Early last week, Chad Huff came to town. We had talked back in the fall when we were fishing with Steve for the six about Chad coming to Key West and taking a stab at his first permit on fly, and I had Tuesday and Wednesday booked with John. Ian Slater added a day at the beginning, and I decided to tag along for the first day in case Ian wasn’t yelling enough (as well as to spend some time with Chad and potentially watch his first fly rod permit).

Ian met us early, and he had a long day planned. We started in an area hoping to see a tailing fish, and in the early light we scanned the surface for a spike. Chad spotted a single fish in the water, and made a great shot in front of the stationary critter. The permit kicked forward, looking for the fly that had now settled in to the grass. Ian and I both thought that the fish might have done it, and we were sorely disappointed to see the fish swim off unconnected. We had another school approach the boat, tails raised, and Ian put us in to position to wait for them to pass in range. We stood at attention until we figured they must have passed by, and as soon as we decided to move the fish appeared close to the bow in time for a short spastic cast. The fish skittered off in the early light, spooked by proximity, and we regrouped to finish the bank. There were no more shots at this spot, and Ian went nearby to another edge for a push as the light got higher.

We pushed the next edge for a half hour before racking the rod and heading to a faraway place that Ian thought would hold a fish. Within an hour we were powering down, and Chad grabbed the rod for a quick look at a place Ian had found fish the day before. We fished a lazy zigzag across a small pancake flat, every so often staking off and waiting for a target to appear. As the tide started to move the fish still refused to show, and we relocated to another long bar in the now perfect tide. For over an hour we made our way down the long bank, finding only a small school of yellow jacks for our efforts. We were perplexed that a seemingly perfect mile of flat would be devoid of permit, but Ian cranked up and headed to another spot in an attempt to make something happen. We waited for a while, had lunch, and pushed around another great looking piece of permit-less bottom for an hour before relocating once again.

The next spot was one that was nearby where Zack Stells and I had found some fish the prior Tuesday, and it didn’t take long for some fish to find us. The first was a single that had crept up behind us, and we were unable to get a shot off in time. As the light got interrupted by clouds we did our best to look for both tails and bodies, and Ian kept us creeping slowly as best he could in the wind that had built to near 20. This same wind foiled a shot we had at an approaching school, burying the fly in Chad’s head on the final leg of its aerial journey. We had two fish cross a small feature in front of the boat, and held there for a while to see if more would come through. The wind blew as the fish continued, and we made what we could of the tough angles on another shot. We ran around to go through the spot again, and Ian soon spotted a potential permit school in some deeper water. The fish disappeared, and we waited in the wind and clouds for them to show again. As soon as we broke the tension with the realization they must not be permit, Chad had a quick shot at the fish near the boat. They spooked off, but Chad remained rapt for the next opportunity.

The next shot came close to the boat once again, and in an effort to stop the boat Ian planted the pole near the gunwhale. As the boat spun so too did everything on it, Chad included. Physics dictated an unfortunate reality when the boat stopped: Chad was still moving, and continued to even when the deck was no longer under foot. He went for a quick dip, landing on his feet but blowing the fish out in the process. After retrieving Chad and setting his phone out to dry we fished through the spot again, hoping for a redemptive opportunity. This never came, and Ian moved us to what would be our final trench of the day to dig in to.

We arrived at the spot a half hour later, and Ian started pushing the boat into the wind. Chad had a close shot at a pair of fish that spooked, and a few tailing fish made some spikes for us to chase after. In a few minutes, Chad and I left the boat to give chase on foot to another school of fish and Ian poled off the flat to give us some space. Chad and I waded to the end of the flat, getting a fair number of shots before reaching the end of the bank and turning around. We ambled back toward where we had seen the tails at the outset, getting shots of varying quality throughout our walkabout journey.

The fish kept swimming by, and every time we made a move to get back in to the boat we were drawn back by another tail to chase down. Chad had a fish hot on the fly as he picked up to re-cast, and after two hours of good casts at bad fish I took a few shots as well. Between us we had another five or six shots at fish. A fish ripped after the fly once, and we held our breath waiting to come tight. Sadly, sadness prevailed once again and we stuck with the failing light for all it was worth. After two-and-a-half hours of wading we headed for the last time to the boat where Ian picked us up.

Looking back, there are a few things we could have done differently. Primarily, a fly change would have been in order–when we left the boat we did so with a spool of tippet and nothing more. That said, we were stuck slowly in an evolving situation that fenced us in before we knew it. More than something we could have done differently, we were left with an evening we were happy to have been a part of and one that perfectly sums up permit fishing: sometimes, the little bastards don’t bite.

Thanks are due to Ian for a great day on the water, and it was a great introduction for Chad to the inbuilt unfairness of standing on the bow of a boat with a fly rod in pursuit of permit. We rested up that night for an early start with John O’Hearn the following day.

