“The Longest Silence”

April 24, 2020 By: Thomas McGuane

WHAT IS MOST emphatic in angling is made so by the long silences — the unproductive periods. For the ardent fisherman, progress is toward the kinds of fishing that are never productive in the sense of the blood riots of the hunting-and-fishing periodicals. Their illusions of continuous action evoke for him, finally, a condition of utter, mortuary boredom. Such anglers will always be inclined to find the gunnysack artists of the heavy kill rather cretinoid, their stringer-loads of gaping fish appalling.

No form of fishing offers such elaborate silences as fly-fishing for permit. The most successful permit fly fisherman has very few catches to describe to you. Yet there is considerable agreement that taking a permit on a fly is the extreme experience of the sport. Even the guides allow enthusiasm to shine through. I once asked one who specialized in permit if he liked fishing for them. “Yes, I do,” he said reservedly, “but about the third time the customer asks, ‘Is they good to eat?’ I begin losing interest.”

The recognition factor is low when you catch a permit. If you wake up your neighbor in the middle of the night to tell him of your success, shaking him by the lapels of his Dr. Dentons and shouting to be heard over his million-BTU air conditioner, he may well ask you what a permit is, and you will tell him it is like a pompano; rolling over, he will tell you he cherishes pompano the way he had it at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, with key lime pie afterward. If you have one mounted, you’ll always be explaining what it is to people who thought you were talking about your fishing license in the first place. In the end you take the fish off the conspicuous wall and put it upstairs, where you can see it when Mom sends you to your room. It’s private.

I came to it through bonefishing. The two fish share the same marine habitat, the negotiation of which in a skiff can be somewhat hazardous. Running wide open at thirty knots over a close bottom, with sponges, sea fans, crawfish traps, conchs, and starfish racing under the hull with awful clarity, this takes some getting used to. The backcountry of the Florida Keys is full of hummocks: narrow, winding waterways and channels that open suddenly upon basins, and, on every side, the flats that preoccupy the fisherman. The process of learning to fish this region is one of learning the particularities of each of these flats. The narrow channel flats with crunchy staghorn-coral bottoms, the bare sand flats, and the turtlegrass flats are all of varying utility to the fisherman, and depending upon tide, these values are in a constant condition of change. The principal boat wreckers are the yellow cap-rock flats and the more mysterious coral heads. I was person­ally plagued by a picture of one of these enormities coming through the hull of my skiff and catching me on the point of the jaw. I had the usual Coast Guard safety equipment, not excluding floating cushions emblazoned FROST-FREE KEY WEST and a futile plastic whistle. I added a navy flare gun. As I learned the country, guides would run by me in their big skiffs and hundred-horse engines. I knew they never hit coral heads and had, besides, CB radios with which they might call for help. I dwelled on that and sent for radio catalogs.

One day when I was running to Content Pass on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, I ran aground wide open in the backcountry. Unable to examine the lower unit of my engine, I got out of the boat, waiting for the tide to float it, and strolled around in four inches of water. The day was absolutely windless and the mangrove islands stood elliptically in their perfect reflections. The birds were everywhere — terns, gulls, wintering ducks, skimmers, all the wading birds, and, crying down from their tall shafts of air, more ospreys than I had ever seen. The gloomy bonanza of the Overseas Highway seemed far away.

On the western edge of that flat I saw my first permit, tailing in two feet of water. I had heard all about permit but had been convinced I’d never see one. So, looking at what was plainly a permit, I didn’t know what it was. That evening, talking to my friend Woody Sexton, a permit expert, I reconstructed the fish and had it identified for me. Woody is very scientific and cautious. With his silver crew cut, tan clothing, and perfect fitness, he seems the model of reason. I believed him. I grew retroactively excited, and Woody apprised me of some of the difficulties associated with catching one on a fly. He made it clear that if I wanted to catch a permit, I would have to dedicate myself to it so completely that there really would be no time for anything else.

