“Fear and Loathing in Belize, Part II,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Although a trout angler at heart, Bill Tapply also loved casting in the salt.
Photo courtesy Vicki Stiefel

[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I’ll post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

What the permit giveth, the permit taketh away.

The first time I went to Belize, the wind howled for a week. Andy and I stayed in a lodge with ten other fanatical tarpon anglers, and in that entire week, twelve fishermen, supervised by six highly-motivated guides, jumped exactly one tarpon. That lucky angler happened to be me, although at the time I felt profoundly unlucky. It was the first tarpon I’d ever hooked. I had no idea how to subdue a giant fish, and I let it get away. (See Part I.)

Thereafter, I bored as many people as possible with my own Old Man and the Sea story. The Big One That Got Away. Ho, hum. I knew it was a cliché, but I couldn’t shut myself up. That fish was six feet long, and he came rocketing out of the water barely 40 feet from the boat. His big round eye was staring directly at me, and behind me, Pancho was murmuring, “Oh, beeg feesh.”

Everyone kept telling me how great it was to jump a tarpon, how all the fun of it was in seeing those magnificent fish take your fly and then launch themselves out of the water, how actually fighting them was exhausting and bringing them into the boat was meaningless.

I believed all of that in theory. It didn’t change the fact that I’d blown the chance of a lifetime.

Second Chances
Three years after my tarpon misadventure, Andy and I returned to Belize. This time our goal was to catch a permit.

With my tarpon failure still burning in my memory, I did my homework.  I practiced seeing, casting to, fighting and landing strong saltwater fish by sight-fishing for the striped bass and bluefish that swarmed my New England coastal waters. I tied a batch of permit flies. I learned leader formulas. I even memorized some knots.

I reread Lefty’s book, and I read several other books on flats fishing. I studied magazine articles. I looked up everything Del Brown had ever said about permit. Brown caught more permit on flies than anybody in history, and he invented the definitive permit fly, a crab imitation that he called the Merkin. Permit subsisted mainly on crabs.

Most people didn’t know what a merkin was. Brown’s wife did, though, and when she heard about Del’s fly, she insisted he call it something else. So he tried to convince people to call it Del Brown’s Permit Fly. As a result of this little marital controversy, anglers who normally didn’t care about improving their vocabularies looked up “merkin” in their dictionaries. Naturally, Del Brown’s permit fly is still known as the Merkin.

A man with a spinning rod and a bucket of live crabs has a good chance of catching a permit. Permit are usually smart enough to recognize the difference between an actual crab and a crab made out of feathers and hair and fur and lead dumbbell eyes.  Permit come equipped with superior olfactory equipment. They feed as much by smell as by sight. Drop a real crab in the path of a feeding permit, and he’ll probably eat it. Drop a Merkin or a McCrab in front of that same fish, and even if you didn’t corrupt the fly with a single molecule of sunscreen or insect repellent or fly-line dressing, the fish will take one sniff and swim in the other direction.

Except once in a while, for reasons known only to Mr. Permit, he will dart over and eat a fake crab. Not often. Catching a permit on a fly is universally considered the ultimate fly-rod challenge.

According to rumors, one guy who made a name for himself as a permit fly-rod expert collected a bucket of live crabs every morning before a day of fishing. He smashed up the crabs in the bucket and soaked his flies in the juice. Purists considered this cheating. Pragmatists argued that permit were so hard to catch that any edge was justified.

Pictures of this expert holding up big permit with crab flies in their mouths appeared in angling magazines with great frequency.  He neglected to mention crab juice in his articles.

The Numbers Game
When we arrived, Taku, our guide, made a point of telling Andy and me that he was tied with a colleague, Pops, for the season’s permit lead at the lodge. The guides took this unofficial competition very seriously. Their pride and reputations depended on how many permit their clients boated.

Taku is a smiling, easy-going young guy from Belize City, and when he saw Andy double-haul a crab fly into the wind, he laughed happily. When he saw me try it, his expression was more ambiguous. Crab flies are big and bulky and heavily weighted, and in the wind—that persistent Belize wind—throwing one on a nine-weight is like casting a sock full of sand. It’s a good idea to duck when you see a backcast coming at you.

It became apparent that fishing for permit really meant fishing for our guide’s reputation.  I wanted to catch a permit. But even more, I wanted to keep Taku smiling.

