We were supposed to be fishing shallow water, but it sure was getting deep–the hype, that is, not necessarily the water. “See, already we’ve had a visual grand slam,” said Joe Gonzalez as he poled toward the hole where we’d seen a bonefish disappear a few minutes earlier. “You hooked a tarpon on fly, you caught a permit on bait, and now we’ve seen a bonefish. That’s a visual slam, isn’t it?” he queried, all seriousness aside.
Gonzalez and I were scouring Bicayne Bay during prime tarpon season; a time of the year that’s lately turned into prime tarpon-fishermen season–and we were comfortable and lonesome, doing what Gonzalez has casually kept to himself for the past few years: scoring big on the major flats species without getting in on the increasingly crowded lineup that typifies tarpon season on the flats off Miami.
The past several years it’s gotten harder and harder to get up early enough to stake a claim on many of the more popular and productive flats. And unless your idea of a good time is running at top speed in the dark–and even then you are likely to have a race on your hands–the simple fact is these days anglers have to share their territory and cooperation is an essential in light of the high demand for a limited number of spots.
Used to be that the tarpon alone were enough of a challenge–now other boats and other anglers are more of an impediment than reticent fish or fly lines that won’t straighten out. Sadly the most experienced anglers are too often the rudest. Screaming matches are becoming routine and high blood pressure is just a part of the day. So when your intent is to have fun and catch fish, what is the alternative?
That’s what I had come to find out, and what I found was that it’s possible to have your tarpon and your solitude too, and a whole lot more fishing than you’re likely to get if you stick with the traditional tarpon drill. Gonzalez had promised me permit fishing. That’s where he’s been focusing his charter fishing efforts for the past few springs. For several tarpon seasons he had been after me to go permit fishing with him. Somehow I hadn’t been able to pry myself away from the tarpon routine. My days on the flats are few enough as it is, and during tarpon season I’m seldom willing to spend much time doing anything other than chasing tarpon.
But one perfect spring day I acquiesced. I met Gonzalez just after daybreak at Key Biscayne. To my surprise, we kicked off the day with a little tarpon fishing.
Turning north through Bear Cut under low clouds scudding along on a stiff breeze we ran out past 10 feet of water, just inside the waves breaking over the bar off the south jetty at Government Cut, that deep incision in the seabottom at the south end of Miami Beach. Gonzalez handed me a 12-weight rod and as the wind and waves nudged us steadily toward the beach on Fisher Island, I made long casts with the sinking line, quartering downwind, and retrieved the bushy, dark fly in long, steady pulls back to the boat.
The fish were there, and after a couple of drifts, and a couple of hits, I got with the program and hooked up. Poor light, heavy clouds and choppy water created a blind- casting situation for those tarpon that morning, but when conditions are better the demands on the caster ease up, too. On calm, slick mornings, the fish roll on the surface and become a lot easier to locate and cast to.
The fish that morning certainly weren’t hesitant to strike, though Gonzalez acknowledged it’s pretty much an early morning shot, no matter what the weather and conditions. Bear Cut and Government Cut both carry a lot of boat traffic, and once the day gets underway and the fish get run over a few times, they are lot more wary and difficult to entice into striking.
Once the sun was fully up, having missed a couple of strikes and breaking off a 70-pounder on a long run, we abandoned the tarpon and headed south to a promised rendezvous with the permit.
Permit frequently swarm across the flats of Biscayne Bay this time of year. Warming water and abundant food create ideal conditions for them. At higher stages of the tides they’ll move onto the flats to feed, but throughout the tide, the deeper currents in the channels and cuts provide perfect byways for fish trading back and forth between the hard coral bottom of the deep oceanside flats and the food-rich basins and grassflats of the bay.
We started our search on a deep flat south of Soldier Key. The tide had already turned and the current was running strong across the flat when we pulled out of the channel and began poling.
The flat was light and hard, a mixture of coral rock and sand. The north edge of the flat dropped crisply into the depths of a channel. About 70 yards across the flat, a deep, white-sand-bottomed tongue of green water, a natural pathway from the deeper waters of the Bay, cut deeply into the shallow water, then ended abruptly. This is where the fish were coming from. Working with the tide, they were making their way along the trough, far into the interior of the flat under cover of the deeper water. When that dead-ended, they popped up over the edge, out on the flat, to feed and work into the current, moving steadily toward the protection of the channel on the north side of the flat.
This is where we waited to ambush them. A couple of bruisers snuck by and a couple of small groups, without us getting a cast off to them.
Permit are designed to disappear on the flats. Their mirror sides reflect their surroundings, and often all that you can see is the black tips of their tails, or their shadows as they move over the bottom. Tough as they are to see, they don’t seem to know it. They act like they’re wearing Day-glo life jackets with strobe lights on the collars and towing buoys with loudspeakers blaring, “LOOKY HERE–I’M A PERMIT!”
Their path of travel is erratic, to say the least. They zig and zag, racing across the flats in fits and starts. When they stop to nose into the flat, it isn’t for long. When their heads come up they are invariably traveling in a direction different than they were before they paused.
A permit on the flats acts like a scared mouse in the middle of an empty room. It’s tough to anticipate them with a cast and drop a bait on their nose.
But just like permit everywhere, permit on the flats have a tough time saying no to a live crab. Playing the averages with a cast makes them catchable.
