We weren’t even fishing for permit, really, and I wasn’t supposed to be fishing at all. It was a hosted trip at the Delphi Club in Abaco and I was with my friend/client Chris Clayton from New Jersey. He was pretty new to fly fishing, and this was his first bonefish trip. My role was to fish about 10% of the time and help with instruction and spotting. On occasion, I would hop out of the boat and wade. On this particular day, our roles reversed.
The day started out as it always does, with a big breakfast at Delphi and some pre-morning chat with the guides before trailering down to check out some new water on the southern side of Abaco. The southern ocean side of Abaco is more species diverse than the famous bonefish packed Marls, but we didn’t expect anything like what ended up happening.
With our guide Kirk between us, Chris and I walked the flat in a line. We hadn’t walked 10 minutes before we spotted a triggerfish cruising down current towards us, swimming at an angle to stay hidden in shallow water. I cast and he followed, lifting his tail out of the water as he buried his face into the fly. He got pricked on the strip set and shot off around us.
A few more minutes passed and we saw a few big bonefish spook, but not really the action we knew could be found elsewhere. Kirk set back towards the boat to swing around and pick us up. We slowly puttered up the edge of the flat, looking for the flashes and tails from a big school of bones. With all eyes trained into the shallow water, no one was watching the deeper shelf behind. It was Kirk who saw it first.
“Big lemon over there”. It was a 5 footer. He said it casually, almost offhandedly, not thinking we were equipped for a toothy fish like that. In fact, I had rigged up a 10 weight with wire leader for sharks and cudas. Chris and I had a deal that he would get every bonefish shot, and if there was a cuda or a shark I’d step up to the bow.
The lemon ate a deceiver on the third strip and lumbered off in that pissed off way only a shark can. He felt truly massive after all the bonefish of the week. As I was pulling against the big lemon from the middle of the boat, a few cudas started daisy chaining about 20 feet off the bow. Chris stepped up and hooked up easily, laughing with delight as his cuda tail walked across the flats.
That’s when the first group of permit showed up. Of course, we were both hooked up to fish when the first two very casual permit came rolling in. They weren’t twenty feet off the bow, happily circling around at the surface. I think they must have been aware of us. Chris got his cuda in quickly and cast to these two permit. I wouldn’t say they spooked, but they certainly descended in the water column and moved off comfortably.
We landed the shark alongside the boat and popped the fly out with some long pliers. Now we had a moment to break it all down.
“Were those permit?”
The moment didn’t last. Kirk called out and pointed to four permit coming directly towards us from the flat. They stopped about 50 feet from us, cruising around in an unaffected manner. Chris stepped up to the bow and cast, coming up a little short on the first few. The permit sauntered off, again not spooked but definitely concerned. Then the bonanza started. Permit were everywhere, coming from all sides. Chris cast from the bow and I stripped off line furiously in the back of the boat. We had a chance to double up on permit, which I’ve only heard of in whispers.
I won’t tell you the story of every rejection. It would be too painful to relive. Over the course of four hours, we tallied up about 30 presentations, with 6 different flies. Every fly got a sniff. Two permit chased one fly from about 70 feet out all the way to the boat. I watched one puff water around the fly, as if lighting a cigar. They do this right before breathing the fly in. I don’t know what to say. He just didn’t eat it.
The day ended with a bus permit. We saw it from a few hundred yards away and thought it was one of the barracudas that had been trolling the outside of the flat. Kirk poled towards it anyway. It was the biggest permit any of us had ever seen, probably pushing 40 pounds. I knew at first sight – as you sometimes do on the flats – that we wouldn’t be catching this fish. We followed it into the wind and up the flat, with Kirk poling like a madman as I landed cast after cast short of this big fish. He knew what we were up to and kept pace just out of reach. At a certain point, I realized internally that it was truly futile to punch a fly line through the wind like this. The right cast would have had to be 90 feet into a heavy headwind. I just don’t have that, but we couldn’t stop trying. The fish picked up pace, or maybe we slowed down, and I reeled in the line to silence.
We motored into Nancy’s beach bar with the delightful melancholy that follows a day full of action without results. I’d cast to a few permit before this trip and thought I was immune to permit fever. Turns out, no one is. Chris and I are booked for April 2019.
Photos and words from Alex Ford, check him out on Instagram at @alexford13 – hopefully the permit cloud will not hang over him forever and he will be posting a picture of a permit in the near future.