The tarpon broke through the smooth black surface of the mangrove creek and launched itself into a spectacular tail walk, leaving the channel foaming in its wake. Crashing down, it jumped again, all silver and spray. It is said that a tarpon's fight is really fright, if so, this one was in a full, mesmerizing panic. Only the voice of Kent Leslie freed us of its spell. With a glance at his watch our guide said, "We still got time for de Turneffe Island slam, mon! Bring dat li'l fella in."
It was 10 minutes past five, an hour and 20 minutes before dark at this time of year. If Fred Arbona could quickly boat the tarpon, there would be enough light for one more shot at a permit.
One more shot, 500 more shots—a man could fish a lifetime and never catch a permit on a fly. I don't know if Fred would agree with that statement or not—even now—but he certainly would have taken issue with it five days earlier, in Belize City's Fort George Hotel bar, where the Turneffe Island grand slam was first mentioned. We were having a drink with Dave Bennett, owner and proprietor of the Turneffe Island Lodge, and with two of Bennett's friends from Jamaica, who had cruised over from Port Royal that day, trolling for marlin along the way.
"You gen'lemen want to fish marlin?" the Jamaican captain asked us. "I take you. Plenty of marlin off Turneffe."
We thanked him, but told him out-main goal in coming to Belize was to catch a permit on a fly and, with luck, make the grand slam—land a permit, tarpon and bonefish in a single day. Once we'd done that, Fred said, we'd be pleased to fish for marlin.
"Sure, mon. You catch de slam," the captain said. "No problem." Fred nodded at me sagely. Months earlier he had told me the same thing.
"Ah, but the real trick," Bennett said with a wink, "is to catch a Turneffe Island grand slam. That's never been done."
So there it was: immortality staring us in the face. Predictably, Arbona rose to the bait. I must tell you about Fred. He's a very intense fisherman. Very intense. He doesn't fish to relax, but to satisfy the inner needs of some primal finny demon. A large, hard-fighting bonefish is, in Fred's words, a macho bone. A reel with a heavy drag is a macho reel. Fred, who is stout as a stump, enters the sea in the frame of mind of a predator. The fish does not exist that can best him.
He asked Bennett to define this Turneffe Island slam. "Bonefish, tarpon, permit and mutton snapper in one day," Bennett drawled pleasantly. Originally from Wilmington, N.C., Bennett, who's in his late forties, had run the Turneffe Island Lodge since 1981. In the autumns he outfitted duck and goose hunters on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was not a bad life. He was trim, blue-eyed and bearded, as laid back as Fred was hyper. "Over the years folks caught so many regular slams—there's been six since ah've been here—that the guides decided to add the mutton snapper to the list," Bennett went on. "Good fighter and absolutely de-licious to eat. I expect that's why they chose it."
I had never heard of a mutton snapper. But then, until a few months ago, I had never heard of Belize. It was known as British Honduras until 1973. Nestled in a politically quiet corner of Central America, Belize is bordered to the north by Mexico's Yucatan, to the south and west by Guatemala, and to the east by the Caribbean. Thirty miles off its coast lie the Turneffe Islands.
The crossing the next morning in a World War II relic named Sayonara took about two hours—top speed: 15 knots. The islands, consisting of dozens of largely uninhabited mangrove-covered cays, are just east of the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, stretching 190 miles. The waters contain a bonanza of sand flats, mangrove flats, coral reefs, creeks, bights, bays and channels. They are ideal for light-tackle fishermen and scuba divers, but there were practically none of either. There are no hotels, condos, yachts, beaches, sunbathers or kaleidoscopic rum drinks. Once in a while you pass a ramshackle hut set on posts above the flats, owned by one of the 50 or so native lobstermen who work the Turneffe chain. But that's it. To say these cays are unspoiled is to miss the point: They seem virtually untouched by modern man.