After that, over a long period of time, I saw a good number of them. Always, full of hope, I would cast. To permit, the fly was anathema; one look and they were gone. I cast to a few hundred. It seemed futile, all wrong, like trying to bait a tiger with watermelons. The fish would see the fly, light out or ignore it, sometimes flare at it, but never, ever touch it. I went to my tying vise and made flies that looked like whatever you could name, flies that were praiseworthy from anything but a practical point of view. The permit weren’t interested, and I no longer even caught bonefish. I went back to my old fly, a rather ordinary bucktail, and was relieved to be catching bonefish again. I thought I had lost what there was of my touch.

One Sunday morning I decided to conduct services in the skiff, taking the usual battery of rods for the pursuit of permit. More and more the fish had become a simple abstraction, even though they had made one ghostly midwater appearance, poised silver as moons near my skiff, and had departed without movement, like lights going out. But I wondered if I had actually seen them. I must have. The outline and movement remained in my head: the dark fins, the pale gold of the ventral surface, and the steep, oversized scimitar tails. I dreamed about them.

This fell during the first set of April’s spring tides — exaggerated tides associated with the full moon. I had haunted a long, elbow-shaped flat on the Atlantic side of the keys, and by Sunday there was a large movement of tide and reciprocal tide. A twenty-knot wind complicated my still unsophisticated poling, and I went down the upper end of the flat yawing from one edge to the other and at times raging as the boat tried to swap ends against my will. I looked around, furtively concerned whether I could be seen by any of the professionals. At the corner of the flat I turned downwind and proceeded less than forty yards when I spotted, on the southern perimeter, a large stingray making a strenuous mud. When I looked closely it seemed there was something else swimming in the disturbance. I poled toward it for a better look. The other fish was a very large permit. The ray had evidently stirred up a crab and was trying to cover it, so as to prevent the permit from getting it. The permit, meanwhile, was whirling around the ray, nipping its fins to make it move off the crab.

My problem was to set up the skiff above the fish, get rid of the push pole, drift down, and make a cast. I quietly poled upwind, wondering why I hadn’t been spotted. I was losing my breath with excitement, the little expanse of skin beneath my sternum throbbing like a frog’s throat, and I acquired a fantastic lack of coordination. Turning in the wind, I beat the boat with the push pole as if it were a gong and conducted what a friend has described as a Chinese fire drill. After five minutes of the most dire possible clown age I got into position and could still see the permit’s fins breaking the surface of the ray’s mud. I laid the push pole down, picked up my fly rod, and to my intense irritation, saw that the ray had given up and was swimming, not seeing me, straight at the skiff. The closing rate was ruinous. I couldn’t get a cast off in time to do anything. About twenty feet from the boat the ray sensed my presence and veered fifteen feet off my starboard gun­wale, with the permit swimming close to the ray but on my side. As soon as I could see the permit clearly, it started to flush, then slowed down and crossed to the opposite side of the ray. Taking the only chance offered me, I cast over the ray, hoping my line would not spook it and, in turn, the permit. The fly fell with lucky, agonizing perfection, three feet in front of the permit on its exact line of travel. With­out hesitation the fish darted forward and took: the one-in-a-thousand shot. I lifted the rod, feeling the rigid bulk of the still unalarmed fish, and set the hook. He shimmered away, my loose line jumping off the deck. And then the rod suddenly doubled and my leader broke. A loop of line had tightened itself around the handle of the reel.

I was ready for the rubber room. Having been encouraged to feel it might be five years before I hooked another, I tried to see all that was good in other kinds of fishing. I thought of various life-enhancing things a fellow could do at home. I could turn to the ennobling volumes of world literature on my shelves. I might do some oils, slap out a gouache or two. But I could not distract myself from the mental image of my lovingly assembled fly rushing from my hands on the lip of a big permit.

