We roll out of the campground toward Long Key with the windows open. Bleached shells and limestone gravel crunch under the Westfalia’s tires. Birds make their vibrant predawn racket, a symphony in stark contrast to my brain’s lethargy, stymied as it is from last night’s festivities. At least I remembered to set an alarm clock.
My good friend Toby interrupted his slumber, too, and left the rest of our spring-breaking comrades to their own convolutions so he could chauffer me up the Florida Keys to meet a flats guide. In the pocket of my khaki shorts, I clutch payment for the charter, a post-deposit $250 that I hid, lest it end up in the rum fund, but other than that I’m ill-prepared. I’ve caught a few trout on streamers in northern Michigan, but I’ve yet to cast a fly, let alone an 8-weight, in salt water.
Like a narcotic, a salt breeze washes over the cab as we swing onto the highway. The windshield fills with the palest of first lights — the belly of a flats-going fish I’ve yet to lay eyes on. Toby punches a tape into the deck and shifts the bus into third, fourth, then fifth.
“Good call on the fishing,” is all he says.
Buffeted, the bus kites a little in the wind. I turn the music louder, a Lou Donaldson jazz joint, and after a moment we’re dipping our heads to the groove, singing the sun up.
“Who’s makin’ love with your old lady, while you’re out on the road?”
Suddenly, a deeply panicked voice issues from above and behind us: “Geezus, boys! Geezus! Stop the goddamned bus!”
As Toby downshifts and the bus lurches down the rungs of gears, I look over my shoulder to see our friend Alex, his wide-eyed head hanging over the bus’ top bunk, to which he clings, white-knuckled. Sometime in the middle of the night, with everyone else asleep, he must have cranked open the canvas camper tent and passed out up there, then woke to a view of the ocean, hundreds of feet beneath the blacktop, blurring past the vented window slats.
I can’t think of permit fishing without recalling these hijinks from my senior year of high school, as they seem to encapsulate said pursuit: a quiet pause followed by a dose of molten energy, some blatant inanity coupled with good fortune, all combining to compose a semipredictable yet irresistible ridiculousness. Strange laws of sea, physics and fate govern permit fishing. Naturally, under this jurisdiction, it follows that — after botching my first several shots at bonefish; after my guide, Mike, motored us off the flat and said we weren’t going inshore until I could throw 50 feet of line; after I flubbed another few bonefish chances; after Mike gasped in exasperation and said with futility, “Believe it or not, there’s a permit coming dead ahead at 60 feet”; after I made a more than acceptable 50-foot presentation — I would hook a Florida Keys permit on my first cast a few weeks after my 18th birthday.
By these same mysterious codes, it makes sense that on several subsequent trips to the Keys, despite my tenfold improvement in sighting and casting, I would fail to hook another.
Eventually, I succumbed (as many do) to the predictable addiction of bonefish in the Bahamas. To a metaphysically inclined angler such as myself, the perceived chaos of human existence is momentarily abated when — following a lengthy stalk, astute fly selection and reasonable delivery — the fly line comes tight with a fish. At last, one thinks while listening to his line sheer through the fish-waked shallows, all is right in the world again. Though I loathe the phrase, the fish has done what it was supposed to do, and the angler’s blood is appropriately adrenalized.
Rarely predictable, the permit is an altogether different drug, a hallucinogen, perhaps, that shoots a chemical far more feral through the bloodstream. When I glimpsed the ink-edged tail of my first Bahamian permit scything over the flat, I had to remove my hat to see if my hair had been set on fire. Years would pass and scores of bonefish would come to hand before I would get, under the measured guidance of the great David Pinder Jr., another shot in the archipelago. I’d caught several bonefish that day — including a 12-pounder, my personal best — with an easygoing David atop the platform, but when a large permit appeared in the blue door of the flat, down light, bright and round as a portal, David went batty.
