“The one that got away” is a universal idea when it comes to fishing. From a big brown trout wrapping you around the roots of a tree to the tarpon that took one more jump than you were ready for and shook the hook, we’ve all had those fish that got away. But, as I have delved deeper into fly fishing, I’ve learned that for many anglers there is an entire species that has gotten away: the Permit.
Plenty of magazine articles have proclaimed the difficulty of landing a permit; from their finicky feeding nature, to the sheer power of their runs, to the anxiety about presenting the perfect fly and getting a solid hook set and not f*cking it up. The first time I went permit fishing, I had no idea that I, too, would be haunted by these special fish. Fortunately I have a fishing attitude shaped by years of guiding and the group of guys that I tend to fish with – one that leans towards the appreciation of the experience, the thrill of the take and knowing that just one good fish is more than enough to justify time out on the water. I’ve never been too concerned about this concept of “the one that got away” because in my mind there is always another bend in the river, another school of baby tarpon cruising the mangroves or another group of tails sticking just out of the water further up the flat. That was until my first trip to Belize three years ago where I happened to hook and break off a total of four permit – all from classic fishing disasters: line wrapped around the reel, line wrapped around the butt of the rod, trying to horse the fish in, a major wind knot in my leader that was totally inexplicable (honestly). This all compounded into a feeling of longing to land one of these bad boys – especially as my buddy Cole Burnham had landed a nice sized permit on his first saltwater cast – ever! Despite the fantastic experience down in Belize on my first trip, I wanted my redemption.
I don’t know if the adage “good things come to those who wait” really applies, but good things do happen when you get a chance for a redemptive trip to Belize to get a second shot at landing a permit. I have been very fortunate over the last couple of years to stay in touch with Craig Hayes (who runs Turneffe Flats, an amazing destination off the coast of Belize City) and the Turneffe Atoll Trust (a really special conservation organization). I was lucky enough to find a time that Craig could make work during their off season down at Turneffe, and I headed down with Cole to try again for permit and bonefish, knowing that if nothing else, I was guaranteed plenty of time on the water, Belikan Beer and 5 Barrel Rum.
We landed in Belize City with what looked like temperate weather, but conditions quickly turned as we got on the boat and headed out to the atoll. In what now can only be called a tradition, Cole and I waited too long to properly gear up for the rain and high waves and thus spent the ride laughing in the face of the oncoming salt and fresh water. We arrived at Turneffe soaked through and excited to be there.
The plan for the first two days was for Cole and me to split up – fishing with guides Dubs and Mike – and then fishing together for the remaining days with Dubs (who is a legendary guide in the Belizean fly fishing community). As much as I enjoy the time that Cole and I spend in and out of a boat together, I was relieved to have a chance to hone my casting and presentation for a couple of days before having to be dialed in for team fishing. The one thing about fishing during the off-season is that weather can change in an instant, and our first day out on the water was indicative of what was to come. The rods were still wet with the rain from the night before, but the flats were glassy…clouds receding and the sun adding its glow to the sky. Dubs and I immediately started to look for schools of permit while the weather held, but the fish never appeared, and so we settled for hunting bones on one of the bigger flats. It took a little while to get back into the retrieve – the short and quick strips of a shrimp pattern or the sloooow long strips for a crab. However despite the “bad light” I was soon hooking nice bones, feeling the energy in the bend of the Solar 8wt and enjoying the sound of my reel as they took their runs. Dubs was excited by the arsenal of T&T rods that I was fishing, it turns out he learned to cast with a T&T and it has remained his personal favorite. He was somewhat less enthusiastic about the flies that I had tied and insisted on fishing. Despite his skepticism, I ended up catching and landing fish on a couple different patterns before the wind started picking up and the rain was imminent. On the way back to the lodge, racing the storm, I couldn’t help but wonder about Cole’s day and whether he had made contact with any permit. I still had that nagging feeling of “that would be awesome, but…” as I had yet to settle my score with those tricky fish. Cole and I shared the day’s adventures over stiff rumaritas at the lodge bar, lamenting over the lack of permit so far (he also didn’t really get a shot) but reveling in the amazing place we were enjoying and the delicious appetizers that kept appearing in front of us.
The next morning had a more ominous weather outlook – low dense clouds covering the atoll in a canopy of gray – but knowing that as long as the weather stayed stable we would have shots at fish, we wolfed down our breakfasts and head to the dock. I fished with Mike while Cole jumped in with Dubs. Mike cruised our boat along the mangroves, dutifully searching for any sign of permit. It wasn’t long before we were both excited to see the push of a wake and the possibility of the number of permit beneath. I got my line organized at my feet, held a crab pattern in my left hand and the Solar 10wt in my right, ready for the first good opportunity to take a shot. Mike positioned the boat and I got a cast in the right direction, but a little too long – lining the fish as they shifted course back out towards deeper water. I shook off the frustration, and thrilled by the prospect of the pursuit, we were after the fish.
