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Then the water above the rock shot up like fountain.
I leapt backward, unnerved. Fear and loathing did not set in until I saw the creature's eyes—wrinkled, beady, unspeakably enraged. And ugly? You'll never know how ugly. The octopus was snagged in the neck, and it was clinging obstinately to a rock until it could figure out a way to strangle me. Its size was difficult to assess, but I would say it was big enough to drown a small dog. A poodle, perhaps. My stepmother's poodle. The permit, meanwhile, was still tailing a short distance away. I wondered if it would be possible to retrieve my fly.
I tugged at the line harder. "Octopus! Octopus! Help!" I yelled. Fortunately, no one heard me. The octopus gave me a withering look of anger, then made a run for it, releasing the rock and doing the breaststroke toward the reef. Beyond that, the open sea and freedom. It gained about 10 feet of line before I hauled back on the rod and stopped it. Then, seeing the beast floating there like a deflated, pockmarked inner tube, I tried to tow it across the flats, hoping to get within shouting distance of help. Nothing doing. With a single stroke the octopus glommed onto a multicolored rock and immediately assumed that rock's coloring—shades of reds, browns and yellows. I was doing battle with an amazing animal, and just to make sure I didn't forget that, it squirted a stream of water at me that shot three feet into the air. To hell with the permit. I cut the thing free and got out of there.
Octopuses were not the only perils facing the angler wading on the flats. There were a host of things off Turneffe just waiting to be stepped on, so that fishing became secondary to the real adventure of getting off the flats alive. Stingrays, for instance, which basked brownly in the sand, occasionally making mad dashes across the shallows directly at one's legs. "Dey blind as de bat, mon," Richard said after we had scrambled out of one's path. "Dat tail hard as bone wit' de fishhooks sticking out." Black spiny sea urchins grew in small colonies among the rocks, waiting to pierce the soles of our sneakers. The turtle grass was crawling with sea lice, wretched ladybug-sized creatures with the bite of a horsefly.
Fred, in the meantime, was having a rough time himself. His voodoo curse had backfired: The only blood he had drawn had been his own, impaling the back of his thigh with his splendiferous crab fly the second day out. We no longer spoke of fishing for "a permit." It was always "the elusive permit," or "the elusive pampas," which was the local name for the fish. That, too, was corrupted with time—to "that bleeping pampas" and, finally, "that [bleeping] pompous pampas." After the first three days Fred estimated that he had had 22 clear shots at permit, yielding four strikes. Two fish had gotten away owing to faulty knots, one had never been hooked and one had run over the reef, cutting the line. "They're a classic deep-water fish," Fred said late one evening, plotting his next move with the single-mindedness of Ahab. "When they come into the shallows, all their senses are alive. And they're always adjacent to an escape route: deep water, a reef. Very, very canny fish, my friend. Very suspicious."
The fourth day we left immediately after breakfast for the "backcountry," a half-hour run northeast to the windward side of the cays. There was a good stiff breeze—20 to 25 knots—which would make the fish difficult to cast to and nearly impossible to spot. Kent anchored off Harry Jones Cay. The tide was slack, and the permit would probably not be coming out of the deep water until full flood, three or four hours away. We walked along the reef, looking for bonefish, or even a shark. We wanted to catch something.
Ahead lay Calabash Cay. A clan of Carib natives was living on Calabash, harvesting coconuts. The day before I had visited them with Bennett. There were only four on hand to greet us—three old men and a boy—although 10 were living there in all. The other six had sailed back to the mainland with their cargo of coconut oil, which had been stored in bottles washed up on shore. They had collected dozens of bottles. The feet of the three old men who remained behind, Poulino, Trinidad and Martinez, were curled inward like claws from lifetimes of climbing coconut trees. But their climbing days were behind them. Sixteen-year-old Angou, whose feet were still straight, clambered up a palm tree to cut Bennett and me a green coconut filled with warm, sweet milk. When we left them, the Caribs were checking their gill net, hauling it in from a long dugout canoe that had been hollowed out from a single section of cottonwood. The sea, as usual, was generous. Their dinner that night would be bonefish and three mangrove snapper.
So it surprised me when Kent, Fred and I walked all the way to Calabash Cay without seeing a fish. We could hear the Caribs in the interior of the island, clearing underbrush with machetes, but we did not stop to socialize. We turned around and walked back along the reef. Back at Harry Jones Cay we ran into a school of amberjack and caught a few for fun. Fred had just released one when we heard Kent's voice shout above the wind: "Mutton snapper!"
Mutton snapper. It was an odd combination of words, almost an oxymoron, like "mournful optimist', or "airline food." Fred pounced over to Kent like a cat. "Big fella, too. See heem dere!" Kent pointed.
Sixty feet away a large, lone fish was grubbing about in no more than 18 inches of water. It had come in over the reef with the tide and was feeding on crabs. Fred moved a few steps forward and. with the wind behind him, dropped a 40-foot cast on the fish's nose. The mutton snapper took the fly as it fell. Fred set the hook, and as the fish began its run a rooster tail three feet high shot up behind the line. The mutton snapper was heading straight for the coral reef, 150 yards away.