Over the last week I’ve been fishing lots. John O’Hearn and I were invited to fish in the IGFA Permit Invitational tournament, a new-but-welcomed addition to the Key West tournament scene. While Wednesday through Friday were the tournament days, we elected to fish three days leading up to it. I was looking forward to fishing the tournament, though more than that I was excited to spend some time on the water with John. It’s been a while since we fished a permit tournament together, and while we had a great time with David Mangum earlier in the month I know we were both excited about doing what we came up together doing: spending time on the boat with one another, trying our asses off to win a permit tournament.
Our prefishing days were fun, though they also coincided with tough weather. We were able to connect with a single fish on Monday, catching it and using it to fuel our desire to catch more.

We came close on other shots that I felt lucky to have in the clouds, though on the last day of practice two of these caused some frustration. A back cast with a left-hand wind made for what could be described as a Belgian backcast, but would more aptly be described as a steaming bowl of grumble. We had a number of chances that were close, and despite the fact that we didn’t catch one the day before the tournament we were glad that all of the fish we’d cast to were still theoretically in play for the following day. We fished hard, had fun, and by the time the captain’s meeting rolled around on Tuesday evening we both felt not only ready but eager to begin. The forecast was for wind and clouds, and while this is never ideal for permit fishing in general it has less of an effect on the relative performance in a tournament.

Wednesday (first tournament day):

The wind was as relentless as we had feared it would be, though the storm nearby had tripped up the meteorologists on another critical component: instead of clouds, we had crisp sunlight for the majority of the day. For us, this meant we could be steadily hypnotized by brilliant visibility for the duration of the day. For the first few hours we stared hopefully in to places we had found fish the last three days, trying our best to lie in wait for what we were sure was going to be a small number of opportunities. The morning slipped in to early afternoon, and when John made a move to where we had found a few fish the day prior we started to push into the breeze. Our plan was to avoid the wind-on-shoulder backcasts that had foiled us on the final prefish day, and within a minute John spotted a mudding permit for us to try our new angle on. The first cast landed short of the fish but John kept us in range, and our second shot was close enough for the fish to make a charge at the fly and make a mistake. The fish ripped towards the boat and I struggled to stay tight, though when it took in to a nearby channel we were under control and in familiar territory.
The fish fought well in the cooler October water, though after a few minutes John got the net on it and it was done. We measured the fish and took some pictures, making sure to hold it up for Brandon Cyr and Nick Labadie, who happened to be running by. We stopped and had a sportsmanship chat for a minute, then both went our separate ways to make our own afternoons. We fished another few fruitless hours before John found us another shot, this time at a low-probability permit sitting idly in some deeper water on his approach to a flat. We threw at this fish, both of us without any surprise when it swam off without acknowledging our efforts, and soon John had us where he wanted and we started to look hard for a fish that would want to play along. John spotted this first again, and I got a cast off that garnered some interest. The fish left the fly and went back to looking, and our second cast crossed its line far enough that it had no choice but to look closer. It fell in behind the fly and stopped hard, and on the second strip we were tight to it. This fish also made a series of runs that belied its smaller size, and despite these and some face-rubbing on the bottom we were able to get a fish in the net a second time in a few short minutes.
We measured and photographed the fish and let it go, then promptly got back to the business at hand of trying to catch another. On a tough day two was what we were hoping for, though the idea of three was understandably seductive. We kept rapt until the end, when we looked somewhere on a lark, enjoying the final minutes in a way that only a high-scoring tournament day can cause. On day one it feels even better than on day three, when whatever lead you have is subject to the performance from other teams: at the beginning of the tournament, having a good day leaves so many options intact that it’s hard not to believe that anything is possible. For us, catching two fish on as many decent shots was a great place to be, though so early in a game played against so many qualified teams it was apparent that we had more work to do.
At the dock the amount of work we had yet to do came into better clarity. Don Gable and Mike ward had also scored two fish, though both were bigger than ours, and two other teams had posted one–notably, Brandon Cyr and Nick Labadie. Over the next two days we were required to catch at least one, though John and I both knew that if we wanted to win this thing we would have to catch more than what we had.

