Crack­ing the code of the elu­sive per­mit is a life­time en­deavor for an­glers long ac­cus­tomed to the mad­den­ing highs and lows of the pur­suit. By CHRIS DOMBROWSKI

WWe roll out of the camp­ground to­ward Long Key with the win­dows open. Bleached shells and lime­stone gravel crunch un­der the West­falia’s tires. Birds make their vi­brant predawn racket, a sym­phony in stark con­trast to my brain’s lethargy, stymied as it is from last night’s fes­tiv­i­ties. At least I re­mem­bered to set an alarm clock.

My good friend Toby in­ter­rupted his slum­ber, too, and left the rest of our spring-break­ing com­rades to their own con­vo­lu­tions so he could chauf­fer me up the Florida Keys to meet a flats guide. In the pocket of my khaki shorts, I clutch pay­ment for the char­ter, a post-de­posit $250 that I hid, lest it end up in the rum fund, but other than that I’m ill-pre­pared. I’ve caught a few trout on stream­ers in north­ern Michi­gan, but I’ve yet to cast a fly, let alone an 8-weight, in salt wa­ter.

Like a nar­cotic, a salt breeze washes over the cab as we swing onto the high­way.

The wind­shield fills with the palest of first lights — the belly of a flats-go­ing fish I’ve yet to lay eyes on. Toby punches a tape into the deck and shifts the bus into third, fourth, then fifth.

“Good call on the fish­ing,” is all he says. Buf­feted, the bus kites a lit­tle in the wind. I turn the mu­sic louder, a Lou Donaldson jazz joint, and af­ter a mo­ment we’re dip­ping our heads to the groove, singing the sun up.

“Who’s makin’ love with your old lady, while you’re out on the road?”

Sud­denly, a deeply pan­icked voice is­sues from above and be­hind us: “Geezus, boys! Geezus! Stop the god­damned bus!”

As Toby down­shifts and the bus lurches down the rungs of gears, I look over my shoul­der to see our friend Alex, his wide-eyed head hang­ing over the bus’ top bunk, to which he clings, white-knuck­led. Some­time in the mid­dle of the night, with ev­ery­one else asleep, he must have cranked open the can­vas camper tent and passed out up there, then woke to a view of the ocean, hun­dreds of feet be­neath the black­top, blur­ring past the vented win­dow slats.

I can’t think of per­mit fish­ing without re­call­ing these hi­jinks from my se­nior year of high school, as they seem to en­cap­su­late said pur­suit: a quiet pause fol­lowed by a dose of molten en­ergy, some bla­tant inanity cou­pled with good for­tune, all com­bin­ing to com­pose a semipredictable yet ir­re­sistible ridicu­lous­ness. Strange laws of sea, physics and fate gov­ern per­mit fish­ing. Nat­u­rally, un­der this ju­ris­dic­tion, it fol­lows that — af­ter botch­ing my first sev­eral shots at bone­fish; af­ter my guide, Mike, mo­tored us off the flat and said we weren’t go­ing in­shore un­til I could throw 50 feet of line; af­ter I flubbed an­other few bone­fish chances; af­ter Mike gasped in ex­as­per­a­tion and said with fu­til­ity, “Be­lieve it or not, there’s a per­mit com­ing dead ahead at 60 feet”; af­ter I made a more than ac­cept­able 50-foot pre­sen­ta­tion — I would hook a Florida Keys per­mit on my first cast a few weeks af­ter my 18th birth­day.

By these same mys­te­ri­ous codes, it makes sense that on sev­eral sub­se­quent trips to the Keys, de­spite my ten­fold im­prove­ment in sight­ing and cast­ing, I would fail to hook an­other.

Even­tu­ally, I suc­cumbed (as many do) to

the pre­dictable ad­dic­tion of bone­fish in the Ba­hamas. To a meta­phys­i­cally in­clined an­gler such as my­self, the per­ceived chaos of hu­man ex­is­tence is mo­men­tar­ily abated when — fol­low­ing a lengthy stalk, as­tute fly se­lec­tion and rea­son­able de­liv­ery — the fly line comes tight with a fish. At last, one thinks while lis­ten­ing to his line sheer through the fish-waked shal­lows, all is right in the world again. Though I loathe the phrase, the fish has done what it was sup­posed to do, and the an­gler’s blood is ap­pro­pri­ately adrenal­ized.

Rarely pre­dictable, the per­mit is an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent drug, a hal­lu­cino­gen, per­haps, that shoots a chem­i­cal far more feral through the blood­stream. When I glimpsed the ink-edged tail of my first Ba­hamian per­mit scyth­ing over the flat, I had to re­move my hat to see if my hair had been set on fire. Years would pass and scores of bone­fish would come to hand be­fore I would get, un­der the mea­sured guid­ance of the great David Pin­der Jr., an­other shot in the ar­chi­pel­ago. I’d caught sev­eral bone­fish that day — in­clud­ing a 12-pounder, my per­sonal best — with an easy­go­ing David atop the plat­form, but when a large per­mit ap­peared in the blue door of the flat, down light, bright and round as a por­tal, David went batty.

