A Gift from the Sea
Over many years fishing the Mexican Caribbean saltwater flats, I had developed a system of habits. This day would begin the same as many others had, but it would turn out to be anything but routine. As per my normal tradition while in the tropics, I woke up early, prepared a cup of coffee and walked barefoot across the soft sandy beach to the waters edge. I sat down facing the ocean with its backdrop of the dark starry sky. With my back leaning against a palm tree I proceeded to lose myself in a meditative trance. Sipping my coffee, watching the stars fade away, and waiting for the sun to rise over the Caribbean Sea.
As the night turned to day, and I was looking down the beach, I noticed my guide and long time friend Tara Perez prepping his boat for the days fishing. Although I was excited to get out on the water, I was in no rush. I greeted Tara, we ate breakfast and caught up on life before heading out to the flats around 10 A.M.
With no clouds in the sky and the traditional trade winds coming from the southeast, conditions were perfect. We motored across the calm water of Ascension Bay and after about 40 minutes Tara stopped the boat so I could prepare my gear. I assembled my two 9 weight rods, installed leaders and tied a new experimental fly to the end of each of them. I always enjoy creating and testing new fly creations and discovering how permit react to them.
Tara knew my routine. We had been friends for over 15 years and have fished together many times. I don’t like to prepare my gear the night before fishing. I usually spend my time in Mexico with old friends, talking to local villagers, taking in my surroundings and relaxing. There is plenty of time to prepare my gear once we are on the water.
Tara is a seasoned guide, but his new boat assistant Cesar, was young and not as experienced. I took several minutes showing him how I like things done in the boat. How to set up my line, how I like my rods arranged in the boat, and how he can be of the best assistance to me. I explained that I have one rule in the boat. His eyes got wide as he awaited my expectations of him. “We are a team.” I said, “But more important than any fish, we must have fun in the boat!” He smiled and exhaled a sigh of relief. I’m not sure what he was expecting to hear but we all laughed.
After polling the boat for about 30 minutes without seeing anything to cast to, the boat was quiet, everyone focused on the water, when suddenly Tara shouted “Permit!” Tara stopped the boat abruptly with his pole. He had spotted a permit hanging out in about 3 feet of water about 200 feet away from the boat.
The fish was not cruising, it was just holding still, and with the sun and wind behind us we didn’t dare get too close as we didn’t want to spook it. Due to the depth and structure in the water, we decided that wading was not the best option and that we should make the cast from the boat. Tara released his hold on the boat and allowed the wind to blow us within about 100 feet of the fish where he again held the boat in place with his pole.
“Eddie” Tara whispered. “It’s a good sized permit. I don’t want to get too close; can you make the cast from here?”
“I think I’m good from here. Don’t get too close” I replied.
I stripped additional line from the reel so I could make the cast, and as Cesar arranged my line exactly how I had requested, I was evaluating the situation and determining where I wanted to place the fly. With a heavily weighted fly and the permit facing directly away from me, I was concerned with the fly and/or line spooking the fish. Landing a fly immediately in front of a fish like this, or too close to it, can potentially cause the fish to be visually startled. I wanted the fish to hear the fly land but not see it. Hopefully the fish would investigate the noise and seek out a meal in my new experimental creation. I decided to present the fly about two to three feet to the right side of the permit and even with its tail, well out of its view but close enough for it to hear.
After a few false casts I let go of the line and sent the loop on the way. It felt good and the loop seemed to be on target when the line stopped abruptly and bounced back toward the boat. The new assistant was so focused on the fish that he didn’t realize the fly line was under his foot.
Very apologetic, the assistant repeatedly said “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry…” Tara’s philosophy with boat assistants is that if they don’t know, you must be patient and teach them; but once they know better, he will not hesitate to reprimand them. We both reassured Cesar that everything was fine and prepared for a second cast.
Fortunately, Tara was still holding our position against the wind. We had not lost any ground and the fish still had no idea we were there. I made a second cast and sent the fly on its way. This time the line was unrestricted and the fly, with great fortune, landed exactly where I wanted it to. The Permit immediately turned to investigate the noise of the fly plopping into the water. This was the first time we were able to see the fishes size. It appeared to be an above average fish.