We arrived at Bennett's lodge on Cay Bokel; Fred set up four rods, waded onto the flats in front of the island and caught a 12-inch barracuda before the rest of us had finished unpacking. One got the impression he was ready to go. Lunch became a gastronomical race during which it was decided that we would go right after permit that first afternoon—there would be no warming up on bonefish. The tide, a young flood, was right; Fred's enthusiasm was high; and our guide was willing.
Which is not to say that Kent was exactly wild for the idea. A fishing guide likes to have some clue as to what kind of fishermen he's dealing with before going after something as challenging as a permit. He needs to know if they can see the fish cruising to the flats, if they can cope with the wind and what their casting range is, so he can position the boat accordingly. Fred, who throws a marvelous line, was doing his best to reassure Kent as we lit out over the channel toward his favorite permit hole; he chatted knowledgeably about places he had fished and the tackle he had brought. Fred had one rod set up for bonefish, another for tarpon, another for permit and one for shark and barracuda—each with its own separate fly and test-weight leader. He had just decided to add a length of OX (eight-pound test) tippet to his permit outfit when Kent cut the engine and allowed the boat to drift. We were in four feet of water, 60 yards off a small, nondescript cay, one of a dozen we had passed. A mangrove flat, Kent called it. Grabbing his pole, Kent stood on the platform in the stern and began to scour the sea.
Fred asked him what famous fishermen he had taken out over the years.
Kent thought for a moment. "Ted Williams. Lefty Kreh. A.J. McClane. Chico Rodriguez." He named them softly, without much reflection. Then, a little louder, "Four permit."
Fred sucked wind as if kicked in the stomach. "Wait a minute! Dammit!" He scrambled for his tackle box. He had spliced on his tippet, but he had not yet tied on a fly. We were unarmed. I looked in the direction Kent was pointing but saw nothing I could identify as a fish. The permit, moving rapidly, were long gone by the time Fred was ready to cast. Kent said nothing. He continued to pore over the flats. But this was no way to begin. All of us knew that those might well have been the only permit we'd see all day.
Fred, chastened, got down to business. He stood in the bow and cast his Jewett blue crab fly into the water to gauge how fast it would sink. The body of the fly, about the size of a silver dollar, was made of the rump feathers of a cock pheasant. Its legs were orange-dyed grizzly hackle tips. It was weighted with fuse wire and had little yellow eyes that bobbed at the end of its antennae. The creation, which cost $5.50, looked good enough to eat—though for that price it should have been able to swim in circles and breed on command.
Fred held it up for Kent's approval. "What do you think, my friend? Will that work?"
Kent had been guiding in the Turneffe Islands for 25 years. When he wasn't guiding, he trapped lobsters. Last year he sold 1,200 pounds of tails, for which he earned $13 Belizean ($6.50 U.S.) a pound. In Belize, where the annual per capita income is about $1,000, lobstering by itself would make Kent wealthy—though heaven knows where he spends the money, living year-round on Turneffe. He is both expert and patient, and teaches all new guides at the lodge.
Both Fred and I wore polarized sunglasses to help us see down into the water. Kent didn't. He squinted into the wind-chopped waves with his naked eyes, perceiving shapes and movements unseen by me. "Permit," he said, pointing. "Comin' for us. Beeg ones! See dem?"
We didn't. Fred, crouching on the bow, looked wildly about like a man under attack. Kent pointed in frustration. To him the slab-sided fish must have been as plain as a school of sea cows.
"Dere, mon. Dere!" Kent gestured at a spot 30 feet off the bow. Fred made a false cast in that direction. "Yas," Kent said. "Now!"
Fred let 'er go. The $5.50 Jewett blue crab fly catapulted through the air, thwacked into something and splashed into the water within my reach. Fred's hat floated beside it. It was a good looking hat, with a long khaki bill. I landed it. Kent said nothing, poling onward, scouring the flats.
"Good job, my friend," Fred told him, replacing the hat on his head. "That was my mistake."
