There are fish of legends and legends of fish in the Florida Keys. Guest blogger Allison Delashmit, executive director of the Lower Keys Guides Association, presents a story about both.

Florida Keys angler releasing a permit

Many anglers and guides say that permit is the hardest fish to catch consistently in the entire Florida Keys, so a successful release brings great satisfaction. (Photo by Captain Nick LaBadie)

Roughly 18 years ago, a new permit tournament was born in Key West: the March Merkin. An event that’s hard to fish and hard to win, with the longest-running waitlist of any permit tournament in the world, the March Merkin is a fly-fishing challenge held every year in March with inconsistent (if not downright challenging) weather.

The fish of interest, Trachinotus falcatus or permit, is often elusive but always thrilling to catch — and can be found on and around the shallow-water flats of the Florida Keys. Permit are big, smart fish that have been highly coveted by fly fisherman coming to the Keys for decades.

Some say that catching a permit on fly in the Keys is the crème de la crème for dedicated permit fishermen; most anglers and guides say it’s the hardest fish to catch consistently in the entire island chain.

Basically, all the stars have to align with the weather, the cast, the fly and the fight to conclude with a joyful, successful release.

The March Merkin is unique for many reasons. Tournament co-founders Jon Ain and Dave Horn wanted to hold a permit tournament in March every year because it’s the unofficial start of the backcountry fishing season.

In addition, the timing of the tournament coincides with pre-spawning behavior of the fish, creating an active eating pattern for them as they prepare to move to their breeding grounds.

Fish tail splash in Florida Keys

The March Merkin benefits the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust and its efforts to protect and enhance healthy flats fisheries and habitats. (Photo by Captain Nick LaBadie)

The food of choice for permit is small swimming crabs, which calls for a special crab-like fly or lure dubbed the “merkin.” This fly was designed by two legends, Del Brown (an angler credited with catching and releasing the largest amount of permit on fly ever recorded) and Steve Huff (regarded by many as the best shallow-water fishing guide alive).

The fly has a wide body tied with stiff brownish-tan yarn, with tan-and-white colored rooster feathers to resemble claws, rubber legs and heavy eyes placed toward the front of the hook — giving it a quick realistic dive to the bottom at a steep angle upon landing in the water.

Prior to its invention, eager fisherman used flies that resembled shrimp or smaller fish. However, the merkin fly quickly became established as the best fly for permit, as well as being attractive to other fish like bonefish.

The name of the fly — and subsequently the tournament — is also legendary. The name “merkin” originated in the 1450s as the name of pubic wigs made from yarn and worn by prostitutes after they shaved their private parts for hygiene. (Yes, really!)

Some say the tournament could have been named after co-founder Ain’s beloved dog, Merkin. While organizers admit they’ll never know for sure, the wry wit of the legends that created the original fly and the tournament suggests the true answer …

Ain, who has been posthumously referred to as the Permit Whisperer, was also a conservationist. A few years after the tournament started, he became concerned about the health of the fishery — especially after noticing permit appear on the menu in various local restaurants.

Angler holding permit Florida Keys

The March Merkin tournament always has a full roster of participants, but people can still become involved through its annual online auction. (Photo by Captain Bear Holeman)

At that time, there was no legislative protection for the commercial harvest of the species. That’s when March Merkin directors decided to donate tournament proceeds to Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.

Their support kicked off Project Permit, a decade-long research initiative to help identify and resolve threats to the permit fishery in the Keys.

One of the longest-running permit tournaments in the world, the March Merkin continues to benefit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.

Although the tournament always has a full roster of participants, people can still become involved. The annual online silent auction, open to the public, is the biggest way to contribute to the current and future science and conservation of the iconic permit fishery.

Auction items up for bid include premium charter days with some of the best guides in the Florida Keys, rods and reels, original art and more.

The 2024 March Merkin online auction starts at 6 p.m. Monday, March 11, and runs until 7 p.m. Thursday, March 14. To register to bid, visit Do it now, bid generously, and help support a very important conservation effort.