We hunted permit from the boat every morning. Taku poled along the deepwater flats, and Andy and I took turns on the casting deck, squinting into the gray wind-riffled water, looking for the blurry shapes of cruising permit or, even better, the sickle tail of a feeding permit with his nose down.

We decided to swap turns on the deck every time we got a shot at a permit, and for the first two days, each of us got several shots. Taku always spotted the permit before we did. Mostly we saw cruising fish that weren’t particularly interested in eating, and more often than not, the plop of a Merkin sent them scurrying in the opposite direction.

On the second morning, a cruising permit turned and swam over to take a look at Andy’s fly. Taku whispered, “Leetle streep.” Andy gave it a twitch. The permit bolted.

When he climbed down off the deck, his hands were shaking, and he was sucking in deep breaths. “Omigod,” he said. “Did you see that? I think I’m gonna have a heart attack.”

After two days, that was the highlight of our permit fishing. One permit’s hesitant expression of interest…or curiosity.

That night, back at the lodge, we learned that one of Pops’ clients had boated a permit, dropping Taku into second place.

The Pressure Cooker
The next morning when we lugged our rods down to the dock, Taku was not smiling.  Andy and I exchanged glances. The pressure was on.

We went to a flat where we’d spotted some permit the previous day. The wind chopped up the water’s surface, and the sky was low and dark. When Taku turned off the motor and climbed up on his poling platform, I said, “Lousy conditions, huh? We’ll never be able to see the fish.”

“Conditions very good,” Taku said. “Me, I can see feesh. Feesh can’t see us.”

It was my turn on the deck. I made a long cast, coiled the line on the deck, checked the sharpness of my hook. Adjusted my polarized glasses. Pulled down the brim of my cap. Ready to go.

Taku poled. Andy stood up in the middle of the boat, shading his eyes with his hand. We all peered hard into the water. All I could see was the gray sky reflected on the riffled mirrored surface.

Then Taku’s urgent whisper: “Feesh!”

I looked around wildly. I saw nothing but reflection. “Where?”

“Eleven o’clock, man. Three permit. Noses down.”

“I don’t see them.”

“Oh, jeez, I do,” said Andy. “They’re eating.”

“Cast, man,” hissed Taku.  “Ten-thirty now. Fifty feet. Cast!”

I still didn’t see any permit, but I got my line in the air and dropped my Merkin at what I thought was ten-thirty, about fifty feet from the boat.

“No, no,” said Taku. “Left, man.”

I ripped my line from the water, false cast once, dropped my crab fly about fifteen feet to the left.

Right!” said Taku.

I obediently picked up my line again and cast to the right.

“No!” screamed Taku. “I meant . . . he got it! Hit heem!”

I hauled back and felt the serious live weight of a big fish.

“You got him,” said Andy. “Oh, wow. Big permit.”

Permit don’t jump. What they do is, they put their big flat side against you and they swim away, and no amount of sideways pressure can stop them, and in a minute that permit had taken all my line, and it was cutting sideways across the flat. I went down and dirty on him, tried to turn his head, remembering my tarpon fiasco when I failed to fight the fish aggressively, and after a minute the fish turned. I got my backing on the reel, and the fish surged again. I hung on, and we were slogging it out.

Andy was laughing now. “When Taku said ‘right,’” he said, “ he meant you made the right cast. The fish started after your fly. When you yanked it away from him, he went nuts, and when you dropped it to his right he shot over and grabbed it quick before it got away. That was pretty funny.”

Funny was one word for it. But “unworthy” was the word that kept echoing in my brain. I didn’t deserve to catch this permit. I’d blundered and blown it, and the stupid fish had eaten my fly anway.

I desperately wanted to land this permit. For Taku. For myself. For redemption.

After fifteen minutes, I’d retrieved all but thirty feet of line, and the permit was near the surface, flashing his silvery side.

“He’s beat,” said Taku. “You got heem, man.”

That’s when my line went limp, and the permit righted himself and swam away.

“What happened?” said Andy.

I reeled in. “He’s gone.”

I glanced back at Taku. He was sitting on his poling platform with his forehead on his knees.

I looked at my leader, saw the tell-tale pigtail.

“Bad knot,” I said. “That’s what happened.”

‘Oh, man,” said Andy.

Taku wouldn’t look at me.

The next day, Andy landed a 14-pound permit. Taku was back in a tie for first place and smiling again.

A year later fishing out of Islamorada I brought two giant tarpon into the boat in consecutive days. They even announced my name on the local radio station.

I couldn’t help thinking that I was a fraud.

* * *

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone.

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