The second day of our fishing was actually my birthday, and despite the fact that we were hoping for Chad to get his first permit Chad and John insisted that I take the rod to start. As generous as I never am about bow time, it didn’t take much to convince me that I was up. We pushed along a flat that had shown John a fair number of shots the day before, seeing nothing and biding our time talking about things not fishing related. Chad saw a possible tail in the distance just as John asked him what he did for a living, and by the time they were deep in a conversation about the (fascinating!) topic of electrical code I was out of the boat after a shy tail in some deeper water. John and Chad continued to talk, and the fish moved about a hundred feet away and tailed again. I tried to get closer, but soon the fish returned to where it had been and tailed again. I threw the fly in front of it as it tailed a second time, and just as I saw the fly land I noticed a giant knot in my running line. I let go of the line to deal with the mess I’d made, and watched as the fish tailed hard on the fly while I struggled to get things right. I set the hook and returned to the nearly cleared knot, watching as the clock ran out as the fish swam off. Just in time I cleared the knot, and then dropped the rod. I picked it up again (thankfully) before the fish could drag it off, and hopped back in the boat to fight the fish. This fish was a nice one, and a great birthday present. John snapped some pictures:

Chad holds a fish for Nate. A great way to start the day. Photo/guiding John O'Hearn

After this Chad was up, and John brought us to a new place for the late morning. Chad soon had a shot at a school of waking fish that snaked by the bow, though they passed by without giving up a bite. The school didn’t appear too upset with our efforts, and John kept up with them as they swam upwind. Every so often they would be barely in range, never giving us a great shot but never acting like they were done. John kept poling and Chad kept throwing, and finally after a few hundred yard of work they slowed down and allowed Chad to get a fly in their midst on a second hero cast. The fish apparently read the how-to manual, and everything happened as it was supposed to. Chad cleared the line and John poled after the fish, and I readied myself for the moment not to screw up. Within a few minutes the fish was boatside, and I (of course) botched the first tail grab attempt. The second one got both hands involved and I didn’t let go, and the deed was done: Chad’s first permit on fly, and a nice one at that:

Chad Huff with his first permit on fly. That's right. Guiding/photo John O'Hearn

Not much could be better than the day had been so far, but we did our best to increase our numbers. I had another shot at a pair of permit coming at us. One bit the fly, though I couldn’t make anything more happen with my awful hook set. We had another few shots that might have worked but didn’t before heading onwards, now in search of a tarpon for the better part of a potential double slam.

When John took us to the tarpon spot it didn’t take long to have a shot. I was up, and despite the constant commentary from the two other guys on the boat was able to get the fly in the water. The fish ate but I was again nowhere to be found for the hook set, and after it jumped off we plucked our way towards what we hoped would be more shots. In an hour we found nothing, soon moving on to another place in hopes of getting a tarpon. A few fish trickled by in the waves, and I had a few shots but couldn’t crack them. We had another bite from a nice fish that I again botched, and we staked off to have lunch and discuss the plan. The question in its entirety was whether to continue our pursuit of a slam or go back to permit fishing, and we chose the latter. John made a short pass for a bonefish on some nearby white sand, and Chad had his own miniature meltdown when confronted with a pair of wily 1 pound bonefish. If you haven’t yet been able to tell so far in this report, the giving of a hard time by the members of this particular enterprise was well past 11, and Chad probably hasn’t heard the last of pulling the fly away from certain inhalation.

We returned to permit fishing, and in the final hour of the day Chad and I went shot for shot to keep things interesting. I had a pair of fish on some white sand give a great shot up, and the fly landed where it needed to. One of the fish kicked forward and ate the fly, though I only came tight briefly before the pair skittered off into the nearby channel. Chad had a couple shots at some tailing fish without a bite before we headed in for the day.

On our last day of fishing, the pressure was off. We had already caught two, one of which was a first, and both were big. That said, permit fisherman are nothing if not euphoric in their optimism (read: idiotically hopeful) and we set out to make another fish happen. Where the day before had given us a strong wading capture we found only a few fish that were tailing in the deep water, barely ticking on the surface every thirty seconds or so. A few times we were able to get the fly near the tail-tips only challenge, but the deep water prevented us from seeing enough to work with. After 10 minutes the fish moved off for good, and I got back in the boat for the ride to near where Chad had caught his fish the day before. At this place there were no fish to begin with as there had been the day before, but we stuck with it and soon a few schools began to pass by. Chad got out of the boat to wade at a passing school, and after he got into position another school sneaked by to his right. With two lines of permit travel I got out of the boat as well, and I mentioned to Chad that we were going to have a wade-off. His response (“Bring it on”) should have tipped me off to what might happen.

