Friday, January 3, 2014

The Best Fishing Day of My Life (as told by my husband, Scott)

With only two days left in our Bahamas vacation before Betsy and I head back to our home in Juneau, Alaska, my fishing guide and good friend Docky and I decide to get in one more day of bonefishing. The good news is there is little or no wind, though there are a few thunderheads looming on the horizon. The bad news is that we will have to fish through high tide, meaning there will be little opportunity for wading the flats. Docky will be poling his Hells Bay flats boat along the upper edges of the mangroves looking for groups of fish moving from one dense jungle of mangrove to another.

For the first couple of hours the sun peeks out of the clouds regularly and the water is flat calm, so visibility is good. Docky is very good at tracking the movements of bonefish. He can recognize where they have been recently and their direction of travel by deciphering the holes and scuff marks the fish have made poking their noses into the bottom looking for food. We soon find tracks, but they lead us into increasingly narrower slots of open water between the miles of flooded mangrove.

James "Docky" Smith - one of the premier bonefishing guides in the Bahamas
I have fished with Docky for fifteen years and learned that no matter what the conditions or tide he will locate fish as long as he can see the bottom. After a while we start to see a few singles and small groups of two or three bonefish. By the time we start seeing fish the sky is almost completely overcast, meaning the reflection of the white and grey clouds on the water gives the surface an almost impenetrable sheen. At the best of times, meaning sunny and calm weather, seeing bonefish is not easy because their coloring blends in so well with the bottom. I almost never see a bonefish before Docky has them spotted and starts giving me coordinates until I can get focused, giving me something to cast to.  

I get a couple of quick casts at the ever moving targets. As usual I drop the fly slightly behind them or right on top of them and they are gone never to be seen again. Eventually I get it right. I strip the line, set the fly and I’m hooked into a silver rocket, my reel making a zzzzinging sound that is music to my ears. After three long runs and a few circles of the boat a nice three pounder gets her picture taken and she’s back safe and sound, deep in the mangrove.

It’s almost noon and the visibility is getting ever worse with some big thunderheads building, although there is still not a breath of wind. Abruptly, Docky mumbles something that sounds like “permit”. When Docky sees fish it is announced as though he is continuing a conversation, never a shout or even a raised voice. Sometimes I wonder if he is addressing me or just talking to himself. However, I’ve learned to pay attention. I look about a hundred feet to my right and up against a bank of mangrove are three blurred shapes moving slowly.

“Scott, do you see them”?  “Yes.” “There are three at two o’clock” (if the bow of the boat is twelve o’clock these three fish are two clicks to the right). Yes!

 I always take two fly rods on the boat. One is a seven or eight weight for bonefish and the other is a ten weight always rigged with some kind of crab imitation fly for permit. This rod is almost never used because we are always fishing for bonefish. About once each year we catch a glimpse of the elusive permit and there is sometimes even an opportunity to get in a hurried cast. Invariably the permit takes one look at the fly and high tails it for Cuba. Of course, I’m holding the seven weight rod.

The permit are not moving fast. They don’t see us yet, just poking along looking for tasty morsels on the bottom, but they are moving slowly away. As Docky very quietly begins poling, not toward them but at an angle to intercept them in time, the conversation between us goes almost to a whisper and becomes completely one sided. “Don’t switch rods. I don’t think you have enough time”. As we begin to close the distance separating us from the fish I do have enough time to notice that these are pretty good size permit. The sweat is beginning to drip off the end of my nose.  

When we are within fifty feet of the fish the one sided whisper begins again. “Give me a cast and lead them by about ten feet”. It is a rule that you should let the fly drop after three false casts, no more. It takes me about four false casts before I get it out there and by then the nearest fish is under forty feet away. I let the fly drop, about twenty feet in front of them. They don’t see it. “Try again…. you can do this!” Three more false casts and some realignment and I let it drop… about fifteen feet in front of them. Docky continues to speak quietly but intensely. “It’s ok, let it drop. He’s coming. Strip very slowly. Set it! Set it! He’s on, he’s on!”

I lift my rod into the air as high as I can get it to allow the twenty feet of line lying on the deck of the boat to whip through the air. By a miracle, the line hisses through the rod eyes without tangling, and follows the permit on an unbelievably rapid dash to open water.

