The Quiet Quest
A bikini clad woman on the bow, a sickle tail flagging in the windless morning, from my elevated perch on the poling platform this alluring combination is “as good as it gets.”
It’s mid-September in the Florida Key’s backcountry, the horizon boat-less. Over the mirrored Gulf of Mexico to the north, billowing storm clouds ramble slowly, their menacing flashes silenced by distance. Rebecca, poised, rod in hand is still as the day. Her ever present exuberance throttled by an approaching fish. The only outward signs of excitement, a slight tremor in the rod hand.
From above we’re closely scrutinized by a regal Bald Eagle perched in a stout black mangrove tree, anchored on a sand spit key a stone’s throw away. Though wary and watchful, he seems content to glare thru yellow eyes.
“Wait.” I say softly, just above a whisper. “Give him another few seconds.”
Rebecca and I have been following the movements of the lone tail for a full five minutes, seems hours. In whispered silence we track the fin, aggressively searching a sliver channel. Working up the edge of the narrow slot the shadow pauses, the black tail surfs above an expanding cloud of sand, pushed into the flowing current by a burrowing head. The sound of rushing water racing by the skiff seems deafening, the velocity rivaling a swollen mountain stream. I’m holding tight to the imbedded push-pole vibrating in the outgoing tide, conscience of the catastrophe any noise will bring. The fish is close, a hundred feet.
“Anytime Becky, lead him, remember the current.”
Rebecca takes a breath and holds, aping a sniper setting a shot, cocks an arm and shoots the half-dollar size crab at the foraging target. Her aim is precise, the offering lands two feet up-current of the head. When the fish turns for the crab breathing becomes impossible. Rebecca, holding the twelve pound braid lightly, between two delicate fingers suddenly let go.
“He’s got it! I felt him pick it up!”
She flips the bail, the Loomis rod bends and the number two circle hook buries into soft skin covering carapace crushing jaws. Rebecca whoops, spooking the eagle to flight and with the flash of a silver dragster, the permit streaks across the sugar sand.
The fish is fifty yards away before the pole is freed. It dips into another finger channel as I push in pursuit. Rebecca holds steady, watching the dwindling spool rapidly surrender line. When she turns I’m pleased to see a smile and not the look of panic most anglers would wear.
“You’ve learned well grasshopper.” I tease, meaning every word. In the school of shallow water permit stalking she’s my prize pupil, and I beam like a proud father.
For those of us addicted to the “Prince of the Flats” mornings like this are the high of highs. Permit is the Holy Grail of shallow water angling. With ladle size eyes and lateral line sensitivity surpassing Doppler radar, an adult permit foraging in a foot of water rivals any angling challenge. In tranquil seas such as todays, the difficulty expands exponentially by the power of ten. One of the most accurate characterizations describing “The Quiet Quest” came from friend and fellow guide, Travis Rolan.
Just hours before sunset, within sight of Key West, we’re tossing flies at multitudes of permit cruising glass water. Wakes cut far and wide across the turtle grass flat, we’re silent as ghost. Still, a strange radius, an invisible border lying just beyond Travis’s ninety plus foot casting range repels our skittish marks.
“I don’t understand.” I said. “We’re making no sound. The light’s low, so they can’t be spotting us. What’s spooking them?”
Travis watched another set of fish peel away, just out of reach.
“They feel us.” He states metaphysically. “It’s a Zen thing.”
This theory goes hand-in-hand with a practice many flats guides employ. They disconnect their skiffs battery cables on calm days, believing permit pick up on the electrical field and shy away.
It’s doubtful even the most proficient fly angler could have hooked the fish Rebecca battles. Without the extended range of a spinning rod, or the enticing vibrations of the live crab, the odds of “an eat” drop alongside those of elephant hunter armed with a slingshot. Delivering a crab pattern to a distant strike zone, let alone linger it the time necessary to achieve a take would be next to impossible in the swift current.
Captain Alex Boehm, golfer Jack Nicklaus’s full time guide believes, “Chasing permit with a fly rod defines an angler.” I’m onboard with that.
Rebecca’s reel burning fight is now at the half-hour mark and again the tail waves, signaling another tactic for escape. Desperate to rub the pesky hook from its jaw, this wily member of the jack family demonstrates surprising intelligence. All Rebecca can do is hold, rod high and retrieve line while I push hard, cutting the distance to the digging fish. Finding no relief again the permit bolts off on another line stripping dash, the primary use for that oversized tail.
Once the permit reaches the end of its run the flat narrow body turned sideways is nearly impossible to wrench in on light tackle, creating a stalemate. During these lulls extra vigilance is paramount. This is shark country. The Bulls, bellies tucked in, strike from nowhere, led by vibrations of the struggling fish into the skinniest of waters, another reason to stay as close as humanly possible.
Forty-five minutes has elapsed since hook-up. The worn fish is at the boat. After grabbing the convenient tail handle, we codify our success with the camera. An extraordinary battle between a beautiful, intelligent, skillful woman and her handsome, cunning, prince is finished, now, forever etched in two like minds, shared one morning with an Eagle in the solitary splendor of the Florida Keys.