previous page
next page
It was one of those mornings you dream about. Big dark serious thunder heads holding off to the north. Wind. Caneletto light cutting sideways at dawn as the sun came up briefly under the clouds, everything wet and shining. We motored out from Charlie Leslie's little lodge at Tarpon Caye into this dubious weather in our slickers, pounding on the chop, Charlie at the helm, his dark eyes cutting through the glare, searching, searching. Made our approach to a long narrow flat rising up out of the big blue a couple miles north, Charlie working the incoming tide.

"Permit! Tails!" says Charlie. "Many, oh, many fish! Look at that!"
And there they were - even I could see them - dozens of big black sickle tails knifing up out of the lead-colored water, flashing darkly in the light, tilting, quivering as the fish turned to feed, spread out along the flat for a hundred yards. Later Charlie estimated there must have been sixty permit on that flat. We eased the big skiff up to the flat and slid into the water, me with my nine-weight and Charlie with an eight in reserve. Charlie's son Marlon held the boat off a little ways behind us, ready. We walked along over the crunchy bottom, shallow, good wading, scattered with leader-cutting sea fans and coral heads.

"Okay, permit, ten o'clock! Eighty feet! Get some line in the air!" Charlie had me false-cast as we stalked a bit closer, crouching. "Okay, cast! Cast now!" A long cast sixty feet into the wind, struggling to straighten out the line, throwing one of Charlie's little tan crabs with rubber legs, right on top of the tailing fish.

"You beaned him! Oh, man, he's gone!" A shot wasted. We walk a bit farther, Charlie scanning for the closest tails - at any given time we could see a dozen or so working the flat father out - Charlie's hunter's brain and fighter-pilot's eyes always keeping track, targets acquired and locked on.

"There, cast quick fifty feet two o'clock! Right here, three o'clock! Good! Let it settle. Okay, strip - little quick strips! Tap-Tap! Tap-tap... He's on it! Strip-strike now! Stick 'im! Nope. He's gone!" Another shot away. And so it went, me either botching the cast or missing the strike or the fish ignoring the offering, for that is permit fishing in its essence. So damned exhilarating having all those shots at these elusive fish that it really doesn't matter to me that we didn't land one. This is more like big-game hunting than fishing. If you spent a week stalking elk and bagged one on day five you'd be thrilled. But, of course, it does matter.

We turn back for the boat. The sun comes out for some reason. Marlon holds the boat a little way off, in case. "Permit! Thirty feet cast now! Right there!" Two or three nice fish in close, working a little white sandy spot, materialized out of the glare right on front of us. Without thinking I snap a cast out, the weight of the line pulling the little size-six hook from my clenched fingers, trying to gage the wind, and drop one about three feet in front of his nose. I let it sink and do the little one-inch (and I mean one-inch) strip which Charlie has taught me - tap-tap, tap-tap-tap...nothing. The fish move on a bit, always moving, always working, sniffing up the flat like dogs. My hands begin to shake. This is no big deal, my little inner voice says. It's just a fish, you'll get one eventually, after all this is ONLY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN YOUR WHOLE LIFE DAMNIT SO DON'T SCREW IT UP!

"Cast again! Good!" I lead about five feet into the wind and drop it six inches in front of his nose - damn, too close! But the fish turns on the fly, circling aggressively, tail knifing, hunting for it, circling like a dog looking for a place to lie down. "Tap-tap, tap-tap!" says Charlie. "He wants it! Oh! He's on it! Stick-him!"

For once I've beaten Charlie to it - I see the fish drop on the fly, his tail quivering briefly, a give a little strip strike - feel resistance - is it hung up on a bit of coral? Then I feel the fish pull back subtly, like a trout sipping a nymph, more than resistance, there's life there - I give a good solid strip strike. "Got him!" I yell. "Got him! Hot damn!"

"Hit him again!" yells Charlie. "You got him!" I raise the rod and strike him for real now, the line snapping taught and the fish goes electric, the line whipping out of my hands and scissoring across the flat at warp-speed, me not looking at the fish but down at the pile of snaky line whipping out and up off the water around my legs, smoking through my wide-circling fingers and through the guides as I hold the rod high, high, letting him go, feeling the weight of the fish now as the slack line snaps up against the rod and I've got him on the reel, the reel screaming like a banshee, a hundred yards, one fifty, two hundred, and no end in sight as the fish heads through a maze of coral-heads for deep water.

