The Fever

April 4, 2008 By: Marshall Cutchin

Bill Schneider’s account of pursuing his first steelhead on a fly reminds me of the feverishness — in my case literal — with which I sought my first fly-caught permit.
It was July, and I had an inkling that the evening incoming tide would provide a perfect water temperature for permit in the backcountry behind Sugarloaf Key in the Florida Keys. I was young, and the fact that I had a 102-degree temperature was barely a consideration. Just the idea of seeing all those black sickle tails at sunset while standing in cool water was enough to make me throw my rod in the skiff and go. When I got to the spot — an area of finger flats bordered by an ancient reef line that provided cover for fish in between tides — the permit were already floating up with the incoming tide, looking for periwinkles to crush and swallow. This was before the invention of yarn flies, and the deer-hair fly I tied on weighed about as much as a child’s mini-hamburger.
I must have thrown that fly in front of 100 permit before the sun set. I had a tough choice to make, because soon it would be too dark to find the narrow channels leading home. I was sweating profusely by this time and beginning to get the shakes — apparently all this effort wasn’t helping my flu symptoms, but I was bound to the experience, you might say. Another cast and suddenly my line jumped, then came tight. This was it! I lifted the rod and tried to keep my balance as the fish left for the Gulf with the rest of his school. Eventually I started getting line back and brought the fish close enough to the skiff that I could grab my net. But now it was almost completely dark, and I was having a hard time seeing the fish. I had the idea, though, that if I took a picture with my flash camera, at least I could see exactly what he looked like later. And I would have proof. I lay the fish on the bottom of the skiff, took the photo, fumbled around and got the fly out and slid the fish back in the water. I managed one of those miraculous white-knuckle return trips through the coral-head-studded backcountry, feeling quite nauseous for other reasons but embraced in a kind of angling delirium that made me forget that I was sick at all.
The next day I raced over to one-hour photo on Simonton and waited, still not feeling well enough to walk around, until the evidence was handed back to me. Shuffling through the photos, I came across a very bad picture of a smallish white permit framed in green net nylon. Everything was very dark, except for bright sides of the fish and the brilliant reflection of the camera flash in the fish’s eye.
And there was the fly, a fuzzy brown blob stuck, not in the fish’s mouth, but outside of his mouth, in front of his eye. I hadn’t caught the fish. He was snagged.