No an­gler for­gets their first per­mit on fly. It’s that ex­pe­ri­ence that draws the au­thor back to the mag­i­cal Mar­que­sas Keys.

Fish­ing for per­mit af­ter a long leave of ab­sence can be like meet­ing an old friend. It can also feel like an awk­ward first date. It is hum­bling at best. Or, de­pend­ing on how much rust has ac­cu­mu­lated since those last days on the wa­ter, it can be just plain hu­mil­i­at­ing. Ei­ther way, cast­ing a fly at a per­mit is a rare priv­i­lege that is not eas­ily for­got­ten.

There was a time when I would run my skiff nearly ev­ery day to the Mar­que­sas Keys west of Key West to meet this old friend. For a cou­ple of decades I looked tire­lessly for per­mit as I guided equally ob­ses­sive an­glers more than 300 days a year. But time passes, and the body wears out. Trop­i­cal sun de­liv­ers a daily beat­ing, joints hurt, can­cers are cut off — the usual stuff. It’s a young man’s game.

Still, even an old dog some­times re­mem­bers a fa­mil­iar scent, and this is what draws me once again to the Mar­que­sas, alone, with a fly rod in my hand. On this day a mi­gra­tion of hawks spi­ral­ing in a cur­rent of air over the is­lands re­minds me that it is late in the year. Sea­sons are chang­ing. The first cold fronts to reach the Keys have brought crisp, 75-de­gree air. Wad­ing the flats will be re­fresh­ing. I am light­hearted as I bring the skiff off plane on the edge of this an­cient atoll.

The ge­og­ra­phy on the south side of the Mar­que­sas is fa­mil­iar, and yet there are no­table changes. The frigate birds are be­gin­ning to roost again on one par­tic­u­lar man­grove is­land. Bar­racu­das are still posted up on in­di­vid­ual sand patches. They face the in­com­ing tide, mo­tion­less, wait­ing to am­bush prey. Wad­ing along the edge of this flat ig­nites memories of the best days of my life.

My first per­mit on fly was here some 35 years ago. Af­ter more than a year of un­suc­cess­fully cast­ing to hun­dreds of fish, one fi­nally tipped down and ate my crudely tied che­nille and marabou shrimp. I was struck dumb. I couldn’t speak. My wife, Ginny, was com­fort­ably re­clined on the skiff ’s cast­ing plat­form read­ing a novel and barely looked up. When the fish of my dreams fi­nally came to my hand, I flopped around in the wa­ter with it, much to the cha­grin of the leg­endary Capt. Rick Ruoff, who was stalk­ing per­mit nearby on the same flat. Rick later gave me a pass on my ram­bunc­tious be­hav­ior once he un­der­stood the mo­men­tous na­ture of the event. My sec­ond per­mit on fly came ex­actly 15 min­utes later, and Ginny said, “So what’s the big deal about per­mit?”

On this flat in the Mar­que­sas, a nar­row point bi­sects a fin­ger chan­nel and a cres­cent-shaped basin. This is a happy place for per­mit. The wa­ter is al­ways clean and mov­ing. The grass-and-sand bot­tom is alive with shrimp and crabs. Op­ti­mism is a nar­cotic, and as I wade slowly along the flat, my mind loses fo­cus on the mo­ment. I choose in­stead to re­mem­ber an­other fish on an­other day on this same flat.

On that day I was a guide at the peak of my ca­reer. My client was a pro­fes­sional ath­lete who was in­dis­putably con­sid­ered the best ever in his sport. He was also a world-class an­gler. We once had a triple grand slam in a day of fish­ing to­gether in the Mar­que­sas. And it was on this flat that he hooked a per­mit larger than any I had ever seen.

That per­mit took us miles off­shore into deep wa­ter and rough seas. The cock­pit of the skiff filled with wa­ter from break­ing waves. One wave ripped the push pole off the deck of the skiff. My an­gler held on, de­spite re­cov­er­ing from re­cent hip-re­place­ment surgery that had ef­fec­tively ended his pro­fes­sional ca­reer. Fi­nally, well off­shore, we tailed a per­mit that mea­sured 4 feet. This ath­lete, who has a tro­phy room larger than most homes, chose with­out hes­i­ta­tion to re­lease what surely would have been a world record. It was an in­stinc­tive re­sponse, a ges­ture of re­spect in the days be­fore it was cool to be a con­ser­va­tion­ist.

