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Fishing with John and Chad

This report is from last week. I’ve got a few to catch up with, though this report (as some of the readership may already be aware) concerns itself with a pair of days that came to a particularly stunning conclusion, and as such, I wanted to get it down while things were still fresh in my mind.

After the three days at the beginning of August that I fished with John and Chad, it was clear that we were in need of another opportunity to chase after the 2lb permit record. In those three days, we were only able to scratch together two bites from fish, only one of which may have been big enough to break the record. Neither of them had worked out. Many of the rest of the shots we had were so close to working that we felt a burning sensation that had to at least be treated if not cured completely. I spoke to John about his August schedule and found a pair of days that would work with Chad’s calendar, and we tacked on this late August appointment to see what we could apply to the plague of bad luck that had harassed us.

Day One

The weather that had been so good to us seemed to be changing lanes, and while things weren’t terrible, there was a shift in the air that didn’t feel great. We left in the morning with storms in places around us, threatening to hem us in.

John started us at a place that felt right, and we got ready with the overwrought rig. I was up first, and after a few minutes we spooked a small group of larger tailing fish. We soon moved also a larger group of smaller fish that shook the surface of the water as they tended together in their retreat. We felt that there were some permit around, though after 20 minutes of looking in permit depth we were sucked in towards a few schools of bonefish that were tailing in shallow. Chad grabbed the other rod we’d brought and waded after a small school, hooking one easily and charting us on a course to at least have fun if we were going to be beating our heads against a two pound wall for the next two days. Chad fought the fish back to where he stood, getting his hook back without taking the fish out of the water and wading back to the boat for us to look further for a permit. We kept on through the flat, moving out when the shallow bonefish weren’t making themselves clear, and after a few more shots at bonefish that didn’t work and not seeing any more permit, we moved on to new territory.

At the next place we fished, we were hopeful; John had seen some in the last few days, and earlier in the month our same crew had experienced good fishing in the area on a similar tide. Chad stood ready for the duration, though after a while it was clear that things weren’t right, and John relocated. We ran for a few miles then started fishing nearby where we’d been robbed from a great shot earlier in the month by a disruptive snapper that stole our fly from certain permit-lipped  doom. The waves of fish we’d hoped for never showed, though in an hour we were able to cobble together a few decent shots that didn’t work out. The fish were in smaller numbers and traveling faster than we needed for a solid presentation, and as the water level grew higher, we didn’t have much else to do except continue on towards what skinny we could find.

John kept us moving throughout the early afternoon, pushing a few flats that gave us no shots and leaving each in search of the next. We didn’t find much action until the afternoon in the midst of a number of summer storms that had surrounded us.

At this spot Chad was up, and with a backdrop of a storm we had some incredible (if fleeting) light to work with. In minutes we had a large single permit knife up nearby, and John staked the boat to intercept its up-current route. Chad took a cast towards the tail as it flagged again, and when the fly landed, the fish perked up and moved inside of where the fly landed. Chad was now presented with a dilemma: his fly was farther than where the fish was, and things were changing fast. He did as best he could to strip in quickly and re-present the fly, but by the time it landed, our window had closed and the permit figured out what was going on and retreated quickly and quietly to the safety of a nearby channel. Chad handed the rod off to me, and we continued on staring into the dark reflection of a cloud dumping rain to the west of us.

I spotted a drag of mud smudged by the tide, and within a few seconds, we all confirmed the source of it. A pair of large fish tailed intermittently along a grassy ridge, and every few seconds one would get its tail out. I had a hard time seeing these fish, particularly when they got into some nearby glare, and on the second shot I took had to listen to the cues from John to figure out where I should end up. The fly landed and he called it good, and I stripped as if I saw the fish until I actually did. The fish that was farthest took interest in the fly, and when it stopped near the bottom I felt a slight bump and lifted the rod to come tight. The fly never settled in to its new trappings, however, and John called out “leave it!”. I had to lower the rod to leave the strong arm in place for another error, and this time could see the closer fish tack across the current and take a confident interest in the fly. The fish wobbled as it ate, and this time we were tight without issue. John held the boat in the current as the line cleared to the reel, and as this was happening I could hear Chad trim the motor down and fire it up. I reached down and lifted up the pushpole chock and heard the pole get racked as someone put the motor in gear for the chase.

I believed strongly that this was our fish. We had a solid hook set in the current, and it seemed clearly big enough for what we needed. I let out a few whoops, and we settled in to the fight as best we could with line that isn’t often associated with what we were trying to catch. The clouds shifted, and it was now clear that we were about to get smacked soundly by rain. Kept warm by adrenaline and optimism, no one on board bothered to put on a rain jacket as the rain started to fall.

