We forged out for our last trip, oblivious of the roseate spoonbills and the ospreys. As we swung past them, I sent a lingering regretful look at the bone-fish flats, but I knew it was no use to mention them. Art was wearing his grailhunter's expression again.
The permit were as elusive as ever. The fins showed up exasperatingly all over the shallows, but the result was always the same. Either they spooked or we covered them with no result.
"The water's just too shallow" Art said despairingly. "If we could only hit them at longer range." He fumbled in his tackle box and pulled out a leaded pink wiggle jig, heavier than anything we'd used before, and adorned it with a big hermit crab. "Now I should have the extra distance," he said, "so long as the splash doesn't bother them." It was his turn up in the bow, and we poled on until another black sickle hove in sight. Art got down into his firing position, as tense as he had been on the very first session. He was breathing hard now, trying to judge the precise moment when the permit would be barely within range. The moment came. The rod slashed over hard—and the tip popped out of its ferrule, went hurtling across the water like a javelin and finally came to rest more or less where the permit had been a couple of seconds before. Slowly, eloquently, Art straightened his back. He said nothing.
"Harpooning," I told him, "is outside the code of sport-fishermen in England." I heard a funny noise behind me. Rosalito was doubled over in a rictus of snorting giggles. Art recovered the rod tip and sat down, still silent. I began to realize what they mean by the expression "the dark night of the soul."
We poled on, Rosalito still handicapped by frame-wrenching, uncontrollable laughter. Art retired amidships, still silent, while I replaced him in the bow until such time as I had effectively fouled up the next permit opportunity. By then Rosalito's spasm had eased off to occasional gurgles and Art's old resilience was showing up again.
I knew he was fully recovered when he said, suddenly, "We've been going about this all wrong. The water's just too shallow to allow us to approach by boat. Wading, careful wading, is the answer." Painstakingly he conveyed his intentions to Rosalito, who finally understood but seemed to have reservations which he could not properly express. However, when next we came upon a gaggle of permit, he held the boat steady for Art to slip over the side.
At once we realized what Rosalito's reservations were. The bottom was soft marl, and Art was knee-deep in it. He made a few laborious steps forward, but it was no use. He turned back to the boat again and began to clamber aboard.
It doesn't happen as often as you would think. In a lifetime of angling, I have only gone twice into the water myself and have seen it happen to other anglers on no more than half a dozen occasions. So it was a rich and rare experience now to see Art grasp the gunwale and draw the skiff over him like a blanket so that, gently and slowly, he underwent total immersion. It was a classic dip. Like a mud man from New Guinea, Art rose again, covered in white marl, and I helped him aboard, knowing that I could expect no assistance from Rosalito, who was whimpering and squealing so hysterically that I feared for his health.
It took a good half hour to recover from this latest trauma, and, as time ran out on us, I would have taken heavy odds that our permit quest was over, especially since the supply of fish seemed to have run out. "Nada, nada!" said Rosalito, peering professionally across the flats. Nothing. He poled out to the deeps again, then started the motor to find another permit zone.
We were a long time finding a fish, and when we did it was my turn to cast. By now it seemed to me that all we were doing was carrying out some curious, formal rite. As in an African tribal dance in which there is much gesturing and thrusting with spears but no real killing, we went through the actions of poling up to fish and offering the bait in a kind of symbolic way that never ended with one being hooked.