Now, back in real time, I watch as a south­ern stingray searches for crabs on the point. It glides past my feet with mud stream­ing off its per­fectly par­a­bolic wings. A lit­tle far­ther off­shore, the tip of a dor­sal fin catches the light. A 5-foot lemon shark saun­ters onto the flat. This is the usual cast of char­ac­ters, fa­mil­iar faces par­tic­i­pat­ing in a pre­dictable and wonted rou­tine.

What has changed in this land­scape, how­ever, are the relics of a po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty. There are now more aban­doned Cuban refugee boats and rafts along these flats and shore­line than at any point in his­tory. I count 18 in stages of decay, scat­tered across the Mar­que­sas. This is a re­mote group of is­lands, and on dark nights, his­tor­i­cally, it has been a haven, first for buc­ca­neers, then smug­glers and now Cubans. The wet foot/dry foot im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy means those who touch land here are al­lowed to stay in the United States; those who have not reached the beach are re­turned to Cuba. Refugees ar­rive weekly (see com­pan­ion story).

I wade up to one of sev­eral Cuban boats and am fas­ci­nated by what peo­ple flee­ing their coun­try, their homes and their fam­i­lies choose to

That per­mit took us miles off­shore into deep wa­ter and rough seas.

A minute passes, and then five min­utes. I re­mem­ber that I didn’t have this pa­tience in my youth.

bring with them to Amer­ica. When the Coast Guard takes refugees off the is­lands, ev­ery­thing the Cubans own is left be­hind. On this 14-foot boat, among the de­bris from the wreck, is a bag of carved wooden han­d­lines. This, pre­sum­ably, is how the refugees in­tended to pro­vi­sion for their cross­ing. The con­trast of these crude fish­ing spools with the $1,000 fly rod and reel in my hands weighs on me. In an­other boat on a dif­fer­ent day, I found a woman’s purse. In­side were no fam­ily photos, no let­ters, no money, just 15 un­opened pack­ets of con­doms. Only con­doms. A Cuban brand iron­i­cally called Mo­men­tos — he­chos para sen­tir (“made to feel”). I won­der what price this refugee had to pay to come to the Mar­que­sas.

Imade a re­verse jour­ney to the other side of the Florida Straits a few months ago. I was in Cuba for pho­tog­ra­phy, not fish­ing. It was a swel­ter­ing Au­gust day, and I waded into the wa­ter to cool off on a beach called Paraíso. Nib­bling on my toes in that crys­tal-clear wa­ter was a squadron of 4-inch baby per­mit. Felipe Ro­driguez, a master guide in Cuba’s Za­p­ata Swamp Na­tional Park, re­cently re­ported an amaz­ing num­ber of baby per­mit like these along the beaches near the Bay of Pigs. Ac­cord­ing to Aaron Adams and the Bone­fish Tar­pon Trust, Ro­driguez and the stu­dents at his fish­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram dis­cov­ered “thou­sands of baby per­mit swim­ming along all of the beaches in the area.” The per­mit are a few inches long or less. Ro­driguez re­ports that lo­cal fish­er­men catch the ju­ve­nile per­mit in their nets as they are catch­ing bait. They are re­leas­ing the per­mit, which is a re­flec­tion of Ro­driguez’s ed­u­ca­tion and con­ser­va­tion ef­forts in the Cuban com­mu­nity.

The Bone­fish Tar­pon Trust’s re­search is also be­gin­ning to un­ravel some of the mys­ter­ies of this re­mark­able fish. Here is what they think is hap­pen­ing. Per­mit spawn off deep reef drop-offs, sim­i­lar to grouper and some snap­per. They spawn seven days af­ter the full moon. They ex­hibit a be­hav­ior called “broad­cast spawn­ing” as groups of males and fe­males rush to­gether to­ward the sur­face, re­leas­ing eggs and sperm. The eggs are fer­til­ized in the open wa­ter, and af­ter they hatch, the per­mit lar­vae drift in the ocean cur­rents for about 15 to 20 days as plank­ton. If they are lucky, the small per­mit find a sandy beach — such as Paraíso, or this flat in the Mar­que­sas — and they be­gin life feed­ing on bot­tom or­gan­isms. Tag­ging pro­grams in­di­cate that per­mit have rel­a­tively small home ranges. It makes me won­der whether any of the fish I en­coun­tered in the Mar­que­sas years ago are still around these flats to­day.

