Turneffe Atoll (Part 1) – Permit

When I booked a week at Turneffe Flats for the end of May, I did it for one reason:  Variety.  Summer in Belize means spending a full day on the water and having dozens of shots at everything that swims.  Tarpon, permit, and bonefish, all available on most every stage of tide and time of day.  It sounded like heaven to me, and it was.

A couple weeks removed from my trip, I have decided that rather than summarizing each day (which all blur together in my memory), I would write about each of the major species I encountered on Turneffe.   I spent hours chasing each of the big three (tarpon, bonefish, and permit), and with that comes a treasure trove of stories I have collected, most ending with a blown cast or spooked fish.  But in a few cases, I succeeded, and in some others, failed spectacularly.  Those are the stories I want to tell. 

Permit

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Fishing the “home flat” at Turneffe Flats Lodge, a patch of protected turtle grass bounded to the east by a long ridge of jagged coral rubble.

Looking across the small lagoon from the lodge, I saw the signs of bonefish in the late afternoon light:  Sparkles on the water’s surface, closer to rapid camera flashes than signs of marine life.  Tailing bonefish, as I learned in Belize, are easily sighted by simply looking for what my guide called “glitter”.   The fish were 200 yards away, but they were enough to compel me to finish my gin and tonic, strap up my wading boots, and join my friend on the coral flats.

I made one change:  Rather than bring my 6wt (my bonefish rod of choice that week), I strung up my 9wt and a small crab fly – an amber EP crab pattern, a reasonable imitation of the small crabs that crawled along the broken and bleached coral of the flats.  The evening before I had spotted several permit feeding on this flat, and I wanted to be ready.

We waded across the waist deep turtle grass flat, and soon began our ascent from the lagoon onto the broken coral at the edge of the Caribbean Sea.  As we waded to the bonefish, their tails and dorsal fins poking from the water like tiny, sparkling sails, I made the decision to keep walking.  It was my first mistake of the day.  My friend (in a stroke of sane behavior) crept to within sixty feet of the bonefish, and began the challenging project of getting one of these five pound fish to eat a size 8 crab fly.

As I walked across the coral flat, I scanned the surf line back across to the lagoon.  The tide was falling, and the small waves crashing on the coral were sending pulses of cool water through channels along its length.  At the location of most of these channels, yellow and black saltwater panfish darted from my boots, leaving wakes as they scurried back into the lagoon.

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Coral rubble.  On high tide, bonefish and permit habitat.

Nearly to where I had seen the permit the prior evening, I walked into a larger channel, ankle deep, and nearly stepped on a ten pound bonefish.  The fish, as surprised as me, launched itself from its narrow lie behind a piece of coral and into the surf.

I stood there for a few minutes, stunned, heart pounding, looking off into the ocean where the bonefish had disappeared.  As my heart rate fell, and my grip on my rod relaxed, I saw what I had come for:  A permit, black forked tail in the air, nose down in the lagoon.  My heart rate surged again, and I quickly pulled my fly free from the rod and began to strip out line, wading off the coral rubble and towards the lagoon.

I watched for some time, the tail now hidden below the water, and saw the wake of the fish cruising toward me.  The fish, no more than ten or fifteen pounds itself, suddenly disappeared as it came within casting distance, the “push” of water gone.  I stared at the water, crab fly dangling from my left hand, head scanning the flat – back and forth, across the coral rubble, in the wash, and back into the turtle grass lagoon.  There was no sign.  After five minutes of crouching on a piece of coral, a human heron, I stood up to full height.  And again, I saw the fish.

The permit was in the wash, a third of its back above the water, and was swimming away from me back towards where I had first spotted the school of bonefish.  With it was a second permit, also about ten pounds.  Despite their size, both were able to swim in the jagged coral in only inches of water.  With the crash of each new Caribbean wave, the pulse of new water would allow both animals to surge forwards.  As the waves subsided, the fish would then roll onto their side, a fat silver and black disk in the surf.

I sprinted from my perch towards the fish, now 60 feet behind me.  As I moved into position, I laughed out loud, amazed at what I was witnessing.  The permit, these fat silver disks, spinning and rotating and swimming in the surf, would infrequently balance on their face, bringing half of their body from the water, and undoubtedly rip some small crab from its hiding place.  As the next wave hit, the fish would roll over its head, regain it’s balance, and continue on through the surf, black back glistening above the surface.  I kept laughing, now an involuntary giggle as I climbed across the coral.

My friend looked up from his bonefish project to see me sprint towards him along the coral flat.  And I am sure I yelled the name of the fish (between fits of laughter), because my fellow angler reeled in his line and sprinted in my direction.  We converged on the permit as they settled into the largest channel on the coral flat, feeding and spinning and rolling.

I unstrung my crab fly yet again, and casting into the wind (with a 15 foot leader), I placed the crab three feet from the closest permit.  With foam on the water obstructing their view, I had approached to within 50 feet of the fish, but the long leader, and heavy fly, made accurate casting challenging in the evening breeze.  The fish, however, stayed in place, and I was able to cast a few more times.   One of those casts sent my crab pattern careening into the tip of my rod, making an audible and terrifying crack.  But the next cast dropped the fly on the face of the closest permit, and I crouched ready to set the hook, muscles tensed and gaze transfixed on the black back of the permit.  But I had made an error:  I had neglected to time the incoming waves, and a surge of water sent my fly speeding past the fish as it landed and into the crevices of the rubble.  Belly laughing, cursing, and smiling at the same time, I crept towards the snag to within fifteen feet of the fish.

I saw it up close, the tiny scales, the iridescent purple and black of its back, the burnished brass and steel of its flanks.  I was transfixed as I wrenched the crab fly from the coral, and looked down far too late to see my fly line now wrapped under, over, and around multiple chunks of sharp coral.  The belly laughing became louder, accompanying a string of expletives weaved together over the sound of the waves.

My friend approached from the opposite side of the two permit, and while I don’t remember if he ever made a cast, I remember the body language of the fish changing dramatically as I struggled to untangle my fly line.  We had been made.

The fish drifted from us towards the breaking sea, and in an instant, threw themselves off the flat and into the deep, spraying water with their final dash.

I stared out into the sea, a smile permanently frozen to my face.  I reeled in my fly line, reaching up to the leader and fly dangling from the tip of my rod and pulling down on both.  With that gentle tug, the tip of my rod collapsed into fragmented pieces, the result of the crab fly’s impact earlier.  My smile remained, as did my laughter.

Permit.  Fucking Permit.

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The sad remains of a 9wt fly rod, coral flat in the background.

 

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