We completed the drift, then Kent started the engine and moved to another flat. It was like the first, 60 or 70 yards out from one of the cays, within sight of the rich, dark blue of the deep water from which the permit come at high tide. We drifted and watched, trying to look through the water rather than at it. Trying to make out a moving shadow in a sea of shadows. Trying to see the ripple of nervous water caused by a school of moving fish, or a telltale fin showing above the surface.
"Two permit," said Kent, pointing.
We looked. Nothing. "I don't see them, my friend," Fred said earnestly, false-casting time and again over a great arc of water. "Is that them?" Fred cast in a completely different direction from where Kent was looking.
"Too late. Dey turn."
One of the reasons the permit were so difficult to spot was the camouflaging colors of the ocean floor. The mangrove flats are made up of turtle grass, sea coral, sponges and sand. Its hues are gradations of olives, browns, tans, greens and grays. With the movement of wind and tide, all of these colors and shapes seemed to shimmer and swim. The sunlight danced on the surface, the turtle grass flowed, the fish glided, the boat drifted. The ocean floor seemed alive. Unless you were lucky enough to have a permit stick its tail or dorsal fin above the surface—and we weren't—you had to be very good indeed to pick out the fish's gray from all the other shades of gray down there, its motion from all the other motion. Kent, without glasses, could distinguish the entire body of a permit from 30 or 40 yards. Did he look for movement? Yes. Did he look for color? Yes. So did we, but it didn't help. What was the secret? "All de years on de flats, I guess," was Kent's reply. It was as if he was working with a different set of tools.
We spat on our glasses and wiped them clean. We tried going without, squinting into the glare, blinding ourselves still further. "Tell me what o'clock they're at," Fred finally said, and by that device—"T'irty feet, mon, 'leven o'clock"—Fred had his first strike. "Yas," Kent said when the fly splashed, leading the permit perfectly. "Heem coming, heem coming." Fred was retrieving the crab in six-inch strips. Suddenly the water 20 feet from the boat exploded from below. Fred, feeling weight, struck the fish hard. Then nothing. When he pulled in his line, the fly was gone.The OX tippet that he had hurriedly tied had slipped at the barrel knot. Kent said nothing. He poled on ahead, silently scouring the sea.
"See any permit?" Bennett asked genially that night when we came in for dinner.
The answer, of course, was no, but I dodged the issue by saying we had cast to a number of them. There was a fish mounted on the wall behind him. "That a permit?" I asked.
Fred glanced at it. "That's a Jack [Crevalle]," he said.
"No, it ain't," Bennett drawled. "Twenty-seven-pound permit. Biggest one caught here at the lodge."
"They look different in the water," I noted. They did, too. They looked invisible.
The mounted permit reminded me of a Latin baseball catcher in his squat behind home plate: round yet streamlined. The fish was nearly as high as it was long, silver on the sides, dark gray on the back, with a small black dorsal fin that angled smoothly rearward. Its tail was blue-black, long and forked. A tailing permit, I had been told; is one of the most unmistakable sights in nature. As the permit roots in the shallows for crabs, this great forked appendage seesaws above the flats like a pair of pruning shears. The permit's mouth is small and ideal for crushing crabs, having, according to [A.J.] McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, "the texture of an automobile tire." This makes the fish difficult to hook. Once one is hooked your troubles are just beginning. A permit has the annoying habit of banging its head in the coral to sever your line, or rubbing its mouth in the sand to loosen your barb, or turning its body sideways to increase water resistance, so that it feels as though you are reeling in a soup tureen. No matter which strategy it chooses, the angler is in for an exhausting battle. Fighting a permit for three hours is not considered unusual.
"Least y'all had a strike," Bennett said after we had described the one that got away. "Last week there was a full moon, which affects fish in funny ways. It got so bad that the guides were throwing live hermit crabs to the permit with the hooks hidden on their insides. The permit still wouldn't bite. That's the kind offish they are. Good bonefishing, though. Most of our anglers are here for the bonefish and consider the permit a bonus fish."
"Not us, my friend," Fred said grimly.
I asked Bennett how many permit had been taken that summer.
