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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.
permit is the fish of a lifetime, Charlie, but you never forget