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Meet Permit (the Fish, Not a Piece of Paper)

Permit (Trachinotus falcatus) is a fish with an identity crisis. Because it appears strikingly similar to the Florida pompano, many anglers mistake it for that more popular, commercially marketed fish. Even scientists have gathered little in-depth information on permit. However, among those in the know, the species has carved out a niche as a popular sport fish and prime table fare.

Related Article: Permit and Florida Pompano Identification

To distinguish adult permit from pompano, one need only remember the saying "Size matters." Permit can grow to more than double the length of pompano and several times the weight. A 15- to 20-pound permit is a common sight, and the fish can easily exceed 3 feet in length. At smaller sizes, the distinction between the two species might not be as obvious. However, a good rule of thumb is a simple color check: Small permit have orange patches on their chins, fins, or bellies; pompano have yellow coloring in those areas.

Permit can live long lives. In a study of specimens from Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys, a 3-foot permit was aged at 23 years. Because this species can grow about an additional foot, researchers believe its life span may be even longer.

For a permit in Florida, life typically begins in spring or summer, though spawning in the Keys may occur year-round. Permit are multiple-batch spawners, meaning one fish can produce and shed eggs more than once a season. Reproduction typically takes place offshore over reefs 33 to 100 feet deep.

Permit grow out of the larval stage and settle in their nursery habitat within 15 to 20 days of hatching.  A study in the Florida Keys found newly settled juveniles (less than 1 inch in standard length and less than 1 month old) along windward beaches in every month but July. Over the next two to three years of their lives, permit reach sexual maturity and, at an estimated 22 inches for females and 19.4 inches for males, about half of their potential size.

Permit frequent offshore wrecks, oil platforms, and artificial reefs, as well as grass and sand flats, deep channels, and holes inshore. Tagging studies are under way to track their movements and migrations in Florida waters. Researchers hope to learn whether a permit's life journey connects these various habitats.  If you are interested in volunteering to tag the permit you catch and release, refer to the article "Tag a Permit for Research Gains" for information about how to request a tagging kit.

The population size of permit is something of a mystery, as the last stock assessment of the fish was in 1996. Nevertheless, recreational anglers and commercial fishers know where to find them.

The flats in South Florida are famous for permit fishing, though researchers have recorded permit landings throughout the coastal counties, mostly by sport fishers.  The recreational fishery accounted for 87% of the landings of permit statewide in 2008, or nearly 118,000 pounds--about 100,000 pounds more than the commercial fishery. Even so, the combined commercial and recreational landings, 135,451 pounds, constituted a small fishery relative to its "mistaken twin," the pompano, at 932,797 pounds that same year.

On the flats, permit are a more challenging catch than bonefish, tarpon, or any other sport fish that inhabits the area, according to Keys fishing guides. The prime season coincides more or less with spawning season, from April to October, but some permit are reeled in year-round. To catch the fish, anglers can keep their artificial lures in the tackle box. Permit typically respond to live bait, the top choice being crabs--which, along with mollusks, make up their regular diet. On rare occasions, a patient and persistent fly fisher may land a permit.

Before heading out to fish for permit, always refer to the current Florida saltwater fishing regulations.