I set the hook sharply, and the fish started down the flat. Remembering my last episode, I kept the loose, racing line well away from the reel handle for the instant the fish took to consume it. Then the fish was on the reel. I lowered the rod tip and cinched the hook, and the fish began to accelerate, staying on top of the flat so that I could see its wildly extending wake. Everything was holding together: the hookup was good, the knots were good. At 150 yards the fish stopped, and I got back line. I kept at it and got the fish within 80 yards of the boat. Then suddenly it made a wild, undirected run, not permitlike at all, and I could see that the blacktip shark was chasing it. The blacktip struck and missed the permit three or four times, making explosions in the water that sickened me. I released the drag, untied the boat and started the engine. Woody was poling toward me at the sound of my engine. His mystified client dragged a line astern.
There was hardly enough water to move in. The prop was half buried, and at full throttle I could not get up on plane. The explosions continued, and I could only guess whether or not I was still connected to the fish. I ran toward the fish, a vast loop of line trailing, saw the shark once and ran over him. I threw the engine into neutral and waited to see what had happened and tried to regain line. Once more I was tight to the permit. Then the shark reappeared. He hit the permit once, killed it and ate the fish, worrying it like a dog and bloodying the muddy water.
Then an instant later I had the shark on my line and running. I fought him with irrational care: I now planned to gaff the blacktip and retrieve my permit piece by piece. When the inevitable cutoff came I dropped the rod in the boat and, empty-handed, wondered what I had done to deserve this.
I heard Woody's skiff and looked around. He swung about and coasted alongside. I told him it was a permit, as he had guessed from my starting up on the flat. Woody started to say something when, at that not unceremonial moment, his client broke in to say that it was hooking them that was the main thing. We stared at him as if he were a simple, unutterable bug, until he added, "Or is it?"
Often afterward we went over the affair and talked about what might have been done differently, as we had with the first permit. One friend carries a carbine on clips under the gunwale to take care of sharks. But I felt that with a gun in the skiff during the excitement of a running fish, I would plug myself or deep-six the boat. Woody knew better than to assure me there would be other chances. Knowing that there might very well not be was one of our conversational assumptions.
One morning we went to look for tarpon. Woody had had a bad night of it. He had awakened in the darkness of his room about 3 in the morning and watched the shadowy figure of a huge land crab walk across his chest. Endlessly it crept to the wall and then up it. Carefully silhouetting the monster, Woody blasted it with a karate chop. At breakfast he was nursing a bruise on the side of his hand.
We laid out the rods in the skiff. The wind was coming out of the east, that is, over one's casting hand from the point we planned to fish, and it was blowing fairly stiff. But the light was good, and that was more important. We headed out of Big Pine, getting into the calm water along Ramrod Key. We ran in behind Pye Key, through the hole behind Little Money and out to Southeast Point. The sun was already huge, out of hand, like Shakespeare's "glistering phaeton." I had whitened my nose and mouth with zinc oxide and felt, handling the mysterious rods and flies, like the tropical edition of your standard shaman. I still had to rig the leader of my own rod; and as Woody jockeyed the skiff with the pole, I put my leader together. I retained enough of my trout-fishing sensibilities to continue to be intrigued by tarpon leaders with their array of arcane knots: the butt of the leader is nail knotted to the line, blood knotted to monofilament of lighter test; the shock tippet that protects the leader from the rough jaws of tarpon is tied to the leader with a combination Albright Special and Bimini Bend; the shock tippet is attached to the fly either by a perfection loop, a clinch or a Homer Rhodes Loop; and to choose one is to make a moral choice. You are made to understand that it would not be impossible to fight about it or, at the very least, quibble darkly.
We set up on a tarpon pass point. We had sand spots around us that would help us pick out the dark shapes of traveling tarpon. And we expected tarpon on the falling water, from left to right. I got up on the bow with 50 feet of line coiled on the deck. I was barefoot so I could feel if I stepped on a loop. I made a couple of practice casts—harsh, indecorous, tarpon-style, the opposite of the otherwise appealing dry-fly caper—and scanned for fish.
The first we saw were, from my point of view, spotted from too great a distance. That is, there was a long period of time before they actually broke the circle of my casting range, during which time I could go, quite secretly but completely, to pieces. The sensation for me, in the face of these advancing forms, was as of a gradual ossification of the joints. Moviegoers will recall the early appearances of Frankenstein's monster, his ambulatory motions accompanied by great rigidity of the limbs, almost as though he could stand a good oiling. I was hard put to see how I would manage anything beyond a perfunctory flapping of the rod. I once laughed at Woody's stories of customers who sat down and held their feet slightly aloft, treading the air or wobbling their hands from the wrists. I gibbled at the story of a Boston chiropractor who fell over on his back and barked like a seal.
"Let them come in now," Woody said.