"Seven or eight," he answered. "And we cast to 'em every day. Toughest fish there is."
"How many have been caught on flies?"
"Two," he said, scratching his beard. "Oh, they'll take a fly if it looks good to 'em. Like my ol' daddy used to say, 'It's not the arrow, it's the Injun behind it.' " He grinned at his ol' daddy's wisdom. "You be sure to keep one if you get it. They're sweet as pompano."
"Oh, don't worry," Fred assured him. "He's dead. On the spot. I'm going to cover my body with his blood and do the whole voodoo thing over him and call it Arbona's Revenge." I suppose it was the reference to Indians and arrows that had conjured up that grisly image, but you could see the state Fred was approaching. One could only hope that extremism in the pursuit of permit was no vice.
The next day I caught an octopus, a sea cat, as they call them in Belize. I caught it on a fly. True, I was not actually trying to catch the octopus, but that's part of the mystique of fishing. You never know. Something revolting might happen at any moment.
I was fishing by myself, lagging half a mile behind Kent, Fred and Bennett. We were all wading, but they were out of earshot because of the wind. It was the end of the day. Bennett and I had spent most of the afternoon snorkling for conchs, which would be used in that night's seviche—seafood marinated in lime juice, onions, jalape√±o peppers and salt—and I was thinking about a cold rum and tonic. Then, ahead of me, I saw the unmistakable—an open pair of pruning shears bobbing above the surface of the flats. I had stumbled upon a tailing permit.
I had only one fly with me, an imitation snapping shrimp. I cast it into the crosswind. It was not really such a bad cast as to be life-threatening, but it was a very poor cast. My shrimp whistled forward and snapped me on the ear. It deflected onward, blown far to the left of its target. I was checking my ear for puncture wounds when, for reasons that surpass understanding, the permit's scythelike tail began heading toward my fly. I stripped in nervously and felt a tug.
Naturally, I struck. The barb sank in, the rod bent, but nothing moved. I was hung up on the bottom. The permit, meanwhile, was mudding about no more than 20 feet away. I waded over to dislodge my snapping shrimp—quietly, quietly—and could see the fly stuck into a large red rock about three feet below the surface. I tugged, but the fly wouldn't budge. Keeping my eyes on the permit, I slid my hand down the leader, grabbed the fly in my fingers and gave a twist. No dice. As I reached for a better grip, my fingers brushed against the rock.
It was soft. And slimy.
Then the rock changed colors. It went from red to beige.
Then the water above the rock shot up like fountain.
I leapt backward, unnerved. Fear and loathing did not set in until I saw the creature's eyes—wrinkled, beady, unspeakably enraged. And ugly? You'll never know how ugly. The octopus was snagged in the neck, and it was clinging obstinately to a rock until it could figure out a way to strangle me. Its size was difficult to assess, but I would say it was big enough to drown a small dog. A poodle, perhaps. My stepmother's poodle. The permit, meanwhile, was still tailing a short distance away. I wondered if it would be possible to retrieve my fly.
I tugged at the line harder. "Octopus! Octopus! Help!" I yelled. Fortunately, no one heard me. The octopus gave me a withering look of anger, then made a run for it, releasing the rock and doing the breaststroke toward the reef. Beyond that, the open sea and freedom. It gained about 10 feet of line before I hauled back on the rod and stopped it. Then, seeing the beast floating there like a deflated, pockmarked inner tube, I tried to tow it across the flats, hoping to get within shouting distance of help. Nothing doing. With a single stroke the octopus glommed onto a multicolored rock and immediately assumed that rock's coloring—shades of reds, browns and yellows. I was doing battle with an amazing animal, and just to make sure I didn't forget that, it squirted a stream of water at me that shot three feet into the air. To hell with the permit. I cut the thing free and got out of there.
