The crossing the next morning in a World War II relic named Sayonara took about two hours—top speed: 15 knots. The islands, consisting of dozens of largely uninhabited mangrove-covered cays, are just east of the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, stretching 190 miles. The waters contain a bonanza of sand flats, mangrove flats, coral reefs, creeks, bights, bays and channels. They are ideal for light-tackle fishermen and scuba divers, but there were practically none of either. There are no hotels, condos, yachts, beaches, sunbathers or kaleidoscopic rum drinks. Once in a while you pass a ramshackle hut set on posts above the flats, owned by one of the 50 or so native lobstermen who work the Turneffe chain. But that's it. To say these cays are unspoiled is to miss the point: They seem virtually untouched by modern man.
We arrived at Bennett's lodge on Cay Bokel; Fred set up four rods, waded onto the flats in front of the island and caught a 12-inch barracuda before the rest of us had finished unpacking. One got the impression he was ready to go. Lunch became a gastronomical race during which it was decided that we would go right after permit that first afternoon—there would be no warming up on bonefish. The tide, a young flood, was right; Fred's enthusiasm was high; and our guide was willing.
Which is not to say that Kent was exactly wild for the idea. A fishing guide likes to have some clue as to what kind of fishermen he's dealing with before going after something as challenging as a permit. He needs to know if they can see the fish cruising to the flats, if they can cope with the wind and what their casting range is, so he can position the boat accordingly. Fred, who throws a marvelous line, was doing his best to reassure Kent as we lit out over the channel toward his favorite permit hole; he chatted knowledgeably about places he had fished and the tackle he had brought. Fred had one rod set up for bonefish, another for tarpon, another for permit and one for shark and barracuda—each with its own separate fly and test-weight leader. He had just decided to add a length of OX (eight-pound test) tippet to his permit outfit when Kent cut the engine and allowed the boat to drift. We were in four feet of water, 60 yards off a small, nondescript cay, one of a dozen we had passed. A mangrove flat, Kent called it. Grabbing his pole, Kent stood on the platform in the stern and began to scour the sea.
Fred asked him what famous fishermen he had taken out over the years.
Kent thought for a moment. " Ted Williams. Lefty Kreh. A.J. McClane. Chico Rodriguez." He named them softly, without much reflection. Then, a little louder, "Four permit."
Fred sucked wind as if kicked in the stomach. "Wait a minute! Dammit!" He scrambled for his tackle box. He had spliced on his tippet, but he had not yet tied on a fly. We were unarmed. I looked in the direction Kent was pointing but saw nothing I could identify as a fish. The permit, moving rapidly, were long gone by the time Fred was ready to cast. Kent said nothing. He continued to pore over the flats. But this was no way to begin. All of us knew that those might well have been the only permit we'd see all day.
Fred, chastened, got down to business. He stood in the bow and cast his Jewett blue crab fly into the water to gauge how fast it would sink. The body of the fly, about the size of a silver dollar, was made of the rump feathers of a cock pheasant. Its legs were orange-dyed grizzly hackle tips. It was weighted with fuse wire and had little yellow eyes that bobbed at the end of its antennae. The creation, which cost $5.50, looked good enough to eat—though for that price it should have been able to swim in circles and breed on command.
Fred held it up for Kent's approval. "What do you think, my friend? Will that work?"
Kent had been guiding in the Turneffe Islands for 25 years. When he wasn't guiding, he trapped lobsters. Last year he sold 1,200 pounds of tails, for which he earned $13 Belizean ($6.50 U.S.) a pound. In Belize, where the annual per capita income is about $1,000, lobstering by itself would make Kent wealthy—though heaven knows where he spends the money, living year-round on Turneffe. He is both expert and patient, and teaches all new guides at the lodge.