stop it. “So I start hollering at my mom to slip the hook and come get me, but she can’t get the boat off anchor. After a few minutes, I decide to break the fish off. I’m reeling on it when it finally turns and starts coming for the boat. I high-step back to the boat and hand my mom the rod.”

In the next few minutes, Beryl fights the fish flawlessly, and Rea soon clasps his hand around the dark tail of a 24-pound “devil.” The sun slips for an instant behind a cloud, then reappears, shining on the yellow-silver disk of the fish’s body just long enough for Rea to snap the photo. It’s a shot of a mother who taught her son to fly-fish, and she’s holding a trophy fish he hooked — a permit that appears to be posing for a family picture.

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