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Permits' broad bodies and blunt faces make them unmistakable, but they are easily spooked and surprisingly powerful.

By CHRIS SANTELLA, for the New York Times

TURNEFFE ATOLL, Belize - Less than 20 minutes from the dock at Turneffe Flats Lodge, my angling buddy Geoff Roach and I beheld a sight that would set any saltwater fly angler's heart aflutter: the thin dorsal fins of a school of permit, slicing like a scythe through the clear Caribbean. Our guide, Michael Anderson, killed the motor, climbed onto his poling platform and began pushing us slowly toward the fish. Moving onto the skiff's casting deck, I nervously peeled line off my reel and tried to steady my nerves.

"Drop it on 'em," Anderson said with a calm that seemed ill-matched to the situation. I cast my fly into the swirling mass of fins and tails and held my breath.

My visit to Turneffe Atoll was the latest chapter in what has become an Ahab-like obsession with hooking a permit, a quest that has taken me to Boca Paila, Ascension Bay and Chetumal Bay on the Yucatán Peninsula and Ambergris Caye in Belize.

Permit are widely considered the holy grail of light-tackle sport fish in the Caribbean. Their broad bodies, large round eyes and blunt faces make them unmistakable. Permits' aerodynamics give them tremendous strength; specimens, which can range from 5 to 40 pounds and above, have been known to rip 150 yards of line out in their first run. Secretive, antsy and ever alert, permit are the spookiest creatures on the saltwater flats.

To catch a permit on a fly, you have to do a lot of things right - cast a heavy fly 40 or 50 feet, often into whipping winds; mimic the halting gait of a crab with your retrieve; and play a very strong animal on light line around coral heads that wait to part you from your prize.

Until a few decades ago, the popular perception was that permit could not be caught on a fly with any regularity. In the early 1980s, several anglers in the Florida Keys - the guide Steve Huff and Del Brown among them - began building flies with epoxy to imitate the small crabs that are a staple of the permit's diet. With the evolution of crab patterns - the Merkin, the Turneffe Crab and the Rag Head among them - the odds of enticing permit to strike have improved. But you still have to find them.

And Turneffe Atoll, 30 miles east of Belize City, is a great place to search. The largest of Belize's three coral atolls at nearly 300 square miles, Turneffe has hundreds of sheltered lagoons, lined by impenetrable mangrove stands. The deep waters surrounding Turneffe shelter robust permit populations, and the pristine lagoons provide ideal feeding habitat for the fish, which enter the lagoons during rising tides. While bonefish, the other great sport fish of the flats, are often found in 6 to 12 inches of water, permit prefer water that is two to six feet deep.

Anderson led us to such flats each morning in Turneffe's Central Lagoon. The routine was simple: slowly cruise the mangroves, scanning for any signs of fish - a subtle disturbance on the surface that hinted at moving fish (nervous water, in angling parlance) or the hint of a black dorsal fin extending just above the lapping blue-green waters.

My previous encounters with permit had been fleeting at best - one cast a little too close or landing a little too loudly, and the fish scattered out of sight, with soul-deadening finality. The school of permit we found that first morning were anything but skittish. For 30 minutes, I cast a variety of crab patterns into the group, which grew from roughly 25 fish to more than 50. My first tentative casts were at the edges, but as those were received with indifference, I began dropping the fly into the heart of the group with audible plops. Still, no spooked fish, and no takers. Roach repeated the drill, with the same result. If finding such a large group of these often elusive fish working their way slowly along the flats seemed a miracle, watching them refuse our offerings was a maddening affront.

The rest of the week followed the same pattern. If we found fish, scores of casts into the school failed to spook them, yet also failed to arouse any interest. We consoled ourselves each afternoon by hooking bonefish on shallow flats and hunting snook among the mangroves. Frustration gave way to a quiet acceptance that it was not our time to catch a permit. (One of our fellow guests, after all, had visited Turneffe three times before landing his first permit.)

Everything changed on our final day. At a spot near our first permit encounter, nervous water viewed through binoculars gave way to fins and tails churning the surface. At times, the broad sides of the fish flashed in the sun, a beacon of hope.

"They're feeding," Anderson said. "Put on the Rag Head and drop it."

Roach obliged, and on the fourth cast, his line came tight. After a pregnant pause, the fish began to peel off line. Minutes later, Anderson was lifting an eight-pound permit (Roach's first) into the boat to be admired and released.

The feeding spree lasted a few more minutes, long enough for me to hook not one, but two permit. But on both instances, the hook pulled loose after several minutes. I returned north, still permitless. Perhaps my luck will change on my next trip to Turneffe.