Tara had released his push pole from the bottom and the wind was blowing us toward the fish as quickly as I could strip the line toward me. The fish was hovering over the fly and I needed to add some movement to it in order to make it appear alive. But with the boat now drifting toward the fish, I just couldn’t strip line fast enough to move the fly. With no other option, I put the rod between my legs and quickly began gathering line with both hands. Retrieving the the line hand over hand I was able to pick up the slack and move the fly. After the fly twitched, the fish followed it. I increased the speed of the retrieve hoping to simulate prey, fleeing from the predator and the Permit pounced on the fly. Tara saw the fish eat the fly and began to yell “He ate it! Set the Hook!!”
I too began to holler, I turned my back to the fish and began shouting to the young assistant to get to the back of the boat. The wind had blown us so close to the fish and there was about 50 feet of line piled on the floor of the boat. I was concerned that when the fish took off, the line may get tangled around Cesar’s feet.
Permit eat a lot of crab, shrimp and shell fish. With no teeth, they don’t chew there food in a traditional manner. They crush their prey with boney plates that are located on the top and bottom of the inside of their mouth. Consequently, they are accustomed to sharp shells that are constantly poking at their mouth parts while they are eating. For this reason, once a permit has the fly in its mouth, it will normally not instantly flee just because of the prick of a hook. This all changes once the fish feels pressure from the angler pulling on the line.
The sharp and coherent assistant, quickly got to the back of the boat so as not to get entangled in the line, while I was checking to insure that the line was not tangled on anything else, including my own feet. I pulled the line hard with my line hand to insure the hook was set well and the fish instantly headed toward the middle of the bay. It must have looked like utter chaos in the boat with Tara screaming with emotion and me hollering at the assistant, but then again, this is something that permit anglers are accustomed to… All of this took place in about 20 seconds or so and the fish was going to have none of it. It was going full speed straight toward open water and was stripping yards of backing off of my reel at an unbelievable rate.
I load my permit reels with 300 yards of backing so I was confident that things would be routine from here on out. Little did I know, 300 yards would prove to be, not nearly enough. A few moments later, the amount of backing on the reel was getting to be less and less, I was getting nervous that we would soon run out of line. The problem being, that the that the fish had no intention of slowing down.
Tara was very attentive to what was happening and we both looked at each other and thought the same thing. We had to chase after the permit. Without anyone saying a word, tara began poling the boat in the direction of the fish as quickly as he could, but the fish was faster… The permit still had not began to slow down. “Tara!” I yelled. “Fire up the motor, Im almost out of line!”
Tara got the motor going and began cruising after the fish. This gets a bit challenging because he has to gage his speed very carefully, he needed to be going faster than the fish (which was completely out of view) yet not too fast for me to be able to reclaim line on the reel and still keep plenty of tension on the fish. We continued chasing the fish and reclaiming line for about a mile until I had plenty of backing back on my reel. Tara stopped the boat, I increased pressure on the line and the permit had finally stopped its initial run.
The fight was now on, the tug of war had begun. Doing my best to maintain a good fighting angle on the permit, so that it was continually fighting the power of my Sage Salt 9 weight fly rod. I would soon discover that although I had caught many permit on 9 weight rods over the years, this would be the day that I wished I had an 11 or 12 weight. Quadruple checking the drag setting on my Sage 8000 reel, it would now become a chess match… At this point things had calmed down in the boat and Cesar said “Wow its 11:15 am. We got a late start and still hooked a permit before lunch” We all agreed that we couldn’t ask for a more fortunate circumstance on a more beautiful day.
After changing positions of the rod in my hands several times and switching the rod from my left hand, to my right and back again, I heard Cesar say “Wow its been one hour.” This made me sweat a bit because I had yet to feel the Permit begin to tire.
