I have a passion for old quality stuff—tools, boat fittings and fishing equipment—and I keep a lot of it stuck away. This is not like a museum collection; everything works, and it waits around till it's needed. Like an ancient Shakespeare spinning reel. It's a number 2064 and I bought it 28 years ago. I think I paid $19. I cut my teeth on the fish of the Florida flats with that reel. I caught my first bonefish, a 9½-pounder, long before television made game fishing an armchair sport. That Shakespeare has been a reel for a lifetime.
One night 10 years ago I was at a cocktail party in Key West. It was a boisterous Conchtown event, and the old frame house on Caroline Street was filled with loud, giddy conversation. I would occasionally catch random phrases as they ricocheted off the walls. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice proclaim confidently, "...and tomorrow I'm going out there and catch a permit on a fly rod." I felt my ears twitch like directional sound-seekers.
Abandoning the periphery of a conversation concerning affirmative action, I turned and was absorbed into another group of four or five people. That confident voice belonged to the Chairman of the Board—that's how I knew him—of what company never seemed important. "Got the best of these guides booked, and tomorrow is my day," he continued. "I've caught salmon and tarpon, not to mention enough trout to fill a small boat...." He beamed at his rapt listeners, some of whom probably had the notion that a permit must be a type of special license for some sort of uncommon fishing pursuit.
But I knew that permit are the mystery fish. On the flats the sudden appearance of one is a show-stopper. A big, deep-bodied relative of the pompano, the species blends great alertness with unusual stamina, presenting the fly-fisherman with a challenge not otherwise encountered at the edge of the sea. Permit appear to be equipped with nosecone radar. Sometimes they simply bolt at a sound from the hull or the shadow of a fly line. Many years earlier, a guide of exceptional talent had told me, "A bonefish is the hardest fish in the world to catch...and a permit is 10 times harder."
December 11, 1989
The Chairman of the Board was full of good cheer, and a bit of rum. Like all fishermen he was spinning tales, and in my friends he had a receptive audience. But it was obvious to me that he had never attempted to catch permit. He knew I was practically a native, so he looked over with a big grin when I interrupted. "What's this I hear? You're going to do what, tomorrow?" I said.
"Land permit on a fly." He knew that I understood, but we had to play it out for the group, which realized that something extraordinary was implied here.
"Damn, I don't know.... You're just going to flip one in the boat, huh?" I said, giving him a little slack.
"Well, I know what I'm up against, and I know you do, too, but they can't be as difficult as everyone writes. I've caught a lot of fish on flies, and even if we don't boat one, we're a good bet to hook one. I've got a hell of a guide and besides, 'You gotta believe,' right?"
We all agreed that you had to believe, and ice cubes rattled. I asked his guide's name and was impressed by the answer.
"Say, you've done a bit of this," the Chairman said. "Why don't you come along? I can see I'm going to need someone to verify this one." It was just what I wanted to hear.
In the pale dawn I was a little fuzzy as I listened to the wind rattling the palm fronds against the house. It was blowing northeast at 20.
An hour later at the dock the Chairman and I met with Gil Drake. I knew from his reputation that he was a world-class fisherman and guide. It was apparent that he was also young, strong and serious to the point of somber intensity. He had fished his whole life—in the Bahamas, the Keys, and other places most of us had only read about.
It was important for me to establish a rapport with Drake. I didn't want to come off as another sun-glazed tourist. I wanted him to know that I was a true believer in all of this. We talked while we loaded the boat. Drake glanced at my old Shakespeare spinning reel hanging from a 6½-foot Wonder Rod, which was made by the same company.
"There's a real classic," Drake said.
"Had it all my life. All my fishing life, anyway."
"Still fish much?"
"Oh, not like I used to, but, you know, whenever I get the chance, I'm out poling around the flats."
"There are reels now that are built much better than this," he said. This was to enlighten, not to criticize.
"Well, maybe one of these days I'll own one—if I ever wear this one out," I said.
I sensed his amusement as he stowed the rest of the gear.
With the wind astern, we crossed the Key West harbor and cut into the broad basin called the Lakes. The 18-foot skiff slapped the wind-driven chop, and the speed blew the spray out in quick shots. Mounted on one gunwale was a long push pole, essential to quiet movement on the flats. Racked under the gunwales were a pair of fly rods and two spinners. My Wonder Rod, three times refinished, presented itself as a worn but proud relic of an era long gone.
