Taking a non-fisher on a fishing trip may seem to be a fairly unwise move. Taking your girlfriend/wife or partner on a fishing trip may well be considered the equivalent of relationship Kamikaze. It is a problem that has vexed many a fisherman as he tries to find a way to combine the annual holiday with a fishing trip, whilst trying to avoid immediate separation at even the suggestion of the idea, let alone the trip itself.
Standing in the departure lounge of Heathrow, having somehow sold the concept of the trip under the pretence of sun and sea in Belize, I was feeling nervous to say the least. On the outset it had seemed clinically logical. We were going to visit a remote and tranquil lodge on the little known and suitably exclusive Turneffe Atoll. The atoll is the largest in the Caribbean and is one of only four coral atolls in the western hemisphere. My aim was to combine holiday with teaching my girlfriend not only how to fly-fish but to also go for the Aston Martin of saltwater fish…the venerable and frequently humbling Permit.
Those more knowledgeable than myself, but who were to polite to interject with my grand plans encouraged me gently with that sort of comforting look which comes when impending disaster is no longer avoidable but simply inevitable. What they should have been shouting very loudly to me was the fact that Permit are the most notoriously fickle fish to grace the target list of any saltwater angler. They will dismiss the most perfectly presented fly without rhyme or reason. Alongside this they are as elusive as they are graceful, as unpredictable as they are addictive, as challenging as there reputation suggests and will reliably break the most resilient of anglers, let alone a beginner.
I did however have one thing going for me. Permit are probably more numerous at Turneffe Atoll than any other saltwater location I am aware of. Probably more Permit are caught and released here than at any other destination in the world. It is possible to see hundreds or medium sized Permit in a single day, (10-20lbs). Schools of fish can number from half a dozen to fifty plus. In addition one might expect to find shoals of fish in the blue water, on the perimeter of the atoll, in their hundreds.
Day one and we set off under the tutelage of our guide for the week, Mark Hynd. English speaking the guides at Turneffe Flats have a reputation 2nd to none and Mark was no exception. His father had guided for 30 years and he was on his 14th. The years had not sapped his enthusiasm or charisma in any shape or form. His style was of gentle encouragement. Absolutely knowledgeable, but in a suggestive as opposed to a pushy manner. Critically he had eyes that seemed to come with built in Polaroid’s, radar and sonar all in one. He was a fish-detecting machine!
Five minutes ride in a Dolphin skiff from the lodge we throttle back and cruise gently along the edge of the mangroves. The idea is to look for any of the tell-tale signs of a Permit. This may be the black tip of their fins protruding out the water but is more likely to be the V wake of individual fish as they cruise just under the surface. A school of fish and this V will become an ever-shifting slick of nervous water. The combined wakes of the fish interact to do strange things to the ripples that my physics teacher would have a field day explaining. To the trained eye it the angling equivilent of a U-Boat periscope to a convoy look out. Quite simply strap in and prepare for a buffeting.
Tania is on the deck, rod poised, line pulled off the reel, a very carefully chosen crab which has been checked for size, weight, appearance and colour is held ready to go. We glide into an intercept position in front of the shoal. She starts energising the rod, lengthening the line with each false cast. Ok now now now Mark whispers amidst palpable tension. Thunk, the fly nestles in my shirt, the fish cruise past at an unnerving lick, oblivious to the chaos which is quietly unfolding above water.
Tania looks openly towards us for reassurance, I remove the hook from body and Mark smiles nervously as he guns the engine and moves back in front of the Permit who are now 50 yards away for another shot. In position again the fly goes airborne and I take a more sheltered position. The shoal approaches, the all clear is given and the cast lands encouragingly close but clearly not close enough. The fish respond with casual indifference and continue cruising.
Third time lucky, although we are now 200 yards from where we started, such is the relentless pace of these fish. Fly goes airborne in good time and each false cast straightens out beautifully. The fish hove into range, the cast is made, landing in an ever so subtle plop maybe 5 feet in front of the Permit. They cruise towards it unflinching. The shoal engulfs where the fly just landed. Strip strip strip, urges Mark. Suddenly for no reason the shoal flinches, flashes and I look expectantly as the line tightens…should tighten…doesn’t?
