Bowing Down


Todd and I worked in tandem, swapping the 11- for the 9-weight with the crab pattern.

Rob spoke again. “No. Not that one.”

The moment was fluid. The fish moved into casting range, dozens, maybe 100 permit, knotted tight. Fins and tails pulsed and swirled, one indistinguishable from another. I had seen 5 or 10 permit at a time, fish that moved and hunted as a group, but they were collections of individuals. This was a singular mass. I had only heard fables of such a thing.

“Cast this three feet in front of them.” Rob passed me a spinning rod dangling a live crab.

Though I mostly fish fly rods and desperately wanted a permit on a fly, I’m no purist. I’ve also been a fishing guide for nearly a decade and have learned from many excellent anglers. When you encounter the fish you’ve searched for, have faith in your guide.

I flipped the bail and hurled the crab just ahead of the writhing ball. Three individual shapes shot ahead, and I worried they’d spooked at the splash of the sinker.

“Reel it in slow.”

I didn’t question. After three turns of the handle, the line came tight.

The fish remained with the school as they moved away from us. The hook in its mouth, and the braided line that trailed from it, may have been irritants but they weren’t impediments.

“Put a little more heat on him,” Rob advised. “But not too much.”

I flexed the spinning rod down to its corks; the hum of the drag became a wail, and the permit charged away from the school toward open water. In less than two minutes, the spool was almost empty and Rob was firing up the outboard.

“You might’ve hooked Permzilla.”

It takes longer to fight large, strong fish on light spinning gear than on fly tackle. Fly line (particularly a large-bellied saltwater taper) generates significant drag in the water, tiring fish as much as the rod itself. Braided spinning line is thin and cuts through water with little resistance.

We chased the fish, trying to stay close enough to exert meaningful pressure. But every time we caught up and I got a glimpse of the thick body and sickle fins, it would kick toward the blue expanse. The swells increased as we got farther from shore, and water rushed out the scuppers almost as quickly as it came in. The rod felt flimsy and I fought the urge to tighten the drag.

Rob had set it. Have faith in your guide.

After more than an hour, the fish got close. Rob lay on the deck to tail it, the wide body turning back and forth, surging with lactic acid. I pivoted the rod opposite the direction the fish wanted to go, keeping pressure from behind. Then its mouth opened and a bare hook popped free, not five feet from Rob’s outstretched arm.

Anyone who has lost a large fish after a long fight knows the feeling: a profound deflation sucks the air from the boat, and sounds previously drowned by concentration emerge: waves clapping at the gunwales, wind scattering loose clothing, expletives being uttered.

Rob hadn’t editorialized the fish since his assessment of the initial run. He’d been calm and reassuring, all business. We all assumed the same outcome: the fish was well hooked; it was tiring; the odds were in my favor.

“That would have been the biggest permit I’ve ever had in this boat,” he said.

I couldn’t help myself. “How big?”

“Probably forty pounds.”

“Why’d you tell me not to use the fly rod?”

“I’ve seen floating balls of permit like that before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that big, but I’ve seen plenty. They almost never eat flies when they’re doing that. A live crab was your best shot.”

There was a time when I would’ve questioned that. I would’ve lain in bed wondering about the fly rod. Would the same fish have eaten? Would I have successfully landed it? I didn’t ask those questions. I didn’t lose my faith.

The next day, when the wind stirred chop and the conditions were terrible, Rob suggested we get on some flats to look for permit because the tarpon would be sulking. And when we found a curved tail poking up amidst the turbidity, I dropped the fly just to the right of him and wasn’t at all surprised when he turned and ate.

Miles Nolte grew up fishing with bait. Though he doesn’t practice it often these days, he’s not above it.