"It was a good cast," said Drake. "It just needs to be quicker."
The Chairman nodded and looked back at me, a smile at the corner of his lips. "I might have to swear you to secrecy," he said.
"There'll be more," said Drake. "Just be ready. I'll tell you when they come."
They did come, more and more after those. Always it was the same. They came up onto this little bank and swam from right to left, moving very fast, not "tailing" as they do when feeding, but moving with quick determination. We were at a point of intercept, and it became obvious that this was a flood tide flyway for permit this morning.
The Chairman did his best, but the wind was too much—it was just the wrong day for fly-fishing. Drake agreed it was time to bring out the spinning rods. He tied a short-shanked 2/0 hook on doubled monofilament. In the bait well he had a handful of silver-dollar crabs, the master link in the permit food chain. Drake fastened a crab on the hook with light copper wire so it would last. With this rig the Chairman cast to three or four fast-moving groups of permit over the next hour. There were no takers. The tide rose higher, and it was midflood when he put down his rod and gave me a nod toward the bow. "See what you can do," the Chairman said as he broke out lunch for the three of us.
I hadn't really counted on fishing. The price of a charter was then about $200 a day, and I didn't have the money for a split. But I was the Chairman's invited guest, and I knew he would give me a turn. I guessed from our conversation the night before that he thought me a little cocky, so he was giving me a chance to put up. With the Wonder Rod and old Shakespeare, and a wiggling crab, I stepped onto the casting deck.
Minutes passed. Suddenly, "There!" said Drake. But we all saw them, three or four, their big, dark bodies coming straight on from two o'clock. They veered to the right, and the wind gusted as I bent and whipped the rod sidearm. The crab shot straight and low over the water, skipped a wavelet 30 feet out, dug into another and stopped. The lead fish turned in a rush. It rose and hit that bait at the surface, and even over the wind I thought I could hear the crab's shell crack. I raised the rod to set the hook, but the fish was already running, and the rod bent in a great bow. The reel spool accelerated, and the line went tearing through the water, and I could hear it rip.
Tension breaks aboard a boat with a strike like that. Cheers and affable needling come first, then periods of silence as the fight goes on, then anecdotes and observations concerning the battle. That permit and I hung on to each other. I had about 80% drag on the 10-pound line in deference to the age of the reel's brake washers. The drag stayed smooth. The fish was gone off to the north, and Drake freed the boat and followed him for a while, poling across the wind. The fish ran out, then across, then back across, then back again, then way out, in long slashes, each one threatening to foul the line on the soft corals that grew along the edge of the bank.
Whenever it rested, I pumped and cranked. I marveled at how something of 25 pounds could pull so hard and so long. We were linked only by chance and a nylon thread, yet I felt that affinity one feels for a truly wild creature, and I was excited with the anticipation not only of landing it but also of the release, as it swam free of my hands. We released all of our fish alive, that's what it was all about. I was brought back to reality when the Chairman said, "Well, who's got who here, anyway?"
It was enough to make me wonder. The permit made a half circle as the skiff blew off the wind. I pumped and cranked and got back 30 yards and lost 10, and gained 50 and lost 40 and suddenly I felt something in my hand that stopped my heart one beat. I looked down and saw the old Shakespeare coming apart. I had felt a slip in the handle's rotation and then hot oil on my fingers. When I looked down at the reel, I saw that two of the three screws in the side-plate were loose and the third was gone altogether. The big drive gear had slipped, and there was a gap between the crank mechanism and the housing. Drake heard me groan and bounded to the bow.