Not too long after that, the fish was within about 100 yards of the boat and we could see it for the first time. The water was gin clear and the sun was behind us at just the right angle. The boat was dead silent as we all marveled at the beautiful site of this magnificent fish against the sandy bottom of the bay.
Tara then pointed out in the distance “Eddie, look at that big shark.” The large shark must of been able to sense something going on and was making a deliberate bee line directly toward the large permit on the end of the line. Within moments, the permit took off on a run that was at least equal to its initial run, with shark in hot pursuit. Tara’s reaction was nothing less than perfection. He had the motor going almost instantly and the boat was at top speed within moments. I had jumped from the bow of the boat where I had been fighting the fish so that I could stabilize myself and not fall out of the boat. Without anyone saying a word, we both knew what had to be done. I had to pick up line as quickly as possible and Tara had to separate the Shark from the permit. He could not cruise directly toward the shark because the boat would run over the line. So he chose to cruise to the right of the line in the water and head straight toward the shark which was still hot on the heals of the permit. As we got closer to the shark, Tara began revving the motor in pulses from very high rpm’s to idle, over and over again as he was closing the distance on the shark. His hope was that the sound of the motor would detract the sharks attention from the permit.
Meanwhile I had a completely different issue on my hands. While the boat was chasing the shark, I had no pressure on the fish at that point but we would have to take care of the shark situation first. I had at least 150 yards of slack to retrieve on my reel. I had to retrieve it very quickly and hope that the fish would still be on the other end once I was done. I also had to do it carefully, so the backing would be tight enough on the spool that there would not be any binding if and when we ever got the shark away from the fish and if the fish decided to make another big run.
Eventually we were able to separate the shark from its potential dinner, regain all of the backing on the reel, and much to everyones relief, the fish was still on the other end of the line.
“Eddie, do you need water?” asked Cesar.
“Yes Please” I replied. We had been fighting the permit now for 3 hours, gaining most of the line back only to have the fish take it back out again. This happened over and over and over again. And in an instant, while pulling with all my might, my bent rod bounced back to a straight position and line went completely limp. I looked back at Tara and Cesar. We all knew what this meant. Murphy’s law is always at play when fishing for permit and we all just looked at each other with disappointment. Not a word was spoken… We all knew that losing a fish of this magnitude was more probable than landing it, yet we all had hoped it wouldn’t happen.
I was reeling the slack line back onto my reel and wondering if my friends at the lodge would even be interested in another story about the big one that got away, when suddenly the pressure of the permit was back on the rod. When the rod went limp, the fish was at least a couple hundred yards away from us and completely out of our view. The fish must have made an about face and headed directly toward us. What ever the case, the fight was still on, and the permit had decided to head toward very shallow water. We continued our pursuit of the permit until it was in about 3 feet of water. we had the fish cornered. The boat on one side of the fish and an occasional island on the other side. The small island, of white sand and a few small mangroves was only about 100 feet across. In low tide, this island was dry but at that point with the tide up, it was about 1 foot under water. we had the fish corralled and thought we would be able to land it, when suddenly the fish turned on its side and began shimmying across the shallow section of water over the white sand. With the permit splashing water in every direction, I jumped out of the boat and began chasing the fish on foot while Tara had to fire up the motor in order to meet us on the other side of the island with the boat. Once on the other side of the island, the fish buried its nose in a chunk of coral and began grinding its nose into the coral trying to free itself from the hold I had on it with the line. This is not an uncommon thing for permit to do. Fortunately for us, Tara came screaming up with the boat and the sound of the motor frightened the fish away from coral with the line still intact.
After 5 hours of shear fight, I was exhausted, we had tried everything. Cesar continued to bring me water periodically and Tara was using the boat, with and without the motor, to aid in the fight by keeping good side angles on the fish so that we were always forcing the fish to fight. At a close distance, this can be easily done by the angler by simply changing the rod angles; but has virtually no effect when the fish is more than a hundred yards away from the boat. I had caught small Marlin and giant tarpon but had never had the butt section of my rod doubled over for so long as I did with this fish. I could feel the cork continually flexing as the rod was bent through the entire bottom of the rod. Suddenly I felt the cork slip. The glue that secured the cork on the rod had finally given way to the constant surging and flexing and the cork handle was now loose.
