Last week I fished for a few days with Chad Huff and John O’Hearn, part of Chad’s now annual trip down to Key West to chase permit. As part of our ongoing effort to make things harder than they should be, our intention was to throw 2 pound tippet at permit exclusively with John. We had a close call in February with a 20-pound fish on 4lb, and since a fish large enough to make the cut on 4 is rarer this time of year than in the fall and winter we opted for the lighter tippet/smaller target approach. We were using the same rig we’d been using for 4#, and while different than the rig I used for a few years when we were fishing for the 2lb shark record I figured it would hold up to the faster but less far running permit we hoped to connect to.
We met John at 630, and headed out to give things a look. I had rigged a number of tippet/shock combinations the night before, making an effort to keep things simple on the boat. We found the fishing for permit to be tough, though there were a few highlights from the day. We found a small school of fish that were bouncing around a grass basin, and staked the boat off in hopes of getting a good shot as they passed by. Chad and I alternated shots at the small group for a while, waiting for increasing amounts of time between shots. Finally John pulled the plug and we made our way to parts farther away.
Chad had a great wading shot at a very large permit in the late morning, and the fly got into position for a potential tussle before the giant fish ignored it an swam on its way. I put a stalk on a pair of fast moving fish, again getting the fly into the maybe zone and again watching the fish spook off. John spotted a school of bonefish and I tried my hand at a hook up on the light tippet. The fish ate the fly easily, though before it reached the reel it bobbed its head twice and broke the tippet. We re rigged with some more ghost hair and kept at it, quietly wondering if we’d bitten off more than we could chew with the lightest line.
In the afternoon I had a fantastic shot at a small group of tailing fish that all looked to be just what we needed in the size department. I waded after the tails and did what I could to get into position for a quartering down-current shot before the fish headed toward me and started feeding in earnest into the moving tide. I picked the left most fish as my first target, though my angle kept changing on its approach. I perhaps underestimated the tide as well, and after a few shots was picking up and re-presenting the fly to each of the tails I could see. The fish kept moving at me until they picked up on the whole being hunted thing, at which point they quickly dodged into the nearby channel and left. It was frustrating to have such a great shot dissolve into nothing on a slow day, and I held the strange 2lb configuration responsible for botching this particular opportunity. Throwing a Frankenleader with things like shock gum and 2lb on an 8 weight is far from as easy as it is with a 9 weight and standard leader, and while my approach onto the battlefield wasn’t perfect I couldn’t help but resent the simple-minded sword that I had to fight with.
In the afternoon we were searching for more opportunities, and we got a few toward the end of the day. John found us a smattering of shots at a nearby hard edge, and Chad and I both had a fly in the middle of some potential takers. Of note was a particularly nice wading shot that Chad had at the end of the day, which was made more difficult by the water being higher than we wanted it to be. I also had a few shots at fish that would only briefly make an appearance before getting past us in the fast thickening rise. We ended the day here, without a fight on the light tippet but with plenty of high hopes for the following day.
We were more than eager to get attached to a potential record, though we were slightly delayed by the leader situation. I’d left the raw materials in John’s boat the night before, and Chad had to take one for the team and tie a few Biminis on the water at our first stop. We stuck with a similar plan to the day prior to start, and enjoyed similar fishing and results.
We found again the small group of fish bouncing around the basin but didn’t make a long stand before John moved us along. We found a few bonefish at the next spot, where John again asked me to hook one to change our luck as well as to test fire the 2lb tippet on a live target. I got out of the boat and waded after the school, hooking one after some positioning, and before it hit the reel it shook its head a few times and broke off. I wasn’t in full free spool like I would have been with a permit, though I did think it odd that the fish had broken the tippet when it did. John asked out loud if I had anticipated the fish breaking off, and while I was privately surprised I kept it to myself and reported that it had been within what expectations I had of the light tippet. We put together another leader and made our way to [redacted] for some new ground to cover.
It took us about an hour to find the opportunity that we needed, and it was a fantastic one. A large school of fish was tailing in an area, milling through some shallower water and staying together as a cohesive group. John got us in to position and we made a few long casts at the edges of the group as they moved around, not wanting to blow the thing with a botched shot right away.