It took a half hour of fishing for the wade-off to reach its apex. A large school of fish swam down the flat, and decided to swim between myself and Chad. We both threw into the group, and while I was left with slack Chad was tight on a solid fish. John and I watched Chad complete the experience with a in-the-water grab:

More from Chad's full wade. Photo/guiding John O'Hearn

After catching his first the day before, Chad decided to get fancy and go full wade for #2. John O'Hearn photo/guiding

Chad's full wade close up. Photo/guiding John O'Hearn

We fished through the spot a little longer, though the shots never came the way they did after Chad’s capture. I spent some time in the water trying to get into position for another passing group, though in short order the water was higher than it should be and I was stuck in a situation. I waded around in the waist high water in hopes of a fish to put on the board for the still ongoing wade-off, though soon I heard John and Chad cackling like a couple of hyenas in the background. I headed back to the boat and handed in my blank scorecard, reminding myself that it’s never a good idea to challenge a Huff to anything fishing related.

The fishing continued for us in the same spot from the boat for a short while before John got it in his head to go somewhere else, and we headed there in the early afternoon. I grabbed the rod and stood on the bow as John pushed down the edge. Within a few minutes we encountered a school of permit on the flat, mudding shyly in the current. I threw a cast at the puffs, and John dd his best to hold the boat in the increasing current, but the fish never gave us a clean shot. The most we could muster was a cast at where the fish had been, never close enough to get into play. Soon the fish blew off the flat, heading to the deeper water nearby and suspending in the flow.

I threw into the school and came tight immediately, though it was not a permit that we were tight to. A surrogate yellow jack, surrounded by its friends, rose up in the water as I reeled it in. The yellow jack found its way to the cooler in short order, and I tied on a new fly for the permit that were now in greater supply off the flat. I threw a cast in front of the school, and we watched as a few fish fell in behind the crab fly. Another cast was met with interest as well, though this was (yellow) hijacked once again. Within 30 minutes I was close to being very frustrated: the fish were there, and I was receiving interest but no commitment. A fish tracked the fly along the edge of the flat, and took a nip at it as the fly sat in the current. I missed it. Another pair of little fish appeared on the flat, and one of them dug hard on the fly as the current dragged it across the grass. This fish I never felt, but in a few minutes we had some apparent redemption. A larger fish ambled onto the flat, and I put the fly up-current of the fish. We watched the fish dip down on the fly as I stripped it and shake its head when I set the hook, and in no time the large permit had cleared the line from the deck and was heading out to sea. No sooner had the reel begun to spin than we were slack once again, and I reeled in the trashed fly. The fish had crushed the whole unit, leaving things caddywhompus and beaten looking. I re-tied the fly, and while I offered Chad the next shot he was kind enough to let me continue with my mini meltdown. With the two hyenas in full cackle I made up my mind to get some redemption or fall down trying.

In 10 minutes I saw a blush of color off the edge, and threw at it. I came tight on a strip, and John and Chad both howled that this couldn’t be a permit. I never felt a headshake to indicate that it was another yellow jack, and when the back tail appeared it confirmed that I’d made good. The fish was truly a tiny one, but nothing an arm’s length hold and a lean back couldn’t solve:

A tiny fish, made to look bigger than it was for a picture. Photo/guiding John O'Hearn

Chad immediately grabbed the rod, ready to come over the top. He mentioned that it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes for him to get it done, which I hoped (and sort of didn’t at the same time) would be the case. His first cast landed him in the midst of a school of yellow jacks, of which one made it onto the hook. Chad stripped it in, and threw back in to the permit. Again, he was tight to a yellow jack. This one was brought to the boat even faster, and John re-positioned the skiff for another shot at permit. As the group of permit rose up in the deep water Chad threw into them and we saw a large fish fall in and wiggle hard on the fly. Chad set the hook and set about clearing the line, though his hook up met the same fate as mine had earlier: the fish jettisoned the fly and he was left to (literally) pick up the slack. Chad began hooking more yellow jacks on his subsequent casts, and he perfected the quick catch by stripping in line with a straight rod. I, for my part, worked on how to unhook them as slowly as possible–pointing out how each yellow jack was an individual snowflake of golden rarity. It goes without saying that the crap giving was reaching a new maximum each time he hooked another yellow jack.

When the permit finally vacated, John brought us to where we’d finished up the day before. Chad and I again went shot for shot, though the best we could make happen was another near miss from a member of a pair of permit that tracked the fly cross current on the swing.

I’d like to thank Ian and John both for some amazing fishing over the three days, and to have Chad along for his first was a special moment. I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear of Chad–at the end of the month I’ll be in the glades with Steve and Chad will be along for moral (and metallic) support.

 

More to come,

 

nathaniel