The fight stayed simple and we were able to get nearer to the fish earlier than usual. A few times Chad moved forward, ready to capitalize on a passing opportunity, and John kept approaching the fish to make it run. After 15 minutes the fish headed towards a nearby basin, and we maintained our proximity as it sped up slightly. The fish suddenly veered towards us, and while we tried to back up to maintain tension we were unable to prevent the slack from bleeding in. As it did our connection was terminated in what has become the most painfully common of ways: the fly fell out. We cursed and sucked it up as best we could. The storm arrived now in all of its dreary triumph, and John opened up the hatch to get our rain gear. We got our damp selves zippered up and sulked some as we waited for the storm to clear.

John took us to two more spots to finish the day, and Chad had a few shots at the first. None worked out, though it was nice to concentrate on something other than the damp sadness of what we’d just lost. I was up at the last place, and even with too-high water we kept it 100 and ran the plays until it was time to go.

Day Two

The weather continued on its drift, and on the ride out we kept an eye on a large number of isolated storms off-roading recklessly through the backcountry. We started where we had found the permit the day before, as well as the bonefish that had afforded us our morning wade capture. We found the latter of these to start, and Chad once again waded out after a trembling school of smaller fish. He overshot the school on his first cast, sending them hurriedly past and away from him. Never a pair to let anything happen without a cackle, John and started in with the daily guff ration. “Cast was perfect, bro. I can’t believe he didn’t eat it!”

“Put it closer next time, maybe??” and the like. Chad got back in to the boat, and we turtled on, still snickering. What pulled the attention of the pack away from this was John, who spotted a pushing school of what could only be permit in some deeper water. He pushed out to intercept it, and we soon saw a large bull shark cruising the same area we were heading towards. As best we could tell, there was a school of permit that the shark had moved and continued to chase: each time we would prepare for a shot the school would veer hard away from us, treating us as if we were another toothed enemy. We stuck with this group of fish, managing a (very) low quality shot in their direction only once. After 30 minutes of this John rightly called a move, and we continued to trace our fishing from the day before.

The morning gave us very little to work with, as had the day prior. John maintained a course similar to what had worked the day before, and by the midday had us in the vicinity of what had been the largest concentration of permit we’d found. I was up as John poled down the flat, and in the glare of the nearby clouds found a pair of shots that were not seen in time. Both opportunities expired before we could generate any interest, and we all kept a hard eye thereafter.

The next shot was about as sure a thing as one can ever find in permit fishing, and we were only sort of expecting it. Nearby the flat we were fishing on is a deeper piece of water, and John and I have occasionally found a school of permit hanging around the spongy bottom. It’s not something we can ever rely on, or find when we really need it, but in the course of fishing this spot we will usually keep an eye out for what we agree we see every 30th time we pass by. For some reason these permit bite a fly happily, as much as a depressive permit can, and we have yet to find them and not come tight to one. On this day we both expected not to find them, our current desire convincing us that we wanted it too much. The reality was better than anyone could have hoped for: where we usually might find six or eight permit, there were easily fifty. They swam slowly around the fans and sponges, looking for something to fall their way.

Our first cast was in the midst of them and was followed by a number of fish. I wasn’t able to strip fast when John called that one had eaten, instead lifting my rod tip as I’ve become (sadly) conditioned to doing with the light tippet. The fly made it back to us unharmed, and I threw it in again to the ropes of permit. Again there were multiple fish behind it, and again John called that one has eaten. Again I lifted the rod and felt nothing, and again had to re-present the fly after it got through the gauntlet of pale lips onto which it couldn’t anchor itself. On the third cast we were tight, though we weren’t entirely sure what it was. Without the direct connection of 16 we weren’t sure if this was a permit or a small snapper, and didn’t want to start the motor in case we had something we weren’t after. The fish wasn’t tight for long before it got around something on the bottom and broke us off, and we re-rigged a new leader with a new fly.

The second set of casts was similar to the first: the fly landed in a place that looked like it would surely work but came back clean. We kept throwing, and on one of these casts were able to get it in front of larger wad of brown bodies, this time coming tight on a slow strip. The fish stuttered as we lightly set the hook, and at this point we had to make a decision to start the motor or not. As the fish cleared the line to the reel Chad trimmed the motor down and asked me one last time if I was sure this was a permit and a inter-species robbery gone wrong. I was less concerned that this was a permit than if it would make weight, though as soon as I answered in the affirmative the motor turned over we had given ourselves over completely to the optimism of it being both.

