Friday, May 24, 2013

"It's Just a #$%@ing Jack"

Almost exactly three years ago I was standing at a wedding cocktail reception in the middle of a field in Saddlestring, Wyoming.  Despite the locale and the reason for celebration, my head was thousand miles away as I chatted permit with one of the most accomplished anglers you're likely to come across in the U.S., if not the world.   

The first permit this fisherman ever landed had come in Mexico.  He booked his flight without a return ticket and rented a shack on the beach, claiming to anyone that would listen that he wouldn't leave until he landed his first one.  He meant it.  Weeks had gone by and all he had to show for it were cracked and calloused hands, awful tan lines, and higher blood pressure.   Around that point, he came across another fisherman who gave him a few pointers, and put his mission into context. A few days later he came across the same angler, who showed him a few pictures of monster permit he'd caught since their first meeting.  The background was familiar though - it was right in front of the shack he had rented.  His eyes returned to Wyoming - he stared at me and said, "remember, it's just a fucking jack."  

Fast forward to March 2012, and I'm standing on the bow of a panga on my last day of a "tarpon trip." Instead of rolling 'poon in front of the boat, a black sickle-shaped fin snakes through the water.  I cast a few feet in front, wait for the crab to sink to the bottom of the foot-and-a-half deep flat, and began a slow continuous strip.  The fin changes direction ninety degrees and the fish is hot on my fly.  I speed up my strips - faster - still continuous.  

Forty feet later he's still on it, but I'm running out of line.  The permit is still noncommittal, but still hot on the chase.  I feel the perfection loop pop in through my tip-top - and then it happens.  The permit surges forward, opens it's mouth, flares it's gills, and my crab is gone in an instant.  The fish tears off to the right, ripping fly line as it goes.  I swing the rod over to my left, and apply pressure.  Ten seconds later the line separates with a sickening pop.  I check the rod to see where it broke, and it dawns on me that I busted the fish off.  Who the fuck does that with a permit.  The disbelief and disappointment was gut-wrenching, and it stayed with me for fourteen months.

Fast forward to today - adjacent flat, same fly, and the same damn rod.  Sickle-shaped fin knifing from right to left - sixty feet, fish is at two o'clock.  Lone permit cruising past at a pretty good clip.  The only words I can think of are "remember, it's just a fucking jack."

Two false casts, led him by about eight  feet, he stays on course - lucky, stripped the crab right past his face as he finned by.  Fish makes a ninety degree turn. He's on it.  Tips up - tail breaks the surface.  Steady strip set, and he's on.  Ten minutes later and I wrap my hand around the bony wrist of his tail.  

Twenty minutes later - long but slender shape is moving across the flat.  First cast, too close, and the fish rockets away spooked.  But wait - fifty feet behind is another one.   Another cast, and he's on it right away.

Pressure is on now with two-thirds of the Grand Slam complete.  First flat, first cast and my black and purple toad is inhaled, but the fish spits the bug and spooks faster than you could blink an eye.  Shit. That was my shot.

Next stop - a secret pothole nestled into the mangroves.  The guide polling barks - "fifty feet, twelve o-clock," but I don't see a damn thing.  Regardless, I cast what seems to be about fifty feet, and strip twice before my fly is inhaled in a violent boil.  I hammer the hook home with a strong strip, and bow as the tarpon erupts out of the water.   The fight is painstakingly long, and my heart jumps each time the tarpon does.  Finally leadered, finally lipped. 

The overlooked tarpon fishery has even more to offer, and for that, I am extremely thankful. First pumps, man hugs, and the air is electric.  This slam was a team effort.  

It's almost midnight and I'm still riding the adrenaline high, ears tuned in for a direction and a distance.  Outstanding guiding, willing fish, and a couple of lucky casts and I'm in fly fishing heaven.

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