A VETERAN PERMIT GUIDE REFLECTS ON THE PLEASURE OF BEING BACK ON THE SCENT OF AN OLD FRIEND AND QUARRY
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?
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.