The fish stayed deep, out of our view. We couldn’t verify that it was a permit, and the sad reality is that with 2lb tippet I’m unable to tell much about what’s on the other end by feel. With the insulation of the elastic material we added to the leader, as well as the low pressure ceiling that I have to stay under, the difference between a 4 pound snapper and a 140 pound tarpon is, especially early on, only that one jumps.

We kept pressure on the fish, circling it as it stayed close to the bottom in a rod’s length of water, and waited for something to change. I knew from a prior fight that I could get a permit to run by pulling a pound or so, forcing it to squirt away from us and tire itself out. This tactic only led to more deep hiding by what we had, though in a few minutes it decided to take a swim on to a nearby flat and we tried to get a closer look. We couldn’t see a permit tail, and in retrospect it should have been clear at this point that what we had was either not big enough to make the cut or not a permit at all. The euphoria of being attached with record gear kept our hopes higher than they should have been, and the fish got back to some deep water with us still under the impression that it might be a permit. On its second pass on to the flat John kept the skiff closer, and I was the first one to verify just how wrong we were: instead of a permit, we were tight (but not too tight, of course) to a jack crevalle.

The simultaneous realization that we were not attached to anything that we wanted, and that everything we’d been after had been scared off by our recent antics with the motor, caused no small amount of upset from me. I am admittedly very attached to the idea of control over a shot and a situation, and in this case I felt like I’d had none. In fact, I was about as pissed off about this as I get anymore. For me, that means I clam up–something that my friends who are used to my constant chatter tell me feels weird. Chad picked up on the vibe I was sending off, and tried to get me talking which felt good.

The pain of the loss started to subside, and afterwards Chad was up. We didn’t find much more right away, though Chad and I did trade a shot or two as John poled slowly down the bank. John called a move after the water was too high, searching for a place we might make an afternoon stand. We ran a few miles to where he wanted to fish to find the silhouette of a skiff just starting the place that John had in mind; with that we returned to nearby where we’d hooked the fish the day prior and started to look.

We didn’t find anything for a half hour, and as the current got moving  John moved us back to where we’d been (unintentionally) jack fishing earlier. Chad was up as we skirted in to some deep water, hoping that the permit might be back. They weren’t, though after John pushed us shallow again things started to fire. We enjoyed a storm cloud to our west that gave us the occasional fantastic visibility that only a dark backdrop can provide, Chad soon spotted a mudding pair of fish that gave him a solid if unsuccessful shot. He passed the rod to me, and I also had a shot that didn’t work out and traded back with Chad. In a few seconds Chad had another opportunity at yet another pair of fish. This time the light failed us. Chad was forced to throw blind, though he was able to get the fly in play perfectly. The fish he was throwing at was flanked by a silent partner, and it was this second fish that Chad didn’t see at first that ate the fly. Chad stripped tight but it was too late; the fish jettisoned the fly and both members of the nervous pair ran off to the nearby deeper water. I had another shot, which was again obscured by the glare, and then the storm that had been creeping up behind us arrived. We suited up and John let us drift off in to the nearby basin where we sat, damp again inside our waterproof shells, waiting for the rain to quit.

When the rain passed John ran us back to the opposite side of the bank we’d been fishing. It was now 4:00, and the next hour of our lives was appointed silently: we were going to push the entire thing, towards and past where we’d been only 30 minutes prior, keep it 100 and run the plays until it was time to go. Chad handed me the rod, despite not having taken the shot that he was technically up for, and after the rain quit completely I took off my rain jacket to rid myself of one more thing that could get in the way of a cast. We started looking. Chad started messing with his phone, I got my line set, and John started down the bank: if we were going to clock out on high water, we were going to do it as hard as we could.

We spooked one fish that was too deep to tail; unsurprising in the high water. We kept looking. A lemon shark saw our shadow and glided down current, and beyond it John and I both saw a crease of water that was likely a permit. John asked if I preferred a backcast or a forehand, and I said I didn’t care and took the backcast. I put the fly in front of what I assumed was an already compromised fish. Immediately the disturbance dogged hard toward the fly and I tried not to do anything out of the ordinary.

The surface fold became a bulge as the fish slowed on the fly, and suddenly we were tight. I tried to wait for the fish to turn before gently tightening up to get the hook buried. Chad asked if we were hooked up, which was a fair question: in permit fishing, this was a low probability situation if ever there was one and things had gone from zero to everything quickly. Never one to hesitate Chad quickly got on the new page and trimmed the motor down, and we watched as the slick surface corrugated from the fish figuring out that things had gone wrong and heading to deeper water.