I had to work out a routine that would not depend on such exceptional events for success. One technique, finally, almost guaranteed me shots at permit, and that was to stake out my skiff on the narrow channel flats that are covered with a crunchy layer of blue-green staghorn coral. Permit visit these in succession, according to tide and a hierarchy of flat values known mainly to them but intuited by certain smart fishermen. I liked to be on these flats at the early incoming tide — the young flood, as it is called — and fish to the middle incoming or, often, to the slack high. The key was to be able to stand for six hours and watch an acre of bottom for any sign of life at all. The body would give out in the following sequence: arches, back, hips. Various dehydration problems developed. I carried ice and drank quinine water until my ears rang. Push-ups and deep knee bends on the casting deck helped. And, like anyone else who uses this method, I became an active fantasizer. The time was punctuated by the appearances of oceanic wildlife, fish and turtles that frequented the area as well as many that did not. With any luck at all the permit came, sometimes in a squadron and in a hurry, sometimes alone with their tails in the air, rooting along the hard edge of the flat. The cast would be made, the line and leader would straighten and the fly fall. On a normal day the fly only made the permit uncomfortable, and it would turn and gravely depart. On another day the fly so horrified the fish that it turned tail and bolted. On very few days the permit would sprint at the fly, stop a few inches short, run in a circle when the fly was gently worked, return and flare at it, flash at it, see the boat, and flush.

On particularly hot days when the cumulus clouds stacked in a circle around the horizon, a silky sheen of light lay so fiercely on the water that my vision had to be forced through until my head ached. Patience was strained from the first, and water seemed to stream from my skin. At such times I was counting on an early sighting of fish to keep my attention. And when this did not happen I succumbed to an inviting delusion. The best place to fish was somewhere very far away, and it would be necessary to run the country. I reeled up my line and put the rod in its holder. I took the push pole out of the bottom and secured it in its chocks on the gunwale. Then I let the wind carry me off the flat. I started the engine and put it in forward, suffering exquisitely a moment more, then ran the throttle as far as it would go. The bow lifted and lowered on plane, the stern came up and the engine whined satisfactorily. Already the perspiration was drying, and I felt cool and slaked by the spray. Once on top, standing and steering, running wide open, I projected on my mind what was remembered of a suitable chart to get to this imaginary place where the fish were thick enough to walk on. I looked up and was reproved by the vapor trail of a navy Phantom interceptor. I ran up the channels, under the bridge, using all the cheap tricks I thought I could get away with, shortcutting flats when I thought I had enough water, looking back to see if I’d left a mud trail, running the banks to get around basins because the coral heads wouldn’t grow along a bank, running tight to the keys in a foot­-and-a-half of water when I was trying to beat the wind, finally shut­ting down on some bank or flat or along some tidal pass not unlike the one I’d just run from. It was as hot as it could be, and I couldn’t see. The sweat was running onto my sunglasses, and I was hungry and thinking I’d call it a day. When I got home I rather abashedly noted that I’d burned a lot of fuel without making a cast.

The engine hadn’t been running right for a week, and I was afraid of getting stranded or having to sleep out on some buggy flat or, worse, being swept to Galveston on an offshore wind. I tore the engine down and found the main-bearing seal shot and in need of replacement. I drove to Big Pine to get parts and arrived about the time the guides, who center there, were coming in for the day. At the dock, where the big skiffs with their excessive engines were nosed to the breakwater, guides mopped decks and needled each other. Customers, happy and not, disembarked with armloads of tackle, sun hats, oil, thermoses and picnic baskets. A few of these sporty dogs were plastered. One fragile lady, owl-eyed with sunburn, tottered from the casting deck of a guide’s skiff and drew herself up on the dock. “Do you know what the whole trouble was?” she inquired of her companion, perhaps her husband, a man much younger than herself.

“No, what?” he said.

She smiled and pitied him. “Well, think about it.”

The two put their belongings into the trunk of some kind of minicar and drove off too fast down the Overseas Highway. Four hours would put them in Palm Beach.