In response to his rapid-fire instructions, I false-casted once and shot out an offering, then watched the yellow, almost gilded, back of the oblong fish descend toward my sinking fly. Stripping the fly on command, I registered a small dose of surprise at having made such an adequate presentation under the circumstances. David gave what I took to be a grunt of acceptance. It appeared that my first Bahamian permit was, as the saying goes, in the garlic. A permit, I thought, on top of a double-digit bone. Immediately, I wished I could retract the thought, and then, in a mirrored flash at the verge of sight, the permit was gone. And David was giving the fish a tongue-lashing foul enough to redden a sailor’s ears.
I asked my fishing partner, a client of David’s for decades, if he ever saw a bonefish trigger that breed of ire in the legendary guide. “With permit, the highs are higher,” Miller said. “But the lows are definitely lower.”
“Ready for the rubber room” is how the inimitable Thomas McGuane once described his psychological state after losing a big permit, and after far more failures with the most coveted member of the jack family than successes, the phrase doesn’t strike me as the least bit melodramatic. What is the peak of permit-induced delamination? I’ve watched befuddled anglers toss $900 fly rods overboard or threaten, with a raised sandal, to smash 10th-generation graphite underfoot.
This past May in the Bahamas, I saw a good friend, who asked to remain nameless, bench himself from the bow for two days after several solid shots in a row at a group of 15- to 20-pounders went for naught. “I’m done for the week,” he said, shoving the rod in my hand before slumping down in his seat. He pulled his buff up over his eyes. The tides were ideal, and we’d put all of our chips on permit instead of bones. “Unless you give me a live f---ing crab!”
“You just have to care a little bit less about them,” our guide, an old friend, says about the species. “I catch a lot of permit because I come out here on these big tides trying to catch mutton snapper.”
I knew better than to ask whether he thought a permit truly could interpret an approaching angler’s desires, and I stepped onto the bow casually, attempting to match the fish’s level of detachment.
Aloof, squirrelly, even dishonest. Anglers describe permit with many adjectives, some unprintable, but these three recur. “I wouldn’t say dishonest,” says a longtime fishing client of mine who has, in 30 years of plying the waters around the Conch Republic with top-flight guides, landed 21 Keys permit, the largest of which weighed 32 pounds. “But they’re not really an honest fish to average, or even good, anglers. Is there a code to be cracked? Sure, but you’re not going to solve it by fishing for a week or two each year.”
In the Bahamas, North Riding Point Club’s Meko Glinton is one of the code-breakers. He has turned what was once an anomaly — landing large permit near Grand Bahama’s East End — into a regularity. Meko preaches fewer false casts (two instead of several) to his permit-targeting guests. He also asks anglers to come prepared with a proficient backhand cast, which often helps him from having to clock the skiff around for a forehand opening, a boat movement that permit often sense, even if they don’t appear to spook from it.
A few latitudinal degrees north, Justin Rea sets the bar high for Florida Keys permit captains. He has guided four anglers (more than any guide in history) to wins in Key West’s annual Del Brown Permit Tournament, a contest that pits the best permit guides and anglers in the world against one another. “He calculates what’s happening on a flat way quicker than I can begin to understand,” a longtime client says. “And he communicates the nuances — the angle your fly needs to land at, the sink rate of your fly with or against the current — as good as anyone I’ve been around.”
The most recent of his Del Brown-winning clients is José Ucan of Punta Allen, Mexico, manager of one of the more sought-after permit destinations in the world, La Pescadora. With Justin atop the poling platform this past July, José landed six permit in three days — on no more than a dozen solid shots, a ratio that would satisfy most bonefishers. Twenty-three anglers competed in the tournament, and nearly half failed to land a permit; José’s six equaled more than a third of the total permit caught. “But you have to understand, he’s living with those fish 200 days a year,” Justin says of José’s performance. “He doesn’t just see the fish. He reads its body language and knows which way it’s going to move before it moves. Never takes his eyes off a target, and he can spot them a long, long way out. José has caught a ton of permit, so the anxiety level’s way lower.”
Spook them or catch them, the saying goes. Or another: It’s just a jack. An angling mortal such as myself must take heart in lines like these, or the fact that in Mexico they run a flag up the pole when you land a permit, and the only way that will ever happen is if you haven’t already raised the white one in surrender.