Thursday (second tournament day)
As on the first day, we had wind. It’s not uncommon to have wind this time of year, though this day also brought with it a large amount of sunshine to make things easier on the bow. Once again, the brilliant light led to an entire day of constant focus, never offering a break from constant looking. We pieced together a decent day of fishing, not ever surrounding ourselves with fish but always feeling as though a shot could happen.
Where our day before had felt effortless, this day brought us a sense of being off. We had a few shots, though none ever felt like they were going to work perfectly. John found us some fish in the morning that veered hard away from the fly when we put it near them, and in the afternoon a number of hard-feeding fish that hid from us in the mud the wind had kicked up. Things were close to working but never did, and by lines out we were frustrated and tense. We knew that we had let this day’s opportunity pass us by, though despite the day’ scores for the rest of the field meant we were in third. Brandon and Nick had caught a pair of fish, pushing them in to the lead, and without any other movements of the field past us we were still behind Don and Mike, one fish away from what John and I affectionately call ‘theoretical first’. Our last day of fishing had to be a good one, and while we were annoyed that we hadn’t converted our second place to first, we were happy to be heading in to the last day in third.

Friday (third and final tournament day)
The final day was windy still, though less than the day prior. We had some clouds to contend with, and while they annoyed us the exchange of ten miles per hour of breeze for a few annoying clouds was, as worst, a wash. John and I entered the last day with a renewed focus, intending to use all we had before the lines out alarm sounded.
At our second spot we had a shot at a single fish on an off angle, and despite the awkward presentation the fish fell in behind the fly and appeared ready to eat. When the fish lost interest I started to pick up to recast, though when the fly accelerated the fish came after it with renewed intent and we left it in play, hoping to come tight on a fish that was now too close for comfort. The fish finally swam off from the boat, unattached, and we kept moving toward the fish we knew we needed.
We had another shot in the morning at a pair of fish, these spooking from the fly as soon as they saw it in the water. Our morning crept into afternoon, and after a few fishless hours we chose to move to places where we had not yet fished, hoping to break the cycle with some new ground.
Our first stop led to nothing, though when John headed to yet another new place we were welcomed by a group of fish as soon as we arrived. We had to make a fast cast to the group as they swam by us, and while this was far from a perfect opportunity we were able to elicit a hard follow and a gut-wrenching wiggle from a large fish in the school. We were shocked that we weren’t tight to the fish when it stopped, and while this fish ran off with the rest of the school another came in hard behind the fly, also shuddering on a hard stop behind the fly. Unbelievably we were not tight to this fish either, which was as painful as it was surprising, and we kept on in this new area as we processed the near miss.
We didn’t find anything for nearly an hour, and when the rain moved us around we ended near where we had found the greatest number of fish the day before. The rain and clouds had moved in on us at this point, and while we weren’t in a position to have great fishing we were also boxed in: anywhere nearby would be affected by the same weather that had us in its grips, and at least where we were had recently proved to be worthwhile. In the rain we sat, hoping for a fish to swim by close enough for a shot.
In 30 minutes the unthinkable happened–a large single fish took slowly towards us, and we got a cast in front of it. In this weather, where we were, I could think of no higher probability shot. The fish disagreed, however, and as soon as it saw the fly it swerved hard away and towards deeper water. We had one more shot (crazy, I know) in the rain before it let up and let us slide around normally, and we had two shots at what I can only imagine was the same school of fish before lines out. The first was with 20 minutes to go, and the fish looked at the fly before spooking off. The second was under more control, just minutes before the end of fishing hours, and this time the small group of permit followed the fly to the bottom and tangled around it, giving every indication that our next strip was going to be a connection. Not one made the mistake we requested, however, and once these fish fell to deeper water we were as fishless as we could be. We fished for the remaining minutes until the alarm sounded, then sat down and took a break before heading back to check in.

There we found that we were no longer in third, though that was the only hardware shuffle the last day had brought with it. Brandon Cyr and Nick Labadie retained their lead with another fish on the final day, and Don and Mike kept on in second with their two fish from the first day, one of which took honors for largest permit. Third was taken by Kat Vallilee (my wife, for those that aren’t already aware of that fact) and Doug Kilpatrick, and we were in some non-trophy-bearing position behind them.

I’m incredibly happy for Brandon Cyr and Nick Labadie, two of my greatest friends and both guides that I hold in the highest regard. They worked hard to win this thing, and I have nothing but respect for their efforts. I also want to tip my hat to Kat and Doug Kilpatrick, who came on strong after a tough day one. Of course, the IGFA deserves thanks for their efforts at making this event worthwhile, and I look forward to fishing it many years to come.

The Bahamas trip we were scheduled to take has been postponed, and I’ll have more to report soon.

More to come,

nathaniel