It seemed to have been a good day. A number of men went up the dock with fish to be mounted. One went by with a bonefish that might have weighed ten pounds. Spotting Woody Sexton, I wanted to ask how he’d done but knew that ground rules forbade this question around the boats; on the one hand, it embarrasses guides who have had bad days, and on the other, it risks passing good fishing information promiscuously. Meanwhile, as we talked, the mopping and needling continued along the dock. The larger hostilities are reserved for the fishing grounds themselves, where various complex snubbings may be performed from the semianonymity of powerful skiffs. The air can be electric with accounts of who cut off whom, who ran the bank on whom, and so on. The antagonism among the skiff guides, the offshore guides, the pompano fishermen, the crawfishermen, and the shrimpers produces tales of shootings, of disputes settled with gaffs, of barbed wire strung in guts and channels to wreck props and drive shafts. Some of the tales are true. Woody and I made a plan to fish when he got a day off. I gathered my engine parts and went home, where I had torn the engine to pieces on an old Ping-Pong table.

I worked out two or three bonefish patterns for the inside bank of Loggerhead Key. The best of these was a turnoff point where bonefish who were contouring the bank hit a small ridge and turned up onto the flat itself. By positioning myself at this, I would be able to get casts of to passing fish and to see a good piece of the bank, downlight, until noon.

One day I went out and staked the boat during the middle-incoming water of another set of new-moon tides. I caught one bonefish early in the tide, a lively fish that went a hundred yards on his first run and doggedly resisted me for a length of time that was all out of proportion to his weight. I released him after giving him a short revival session and then just sat and looked at the water. I could see Woody fishing with a customer, working the outside of the bank for tarpon.

It was a queer day to begin with. Vital light flashed on and off around the scudding clouds, and there were slight foam lines on the water from the wind. The basin that shelved off from my bank was active with diving birds, particularly great brown pelicans, whose wings sounded like luffing sails and who ate with submerged heads while blackheaded gulls tried to rob them. The birds were drawn here by a school of mullet that was making an immense mud hundreds of yards across. The slick glowed in the sun a quarter of a mile to the south. I didn’t pay much attention until it began by collective will or chemical sensors to move onto my bank. Inexorably, the huge disturbance progressed and flowed toward me. In the thinner water the mullet school was compressed, and the individual fish became easier targets for predators. Big oceanic barracuda were among them, slashing and streaking through the school like bolts of lightning. Simultaneously, silver sheets of mullet, sometimes an acre in extent, burst out of the water and rained down again. In time my skiff was in the middle of it, the opaque water was inch-by-inch alive.

Some moments later, perhaps seventy feet astern of me, a large blacktip shark swam up onto the bank and began traveling with grave sweeps of its tail through the fish, not as yet making a move for them. Mullet and smaller fish nevertheless showered out in front of the shark as it coursed past. Behind the shark I could see another fish faintly flashing. I supposed it was a jack crevalle, a pelagic fish, strong for its size, that often follows sharks. I decided to cast anyway at a distance that was all I could manage. I got off one of my better shots, which nevertheless fell slightly behind target. I was surprised to see the fish drop back to the fly, turn and elevate high in the water, then take. A permit.

I set the hook sharply and the fish started down the flat. Remembering my last episode, I kept the loose, racing line well away from the reel handle for the instant the fish took to consume it. Then the fish was on the reel. When I lowered the rod tip and cinched the hook, the fish began to accelerate, staying on top of the flat, where I could wit­ness its wildly extending wake. Everything was holding together: the hookup was good, the knots were good. At 150 yards the fish stopped, and I got back line. I kept at it until the fish was within 80 yards of the boat. Then it suddenly made a wild, undirected run, not permitlike at all, and I could see the shark chasing it. The blacktip struck and missed three or four times, making explosions in the water that sickened me. I released the drag, untied the boat, and started the engine. Woody started poling toward me at the sound of my engine, his mystified client dragging a line astern.

