What is emphatic in angling is made so by the long silences—the unproductive periods. For the ardent fisherman, progress is toward the kinds of fishing that are never productive in the sense of the blood riots of the hunting-and-fishing periodicals. Their illusions of continuous action evoke for him, finally, a condition of utter, mortuary boredom. Such an angler will always be inclined to find the gunnysack artists of the heavy kill rather cretinoid, their stringerloads of gaping fish appalling.
No form of fishing offers such elaborate silences as fly-fishing for permit. The most successful permit fly-fisherman in the world has four catches to describe to you. The world record (23 pounds) is a three-way tie. There probably have been fewer than 50 caught on a fly since fishing for them began. No permit fisherman seems discouraged by these rarefied odds; there is considerable agreement that taking a permit on a fly is the extreme experience of the sport. Even the guides allow enthusiasm to shine through their cool, professional personas. I once asked one who specialized in permit if he liked fishing for them. "Yes, I do," he said reservedly, "but about the third time the customer asks, Is they good to eat?' I begin losing interest."
The recognition factor is low when you catch a permit. If you wake up your neighbor in the middle of the night to tell him of your success, shaking him by the lapels of his Doctor Dentons and shouting to be heard over his million-BTU air conditioner, he may well ask you what a permit is, and you will tell him it is like a pompano and, rolling over, he will tell you he cherishes pompano like he had it at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach, with key lime pie afterward. If you have one mounted, you'll always be explaining what it is to people who thought you were talking about your fishing license in the first place. In the end you take the fish off the conspicuous wall and put it upstairs, where you can see it when Mom sends you to your room. It's private.
I came to it through bonefishing. The two fish share the same marine habitat, the negotiation of which in a skiff can be somewhat hazardous. It takes getting used to, to run wide open at 30 knots over a close bottom, with sponges, sea fans, crawfish traps, conchs and starfish racing under the hull with awful clarity. The backcountry of the Florida Keys is full of hummocks, narrow, winding waterways and channels that open with complete arbitrariness to basins and, on every side, the flats that preoccupy the fisherman. The process of learning to fish this region is one of learning the particularities of each of these flats. The narrow channel flats with crunchy staghorn coral bottoms, the bare sand flats and the turtle-grass flats are all of varying utility to the fisherman, and, depending upon tide, these values are in a constant condition of change. The principal boat wreckers are the yellow cap-rock flats and the more mysterious coral heads. I was personally plagued by a picture of one of these enormities coming through the hull of my skiff and catching me on the point of the jaw. I had the usual Coast Guard safety equipment, not excluding floating cushions emblazoned FROST-FREE KEY WEST and a futile plastic whistle. I added a Navy flare gun. As I learned the country, guides would run by me in their big skiffs and 100-horse engines. I knew they never hit coral heads and had, besides, CB radios with which they might call for help. I dwelled on that and sent for radio catalogs.
One day when I was running to Content Pass on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, I ran aground wide open in the backcountry. Unable for the moment to examine the lower unit of my engine, I got out of the boat, waiting for the tide to float it, and strolled around in four inches of water. It was an absolutely windless day. The mangrove islands stood elliptically in their perfect reflections. The birds were everywhere—terns, gulls, wintering ducks, skimmers, all the wading birds and, crying down from their tall shafts of air, more ospreys than I had ever seen. The gloomy bonanza of the Overseas Highway with its idiot billboard montages seemed very far away.
On the western edge of that flat I saw my first permit, tailing in two feet of water. I had heard all about permit but had been convinced I'd never see one. So, looking at what was plainly a permit, I did not know what it was. That evening, talking to my friend Woody Sexton, a permit expert, I reconstructed the fish and had it identified for me. I grew retroactively excited, and Woody apprised me of some of the difficulties associated with catching one of them on a fly. A prompt, immobilizing humility came over me forthwith.
After that, over a long period of time, I saw a good number of them. Always, full of hope, I would cast. The fly was anathema to them. One look and they were gone. I cast to a few hundred. It seemed futile, all wrong, like trying to bait a tiger with watermelons. The fish would see the fly, light out or ignore it, sometimes flare at it, but never, never touch it. I went to my tying vise and made flies that looked like whatever you could name, flies that were praiseworthy from anything but a practical point of view. The permit weren't interested, and I no longer even caught bonefish. I went back to my old fly, a rather ordinary bucktail, and was relieved to be catching bonefish again. I thought I had lost what there was of my touch.
One Sunday morning I decided to conduct services in the skiff, taking the usual battery of rods for the permit pursuit. More and more the fish had become a simple abstraction, even though they had made one ghostly midwater appearance, poised silver as a moon near my skiff, and had departed without movement, like a light going out. But I wondered if I had actually seen them. I must have. The outline and movement remained in my head—the dark fins, the pale gold of the ventral surface and the steep, oversized scimitar tails—I had dreamed about them.
This fell during the first set of April's spring tides—exaggerated tides associated with the full moon. I had haunted a long, elbow-shaped flat on the Atlantic side of the keys, and by Sunday there was a large movement of tide and reciprocal tide. A 20-knot wind complicated my still unsophisticated poling, and I went down the upper end of the flat yawing from one edge to the other and at times raging as the boat tried to swap ends against my will. I looked around, furtively concerned with whether I could be seen by any of the professionals. At the corner of the flat I turned downwind and proceeded less than 40 yards when I spotted, on the southern perimeter of the flat a large stingray making a strenuous mud. When I looked closely it seemed there was something else swimming in the disturbance. I poled toward it for a better look. The other fish was a very large permit. The ray had evidently stirred up a crab and was trying to cover it to prevent the permit from getting it. The permit, meanwhile, was whirling around the ray, nipping its fins to make it move off the crab.
Now my problem was to set the skiff up above the fish, get rid of the push pole, drift down and make a cast. I quietly poled upwind, wondering why I had not been spotted. I was losing my breath with excitement; the little expanse of skin beneath my sternum throbbed like a frog's throat. I acquired a fantastic lack of coordination. Turning in the wind, I beat the boat with the push pole, like a gong. I conducted what a friend has described as a Chinese fire drill. After five minutes of the direst possible clownage I got into position and could still see the permit's fins breaking the surface of the ray's mud. I laid the push pole down, picked up my fly rod and, to my intense irritation, saw that the ray had given up and was swimming, not seeing me, straight to the skiff. The closing rate was ruinous. I couldn't get a cast off in time to do anything. About 20 feet from the boat the ray sensed my presence and veered 15 feet off my starboard gunwale, leaving the permit swimming close to the ray but on my side. As soon as I could see the permit perfectly, it started to flush, but instead just crossed to the opposite side of the ray. Taking the only chance offered me, I cast over the ray, hoping my line would not spook it and, in turn, the permit. The fly fell with lucky, agonizing perfection, three feet in front of the permit on its exact line of travel. There was no hesitation; the fish darted forward and took—the one-in-a-thousand shot. I lifted the rod, feeling the rigid bulk of the still unalarmed fish, and set the hook. He shimmered away, my loose line jumping off the deck. And then the rod suddenly doubled and my leader broke. A loop of line had tightened itself around the handle of the reel.