I had a few good shots at fish just outside of range, and one of these put the fly in front of a single smaller permit. The fish twitched on the fly and we were tight, and as I raised the rod tip we lost our connection without a hook set. I re-stacked the line and checked the fly, glancing back to confirm that the school wasn’t gone before readying again. Chad generously offered to let me see the shot through, a move that I feel like I still owe him for.
We had another fish bite the fly that I completely missed before the school circulated around and we were able to get a long cast out in front of a small clot of seemingly larger fish. This time a fish went after the fly and we got the hook in it, surviving the first part of a really low probability bet. The second part was getting through the first run, which took place on a long arc off of the flat and in to the fast current of a nearby channel. John started the motor and Chad readied the net for a passing shot as I went in to free spool on the bow. The fish stayed on through a jog across and then into the moving water, and when we started to pick up line I started to feel the first warm pull of hope that we might have a shot at getting this record to hand.
We kept as close to the fish as we could, working our way through the self inflicted difficulty. On the flat we were able to close the gap and stay near; in the deeper channel we were delayed, waiting for the line to raise up above the surface with the minimal tension we could apply. We followed this pattern for a while, making what we could of the times the fish came near the boat but not wanting to push our already lightly attached luck. Chad had the net in the water a few times flat on the bottom in front of the fish, hoping that the permit would swim over the snare. This happened once, and with it an almost tragic end to a perfectly laid trap: the fish kicked hard over the net, Chad raised the hoop at the right time, and the fish bounced off the hoop with its cheek barely passing on the upside of the mesh. For a moment Chad thought he’d done us in, but the fish was still attached and he was given another opportunity to make good on his promise of getting the fish caught. After another channel weave and a return to the shallow water of the flat the permit found a stingray and followed it, which seemed to tire the fish out even more as the ray took notice of us and hovered quickly off the flat. The permit found a small mud streak from when we came across a shallow bank on to the flat, and floated there hoping we would go away. We didn’t (of course we didn’t), and Chad got the net over the fish and lifted it in to the boat. From when we hooked it to when it hit the deck, 22 minutes had elapsed.
The feeling of landing a permit is hard to explain, but if you’re a fisherman you’re likely aware of the “harder the better” math that accompanies things like fly caught permit. Adding to the mix something that makes it even less likely means that when it happens it’s even more amazing feeling, and we took a short moment for the obligatory [redacted] yeahs and back slapping.
John had called the fish an easy ten pounds while we were fighting it, and we all tended to agree, especially when we got a look at it on the flat. When the fish hit the deck, however, we were left with a clear need to weigh the fish to see if we could get it done. I knew that Del and Steve’s record was 9 and some change, and this fish hit the scale at 9.5 pounds on the nose. Briefly, we felt as if we could have tied their record, until John looked in his notebook and told us that their record was in the low 9’s: 9.12 pounds, to be exact. At this point we took the fish on to the flat and weighed it for the record application:
No sooner had we done this than John told us that his notebook included the existing record in pounds and ounces, meaning we were 4 ounces shy of the record that has stood with good reason for more than 30 years. A mixture now of elated and deflated, we revived the fish and sent it on its way.
We did keep fishing, hoping that we might be able to get attached again, but this wasn’t to be and honestly I was surprised at how quickly the rest of the day expired. In the next spot we fished Chad had a great shot into a large school of small permit on 16 (we’d switched the rod on our approach, knowing the fish were not big enough), and one of the fish curled around on the fly but never got stuck. We saw nothing at our final spot, and when the clock hit five we were on the way home.
Chad and I went home and got some sleep, meeting Ian early the next day for what we hoped would be some redemption on 16 pound test.
The last day of fishing was fun, mostly because we had excised the least fun part of the last two days by fishing normal class tippet. Ian met us at 6, and we headed out into another pretty day in hopes of getting a permit. It may be that the day prior’s events left my memory less open than it usually is, but I don’t have a large number of things to report about this day. I recall we saw a small number of permit, and that they were not in a great mood. I recall that we worked our tails off until sunset in search of a quality shot, and that we found nothing in return for our concerted and extended efforts.
With that report I’m finally current, which is nice. I’ve got a few days scheduled with Ian at the end of this week, and after that we head to Bozeman to hang out with Fitz and Dotty (plus carp and trout probably). More to come.