It’s important that I mention here how convinced we were that this was a permit, which was entirely normal: we often hook permit that we don’t see completely, especially when there are clouds and deep water involved. There was nothing else it could be, and while we had hooked it only based on the surface disturbance we knew what it was. At the same time I remembered clearly how convinced we’d been earlier this same day that the crevalle we had on was a permit, and I wasn’t willing to get fully in bed yet with my euphoria. We fought the fish in some deeper water for ten minutes before it looped back around to the same flat we’d hooked it on, and when I got a look at it there was no doubt that this was exactly the fish in easily the size that we were looking for. John kept up with it as I pulled when I could, sending it off on long runs that we hoped would tire it out while we worked to retrieve the line these antics had cost us.

I called out what the fish was doing as I noticed, and spoke loud so John could hear me above the motor. Most of the conversation was  simple: “Right. Slow! Right right right. OK Good. Good. Left hard left! More! OK.” There wasn’t a whole lot of back and forth, and the thing I remember most clearly was scanning out in front of us, looking for a patch of grass floating that I would need to avoid. Occasionally a single piece would make it on to the line (Slow!) or the fish would speed up (Tighten up!) or we would just be nearby and I would try to put a little over a pound on the fish to make it run again (Right right right!). The runs got shorter and the fish came higher and higher in the water between them. Every indication we were getting was that the fish was tiring, and it was now a matter of waiting for how the end game would happen. One thing I’ve learned for sure after chasing records and tournaments is this: the outcome, whether failure or success, always happens in a way that we can’t anticipate.

With the fish we landed last year that was shy of the record, it had showed an interest in a puff of mud on a flat, hiding in it and essentially giving up. This fish had no such opportunity, though it was heading towards the best thing it could choose: shallow water. We weren’t close when it swam onto the the flat, though John closed the gap as best he could and we watched in amazement as the fish turned on its side in 8 inches of water and slithered forward awkwardly on its side. It didn’t break the surface at all as it swam slantingly over the bent turtle grass.

The fish righted itself when it was in the nearby channel, and we fell in behind it and stayed close. Another half-hearted run from the fish confirmed that it was getting tired, and as we were tightening up towards it the permit got on its side again and sluggishly started on to the other side of the channel. John stayed behind it as it was swimming, on the outside and just behind the half circle the fish made on the flat. We were close to the fish but never in range, all the while behind it watching it struggle to stay in its awkward diagonal orientation. Eventually the fish made it back  to the channel, where it took another anemic run before sitting under the boat for a beat while it decided what to do. John was ready for the poor decision that this permit was about to make, and the moment the fish decided to get back on to the shallow flat John stayed on the side it had curved towards before. The fish was on our right side, looping towards the left, and while we we behind it to start we had a shorter distance to where it was going to be in 20 seconds than it did–clever stuff from John. All the while the fish fluttered in its strange orientation, folded over and kicking its tail in broad strokes that seemed to do little to propel it forward.

The fish saw a ridge it couldn’t get over and turned towards the intercept, crossing our bow and struggling against its desire to be upright and the pound of pressure I was trying to put on it, but at this point things were over: the fish couldn’t keep going, and I stepped back to give Chad some room. He got ahold of the fish easily, and lifted the fish gingerly in to the boat.

Things got pretty loud very quickly–there was no doubt that this fish would smash the existing 2 lb tippet record set by Steve Huff and Del Brown in 1986. By our math we’ve given up about 30 permit that we would have caught on 16 to catch this fish, and the sensation of landing this one was a very distinct one of every one of those and then some all at once. We all estimated the size: I said 13 pounds, John said 14, and Chad put in at 15 pounds. I put the fish on the certified scale, and told the boys the good news: we were all wrong. The fish weighed 16 pounds exactly, and I stepped out of the boat to weigh it on terra firma as required by the IGFA. We took the requisite measurements, a few hero shots, and then we let the fish go. From when we hooked it to the time we released it, 36 minutes had passed.

For the release I handed the fish to Chad, who held it in the current for an extra minute before opening his hand and letting the permit beat its tail proudly in to the channel that it had left earlier.

Here are the pictures:

 

I’d like to mention the fact that there were three people I couldn’t have done any of this without. Two of them were obviously John O’Hearn and Chad Huff, two of my closest friends and people I look up to enough that if they knew they would probably think I was weird. The third was not on the boat, but he fashioned the tip of our spear: Dave Skok. Without Dave’s strong arm merkin, I doubt that any of the success I’ve enjoyed in permit fishing would ever have happened. This record means the world to me, but those three guys mean more.

The tippet has already been tested by the IGFA, and the test came back perfectly. We had up to 2.21 pounds to work with, and the tippet tested at 1.94 pounds. Barring something improbable and totally unforeseen, we’ve done it.

 

More to come, I’ve got lots of catching up to do on these pages.

 

nat

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