Combine a world-class flats guide, Dustin Huff, with a world-class flats fish, the permit, and an opportunity for chaotic adventure is high. Our early November fishing day began in Marathon located in the Florida Keys. My fishing journal note for the day is reflective of the excellent Keys fishery in 1996 when these events occurred:
Rich (Mealey) and I fished with Dustin out of Marathon. We had some excellent permit shots in the morning. I beaned a very nice fish. Gone. I made a great cast to a bonefish near Seven Mile Bridge and he was eaten by a shark. Next, we went Gulf side and I saw a single big bonefish. Dustin spun the boat and the fish tailed. I cast and drug the shrimp back. Hooked up and fought the fish hard. It was a 10- or 11-pound fish, had it to the boat, but the hook pulled out.
Those mishaps left Dustin undaunted as he ran the skiff towards what we affectionately referred to as Thousand Permit Bank, where on certain tides, rushing current collides with a skinny coral shelf 100 yards in length. As rising water strikes the bank, crabs and shrimp are swept over the edge with the foaming swishing white capped waves into the deeper down-current basin adjacent to the coral bench.
Permit feast on the bait as nature’s force creates an irresistible feeding opportunity for the fish gathered in the rippled water resulting from the force of tide meeting a coral impediment.
Dustin shutdown the outboard and poled us into position. Once the skiff paralleled the bank, Dustin instructed, “Both of you cast”. Rich and I were using spinning rods with 3500 class reels. We baited the rig with dollar sized blue crabs which permit love to eat. We cast to unseen fish trying to get our crabs as close to the edge of the bank as possible. Bing, bing. We both hooked up and the ever-smart permit tore off in opposite directions with drag burning runs. Dustin worked his skiff magic giving each of us instructions on who should back off the drag, put pressure on the fish, and a myriad of additional fish catching tips. Before long, the twin 18-pound permit were boated. Elated, we shared high fives.
A double on permit is rare and set a positive stage for our next shot. Little did we know that we were about to meet the “schizophrenic” permit.
Dustin’s father, IGFA Hall of Fame fishing guide Steve Huff, refers to permit as “dishonest fish”. His description is not out a lack of respect for the fish, but an apt assessment of how difficult permit can be to catch.
Typically, if you have a shot a permit and do not make a great cast, it is over. They spook, scream off, or simply vanish by turning sideways or melting from sight as if they have become one with the sea. Even when the guide and angler do everything right, a permit will often swim right to the bait or fly, take a long look, and swim off as if giving the cold shoulder to an optimistic teenage boy. But on this fishing day in Marathon, we were about to meet a permit with a different attitude.
As the celebration of the permit double calmed, Dustin made a short run to the edge of a basin abutting a flat which was eagerly accepting the incoming tide. It was my turn on the bow. We scanned the edge of the basin towards the flooding partially exposed shallows, hoping to spot a hungry fish edging its way onto the flat.
Suddenly, Dustin said, “Rowe, single permit, 100 feet, 11 o’clock!“ “I got him,” I replied as the fish came into view. As often happens, Dustin was poling hard into a 20 mile wind with the sun at our backs to get me within casting range. The permit was swimming directly away from the skiff at a tantalizing pace, clearly aware of our presence. “Long cast, Rowe, get it beyond him and to his left,“ Dustin coached. As a former high school baseball coach, I compare making a long cast into the wind beyond a permit swimming away to a nine hole hitter having to get a base hit with the bases loaded in the bottom of the last inning with two outs, two strikes and the game tied. The likelihood of success is low. And, naturally, in keeping with the American work ethic, what did I do? Try hard! Trying hard with a rod and reel creates tense muscles and robs the rod of its ability to deliver a bait or fly to the proper spot.
The cast was short, but not short enough as the splash of crab on surface caused the fish to spook. But, instead of tearing off the flat into the protection of the deep adjacent basin, this fish vectored towards the interior of the flat and streaked away looking like a vibrating turkey platter in the water. We were shocked to see the permit settle down after a 100-foot swim-sprint and begin to feed. “Rowe, this fish must really want to be caught. Let me get you a little closer this time.” Same process, same result. Strike two. Again, the permit screamed off further into the heart of the flat and settled down to feed.
In case you are curious, making your guide pole into a 20 mile per hour wind over long distances, three times in a row, after a single fish, is not a nice thing for an angler to do. Nonetheless, Dustin poled on. As the distance shortened between the bow of the boat and the feeding permit, Dustin whispered, “Please, Rowe, make this happen.” When I thought I could handle the distance, I slowly raised the crab out of the clear water, loaded the rod into a good bend and made a mighty heave. The crab splashed down beyond the permit. Sensing a meal, it raced to the bait. The body of the hungry fish quivered as his tail tipped up inhaling the crab.