I haven’t met any of these old friends yet. Wade fish­ing lim­its my op­por­tu­nity to cover ground and find fish. To­day I am con­tent to move slowly and ex­pe­ri­ence this tac­tile con­tact with the Mar­que­sas. Closer to the edge of a fin­ger chan­nel, the firm marl bot­tom gives way to soft mud. I feel my­self bog­ging down as I wade, some­times sink­ing nearly to my knees. I have the same size feet as I did 35 years ago, but the ad­di­tional 20 pounds I carry now seems to pile-drive me deeper into the soft bot­tom. I’m older. I’m heav­ier. And, oh yeah, there’s a new metal knee. But I haven’t for­got­ten where to look, and in the fad­ing light I see a per­mit tail break the sur­face of the wa­ter, a cast and a half away.

I feel a full-body tremor at the sight of this per­mit. There is joy, dis­be­lief, nerves, but mostly a feel­ing of glad­ness, a feel­ing as if I am be­ing greeted by the wag of a tail from an old fam­ily dog. It is as if we have known each other for­ever. How is it pos­si­ble for a sin­gle fish to evoke such emo­tion, af­ter so many years?

The kum­baya dis­ap­pears as the per­mit lays down a full-body slam on an un­sus­pect­ing crab. The fork of the tail is ver­ti­cal as the per­mit drills face-down, en­gag­ing in se­ri­ous hy­draulics to cap­ture its prey. A bil­low of mud boils to the sur­face. The mo­ment is elec­tric. I stand stock-still on the edge of the chan­nel in hard light, my feet con­tin­u­ing to sink into the soft mud. The bend of the hook on my crab fly is pinched be­tween my thumb and fore­fin­ger. Loops of coiled fly line are in my hand, ready to let loose at the next sight of the fish. A minute passes, and then five min­utes.

I re­mem­ber that I didn’t have this pa­tience in my youth. I fo­cus on the wa­ter as if this may be the last per­mit I will ever see (it may be). Then I see a change in the con­trast of the wa­ter only 30 feet away. The tide is flood­ing, so no tail or fin breaks the sur­face. The fish is there, but ex­actly where? I whis­per to my­self, Don’t look away. Don’t move. This is the de­ci­sive mo­ment. This is a mo­ment to live for.

In the shim­mer­ing light of the hot glare, I fi­nally see the un­mis­tak­able white lips. The per­mit is fac­ing me. No other part of the fish is vis­i­ble. My back cast re­leases the fly from my fin­ger­tips. The pre­sen­ta­tion is per­fect. (How did that hap­pen, af­ter all this time?) The fly lands 8 inches from the per­mit’s face. Per­fect. I twitch the fly.

I see noth­ing. I’m fish­ing by Braille, wait­ing for the grab. There is re­sis­tance on the strip. Then as the re­sis­tance gives a lit­tle, I re­al­ize I have snagged a blade of tur­tle grass. I am suck­ing great gulps of air. Is the per­mit still there? Is it look­ing at the fly, de­lib­er­at­ing, try­ing to de­ter­mine whether this clump of spun yarn is an ed­i­ble nugget of pro­tein?

Noth­ing hap­pens.

I slip the fly away to re­cast. The per­mit is clearly vis­i­ble now at 20 feet — two rod lengths. I can­not snap off the weed on the back­cast; too much mo­tion. I cer­tainly can­not bring the fly to my hand to clear it; the fish at this dis­tance would never tol­er­ate that move­ment. I have to make an­other shot, weed and all.

The sec­ond cast lands softly. The per­mit looks, tips down and looks harder. Maybe if I don’t move, the fish will eat the fly and the weed. Per­mit eat live crabs en­veloped in tur­tle grass all the time. Why not this time? I re­al­ize that I am plead­ing.

I also re­al­ize that it is wish­ful think­ing. Per­mit are smarter than that. The fish re­jects the crab fly and moves even closer. The fly is now out of the per­mit’s feed­ing zone. The fish is so close that I could poke it in the nose with my rod tip. Surely, it must see me. I have to re­cast. I make a gen­tle lift …

The en­su­ing spook is so dra­matic and so close that it is as if both fish and an­gler have been tasered on the spot. The adren­a­line nearly takes my head off. I am hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing. I am happy. I am alive!

I want to do this again.

Clouds empty their big black bags of rain off the Mar­que­sas Keys.

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