The reel is probably the most important piece of equipment when fishing for permit, and mine is a very good reel. The line is coming off it with alarming speed and I am well into my bright orange backing when the hooked permit sets a course and kicks into high gear. Docky poles hard for fifty feet to get the boat further out in the open water and then says “I better get the engine started”.

With growing concern we can plainly see that while the permit is headed for the main channel, there is a nasty island of partially submerged coral and mangrove ahead. The fish is aiming right for it. At this stage there is no way of controlling the direction the permit takes. In a mad dash he goes into a narrow slot right through the mangrove jungle, and of course the line goes with him. We see the fish emerge on the other side of the small island. He is now in open water, and amazingly the line is still scorching off my reel, despite the fact that the permit has neatly managed to weave it through the tangled mangrove roots.

The mangroves offer an additional challenge to tropical flyfishing

As we motor to the island, I’m thinking the line will break and go limp any second. We reach the mangrove, and Docky quickly jumps over the side of the boat into waist deep water and surges into the brush to see where the line is running. He hurriedly breaks off a few offending branches and weaves the line out of the brush and into the clear. We’re still not out of trouble! The line is running around a point of rock about a foot under the water. Docky guides his hand under the line easing it away from the rock, while I guide the rod down and try to get it pointed in a straight line toward the fish.

Amazingly, we are still in business. We are finally in a section of open water with a permit about 150 yards out who continues racing away in a steady surge of power. Slowly motoring behind and gradually increasing the drag on the reel, we start to gain some ground. Now with every inch of line we can put back onto the reel, we hopefully can slow this seemingly tireless advance.

Docky starts to gradually steer the boat to the right, and I bring line in with the rod angled to the right in order to make the fish work harder to stay on course. I am able to reel in a hundred yards of line. Then as if the permit has just been loafing so far, he takes off, peeling out all our hard earned line in seconds. Starting over again, this time to the left, we grind on, slowly getting in line only to have it taken away by another surge.

To the right, to the left, the fight goes on and my arms are starting to get tired! But now each run is becoming a little bit shorter. Finally, while working to the right, the permit suddenly breaks back in a long arc and I’m reeling like mad to keep the slack out of the line. For the first time we actually get a pretty good look at the fish as he starts circling the boat about thirty yards out and with a side view we can see he is BIG!

“Keep him sideways to the boat if you can” Docky says. “If he is moving left apply steady pressure to the right”.  The fish is now turned around to the right. “OK, slowly swing your rod to the left and keep the pressure steady” and so on. The permit is starting to tire and he’s getting close to the boat. “This is often where they get off.” Docky cautions me. “They will lull you into thinking they are done but now they do desperate things and they are still very powerful.”

Now within twenty feet of the boat the permit very briefly turns on his side and it flashes silver. He is tired and showing signs of fatigue. “Slowly lift your rod and keep bringing in line”. This is where the seven weight rod shows its weak side: no lifting power. But he is alongside the boat and Docky takes the leader gently in hand and guides the fish closer. Reaching over and grasping the permit just in front of the tail he tries to lift it and that fish is outta here! ”Uh, oh, this is one powerful dude!”

Slowly I work him back. This time I’m able to get a little more lift, and Docky is able to get a little better grasp. Lift . . . and we get a bath as the tail slashes and once again he is gone. Docky straightens up, wide eyed. That has never happened before. Usually when he gets a hand around the narrow part in front of the tail that fish is in the boat.

Third time’s a charm? This time the fish is alongside and Docky slides his left hand under the head right behind the gills and grips the tail again. With a heave he straightens up and the permit is ours. He is BIG!  Docky carefully hands him to me. He’s a beautiful fish and he just looks at us with disdain as we take his picture.

A catch of a lifetime

One minute later we have the fly out of his mouth and he’s back in the water. I gently hold him just in front of the tail, letting him get a breather and pose for the Go Pro underwater photos. He gives his tail a strong twitch, signaling that he’s ready to part company. He slowly swims away and disappears. We wonder if his buddies will believe the story of his brief alien abduction and miraculous escape.

  Within minutes, the thunderheads that have been building all day come together to unleash a blinding torrent of rain, and we are running for the marina with heads down. However, not even the thorough dowsing we get can wash away the lunatic grins plastered on our faces.