Octopuses were not the only perils facing the angler wading on the flats. There were a host of things off Turneffe just waiting to be stepped on, so that fishing became secondary to the real adventure of getting off the flats alive. Stingrays, for instance, which basked brownly in the sand, occasionally making mad dashes across the shallows directly at one's legs. "Dey blind as de bat, mon," Richard said after we had scrambled out of one's path. "Dat tail hard as bone wit' de fishhooks sticking out." Black spiny sea urchins grew in small colonies among the rocks, waiting to pierce the soles of our sneakers. The turtle grass was crawling with sea lice, wretched ladybug-sized creatures with the bite of a horsefly.
Fred, in the meantime, was having a rough time himself. His voodoo curse had backfired: The only blood he had drawn had been his own, impaling the back of his thigh with his splendiferous crab fly the second day out. We no longer spoke of fishing for "a permit." It was always "the elusive permit," or "the elusive pampas," which was the local name for the fish. That, too, was corrupted with time—to "that bleeping pampas" and, finally, "that [bleeping] pompous pampas." After the first three days Fred estimated that he had had 22 clear shots at permit, yielding four strikes. Two fish had gotten away owing to faulty knots, one had never been hooked and one had run over the reef, cutting the line. "They're a classic deep-water fish," Fred said late one evening, plotting his next move with the single-mindedness of Ahab. "When they come into the shallows, all their senses are alive. And they're always adjacent to an escape route: deep water, a reef. Very, very canny fish, my friend. Very suspicious."
The fourth day we left immediately after breakfast for the "backcountry," a half-hour run northeast to the windward side of the cays. There was a good stiff breeze—20 to 25 knots—which would make the fish difficult to cast to and nearly impossible to spot. Kent anchored off Harry Jones Cay. The tide was slack, and the permit would probably not be coming out of the deep water until full flood, three or four hours away. We walked along the reef, looking for bonefish, or even a shark. We wanted to catch something.
Ahead lay Calabash Cay. A clan of Carib natives was living on Calabash, harvesting coconuts. The day before I had visited them with Bennett. There were only four on hand to greet us—three old men and a boy—although 10 were living there in all. The other six had sailed back to the mainland with their cargo of coconut oil, which had been stored in bottles washed up on shore. They had collected dozens of bottles. The feet of the three old men who remained behind, Poulino, Trinidad and Martinez, were curled inward like claws from lifetimes of climbing coconut trees. But their climbing days were behind them. Sixteen-year-old Angou, whose feet were still straight, clambered up a palm tree to cut Bennett and me a green coconut filled with warm, sweet milk. When we left them, the Caribs were checking their gill net, hauling it in from a long dugout canoe that had been hollowed out from a single section of cottonwood. The sea, as usual, was generous. Their dinner that night would be bonefish and three mangrove snapper.
So it surprised me when Kent, Fred and I walked all the way to Calabash Cay without seeing a fish. We could hear the Caribs in the interior of the island, clearing underbrush with machetes, but we did not stop to socialize. We turned around and walked back along the reef. Back at Harry Jones Cay we ran into a school of amberjack and caught a few for fun. Fred had just released one when we heard Kent's voice shout above the wind: "Mutton snapper!"
Mutton snapper. It was an odd combination of words, almost an oxymoron, like "mournful optimist', or "airline food." Fred pounced over to Kent like a cat. "Big fella, too. See heem dere!" Kent pointed.
Sixty feet away a large, lone fish was grubbing about in no more than 18 inches of water. It had come in over the reef with the tide and was feeding on crabs. Fred moved a few steps forward and. with the wind behind him, dropped a 40-foot cast on the fish's nose. The mutton snapper took the fly as it fell. Fred set the hook, and as the fish began its run a rooster tail three feet high shot up behind the line. The mutton snapper was heading straight for the coral reef, 150 yards away.
"Dat's a lotta fish!" Kent yelled. "Hey! No! Come back dis way, mon. Dis way!" When the mutton snapper took off for the reef, so had Fred. The chase was on. Fred was in a full sprint, rod held high, cranking down the drag on his Fin-Nor reel. Far ahead, closing in on the rocks and coral that would surely cut it free, the mutton snapper tore through the shallows like a bull through wheat. "Dat's de first t'ing ever'body do," Kent muttered through his teeth. "Don' know why." He shouted at Fred and waved his arm. "Ho, mon! Back dis way. Dat's where de fish want to go!"
