I have a passion for old quality stuff—tools, boat fittings and fishing equipment—and I keep a lot of it stuck away. This is not like a museum collection; everything works, and it waits around till it's needed. Like an ancient Shakespeare spinning reel. It's a number 2064 and I bought it 28 years ago. I think I paid $19. I cut my teeth on the fish of the Florida flats with that reel. I caught my first bonefish, a 9½-pounder, long before television made game fishing an armchair sport. That Shakespeare has been a reel for a lifetime.
One night 10 years ago I was at a cocktail party in Key West. It was a boisterous Conchtown event, and the old frame house on Caroline Street was filled with loud, giddy conversation. I would occasionally catch random phrases as they ricocheted off the walls. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice proclaim confidently, "...and tomorrow I'm going out there and catch a permit on a fly rod." I felt my ears twitch like directional sound-seekers.
Abandoning the periphery of a conversation concerning affirmative action, I turned and was absorbed into another group of four or five people. That confident voice belonged to the Chairman of the Board—that's how I knew him—of what company never seemed important. "Got the best of these guides booked, and tomorrow is my day," he continued. "I've caught salmon and tarpon, not to mention enough trout to fill a small boat...." He beamed at his rapt listeners, some of whom probably had the notion that a permit must be a type of special license for some sort of uncommon fishing pursuit.
But I knew that permit are the mystery fish. On the flats the sudden appearance of one is a show-stopper. A big, deep-bodied relative of the pompano, the species blends great alertness with unusual stamina, presenting the fly-fisherman with a challenge not otherwise encountered at the edge of the sea. Permit appear to be equipped with nosecone radar. Sometimes they simply bolt at a sound from the hull or the shadow of a fly line. Many years earlier, a guide of exceptional talent had told me, "A bonefish is the hardest fish in the world to catch...and a permit is 10 times harder."
The Chairman of the Board was full of good cheer, and a bit of rum. Like all fishermen he was spinning tales, and in my friends he had a receptive audience. But it was obvious to me that he had never attempted to catch permit. He knew I was practically a native, so he looked over with a big grin when I interrupted. "What's this I hear? You're going to do what, tomorrow?" I said.
"Land permit on a fly." He knew that I understood, but we had to play it out for the group, which realized that something extraordinary was implied here.
"Damn, I don't know.... You're just going to flip one in the boat, huh?" I said, giving him a little slack.
"Well, I know what I'm up against, and I know you do, too, but they can't be as difficult as everyone writes. I've caught a lot of fish on flies, and even if we don't boat one, we're a good bet to hook one. I've got a hell of a guide and besides, 'You gotta believe,' right?"
We all agreed that you had to believe, and ice cubes rattled. I asked his guide's name and was impressed by the answer.
"Say, you've done a bit of this," the Chairman said. "Why don't you come along? I can see I'm going to need someone to verify this one." It was just what I wanted to hear.