The fish of a lifetimeFrom the April 15, 2009 Issue
Sun Outdoors Editor Rusty Chnnis with the permit of a lifetime.
PHOTO/CAPTAIN BRYON CHAMBERLIN
There are some mornings when magic in the air, and you have a feeling that something special might happen. That feeling might actually be a portent or it might just be the optimism that springs eternal in the fly angler. It was one of those mornings as Captain Bryon Chamberlin and I headed north from Summerland Key through Niles Channel into the back country of the lower Florida Keys, a day when optimism, forbearance, skill and a little luck would produce the fish of a lifetime.
Chamberlin and I had planned this trip in late March knowing that early spring in the lower Keys can produce some of the best fishing of the year. We were also aware that a cold front could make the area unfishable. It’s that time of the year, when the largest permit, our intended quarry, forage on the shallow flats in preparation for spawning in deep offshore waters. Hit a warm spell, and the area can produce some of the best tarpon fishing to be found anywhere in the world. It’s a game of chance that we were willing to play, and one that would present us with challenging conditions.
Our week began the last week of March on the new moon, and the correspondence I had with friends in the Keys made us extremely optimistic. The tarpon had appeared the week before and the warming waters were sure also to bring permit and bonefish onto the flats. The first day of our trip began like most do with unbridled optimism of a full week of fishing. On the surface the stars were aligning; the weather was windy but fishable. Chamberlin, a young and able guide, had us well equipped in his new 17.6 Hells Bay Professional flats boat. He had worked the weeks leading up to the trip tying boxes of some of the best flies I have ever seen.
We began fishing at a tarpon spot in Niles Channel, one that is legendary for early season tarpon. I was first on the bow and had line stripped out and was stretching it in anticipation of working the deep edges of what appeared to be a perfect flat. Then Chamberlin told me he had some bad news, namely that the water temperature was 68 degrees, and tarpon rarely tolerate water temperatures colder than the low 70s. The water temperatures had dropped almost eight degrees in the past week, not due to a cold front but to a persistent high pressure system off the east coast that had brought swirling winds day and night for the past week. The winds had cooled the water and even though the air temperatures were in the low 80s, tarpon wouldn’t be an option for now.
The water temperature was discouraging but it wouldn’t affect permit, which have a much greater tolerance of changing weather patterns. For the next four days, we suffered through winds that persisted at over 20 miles an hour and often pushed 30 One day the weather wasso daunting we decided not to fish. I wasn’t as familiar with permit fishing on the lower Keys flats, but we did manage a few shots under extremely challenging conditions. As the week progressed, temperatures inched up, and Chamberlin was able to jump a tarpon and catch a large Jack cravelle, not much comfort considering the conditions we were enduring.
Later in the week, we decided to opt for fishing the Gulf flats closer to home and had some very good shots at tailing permit over white sand with patchy grass bottom. Although we got the notoriously finicky permit to follow the flies, we weren’t able to get them to commit. Perhaps it was those near misses that made me so optimistic that morning leaving Niles Channel.
I was first on the bow as we poled a shallow channel between two beautiful islands that fringe the Gulf. In less than 10 minutes, Chamberlin spotted a wake on a grass edge that proved to be a permit that had spotted us before we saw her. A half hour later, a nice bonefish came into view just out of casting range. Chamberlin poled the boat to a spot up wind of the feeding bonefish and allowed me a terrific shot. I made a perfect cast, leading the fish about four feet, and as soon as I stripped the fly, it rushed over for a look. One more hop and the bone was on the fly, but somehow I managed to lift the rod, effectively spooking the fish. In years past a rookie mistake like that might have ruined my day, but I’ve learned to have a quick tirade and get on with it!
Poling closer to the Gulf Chamberlin worked the grass edge of deep channel that bisected the island. We both spotted the permit at the same time, working the shallow side of the channel where grass was interspersed with white sand pockets. Chamberlin was calm and collected as he repositioned the boat in the 20 mile per hour winds giving me a great downwind cast. As the permit closed to about 40 feet I made a cast that landed a bit short of the target, but right in line with the path the fish was taking into the tide. Fortunately, I chose to leave the cast and as the fish swam within about four feet of the fly, I hopped it and let it immediately fall to the bottom. There was no hesitation as the permit streaked over and nailed the fly. One strip strike and I was tight to the fish that uncharacteristically darted left and right without the usual quick exit from the shallow water. I held the rod high stripping to keep the line tight.
Chamberlin stomped on the poling platform, and the fish rocketed off the flat. For the next 20 minutes, it was touch and go as the permit made repeated runs on and off the flat, searching for a way to dislodge the fly. We knew it was a big fish but it wasn’t until Chamberlin grabbed it by the tail that we realized just how big it was. It took both of us to hoist it into the boat, where it bottomed out a 30-pound Boga-Grip. After a bunch of high fives and images we released the fish of a lifetime that we estimated to weigh between 35 and 40 pounds. The conditions had hammered us all week but we had persisted and made the week with one fish. We had another day to fish, and Chamberlin jumped a laid-up tarpon with one of the prettiest casts I’ve ever seen. But it was that permit that will live in both our minds forever and keep us aware that the fish of a lifetime may be just a cast away.