"Oh, man that's a nice fish!" yells Charlie, "Marlon! Bring the boat!" and Charlie takes off high-stepping through the knee deep water, dancing on the coral-heads up to his armpits, running down the line, juggling my spare rod while trying to undo the zig-zags the permit has woven through the coral heads to the edge of the drop-off. I hold the rod high, afraid to get any line back until Charlie frees it from the coral. I follow as best I can, into waist deep-water on the edge of the flat, keeping the line tight, waiting, my heart in my mouth, for the sickening slack release of the line when the coral cuts it - and then there's Marlon with the boat.

Somehow I scramble in head over heels without breaking the rod or losing the fish - and then Marlon takes us out into deep blue-green water leaving Charlie marooned on the flat - the fish making another long hard run - but we're free of the coral now and for the first time I feel like we're on equal terms with this fish - we can fight him in deep water - if the sharks or the 'cudas don't get him - please God don't let the sharks come. I let him run all he wants, the reel screaming again, and then feel him slow, pause, and I put some of the butt of the rod into him, get some line back and the fish starts to come in. There's a moment in a fight with a good fish when you can feel the tide changing, when you sense that that subltle momentary hesitation, the shifting of the "moral advantage" as Patrick O'Brian put it, and you know that you can lean on him now, put the butt to him and he's yours. Marlon backs the boat to keep the slack out of the line in case I can't get keep up with him, and then the rod pumps and I let the reel go and the handle buzzes past my knuckles, the reel singing again.

The fish slows again, and I lean into him, the nine-weight bent double, feeling like a three weight in my hands. I can feel the fish turn and start too come in slowly, sideways, like a halibut, my arms cramping finally, pumping him in up to the side of the boat, flashing silver in the sun with his big black eye, making a few half-hearted min-runs, and then Marlon leans over and tails him. I drop the rod and take the fish from Marlon, the fish hard and heavy, solid in my hands, whooping with joy, holding him up for Charlie to see and he whoops back. I put the fish back in the water, holding him beside the boat, running the cool green water through his gills as Marlon eases the boat inshore and picks up his father.

Charlie pounds me on the back and shakes my hand, even happier, if that were possible, that I am. "Well done, Fraser! Well done!"

"Thanks Charlie. It was a team effort." We take the obligatory pictures - my favorite is the one of Charlie and me with the fish between us, grinning like idiots. Then I put the fish back into his element, suddenly I'm terribly concerned about his well being, wanting more than anything for this permit to live and fight again - and he comes to life in my hands, all energy and solid muscle, his tail pumps and I open my fingers and he's gone. This permit was not large by Charlie's standards, perhaps ten or twelve pounds. But I'm exhausted, mentally and physically, my hands begin to shake. I wonder what a twenty-pounder would feel like. "You got him good!" says Charlie. "Now let's go get another one!"

And the next day, we did just that, another fish about the same size and caught in much the same way, before the storms finally descended on the little outer keys of Belize's barrier reef and it rained and blew hard and gray for three days. The weather kept us close to the caye, fishing for tarpon in Charlie's lagoon, blowing hard enough one night to shake my little cabana on its stilts with me holed up in it with a bottle of single-malt and a handful of cigars, the waves crashing outside, more like the rollers of the north Atlantic than the Caribbean. Charlie told stories at dinner of his adventures as a young man on the mangrove coasts, we swapped lies, drank the local rum and ate fresh fish. I was the only guest there, and it was a treat to have Charlie to myself while the storm blew itself out, and we were finally able to head out to the flats again, in that sublime light, and hunt for permit.

Every permit is the fish of a lifetime, Charlie, but you never forget your first.

Charlie Leslie's Fishing Guide to Belize
Charlie Leslie's
Fishing Guide to Belize

Written by
Julian Monroe Fisher

Photographic contributions by Charles Leslie, Jr.

A complete book about Charlie Leslie's life as a fishing guide in Belize. This book offers tips as well as philosophy to the complete angler.

It is complimented by state of the art photography from Charlie's fishing locations throughout the offshore waters of Belize.

This is an entertaining as well as intriguing read regarding the history and art and meaning of fishing. For the novice to the beginner to the advanced angler, this is the first complete fishing guide to Belize.

Limited and personally autographed editions are scheduled for release in 2005.

pre-order your copy today

Table of Content

previous page
next page