Speeding along the shallow edges of the mangroves in the Cudjoe backcountry of Key West, Florida, I soon forgot about the previous night’s monsoon and weather prediction of a 30 kph northerly blow. My thoughts were about the wind and my hat and how beautiful this area is.

What a warm sunny difference between the -6 C grey Chicago weather from which I had escaped. Normally in February, the local fishing is either to drill a hole, or drive to Michigan and fish for winter steelhead, with the latter a respectable but cold option.

“…I set the 2/0 black circle hook”

Permit (Trachinotus falcatus), aka “the fish of a thousand backcasts”, is a deeper bodied cousin of the more familiar and smaller pompano. Permit are common to 11kg, with the fly rod world record at 22kg. I had brought along 4 travel rods: 2 of them pure fly (9’ 9wt, 9’ 8wt); 1 fly/spin (10’ 7wt); and a light 7’ spinning rod. With the formidable winds and the finicky feeding habits of the permit, we decided to place our bets on Manchester United (this is probably hotly debatable but, what does a Yank know) and go with a live crab. These small lively crabs, about the size of a 50p, have constantly moving legs to urge a permit to strike.

Polling up to a large brown coral head in 6 feet of water, Gabe instructed me to cast to a large dark shadow circling the submerged coral head. The feisty crab came off on the first cast. Re-baiting quickly, we poled back to the same coral head and I flipped-out another crab. Perched high above us on his polling stand, Gabe said good cast and instructed to keep the bail open. I sensed a zen-like take the same time Gabe said to close my bail, and I slowly reeled and lifted and watched the 5kg clear gamma tighten and set the 2/0 black circle hook.

I was amazed at the speed and strength of my first permit and asked to gauge the fighting time. To my query of a 30 minute fight, Gabe responded with a laugh in his voice, “Yeah, all of that”.

My brother Larry, urged me on, by saying “Yeah, go, go, go!”, as I muttered, “Larry, this is nuts!”

As the line sang off the reel another permit was cruising in sync with my hooked permit.

Years of yoga practice greatly helped my stance and balance. But the stamina of my rod hand was fading. With the 7 foot rod in a perfect parabola, I re-gripped the rod with my left hand while resting and flexing my right.

Breathe, bow and lift as the battle continued.

Gabe prodded me about taking the largest one of the pod as the estimated 14kg permit surfaced in the near horizon. “The tug is the drug”, Gabe used to say when we fished for fall steelhead in Michigan.

The 90 horse power E-tec outboard started with a quip. Gabe deftly maneuvered the flats boat away from floating buoys and positioned the fight angle to my favor.

“Please come in for a quick picture and release” was the mantra now.

“Please come in for a quick picture and release”

To my pleasant discovery, these great permit cruised the same coral heads where Caribbean spiny lobster, smooth tail spiny lobster, and spotted spiny lobster found their refuge and forage. Among the murky jade green water lived a kaleidoscope of transient swimmers: brown rays, long sleek barracuda, and yellow jacks that followed in the wake of small sharks.

The previous week’s winter freeze/kill, from a northern front, resulted in thousands of floating in-shore fish – visual evidence of the critical importance of near-shore mangrove nurseries to the ecology of global fish stocks and life on earth. Mangrove roots provide a quiet sanctuary for young organisms, such as algae, barnacles, bryozoans, lobsters, oysters, shrimps, and sponges. Mangrove crabs mulch the mangrove leaves, recycling nutrients for other bottom feeders. Mangrove islands are especially good protectors during summer hurricanes, as evidenced by one obliterated by the last hurricane. However, because of their location in “low-wave energy” areas, their erosion protective value is sometimes overstated. Throughout the geologic record, species and marine ecosystems have come and gone. The difference is that now, we are the ones driving the big 18 wheeler rudely tailgating nature, at full throttle.*

“Come this way a little bit. Good!”

Breathe, bow and lift as the permit came closer.

Two more clicks to tighten the drag, a bow and a lift and Gabe’s outstretched hand touched the line. “That’s considered a catch”, but better to photo it”, he said.

Tomorrow’s venue, Super Bowl XLIV, was the second leg of my winter escape, and annual trip with my brother.

The zen part of me felt that the “fireworks” of the Super Bowl was just noise. It was when I really engaged the zen fishing part of me and watched with intention the development of the game’s key play – it was then I felt I was really there in the moment. And at that moment, before the snap, I uttered, “pick”, and indeed Manning’s throw was intercepted. It’s funny how fishing can be a grounding metaphor for another yet quite different sport.

As the tiring permit neared, I remarked to Gabe how “smart” that it uses its broad flat body to sail with the current and prolong the fight. My first permit fought admirably and would have probably won for not the advantage of our teamwork and maneuvering platform. There were also long drag screaming runs punctuated with some deep dodging, then shallow, then deep again trying to scrape and cut the line along some coral.

“…with lightning speed tailed my first permit..”

Breathe, bow and lift as the permit is now close to hand.

With Gabe’s guidance, I was able to prevent the permit from going under our boat. “Come this way a little bit. Good!”, as Gabe transformed into a water cat and with lightning speed tailed my first permit onto the loud cheering boat.

I was sending e-mails and videos my first day back. In the back of my daydreaming mind remains the large dark shadow circling the brown coral head in the murky jade green water.

John Miao

P.S. Gabe ask me to remind readers that permit are very difficult fish to hook and land, as shown by the refusal by over 20 permit after that first one of ~ 11kg. (2.2lb/kg)

John Miao is an environmental economist and owner of xcaliburrods.com

Gabe Nyblad is a master guide who winters in Key West guiding for tarpon, bonefish and permit; “hero guides” in Alaska in the summer (goodnewsriverlodge.com); and indicator fishes for king salmon and steelhead in Michigan in the fall. (gabe_nyblad@yahoo.com)

*recommended reading: Great Waters by Deborah Cramer

Exquisite hand built travel rods from John Miao
I know because I own one (Ed.)