I sharply raised the rod tip and suddenly there was a metallic clank on the deck of the skiff followed by a slight splash in the water. “What the hell, Rowe! What happened,” “I don’t know,” I replied, as I looked towards my right hand and discovered that my spinning reel no longer had a bail.
Apparently, as I set the hook, the bail gave way, broke off, hit the deck, and fell in the water. Panic flooded my gut because the schizophrenic, now hooked permit, had noticed. He was tearing off in a life and death sprint for an unknown sanctuary.
As spin anglers know, if your reel has no bail, you have no way to reel line back on the spool. The permit was swimming free. “My bail broke off,“ I shouted, reporting the results of my equipment inspection. “What the f…..!!! Hand drag him, Rowe, while I figure something out.” I placed my index finger on the spool and lightly trapped the monofilament against the warming metal as the line burned off and the fish quickly disappeared. To this point, my fishing partner, Rich Mealey had been a silent observer of the chaos. His wise and quiet discretion wavered, as he commented with an impish grin in his voice, “Your old man would figure out a way to catch this fish!” No reply, as Dustin was deep in thought. Suddenly, he shouted over the still howling wind, “Rowe, do you have a spare reel in your equipment bag?” “Yep!”.
Dustin leapt down from the poling platform, opened the storage compartment lid, and grabbed the spare reel from my boat bag. He handed the reel to Ritchie as he staked off the boat. “Let him swim free, Rowe, no pressure!” Dustin ran up the narrow gunwale onto the bow as he removed his pliers from his belt. “Where is the fish?” “No, idea”. Dustin touched the line outside the rod tip and pulled back slightly. No tension. My eyes opened wide as he held the line in one hand using the other to cut the line, separating the rod and what was left of my reel from the running line. “Here, hold the line!” I grabbed the running line with both hands and cast my gaze towards the junction of line and water seeking confirmation of an unseen and uncertain connection to the fish. Dustin grabbed my rod, removed the broken reel, and quickly replaced it with the spare. He opened the bail, strung the rod, and handed the rod to Richie. “What now?”, I asked. “Blood knot,” he replied his hands flying as he joined the two lines. “Reel slowly, let’s see if we still have a fish.”, he instructed during the retreat towards the poling platform.
Dustin spun the boat so the line penetrating the water was positioned at 12 o’clock. He pushed us forward slowly as I cautiously reeled. Something did not feel right. I glanced toward the reel and saw that the spool of the replacement reel was full of fresh monofilament line and did not have enough capacity to store all the line I needed to gain to connect with the fish. I reported the calamitous discovery and Dustin calmly advised me to keep my index finger near the edge of the spool to guide the retrieved line to prevent it from spilling over the edge of the now full spool. As the skiff slid forward, we discovered that the free-swimming permit had traveled in a large half-moon arc which ended at the edge of a pile of mangrove brush which had been blown into the middle of the basin by a recent hurricane. “Dustin, the line is under the mangroves at 1 o’clock,” “You gotta be kidding me,” he shouted in exasperation.
Fortunately, we had experience dealing with hooked permit immediately swimming for the nearest obstacle to rub the line against anything sharp enough to part the line and free the fish. Cautiously, Dustin pushed us forward. Leaning forward over the edge of the bow, I extended the rod towards the surface to shorten the distance between the rod tip and the invisible underwater obstruction. Job one was to determine whether the fish swam between limbs, over limbs, or under limbs as it encountered the web of underwater mangroves. Mono is nearly impossible to see underwater. On this day, I guessed. I slowly lifted the rod tip and sensing no tension, slid the rod to the right and up. The line popped free. After conquering two more mangrove limbs, the line angle moved to the right towards the edge of the flat. “We’re free”, I happily reported.
Unfortunately, the distress signals which are released by either chemicals or vibrations from disturbed water when a fish is hooked had led to our next challenge. “Lemon shark! I have got to start the motor,” exclaimed Dustin. Once again, he vaulted off the poling platform to the deck and in an instant, the engine was roaring. “Brace yourself, Rowe, keep the fish under control”, Dustin instructed as he raced the boat directly at the hungry lemon shark. Just as it appeared the skiff was going to strike the lemon shark, the predator veered sharply away from the permit and the boat. “Where is the fish now,” Dustin sighed.
I saw the fish finning slowly away just 30 feet to the port side of the skiff. Dustin shut down the motor, got out the push pole and in three gentle pushes, the fish was at the side of the skiff. Dustin slowly reached into the water and tailed the exhausted permit.
We were quiet as Dustin unhooked the fish and held him firmly in the current, waiting for a telltale surge to prove the schizophrenic permit was ready to swim to freedom. As we watched the fish slowly swim away, Dustin reached his dripping hand for mine and as we shared a quiet moment of the pure joy. “Rowe, that was a miracle.”