A few more well positioned angles and better casts into the school had me perplexed. The fish were moving slowly. The fly was going right in front of them. Not one took it! We changed the color of the fly and got back at it – giving the fish a chance to settle down, hopefully getting back onto the feed. Mike circled us around to get enough lead on the fish and I waited until the fly was in the middle of the school before starting my retrieve and… BAM – I connected! The fish went on a short run, but before I could get all my slack line to the reel, the tension in the line faded and the fish was gone.
“Here we go again,” I thought, shaking my head, adrenaline rushing from just having hooked up with yet another permit that left me in the dust. The school had already turned away from the mangroves and disappeared, and there I was, left with nothing but the rod in my hand. I kept replaying the moment in my head – what should I have done differently? Was I too precious about my hook set? Had I built this fish into more than it was?? Surely they weren’t THAT much more special or difficult to catch than a large trout sipping on small dry flies, light tippet and a 1wt…right?! Before I could go much further down the rabbit hole, Mike pointed out a group of tails moving in a circle by a mangrove island – daisy chaining. I cleared my head, stripped line from my reel and prepared for my next attempt at a permit. Two casts into the school and I had hooked up – solid hook set – line successfully onto the reel without any snags – drag was set at an appropriate level and it was ON! I couldn’t believe the rush and pure strength of the fish. I have caught bones and small tarpon before with similar tackle, but the sheer power of this permit was unexpected. With plenty of encouragement from Mike, I was able to stay mistake free, enjoy the runs that took me well into my backing and then FINALLY land and release my first permit.
After watching the beautiful fish disappear into the water from whence it came, Mike and I looked at each other, savoring the moment of triumph until we simultaneously thought: “Bonefish”. The boat sped through the mangrove channels as we headed to a nearby flat in search of a bone to get us closer to the slim chance at a grand slam. With the wind picking up and clouds rolling in, I decided on the Solar 9wt, as I didn’t want to miss an opportunity at getting the fly right where I wanted it. I wasn’t messing around with any of my ties and went straight to a Pop’s Bitters when we crept up on some feeding bones. I overshot the first group, the water exploding around where my line landed across the backs of tailing fish. Luckily there are plenty of bonefish on the flats of Turneffe and it didn’t take much wading until we came across some more feeding fish. Despite the elements I was able to get my fly right in the path of the bones – one of them saw and charged the fly – I set the hook and it took off! I put quite a bit of pressure on the fish to land it quickly, and the strength of the bent rod helped me to get it to us so we could be back in the boat and in search of the rare resident tarpon before the weather got the best of us. My first permit and two thirds of the way to a grand slam…what a day.
Mike said that despite the fact that we were considerably out of tarpon season he knew a secret spot that he would take me to if I promised to forget the place and how we got there. I guess that every guide has a right to his secret spots, and I guaranteed him that even if I wanted to sell his secrets that there was no way that I could remember the small creeks and passageways through the dense mangroves – so we fired up the skiff and made a beeline to the secret tarpon lagoon. As soon as we cut the motor a tarpon rolled off of the bow of the boat. It made the next hour spent blind-casting into the lagoon seem like a potentially fruitful idea, but left us empty handed as the rain started to come and the day came to a close. I was beyond ecstatic to be back at the lodge to share my day with Cole, who had spent his time with Dubs polling for permit on the flats – a very different experience than fishing to the feeding schools. He and Dubs had seen a very large single permit that gave them one shot, but had little luck as they hunted for more.
The next four days Cole and I fished together with Dubs and we got the best out of Turneffe during the off season: wading the smooth flats around the lodge targeting bonefish with the TNT 7wt at dawn and dusk, squinting against the sun dancing on the ocean trying to pick out tails above the water, drinking beers while eating lunch on the boat while watching fish feed around us, chasing schools of permit as they cruised along the mangroves, polling and hunting for single and double permit on beautiful grassy flats, getting lost in the patterns on the ocean floor waiting for the right shape to cross our vision, wading along the reef as the tide went out – revealing more bonefish tails than we could count, fishing next to Dub’s family fishing camp for big hearty bones that took us on long runs, hooking into acrobatic barracuda, enjoying rum cocktails at the lodge, tying flies in the room with hopes of presenting them to fish the very next day, and racing the rain, often finding ourselves right in the thick of it with no other choice but to get wet, have a beer and wait it out.
Cole caught a permit that took us on more runs that I can recount and I was lucky enough to land my second permit – a single which took off after I set the hook, winding us through a bunch of mangroves before heading back out into the depths. It was only with creative polling from Dubs and the patience to stay calm and keep a tight line through it all that was I able to bring this fish to the boat. Turneffe is a hard place to leave, especially not knowing when you are going to make it back – but this time I had gained some ground on my permit score – and chasing a few tarpon around Belize City on the way to the airport helped to ease the disappointment of heading home. There are always going to be fish that get away – the ones that haunt our dreams and inspire us to fish that one last pool and take that one last cast before heading off the water – but the nature of a fisherman is to continue the pursuit of his or her passion in spite of the failures, because the prospect of success is so magical.