I don't know whether Fred heard Kent, or if he suddenly realized that by chasing after the fish he was simply decreasing its distance to the reef. But he stopped. He began to back up, still tightening the drag on the reel. "That much drag would have broken a bonefish's neck," he said later. We could see the wake of the mutton snapper slow, and then come to a stop less than 30 yards from the rocks. It began to thrash on the surface. Fred had turned it.
Kent ran back to the boat for a landing net. The mutton snapper made one more run, shorter than its first, and then played out and quit. By the time Kent returned, Fred had already landed it by hand, mangling his fingers on its teeth in the process. He held the fish up for inspection. While not as aggressively ugly as the octopus, the mutton snapper was as homely as a mud fence. It had the wall-eyed expression of, well, a sheep with a bad overbite. If ever a fish was made to drool, the mutton snapper was it. Its body was carplike in shape, with rust-red stripes on an olive background. But it had put up quite a fight. The fish weighed 14 pounds and, according to Kent, was the first mutton snapper to be landed on a fly at Turneffe. At 10:45 in the morning, with the first element of the Turneffe grand slam behind us, we sped off in search of the elusive pampas, brimming with hope.
Three hours later hope was a forgotten passenger. We had not seen a pampas. We had nearly swamped in the choppy channel. Our heads throbbed from staring into the reflection of the Caribbean sun. Priorities changed. Fred wanted to have a powwow. "I'll tell you what I think of pampas after four days of this nonsense," he mumbled as Kent silently poled us along. "This is a waste of talent. Any guy from Fifth Avenue in New York could do what I'm doing with the same results. I give up. They're too tough for me. Why are we going out here?"
"Sometimes big bonefish out by dese mangroves," Kent said, his eyes continually poring over the water. "Sometimes pampas, too."
"Forget the pampas," Fred said. "We've got to have a powwow."
Kent ignored him. It is a guide's prerogative to hear what he chooses. Then, a moment later, "Bonefish."
There were two of them, moving away from the skiff. On Fred's second cast, the bigger of the two grabbed his fly and took off. It zigzagged crazily, throwing rooster tails that crossed in midair. Then it made a beeline for the lone clump of mangroves, made a hairpin turn around them and headed back out to sea. Fred's line, ripping off the reel, now had a 180-degree bend in it. "We in trouble now," Kent said, accurately.
The only hope, of course, was to circle the mangroves ourselves. Unfortunately, the water there was shallow, and the skiff became mired on the bottom when we tried. Hopping out, Kent took Fred's rod and circled the mangroves on foot. When he passed the rod back, however, the line—still screaming off the reel—became tangled around a rod guide. This time Fred leaped. Like the fish before him, he headed out to sea. His hat flew off. Kent pushed the boat off the bottom. I grabbed Fred's hat. Fred, on the dead run, had somehow unwrapped the tangle before the leader snapped. The bonefish, devilish fellow, in the meantime had doubled back, so that Fred was left looking at yards and yards of slack. "He be gone now," Kent predicted. Amazingly, the fish wasn't, so that five minutes later, at precisely 2:40, a six-pound bonefish lay in the bottom of our skiff. Hope was renewed.
Which was why, some 2½ hours later, Kent was hollering at Fred, "Bring dat li'l fella in, mon, we still got time for de Turneffe Island slam!"—even as the 30-pound tarpon, full of vigor, was leaping about the channel. The acrobatics soon came to an end, but there is no way to horse in a tarpon—even a small one—with a fly rod and a 12-pound-test leader. The tarpon dived, and the rest was brute toil. It took 10 minutes of hard sidearm pumping to get the fish up from the deep. Kent hauled it aboard. A minute later we were skimming back toward Cay Bokel.
