Half-asleep still, I watched a tiny, mad regatta. Miniature sails heeled over on a dozen contrary courses, a glinting confusion caught in the thin early-morning sun. It was an illusion of the lagoons, naturally. Normal sense of distance and size had wobbled and melted in the haze. I blinked, and the translucent sails clicked back into true scale, becoming the high tail fins of head-down bonefish, foraging at the edge of the mangroves. Preoccupied, gluttonous bonefish, all lined up for me. I eased the bail of the spinning reel down and started to swing the hermit-crab bait back and forth in smooth arcs, judging the distance.
"Let's go!" Art said, brutally wrecking my concentration. The bait flew high, smacking down into the center of the school of bonefish and they scattered. Rosalito, the guide, gave one of his short giggles and started to pole us out toward open water again. Art must have had a pang of conscience. "They'll be there all day, those bonefish," he said. "We'll have an hour at them on the way home." I laid my rod down carefully in the stern of the skiff. I well knew how useless it was to argue with a fisherman whose obsession was as far advanced as Art's. Impatiently, like a gourmet dealing with a dull hors d'oeuvre before they bring in the roast goose a la mode du P�rigord, he had taken and released three bonefish while I fumbled around. And now he could wait no longer. Out there on the wide, ginger ale-colored flats in the sun-dappled shallow water swam the real object of his quest, the ultimately desirable permit.
He had shown me a picture of one before the expedition left New York: a high-foreheaded, slab-sided fish with the pursed mouth of a discontented duchess. And I had listened entranced as he spoke of its matchless speed and strength and cunning, the rare skills and insights required for its capture, remembering as I did something I had read long ago in an English fishing book about an entirely different species.
"A true record of the life of an habitual carp fisher would be a book to set beside De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater, a book of taut nerves, of hallucinations, of a hypnotic state, of visions, Japanese in character, of great, blunt-headed golden fish in golden spray, curving in the air under sprays of weeping willow and then the rare moments when this long-drawn-out tautness of expectation is resolved into a frenzy of action...." American anglers don't rate carp very highly, I'm told, but Art was speaking of the permit in the same way that English carp fishermen talk of their personal grail, recounting the many blank hours with pride, the glimpses and brief encounters vouchsafed to them, the hopes, tinged with a wry self-deprecation, of the future. Like them, Art was a devout grail seeker.
This, frankly, I found surprising. We British have a very precise notion of American anglers and the way they fish. Any member of, let's say, the Yorkshire Flyfishers' Club will tell you that 90% of fishing in the United States is carried on by men in loud tartan shirts and white cowboy hats who catch huge rainbow trout while standing up in canoes that are in sharp danger of being whirled through fearsome rapids. The other 10% spend their time in gorgeously equipped sport-fishermen sipping exotic drinks in the intervals of fighting 1,000-pound bill-fish. This vision has been fostered by long exposure to what can only be described as American fishing pornography from Zane Grey and his heirs, the kind of story that begins, "Half a ton of fighting fury grabbed my orange-plastic seven-legged electronic Creepy-Crawler and erupted skyward...."
To a people which believes in its heart that for real fishing you have to put on three sweaters and a full set of oilskins, this sort of stuff is as unsettling as Fanny Hill, and the reaction is somewhat similar. Either you start trying to borrow the air fare or you mutter, "Disgusting, ought to be banned, thank God that the old colonel never lived to see this day."
Already, though, I was willing to bet that Art would not appear on the permit flats in a cowboy hat, that our expedition would be as ritualistic, as dedicated, as quietly intent as any I had known at home. And when our full party assembled in New York for the trip south, it was clear that the sense of mission was strong. As the city fell away below us, it didn't seem too farfetched to think of a parallel: the small group of armed riders leaving the towers and feasts of Camelot in search of something more pure and real. Art and Roy, full-fledged knights with much grail or permit seeking behind them. Bob and I, just squires for the moment but living in hopes of winning our spurs.
As the plane moved south I read, quietly, about permit and the camp down at Pez Maya on the Yucat�n Peninsula where we would spend the next dedicated days. "The backwaters of the Yu Yum Laguna are fed by the Caribbean through the exciting inlet of R�o Boca Paila," said the handout. "These waters are shallow and crystal clear and are teeming with bonefish and permit...." The Yu Yum Laguna, eh? Teeming, eh? Hardcore pornography, of course, but I read on, fascinated.
I will slide lightly over our night in Miami, the hours frittered from our quest at a restaurant named Joe's Stone Crab, the curious loss of edge in the morning that prevented us from properly appreciating the jolly battle for luggage at Cozumel airport, our first landfall in Mexico. Even Sir Gawain didn't locate the Green Knight without falling by the wayside once or twice.
But as soon as we had clambered into the little Cessna that was going to take us to Pez Maya, rededication asserted itself. We climbed high over Cozumel and the docks with the cruise ships lying offshore, and then there was nothing but brilliant blue sea and dark patterns of underwater reefs until the hazy Yucat�n mainland began to be defined as surf beach and low, dense jungle. We picked up the coast and followed it down; and the pilot pointed out the gray and formidable ruin of a Mayan temple standing clear of the mesquite.