We had the fish now within 100 feet from the boat and I actually began to think that we may actually land it. We had crossed back and forth across the 2 mile bay several times. We were in about 4 feet of water and were finally able to get the fish very near the boat. But every time we thought the fish would give up, it decided to run another hundred or so feet.
Normally when permit get close to the boat after a good fight, we can wait for the fish to turn on its side and simply pull it close and grab it. But when this fish turned on its side, I simply could not budge it due to its weight. I had been fighting this fish on 16 pound test leader and even though the fish was not pulling against me, my tackle simply wasn’t heavy enough to get it closer to the boat.
“Tara, I thing its about ready” I said. Tara came down off of the poling platform and sent Cesar up in his place. Tara and I had been in this position many times and we both knew, or at least we thought we knew how to get this fish in the boat.
Tara needed Cesar to keep the boat facing the fish in case it decided to run under the boat. Before he could finish explaining to Cesar what was needed, the fish took another run directly under the boat. It was as if the fish was listening to our conversation and we had just given our battle plan to the enemy. The permit seemed to know exactly what we didn’t want it to do.
With my rod doubled under the boat and the fish at full speed, risk of cutting the line, breaking the rod or both was extremely
high. The chaos in the boat that began the adventure almost 6 hours earlier had started up again. Cesar, trying to turn the boat, found the push pole stuck in the soft sand with the boat wedging it into a position that he could not get it out. Tara was yelling orders at Cesar while he clambered through the boat, tripping over the cooler in his rush to get to the stern and get the pole free from its stuck position. While I on the other hand jumped off the bow, hanging the rod over the side of the boat with the rod doubled over and half in the water. I had to get the the back of the boat as quickly as possible without breaking the rod. In my attempt to do so, I found myself tripping over the center seat as I jumped to the rear seat only to have the seat cushion slip out from under my foot. With the rod in one hand I fell to back of the boat landing upside down in the bottom of the boat with an anchor in my lower back. I was shouting “Im sorry, I’m sorry!!” for during my clumsy journey to the back of the boat, Cesar was trying to get off the platform and out of Tara’s way; and I had clobbered him in the face with my free hand on my way to the bottom of the boat.
Unbelievably the permit was still connected to my line and while lying on my back, I continued to hold the bent rod up and over the side of the boat as if a college student had just tripped down a flight of stairs with his beer in hand, laying at the bottom of the stairs with his mug held high, proud that he hadn’t spilled a drop.
Unfortunately the fish understood the plan perfectly. Tara regained control of the boat, I didn’t get injured and Cesar
immediately forgave me for punching him in the face. The fly line however, was wrapped around the motor and the fish was still on a dead sprint away from the boat.
Tara grabbed the rod from my had and began feeding it under the motor while I got up and retrieved the rod on the other side of the transom. By some stroke of luck, the permit was still on the line and within about 10 minutes, we had the permit near the boat again and we were ready for round two. Tara was able to grab the permit just in front of the tail, the fish still had plenty of energy and was flopping all around drenching Tara with splashing water. Tara is no small man and was able to hoist the massive permit into the boat.
We quickly took a photo and I jumped into the water with the beautiful permit. I have a tradition of swimming with each and every permit that I catch, holding it gently at the wrist, while we both swim peacefully together reviving the tired fish so that it can swim away under its own power.
With my eyes open and my head under water, for this brief period, I was swimming with this amazing creature in its own environment. I released my hold of its tail and continued to swim with it for about 5 seconds until it realized that it was free. It disappeared into the water and swam out of the range of my visibility. I stood up staring at the water in the direction that the permit had swam even though I could not see where it had gone. There was just nothing to say…
I’ve caught plenty of great fish in my life and although the photos show an incredible specimen of the sea, they can not tell the story of the chaos, adventure and luck that will forever be seared into each of our memories.