A trio of fish popped up out of the green hole onto the flat–a great situation, because when there’s more than one, they get competitive and are much more likely to charge a bait, lure or fly. I wound up for a cast, and the fish split up, each lurching off in a different direction. I cast in front of and way beyond the closest fish, the crab sailing nicely on 8-pound spinning tackle. As it landed, I closed the bail and began reeling, with the rod held hi
gh. The crab skittered across the surface, and by timing the retrieve to match the fish’s speed, I managed to pull the crab in front of its nose. The crab was three feet in front of the fish when I stopped reeling and dropped the rod. He’d seen it.
The crab struggled to make the bottom, but the permit shot forward and sucked it up. It was a textbook take. I set the hook and the permit tore across the flat.
Permit on the flats will do a pretty good job of wearing themselves out. It takes time–all permit are tough–but with nowhere to go but faster, they are at the mercy of their own fear in shallow water. They also have a penchant for putting their noses on the bottom and scrubbing the hook out of their mouths. Either the hook gets rubbed out or the line gets rubbed in two–it’s a common permit trick and one of the disadvantages to fighting them on the flats.
This one didn’t stop to scrape his lips on the bottom, but instead blasted toward the channel. Which meant as soon as he cleared the flat, he was likely to sound, in order to pull the taught mono across the edge of the flat. That would be an almost sure cutoff.
I held the rod high to get the line out of the water and decrease the odds of the fish sawing it across the edge of the flat. Gonzalez poled like a maniac, and we slid into the channel right behind the fish, to slug it out in deep water. With 12 feet of water under him, the fish dove, but over the next 10 minutes he never managed to spend enough time on the bottom to dislodge the hook. Or wrap the line around anything. Patience, persistence and luck were with us, and shortly Gonzalez had the fish safely inside the landing net, where he unhooked it and sent it on its way once again. The outgoing tide had left the flat too shallow now for permit, so we switched game plans.
Just as permit on the flats can be impossible to anticipate, the same fish in a different situation can be almost predictable. Anglers who fish permit over Gulf wrecks know this–and so do those who fish the permit that cruise the channels between Biscayne Bay and the ocean in the spring. From Key Biscayne south to Sands Key the channels that cut through the flats provide miles and miles of edges along which permit cruise and feed in time to the tides. Specific locations are something which must be sought out each season, and just because a particular edge works one year, or one month, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good the next time you go back.
As with the flats, the key to locating a good location is to find the components that make a place appealing to permit. In the case of flats, it’s rich bottom with enough depth to let the fish feel comfortable, with adjacent deep water and good tidal flow. This fulfills a permit’s needs, and so provides a good place to fish for them.
When permit cruise the channels, they are also looking for food. They tend to run from one comfortable area to another, using the channels as a conveyor belt for groceries as well as travel lanes between the grassy basins of Biscayne Bay and the hard, deep, fan and sponge studded flats on the ocean. Experienced permit fishermen look for a good strong current and a handy ambush point. The ambush point simply means the edge of a flat deep enough to stake out on and wait for the fish to cruise by.
“You may hear them before you see them,” said Gonzalez as we settled in to wait alongside a channel he said would produce. “They suck crabs off the surface, and you’ll hear them hit the crabs. Just like snook.”
We were set up a comfortable cast away from a strong outgoing current. Bits of weed and flotsam raced out toward the ocean, life rafts for the crustaceans the permit would be feeding on.
As far as the presentation is concerned, the drill is typiclaly the same: Cast the crab beyond the path of the permit, then skitter it back on an intercept. In this case, the path of the permit would be defined by the edge of the flat. There is little guessing as to where the fish will go. It will tend to follow a consistent line into the tide.
“Look for them swimming high in the water column,” he added. “They’re easy to see. They swim just under the surface and they’ll look taupe.”
Taupe, he said, they’ll be taupe.
How perfect. Not only are these fish an exclusive, reclusive, highly selective trophy, a feather in the cap of any angler, the toast of Biscayne Bay, but they come in designer colors. Tres chic!
About that time I heard a funky “pop” but by the time I got a fix on the fish he’d passed us by, cruising fast in the channel. Sure enough, in this deep channel the fish looked the gray-brown, a cross between poupon mustard and a live shrimp. A couple more slipped past me in the glare over the next hour, and by the time I got with the program the tide was beginning to slow. The next fish came bounding along at a steady clip, high in the water. I tossed the crab upstream, pulled it in front of him and he sipped it off the surface.
I set the hook. He pulled back, then bolted, and suddenly the line went slack.
I reeled in to see what had gone wrong. Everything looked fine, but then I saw the problem. A hollow little pointy crab part had slipped over the point of my hook. After the fish sucked the crab off the surface, he had crushed it. When I set the hook, it slipped into the little piece of shell, which was jammed down over the point and barb like a protective cover. Just to make a day of it, we slipped back in to the bay to look for a bonefish before heading back to the dock. We found them, but they wouldn’t eat. That’s where we rounded out Gonzalez’s Visual Grand Slam. A lot of people who fish with Gonzalez have these visuals to their credit–and if they get lucky, they can sometimes catch what they see.
The bonefish wouldn’t eat and the tarpon got away, but it had been full day nonetheless. Running back to the dock we noticed a couple of boats staked out alongside flats, next to channels where the current ran swift. We sure hadn’t seen them during the day, and it dawned on me, we’d been downright lonesome, considering it was a prime day in tarpon season.