"One shot, that's all I ask," Fred was saying. "Just one shot." We had not seen a pampas all day.
"Sure, mon, you get de shot," Kent told him, all business. He wanted the Turneffe Island slam as badly as Fred did. It would mean immortality for the two of them.
Kent ran the skiff for a half hour before cutting the engine. He had taken us back to his favorite permit run, the one he had started us on the first afternoon. It was a few minutes before six, a half hour until sunset. He and Fred took their places, stern and bow, and we drifted along a sandbar that separated the deep water from the shallow. "One comin' right at us," Kent said. He was pointing to a spot beyond casting range.
"Let me know," Fred said.
"Try it dere," Kent said after a moment. His voice sounded hesitant, as if he had lost sight of the fish. Fred cast the crab fly into the wind. "Li'l more right," Kent said; then, "Good shot."
Fred stripped in the fly, thought he felt a bump, and struck. The fly flew out of the water. He cast it back in. This time, when he struck, the leader came out alone. A barracuda swam away with a small fortune in pheasant feathers hanging in its jaws.
Fred tied on a new fly. We drifted along, approaching the shallows where the sandbar ran smack into the island. It was full high tide. "The water's perfect," Fred said. "They should be right on top of the bar."
"Yas," Kent said. But no fish were there. Kent looked at his watch. There wasn't time to try a new spot. The sun was already setting.
"What the hell. Let's go back and try this drift again," Fred said.
Kent shrugged. He started the engine and circled back around so we would not disturb the bank we'd be fishing. At the top of the run, just as he was cutting the engine, Kent cried out as if bitten by a sea louse. "Aieee! Holy mon de tango!" Or something. It was Creole. He had seen a school of 20 permit, but too late to keep from spooking them. They must have moved onto the flats within minutes of our first pass. This time, we would have drifted right through them.
None of us believed we would see another permit after that. Some things just are not meant to be. But our appetite was keen, and we didn't have the heart to leave yet. For the second time in 20 minutes, Kent poled us along the bar. We had nearly reached the small cay when Fred ducked into a crouch. "O.K., here we go!" he whispered. He cast toward the setting sun.
I thought he was hallucinating. All week long neither Fred nor I had spotted a permit before Kent. The cast flew 30 feet, landing with a splash in the fiery orange reflection of the sunset. Almost immediately there was a ripple of nervous water behind the fly, then the black back of a permit emerged, sticking three inches out of the water. With that dramatic lighting as a background, we could see the fish heading directly for the fly.
"Heem comin'. Yas big boy, come."
The permit flared at the fly, making a splash. He didn't take it though. By some miracle of nerve control, Fred did not strike at the splash. Rather, he continued stripping in. Amazingly, the black back reappeared behind the fly, 20 feet from the boat and closing. It looked like a torpedo. Holding our breath, we ducked lower...and lower...until only our eyeballs were sticking above the gunwales. The permit was nearly close enough to blackjack with the rod, the fly inches from its mouth. Then it made a sudden but unfrightened turn, exposing its broad silvery flank, and splashed beneath the surface. That was the end of it. Kent guessed the permit would have gone over 20 pounds.
We headed back to the lodge, feeling strangely elated. "It couldn't have given a greater show of refusal," Fred said admiringly. "They call the bonefish the gray ghost of the flats. The tarpon is the silver king. But the permit is just the plain old ghost." There was respect in his eyes that had not been there before. It looked good on him.
After the crossing from Belize City (below) to isolated Cay Bokel, with its educational signs, the intense Arbona was out fishing within minutes.
Angou clambered up a tree to cut a green coconut for the anglers.
The Carib natives are proficient at handling large cast nets, and the waters yield both fish for dinner and bait for the guests at the Turneffe lodge.
Arbona was quick to cast when the sharp-eyed Kent spotted a tailing fish in the calf-deep water.
Arbona joyously displayed his fly rod-caught tarpon (left), bonefish and fat mutton snapper.
Late at night, the lodge's mounted permit completed Fred's slam.