On the young flood tide we ran in and staked out on Lavina Bank. The sky was mostly overcast, and the wind blew straight across miles of open flats. Key West lay low to the east, and the mangrove islands of the Lakes country were flat and dark. The wind was blowing, 15 knots and gusty, and a riffle lay across the chop, although we were in only two feet of water. We would have a problem seeing fish in that water.
But Drake said, "They'll be here, just be ready." His dog, a golden retriever, curled up on the rear deck.
By now it was midmorning as Drake stepped up on the poling tower that was built over the outboard engine. He was high over the water, maybe 10 feet off the surface, and soon he called, "Here they come...two o'clock"—the Chairman and I looked off to the right—"closing fast, maybe six fish."
Where? I thought. The Chairman asked, "Where?"
"Twelve o'clock, 40 feet away. Cast now!" But the Chairman was as dumbfounded as I. The low light and wind riffle created an opaque green surface over the dark grass bottom. I scanned right and left. The Chairman stood still on the foredeck, fly rod straight out in the wind. Then he saw the fish. He made a fast roll cast, a double haul, and his line was out. As the fly hit the water, there was an explosion 30 feet in front of the bow and a flash, and the black spike of a dorsal fin was in the air and gone again as the fish turned and fled. Four or five dark shapes, every once in a while flashing silver, followed. Permit.
Drake was patient. "You've got to be fast."
"Fast?" the Chairman said. "Man, how did you spot those fish that far out?" I was damned impressed. A single streak of mud hung in the water like a missle contrail.
"You've got to look very sharply.... It requires great concentration."
The Chairman coiled line at his feet, and it blew across the deck. "Yes, I'll have to be more attentive. They were just too close."
"It was a good cast," said Drake. "It just needs to be quicker."
The Chairman nodded and looked back at me, a smile at the corner of his lips. "I might have to swear you to secrecy," he said.
"There'll be more," said Drake. "Just be ready. I'll tell you when they come."
They did come, more and more after those. Always it was the same. They came up onto this little bank and swam from right to left, moving very fast, not "tailing" as they do when feeding, but moving with quick determination. We were at a point of intercept, and it became obvious that this was a flood tide flyway for permit this morning.
The Chairman did his best, but the wind was too much—it was just the wrong day for fly-fishing. Drake agreed it was time to bring out the spinning rods. He tied a short-shanked 2/0 hook on doubled monofilament. In the bait well he had a handful of silver-dollar crabs, the master link in the permit food chain. Drake fastened a crab on the hook with light copper wire so it would last. With this rig the Chairman cast to three or four fast-moving groups of permit over the next hour. There were no takers. The tide rose higher, and it was midflood when he put down his rod and gave me a nod toward the bow. "See what you can do," the Chairman said as he broke out lunch for the three of us.
I hadn't really counted on fishing. The price of a charter was then about $200 a day, and I didn't have the money for a split. But I was the Chairman's invited guest, and I knew he would give me a turn. I guessed from our conversation the night before that he thought me a little cocky, so he was giving me a chance to put up. With the Wonder Rod and old Shakespeare, and a wiggling crab, I stepped onto the casting deck.
Minutes passed. Suddenly, "There!" said Drake. But we all saw them, three or four, their big, dark bodies coming straight on from two o'clock. They veered to the right, and the wind gusted as I bent and whipped the rod sidearm. The crab shot straight and low over the water, skipped a wavelet 30 feet out, dug into another and stopped. The lead fish turned in a rush. It rose and hit that bait at the surface, and even over the wind I thought I could hear the crab's shell crack. I raised the rod to set the hook, but the fish was already running, and the rod bent in a great bow. The reel spool accelerated, and the line went tearing through the water, and I could hear it rip.
Tension breaks aboard a boat with a strike like that. Cheers and affable needling come first, then periods of silence as the fight goes on, then anecdotes and observations concerning the battle. That permit and I hung on to each other. I had about 80% drag on the 10-pound line in deference to the age of the reel's brake washers. The drag stayed smooth. The fish was gone off to the north, and Drake freed the boat and followed him for a while, poling across the wind. The fish ran out, then across, then back across, then back again, then way out, in long slashes, each one threatening to foul the line on the soft corals that grew along the edge of the bank.
