Palometa: Small Fish, Big Reward

On The Fly Saltwater

Article and featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

After more than half a century of fly fishing, I am not jaded by the sport. I continue to be mystified when an angler hooks a fish on a fly, then tosses it back in the water, deeming it a “rat red” or dismissing it as a “short” trout. The fact that I managed to fool any living creature with a hank of hair or feather tied to a metal hook makes every catch special to me.

Indeed, one never knows when such a catch may turn out to be more than just a small fish. A great example is my encounters with palometas. There are times when a diminutive catch just might lead to a bit of notoriety for the angler.

The palometa is the smallest member of the permit family. These fish generally are in the 7- to 14-inch range in size and inhabit shallow, sandy bottom waters from Massachusetts to Argentina. They are not a fish that fly casters – or any other sport angler – target. So why mention them? There is, of course, a back story here.

My first encounter with a palometa came on Grand Bahama Island a decade ago. Having joined a group from the Atlanta Fly Fishing Club to chase bonefish, several of us were having a day of do-it-yourself wading near the village of High Rock on the isle’s southern shore. Standing on the expansive white sand flat at the end of Tamarind Lane, I was staked out on a small channel the bones used to enter the flat with the rising tide.

The author’s first palometa. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Spotting a couple of bonefish heading shoreward through this depression, I laid a cast about a dozen feet in front of them, planning to bounce the fly on the bottom once they reached it. Almost immediately, however, the line when taunt and came alive with a fish on the end. From the desultory fight, it was obvious whatever had taken the fly was not big and not a bonefish. Once brought to hand, I discovered I had my first palometa on a fly.

But, the real point of this tale is a much earlier encounter with one of these fish. In that instance, I was but an observer. This trip was to Cat Cay in the Bahamas, a tiny island near Bimini and not to be confused with Cat Island located far to the southeast. Cat Cay is managed by the private and exclusive Cat Cay Club. At the time On The Fly South’s Associate Editor Polly Dean’s father, Bill Watkins was the club’s general manager. Through that connection, she: Jimmy Harris, co-owner of Unicoi Outfitters in Helen, Georgia; and I had finagled an invitation to visit the island and do some fishing.

A lesser-known fact about Cat Cay is that two of the early pioneers of saltwater fly fishing developed much of their techniques and knowledge along it shores. A.J. McClane was the fishing editor for Field & Stream Magazine for most of four decades, while his associate and fishing pal Jack Samson also edited that magazine for 15 years and was an authority on fishing for permit. As you will see, there’s a direct tie in to one of these anglers in this tale as well.

Jack Samson with a permit. Photo courtesy of The Countryman Press.

Taking a break from fishing one day to relax on the swimming beach on Cat Cay’s western shore, Polly never went near water without fishing gear. After a bit of lazing in the sun, she grabbed her fly rod and began casting off the beach. After landing a small bonefish, her next catch was a palometa. It was the first one either of us had ever seen, so naturally I wanted a photo to identify it with later. To paraphrase her response, she thought the fish was too small to waste film on (this was back in the slide film era). Still, I did shoot the photo.

Polly Dean with her Cat Cay palometa. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Later on, I wrote an article for the magazine Saltwater Fly Fishing about our bonefish adventure on Cat Cay. The photo of Polly holding her palometa ran with the story, simply to add a bit of variety to the tale.

Not long afterward, I was contacted by Jack Samson. He had seen the article and the palometa photo. At the time he was working on his book Fly Fishing for Permit. In one chapter he discussed all the members of the permit family, but the palometa was the only one of which he had been unable to come up with a photo. He was asking for permission to use my photo in his book!

Being an astute horse-trader, I drove a hard bargain. I told him he was welcome to use it, if he would send both Polly and me autographed copies when it was published, which he did.

The moral of the story is you never know when a small fish might put a cherished keepsake on your book shelf, or in Polly’s case, immortalize you in the pages of a respected author’s book.

Jack Samson passed away in 2007, but his books carry on his legacy. Copies are available on Amazon.com.

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