After I returned from Icast, the annual measuring festival of social media superstars at which I’ve been convinced I need to appear, I had a few days to catch up at the shop before John and I started on Sunday to formulate a plan before the tournament started on Monday.
We ran a few of the plays from the two days the week prior, purposely leaving out a few that we knew we’d be on during the tournament in order to give them an extra day of rest. In one place in particular we were pleased to find a number of fish waking around in large schools. I waded after a few of these schools, the first of which seemed more intent on bobbing stiffly than in doing anything about the fly we had to offer them. We stuck around for a while longer, one of us in the boat and one in the water, trying to make something happen, but left after a while with a plan to return a little later in the tide.
At our next spot we scared off a few, then ran nearby for some more wading. A small group of fish sucked me in to a shot that lasted longer than we wanted–the fish that appeared to be headed our way at first soon spun and headed away from us, and since I was already in the water I was left to play catch up as best I could. I flanked the three permit a few different times, and none of them resulted in a shot that didn’t feel forced. I got the fly in front of them once, on the final shot, and the reaction was expected (if slightly disappointing): the fish picked up speed, taking little bulges of water with them as they shook off toward deeper water.
After this we returned to nearby where we’d found the schools of fish earlier in the day, and we found them in great supply. At least two groups of fish were moving through, and pieces of these schools would break off and tail before returning to the rest of the group to bob nervously together in weird permit discord. I got out of the boat to wade after one such group of tails as it headed in our direction, and shortly I was surrounded by fish. I tried to pick a place to put the fly that wouldn’t shut things down by spooking the school, and when I laid a cast alongside the school the tails all reacted by slowly erecting themselves in the slick calm. I waited the requisite beats before slowly stripping the fly in and putting another cast among the tails, this time more assertively in hopes of forcing a fish to take a look. A few fish veered over to take a look, and then the school moved past the fly and forced me to get a third one in among the bobbing black triangles. This time I let the fly sit, hardly moving it, and suddenly was tight. I barely had time to set the hook before the fly line jumped up from the water and wrapped around my left hand, and I had to figure out this new problem quickly.: the only option I perceived was to step towards the fish in hopes of introducing enough slack to shed the wraps before they caused the fish to break off. As soon as I stepped nearer to the fish things went limp, and I stripped hard until the leader hit the top of the rod just in case the fish was being devious and circling back to the source of its discontent. It wasn’t, and a look at the fly confirmed that the hook had simply come out.
When I got back in to the boat John showed me the replay–thankfully, John had recorded every bit of the failed hook up attempt on his phone–and we got to watch playback in super-hilarious-motion.
We moved on throughout the day, leaving the fish in places we found them for the next day. Overall, we had decent if not amazing fishing and felt pretty good about our chances of not falling on some poor fishing over the next three days.
As forecasted, the first day of the tournament was calm. We started with a brief look in a place or two in the morning, getting a shot at a waking fish just as we were leaving a flat for elsewhere. I put the fly too close to this fish, not accounting for the distance between the fish and the surface disturbance in the deeper calm, and we watched as it skittered away from us when the fly touched down. We next headed nearby, where we ended up down current of a single fish that forced me to wade unsuccessfully after it in hopes we might get a shot. The fish never turned toward us, soon making it into some nearby deeper water where we had no chance of seeing it. I got back in to the boat, and we slid across the moving water at a depth we hoped would show us a tail. For all the pretty falling water we didn’t see another fish in the hour we fished there before we decided to change our location.
In the late morning we made a move toward the schools we’d found the day prior; though two hours early, we stopped by and decided to give it a look anyway. A large waking school of fish made its way towards us on the bank, and I hopped out immediately to get in their way. Since we had seen the fish as soon as we shut down we weren’t entirely sure where we were relative to a channel that gouged through the grass bank, and I was hesitant to walk hard at the school in case I would end up in sharkville. I tried to figure out where the fish were going to be and get there, though the school ultimately looped away from us and we never got a shot. I got back in the boat, and even though we had a few hours to wait until the tide got as it had been the day prior we decided to wait: the fish were around, clearly, and all we had to do was wait for them to come.
As the first hour slowly ticked by we had a pair of shots at fish that were coming from behind us, opposite to the direction we had anticipated. The first of these I dispatched with extreme permit prejudice, throwing the fly on the head of a fish that immediately took for deeper water. The second seemed like it was going to work perfectly, though the fish dodged the fly at the last minute and kept on its way away from us. We waited longer, waiting for the pulse of fish to come, though it never did. We had another shot at a waking fish, again from the wrong direction but that looked as well like it might work out. This fish played the same dodge as the other when it saw the fly, and John and I were bothered enough by this double snub that we actually changed flies–something we usually don’t do.
We kept on into the tide on which we’d been waiting, seeing nothing and coming slowly to the realization that the vein we’d bet so heavily would be flowing with permit was without a pulse. We left grudgingly, repulsed, and headed elsewhere for a look. Finding nothing we returned reflexively back to where we’d been, looking again for what we thought should have been there. Again we saw nothing, leaving after 20 minutes, still revolted.
Our day was timed out at 3:30, and we didn’t have a whole lot of time left. We took our best shot at a place we thought there might be a tail, and timed out while waiting for fish that never came. When lines out happened I turned towards John and started reeling up, hopping in when he idled over. We both sighed at the difficult beginning of what was going to be a tough three days of fishing. The scoreboard confirmed that fishing had been tough not only for us–a few teams had one but none had put multiple fish on the board. Going in to the second day, a single fish was what separated us from theoretically moving into hypothetical first place.