There was hardly enough water to move in. The prop was half buried, and even at full throttle I couldn’t get up on plane. As the explosions continued, I could only guess whether or not I was still connected to the permit. I ran toward it trailing a vast loop of line, saw the shark and immediately ran over him. I threw the engine into neutral and waited to see what had happened and tried to regain line. I was again tight to the permit. Then the shark reappeared. He hit the permit once, killed it, and ate it, worrying it like a dog and bloodying the water. Then, an instant later, I had the shark on my line and running. I fought him with irrational care: I now planned to gaff the blacktip and retrieve my permit piece by piece. When the inevitable cutoff came I dropped the rod in the boat and, empty-handed, wondered what I had done to deserve this.

I heard Woody’s skiff and looked up. He swung about and coasted alongside. I told him it was a permit, just as he had guessed from my starting up on the flat. Woody began to say something when, at that not unceremonial moment, his client broke in to remark that hooking them was the main thing. We stared at him until he added, “Or is it?”

Often afterward, we went over the affair and talked about what might have been done differently, as we had with the first permit. One friend clips a carbine on clips under the gunwale to resolve any shark problems. But I felt that with a gun in the skiff during the excitement of a running fish, I would either plug myself or deep-six the boat. Also, I like sharks. Woody knew better than to assure me there would be other chances. Knowing that there might very well not be was one of our conversational assumptions.

One morning we went looking for tarpon. Woody had had a bad night of it. He’d awakened in the darkness of his room about three in the morning and watched the shadowy figure of a huge land crab walk across his chest. Endlessly it crept to the wall and then up the plaster. Carefully silhouetting the monster, Woody blasted it with a karate chop and now, at breakfast, he was nursing a bruise on the side of his hand. At 6:00 a.m., we were having grits and eggs at the Chat and Chew restaurant. A trucker who claimed to have driven from Loxahatchee in three hours flat was yelling for “oss tie.” And when the girl asked if he really wanted iced tea this early in the morning he replied, “Dash rat. Oss tie.” I couldn’t wake up in the heat. Listless, half dreaming, I imagined the land crab performing some morbid cadenza on my pile of grits.

We laid out the rods in the skiff. The wind was coming out of the east — that is, over one’s casting hand from the point we planned to fish — and blowing fairly stiff. But the light was good, and that was more important. We headed out of Big Pine into the calm water along Ramrod Key. We ran in behind Pye Key, through the hole behind Little Money and out to Southeast Point. The sun was already huge, out of hand, like Shakespeare’s “glistering Phaethon.” I had whitened my nose and mouth with zinc oxide ointment, and felt, handling the mysterious rods and flies, like a shaman. As Woody jockeyed the skiff with the pole, I put my leader together. I had retained enough of my trout-fishing sensibilities to continue to be intrigued by tarpon leaders with their array of arcane knots. The butt of the leader is nail-knotted to the line, blood-knotted to monofilament of lighter test; the shock tip­pet that protects the leader from the rough jaws of tarpon is tied to the leader with a combination Albright Special and Bimini Bend; the shock tippet is attached to the fly either by a perfection loop, a clinch or a Homer Rhodes Loop; and to choose one is to make a moral choice. You are made to understand that it would not be impossible to fight about it or, at the very least, quibble darkly.

We set up on a tarpon pass point. We had sand spots around us that would help us pick out the dark shapes of traveling tarpon. And we expected tarpon on the falling water, from left to right. Up on the bow with fifty feet of line coiled on the deck, I was barefoot, so I could feel if 1 stepped on a loop. I made a couple of practice casts — harsh, indecorous, tarpon-style — and scanned for fish.

The first were, from my point of view, spotted from too great a distance. That is, a long period of time would pass before they actually broke the circle of my casting range, during which I could go, secretly but quite completely, to pieces. The sensation for me, in the face of these advancing forms, was as of a gradual ossification of the joints. Moviegoers will recall the early appearances of Frankenstein’s monster, his ambulatory motions accompanied by great rigidity of the limbs, almost as though he could stand a good oiling. I was hard put to see how I could manage anything beyond a perfunctory flapping of the rod. I had once laughed at Woody’s stories of customers who sat down and held their feet slightly aloft, treading the air or wobbling their hands from the wrists. I giggled at the story of a Boston chiropractor who fell over on his back and barked like a seal.