Perseverance is the order of the day here however we change venue to one of the enchanting ocean-side flats where the Permit cruise alongside the large schools of Bonefish which tail lazily in the slightly shallower water. This is a different sort of fishing and stealth is definitely the key here. Under the eagle vision of Mark we pole gracefully over the flats. The water is crystal clear with the bottom a shimmering emerald mix of turtle grass and sand. After a while Mark tenses and point to the middle distance where after several references we make out two fish with their tail fins waving in the air like sharp black scythes. They are moving much more slowly and Mark has time to gradually manoeuvre the boat into position so that the wind, the bearing of the fish, and the casting angle will suit Tania perfectly. The cast is made although with a little too much lead. Critically there is no disturbance so she retrieves the line and this time positions the fly perfectly in front of the fish. They falter and one of them, maybe 15-25lbs noses down to pick up the offering……and then they are off again, the fly is untouched, hearts remain in our mouths still hoping, expecting the line to go tight, but it doesn’t.
This is Permit fishing. Cruising, watching, waiting, preparing to pounce, panicking, trying again, perfect cast and then nothing. This only increases the tension and the desire to succeed. Sometimes the Permit will ignore the fly completely and cruise past undeterred, sometimes often seconds after you have made the cast, as the fly drops through the water, the fish will see it and spook in a burst of water, fins and nervous energy. Sometimes they will spot the fly, (or rather crab pattern which is their main diet), nose it gently and dismiss it having all but taken the final step.
The following day a stormy front has moved in and whilst conditions do not preclude fishing spotting fish is definitely much more tricky. This is a day for patrolling the flats for the schools of Bonefish which are equally numerous as well as being more likely to reward a cast with a firm take followed by the sizzling runs for which Bones are renown. They are by no means the only target to grace our attention that day with Barracuda and small sharks providing fantastic action on light spinning rods.
Storm passed and we are blessed with an absolutely idyllic day. The water is impossibly flat and in the dawn light it is sometimes impossible to differentiate between the sea and sky. Mark suggests we cruise to the southernmost tip of the atoll where it shelves away into deep blue water. This is technically not the sort of purist Permit fishing of the flats. It is however still very exciting. The absolutely clear conditions mean that we can look down into the blue water from the boat and see in almost total clarity what is going on below. There are a number of Jacks cruising around and using a intermediate line as opposed to the floater of before we set to work practicing with them. They tug savagely and even though we have scaled up to a 11 wt rod they provide a satisfying fight. In the distance however Mark has spotted the sight he has been looking for, a veritable frenzy of Permit tailing on the surface. There are so many it looks like a mid-ocean reed-bed from the distance. As we move up to them I am transfixed as we look down into the water. At times it appears as if the entire mid-water is full of a collection of giant reflective dustbins lids. These fish and those on the surface are huge, all 40lbs+.
Tania is back on the bow and heaves a larger sand and mottled brown coloured crab into their midst. Almost immediately the line snaps taught…and then slack again. Broken leader. A hastily replaced fly is tied on, this time to the 30lb flurocarbon. Out it goes again and immediately the slack disappears as the rod buckles into life….and then slack again. Unbelievably the fish has snapped this as well. What happens next is like a bad dream. What had previously seemed impossibly easy now becomes impossibly difficult as the fish slide below the surface and cruise around in the blue 10 meters below. Tantalisingly close but now absolutely out of reach.
Despite all this we are all happy campers. We have tasted victory and on our return to base camp one of the other pairs of anglers have caught three Permit between them. They are ecstatic and the lodge lays on a dedicated cocktail of the night - Permit Paradise. We all revel in the taste of success.
On our penultimate day we again taste victory. This time it is back to the mangrove flats and after several no shows a fly is landed directly in front of some cruising fish. A fish is hooked and it takes off, the line slicing backwards and forwards like cheese-wire before it makes a unstoppable rush taking 100 yards of line and heading for the safety of the mangroves. Next minute the line snags around a protruding stump and although the fish is still on it is only now that we see the powerful beating tail of a huge Bonefish. It is an absolute triumph and Tania’s biggest by far however the ultimate goal has eluded us.
In fairness we were dealt an unlucky hand with the weather conditions on our week in mid-November. Saddled either side of two cold-fronts quite simply the fish were off the bite. It was not just the Permit as we saw some extraordinary sights such as Barracuda which cruised with their bodies half out the water and small sharks who even avoided bait dropped on their noses. Very irregular behaviour and the sort of omens that would have had even Moses worried! This however is the lot of the fisherman wherever one might be….and as most of us know from past experiences! For those who think that a trip to the saltwater, wherever you are, will result in instant trophy catches, it is likely that you will be disappointed. Having said that I am convinced that if one wants one of the best chances possible of connecting with one of these dinner plates you could do a lot worse than this enchanting location where we certainly saw literally hundreds of Permit.
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