In re­sponse to his rapid-fire in­struc­tions, I false-casted once and shot out an of­fer­ing, then watched the yel­low, al­most gilded, back of the ob­long fish de­scend to­ward my sink­ing fly. Strip­ping the fly on com­mand, I reg­is­tered a small dose of sur­prise at hav­ing made such an ad­e­quate pre­sen­ta­tion un­der the cir­cum­stances. David gave what I took to be a grunt of ac­cep­tance. It ap­peared that my first Ba­hamian per­mit was, as the say­ing goes, in the gar­lic. A per­mit, I thought, on top of a dou­ble-digit bone. Im­me­di­ately, I wished I could re­tract the thought, and then, in a mir­rored flash at the verge of sight, the per­mit was gone. And David was giv­ing the fish a tongue-lash­ing foul enough to red­den a sailor’s ears.

I asked my fish­ing part­ner, a client of David’s for decades, if he ever saw a bone­fish trig­ger that breed of ire in the leg­endary guide. “With per­mit, the highs are higher,” Miller said. “But the lows are def­i­nitely lower.”

“Ready for the rub­ber room” is how the inim­itable Thomas Mcguane once de­scribed his psy­cho­log­i­cal state af­ter los­ing a big per­mit, and af­ter far more fail­ures with the most cov­eted mem­ber of the jack fam­ily than suc­cesses, the phrase doesn’t strike me as the least bit melo­dra­matic. What is the peak of per­mit-in­duced de­lam­i­na­tion? I’ve watched be­fud­dled an­glers toss $900 fly rods over­board or threaten, with a raised san­dal, to smash 10th-gen­er­a­tion graphite un­der­foot. This past May in the Ba­hamas, I saw a good friend, who asked to re­main name­less, bench him­self from the bow for two days af­ter sev­eral solid shots in a row at a group of 15- to 20-pounders went for naught. “I’m done for the week,” he said, shov­ing the rod in my hand be­fore slump­ing down in his seat. He pulled his buff up over his eyes. The tides were ideal, and we’d put all of our chips on per­mit in­stead of bones. “Un­less you give me a live f---ing crab!”

“You just have to care a lit­tle bit less about them,” our guide, an old friend, says about the species. “I catch a lot of per­mit be­cause I come out here on these big tides try­ing to catch mut­ton snap­per.”

I knew bet­ter than to ask whether he thought a per­mit truly could in­ter­pret an ap­proach­ing an­gler’s de­sires, and I stepped onto the bow ca­su­ally, at­tempt­ing to match the fish’s level of de­tach­ment.

Aloof, squir­relly, even dis­hon­est. An­glers de­scribe per­mit with many ad­jec­tives, some un­print­able, but these three re­cur. “I wouldn’t say dis­hon­est,” says a long­time fish­ing client of mine who has, in 30 years of ply­ing the wa­ters around the Conch Repub­lic with top-flight guides, landed 21 Keys per­mit, the largest of which weighed 32 pounds. “But they’re not re­ally an hon­est fish to av­er­age, or even good, an­glers. Is there a code to be cracked? Sure, but you’re not go­ing to solve it by fish­ing for a week or two each year.” In the Ba­hamas, North Rid­ing Point Club’s Meko Glin­ton is one of the code-break­ers. He has turned what was once an anom­aly — land­ing large per­mit near Grand Ba­hama’s East End — into a reg­u­lar­ity. Meko preaches fewer false casts (two in­stead of sev­eral) to his per­mit-tar­get­ing guests. He also asks an­glers to come pre­pared with a pro­fi­cient back­hand cast, which of­ten helps him from hav­ing to clock the skiff around for a fore­hand open­ing, a boat move­ment that per­mit of­ten sense, even if they don’t ap­pear to spook from it.

A few lat­i­tu­di­nal de­grees north, Justin Rea sets the bar high for Florida Keys per­mit cap­tains. He has guided four an­glers (more than any guide in his­tory) to wins in Key West’s an­nual Del Brown Per­mit Tour­na­ment, a con­test that pits the best per­mit guides and an­glers in the world against one an­other. “He cal­cu­lates what’s hap­pen­ing on a flat way quicker than I can be­gin to un­der­stand,” a long­time client says. “And he com­mu­ni­cates the nu­ances — the an­gle your fly needs to land at, the sink rate of your fly with or against the cur­rent — as good as any­one I’ve been around.” The most re­cent of his Del Brown­win­ning clients is José Ucan of Punta Allen, Mex­ico, man­ager of one of the more sought-af­ter per­mit des­ti­na­tions in the world, La Pescadora. With Justin atop the pol­ing plat­form this past July, José landed six per­mit in three days — on no more than a dozen solid shots, a ra­tio that would sat­isfy most bone­fish­ers. Twenty-three an­glers com­peted in the tour­na­ment, and nearly half failed to land a per­mit; José’s six equaled more than a third of the to­tal per­mit caught. “But you have to un­der­stand, he’s liv­ing with those fish 200 days a year,” Justin says of José’s per­for­mance. “He doesn’t just see the fish. He reads its body lan­guage and knows which way it’s go­ing to move be­fore it moves. Never takes his eyes off a tar­get, and he can spot them a long, long way out. José has caught a ton of per­mit, so the anx­i­ety level’s way lower.”

Spook them or catch them, the say­ing goes. Or an­other: It’s just a jack. An an­gling mor­tal such as my­self must take heart in lines like these, or the fact that in Mex­ico they run a flag up the pole when you land a per­mit, and the only way that will ever hap­pen is if you haven’t al­ready raised the white one in sur­ren­der.

Aloof, squir­rely, dis­hon­est — call them what you want, but per­mit are dif­fi­cult to bring to hand.

Meko Glin­ton’s recipe is fewer false casts and a strong back­hand cast.

Guide Justin Rea has mas­tered the nu­ances of catch­ing per­mit on the fly.

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