“Let them come in now,” Woody said.

“I want to nail one, Woody.”

“You will. Let them come.”

The fish, six of them, were surging toward us in a wedge. They ran from 80 to 110 pounds, slow, dark torpedoes. “All right, the lead fish, get on him,” Woody said. I managed the throw, the fly falling in front of the fish. I let them overtake it before starting my retrieve. The big lead fish pulled up behind the fly, trailed, and then made the shoveling, open-jawed uplift of a strike that is not soon forgotten. When he turned down I set the hook and he started his run. The critical issue of getting rid of that loose line piled around one’s feet now ensued. You imagine that if you are standing on a coil, you will go to the moon when that coil must follow its predecessors out of the rod. This trial went off without a hitch, and it was only my certainty that someone had done it before that kept me from deciding that we’d made a huge mistake.

The sudden pressure of the line and the direction of its resistance apparently confused the tarpon, so it raced in close-coupled arcs around the boat. Then, once it had seen the boat, felt the line and isolated a single point of resistance, it cleared out at a perfectly insane rate of acceleration that made water run three feet up my line as it sliced through the ocean. The jumps — wild, greyhounding, end-over-end, rattling — were all crazily blurred as they happened, while I pictured my reel exploding like a racing clutch and filling me with shrapnel. This fish, the first of six that day, broke off. So did the others, destroying various aspects of my tackle.

As the sun moved through the day the blind side continually changed, forcing us to adjust position until, by afternoon, we were watching to the north. Somehow, looking uplight, Woody saw four permit coming right toward us, head-on. I cast my tarpon fly at them, out of my accustomed long-shot routine, and was surprised when one fish moved forward from the pack and followed up the fly rather aggressively. About then they all sensed the skiff and swerved to cross the bow around thirty feet out. They were down close to the bottom now, slightly spooked. I picked up, changed direction, and cast a fairly long interception. When the fly lit, well out ahead, two permit elevated from the group, sprinted forward, and the inside fish took the fly in plain view.

The positive certainty of the take, in the face of an ungodly number of refusals and countless unrewarded hours, induced immediate pessimism. I waited for everything to go haywire.

I hooked the fish quickly. It was only slightly startled and returned to the pack, which by this time had veered away from the shallow flat edge and swung back toward deep water. The critical time of loose line passed slowly. Woody unstaked the skiff and was poised to see which way the fish would take us. When the permit was tight to the reel I cinched him once and he began running. The deep water kept the fish from making the long, sustained sprints permit make on the flats. This fight was a series of assured jabs at various clean angles from the skiff. We followed, alternately gaining and losing line. Then, in some way, at the end of this blurred episode, the permit was flashing beside the boat, looking nearly circular, and the only visual contradiction to his perfect poise was the intersecting line of leader seemingly inscribed from the tip of my arcing rod to the precise corner of his jaw.

Then we discovered that there was no net in the boat. The fish would have to be tailed. I forgave Woody in advance for the permit’s escape. Woody was kneeling in the skiff, my line disappearing over his shoulder, the permit no longer in my sight, Woody leaning deep from the gunwale. Then, unbelievably, his arm was up, the black symmetry of tail above his fist, the permit perpendicular to the earth, then horizontal on the floorboards, where a pile of loose line was strewn in curves that wandered around the bottom of the boat toward the gray-and-orange fly secured in the permit’s mouth. I sat down numb and soaring.

I don’t know what this sort of occurrence indicates beyond the necessary, ecstatic resignation to the moment. With the beginning over and, possibly, nothing learned, I was persuaded that once was not enough. And indeed it wasn’t. Thirty years have passed and none of the magic of permit fishing, not a trace of it, has gone.

Buy The Longest Silence