Compared to the second day of fishing, the first day felt like a flood of permit that wanted to choke themselves out with every fly we had on a rod. We worked toward a pair of tails in the morning that we never saw again, and had the rest of the fishless morning to consider what we could have done to get a shot. We went to a number of places, seeing nothing at each, before at the end of the day we made a zip code change to fish out the final hour and a half in some new water.
We found a few schools of fish in water deeper than we wanted, and had a few shots in their direction that could have worked had the fish not spooked on the delivery. In the final minutes we had a solid shot, our first and only proper opportunity of the day, at a single fish sitting in to the slow current. I put the fly short to start, causing the fish to spin away from us before re-centering into the moving water. The second cast I placed on top of the fish’s head with idiotic precision, and the fish swam off perturbed. In a few minutes the day was done, and John and I again breathed a sigh of bother at the fishing we were having. To make matters worse we later found out that Justin and Jose had caught four on this day, giving them a huge lead over even the next highest scoring team–at this point, Brandon Cyr and Connor Flanagan, who added another large fish to their first on day 1–and an even bigger lead over us with our little sippy cup of nothing we were pulling from on the way home.
The final day of fishing was another calm one. We knew that in order to make the move we wanted we were going to need a fantastic day, the likes of which I’ve personally had only once, and on top of that fact we knew we would have to do it in the face of the conditions that caused the deficit in the first place: tough stuff, when we’re talking about permit fishing with a fly rod.
There wasn’t anything to do except keep running our plays and hope that things would fall our way, and at the first spot we got a little traction. I spotted a single smaller fish on the flat downwind of us, and threw well high of it in hopes that it would be a member of a school that we’d seen recently in the same area. This guess was right, and when the fly drifted down through a sand patch the pale backs rose up around it and we waited for one to err. The bite came after longer than I thought it would, and I was nearly ready to cast again when I felt the shift from the line tightening as the current pulled on its new fly-side anchor. I stripped to come tight and we watched as the small fish jetted across the flat toward the adjacent channel. We didn’t have to start the motor on this little fish, which left a good chance of us getting another, and in a few short minutes gave our bloodless scorecard a small infusion:
We kept moving down the flat, finding another single that would have given us a great shot were it not for a cloud that kept it from us until things got tight, and thereafter went around to see if we could find the school again. We didn’t, and after fishing nearby we left for some other geography.
While the first fish was what we needed to start a comeback, the rest of the morning was spent watching our small flame gasp for air. We missed a shot at a school of small fish that I noticed too late, and then spent the balance of our morning looking hard for fish that were working hard not to be found.
By the time the afternoon rolled around, we were in a good head space but without anywhere to direct our positive energy. A pole across a flat that had shown us a few groups the day prior yielded nothing, and with an hour to go John took us to where we both knew we would time out. I had a great shot at a single tailing permit in the deep water, and while I was able to position myself as I wanted I was unable to get the fly in the right spot and scared the fish off after my second cast. We moved slowly down the bank, hoping for another opportunity as the clock ticked loudly forward.
In a few minutes we spotted some nervous water from a school of permit that were skirting a small break in the flat we were on, and I got a cast off in front of it. I was immediately tight, and while this initially felt fantastic we soon realized this was a small yellowtail instead of what we were after. I unhooked the small fish and looked up to see that the school of permit had left, and John held the boat where we were in hopes that they might return for another chance. They did, amazingly, and this time we were rewarded with another bite. This fish was what we were after, and as I cleared the line John and I had the big conversation about whether to start the motor or not. We both knew there were sharks around, but we also knew that the only way we would be able to make a move toward the podium would be with another: this fish was not huge, and with our small fish from the morning we weren’t going to move into even third place if we only caught this one. We needed another, which is a strange thing to be thinking about when you’re fighting a permit, but we decided to not start the motor and hope that the school gave us another shot in a half hour, right before lines out.
We landed the fish, scored it and took a picture:
We had a little less than 30 minutes to catch another permit from nearby where we’d just caught one, but there’s nothing like a little idiotic optimism to keep John and I in the game. I waded down past where the school had been for 15 minutes, then got back in to the boat and John approached the grass bank that the school had been rummaging around on and we waited. It was 3:27, and it only took one minute for the school to (remarkably) show itself as it rumbled over the flat. I took one cast on the right side of the school, hoping that some would break toward the fly. Some broke in our direction, and others continued towards where the strong arm sat lying in wait.
It’s pretty cool when a plan comes together, and as tournament stories go this was a great one that I’m glad to have in the memory banks. We didn’t win the tournament, but we knew that even when we hooked our third for the day. A shark showed up, which was thrilling in a gut punch kind of way, but we were able to prevent it from getting a mouth around our fish. Brandon, who had been fishing farther down the same bank, stopped by on his way towards the dock to watch us catch the fish (and also to see how big it was, as his from day 1 was the largest so far), and he graciously took some pictures when we got a hand on the creature:
With that our day was finished, and we headed back to check in. Justin Rea and Jose Ucan won, trouncing the rest of the field with an incredible 6 fish in three days. Brandon’s fish from the first day remained the largest, and he ended up in third. John and I, for the third year in a row, came in second place, though this time it felt nothing like losing. I would of course like to thank John for a great six days of permit fishing, which netted (hah! get it?) us 8 fish. I’m lucky to have him in my corner.
As I write this Chad Huff is driving down to spend the rest of the week with us, and we’ve got John boy secured to help us in our 2lb tippet permit quest, which we left off last August after catching one 4 ounces too light to qualify. Tomorrow Chad and I are going to take Kat out for some fishing, and the rest of the week we’re on the hunt for a record.
More to come