Whenever it rested, I pumped and cranked. I marveled at how something of 25 pounds could pull so hard and so long. We were linked only by chance and a nylon thread, yet I felt that affinity one feels for a truly wild creature, and I was excited with the anticipation not only of landing it but also of the release, as it swam free of my hands. We released all of our fish alive, that's what it was all about. I was brought back to reality when the Chairman said, "Well, who's got who here, anyway?"
It was enough to make me wonder. The permit made a half circle as the skiff blew off the wind. I pumped and cranked and got back 30 yards and lost 10, and gained 50 and lost 40 and suddenly I felt something in my hand that stopped my heart one beat. I looked down and saw the old Shakespeare coming apart. I had felt a slip in the handle's rotation and then hot oil on my fingers. When I looked down at the reel, I saw that two of the three screws in the side-plate were loose and the third was gone altogether. The big drive gear had slipped, and there was a gap between the crank mechanism and the housing. Drake heard me groan and bounded to the bow.
The fish was out 100 yards and broad to us, its big body like a drogue in the current. It was gathering its reserves as Drake, clearly disgusted, examined the reel. Working between my hands he tightened the screws, then neatly cinched Monel trolling wire around the outside of the case. It was a jury rig, but the permit was tiring and I thought it would hold. Drake backed off and watched me pump the fish. I felt grease on my right hand, and the grip to the Wonder Rod was slick. "Fifty minutes," said the Chairman.
The battle entered a new intensity as we all wondered aloud whether the old reel would hold together. Its action was again smooth, but I cranked carefully. It was obvious that the fish was tired. So was I; my right forearm was screaming for a break.
Drake told me to bring the fish right in when he was about 60 feet out. I looked back and saw him poised with a landing net and saw the Chairman's grin beneath the body of a Nikon. The dog stood on the stern tower like a free safety, alert and ready to move.
It came so fast I felt what can only be called horror, because my eyes knew what was happening even before my mind sensed it.
There was an enormous boil in the water behind the fish. The permit turned and streaked straight for the boat, and as the line went slack, there arose a great triangular fin in the water. I screamed, "Hammerhead!"
The permit, in terror greater than the unknown it had been struggling against, ran for the skiff, and the shark bore in with huge slashes of its tail. The dog went airborne off the tower and in a bounce was clawing and raging over the gunwale. The Chairman ducked and narrowly averted the big push pole that Drake launched through the air like a harpoon. The fiberglass missile struck the broad hammerhead either flush in the face or on the back, but the shark's determination was broken, and it flared off 10 feet from the side of the skiff. The permit ran right down the side of the skiff and under the stern, and in a clear instant I saw its big eye look at me with exhausted fury.
The hammerhead doubled back off the bow and raced in again for the fish, but Drake fired up the big Evinrude with a roar that split the wind. He ran right at that shark, bow high, water flying, the dog and the Chairman crashing to the stern amid flying tackle. I was fiat on the foredeck with the rod in my greasy hand, pinned for the moment by the violence of the high-speed assault. Drake repeatedly ran at the shark, driving it off to the edge of the bank in hopes of giving the exhausted permit a chance to escape.
The line had parted, probably when Drake first slammed the boat in gear. We never saw the permit again, but the shark hunted frantically for it as we continued our harassing action. Eventually the hammerhead bore off toward deeper water, vanishing as quickly as it had come. I was stunned by the rapid sequence of these final events. The Chairman quietly packed away his camera. Drake was troubled.
"Only the second time that's ever happened to me—with permit," he said. "Those things just occur," said the Chairman. "At least you saved the fish—it's a fate worse than death."
We ran down to another spot and fished for an hour, but the tide was at full flood and the magic broken. Eventually the wind got too strong. We turned back for Key West under a low gray sky.
I put the old Shakespeare away after that and bought a new reel made from space-age materials, but it doesn't seem to catch fish as well. And I have never caught another permit.
Bill Schwicker is a fishing guide and writer who operates out of Big Pine Key, Fla.