Getting Slammed

In the Florida Keys, finding fish is only part of the battle.

Field & Stream Online Editors

If you are foolish enough to launch a fishing expedition in the Florida Keys armed with a plan, you will not keep it for long. There may be a way to blame the sun, the rain, the wind, or the tackle, but there is a force larger than the particulars in this wilderness that breaks down human endeavor. The Keys are an extremity, like outer space. Nothing is supposed to work here. Nothing often does.

On the seagrass meadows, or flats, of the mangrove islands on the northern flank of the Keys live the tarpon, permit, and bonefish. These species are the most contrary and arguably the most finicky saltwater gamefish in the world. That they occur in one blessed chunk of wilderness has given rise to what the Keys guides call the Backcountry Grand Slam, or sometimes just "the Triple," meaning that one angler catches each fish of the trinity on a single trip.

Very good flats fishermen can go seasons without a grand slam. Many have just one or two in their lives. It's hard to do with bait, it's even harder to do on a fly, and it's tremendously hard to do in a day. In any event it makes a splendid lifetime angling goal-but it's a very bad idea to go to the Keys thinking that a grand slam is what you will get. The reason, the flats guides know, is that these fish can hear fishermen think. Despite this, of course, every single fisherman who goes to the flats has a slam in mind, whether he admits it or not.

My group has what I believe is an ideal plan for a Backcountry Grand Slam, or at least a plan that the fish won't be able to decipher, namely, no plan at all. The heart of our strategy is the humble boat trailer and the even more modest trailer hitch. With it, we are going to take the war to the fish, ranging up and down the lower Keys, putting in here one day, there the next, according to the vast catalog of flats and tides in Capt. Bruce Chard's sunbaked head. The fish will never know what hit them. It's our way of not telling them what we're doing until we do it.

The Permit
"Every 2 miles north in the ocean is an hour later in the tide," says the affable Chard, who, at 32, has been guiding in the lower Keys for the last eight years. "Sometimes they like a little water on the flat, sometimes they like a lot of water on the flat, and some flats fish better for bones or permit rather than both. But the big thing is current: no current, no fish."

What Chard means is that, in a sturdy, 18-foot flats skiff that tops out at 45 miles an hour and draws just 12 inches of water, we can chase the tide changes north, or put ourselves at an angle to the tides and chase them east or west, increasing our access to a variety of flats at their best time of day. It does not mean that the fish will oblige us by taking our flies or bait. It does mean that we can fish many different places where they might.

With his sun visor barely containing his sun-streaked ponytail, Chard looks like a University of Florida upperclassman who has wandered off the Phi Delta Theta party raft, but he fishes so well that the Teeny Company is developing a permit fly line in his name. We also have a live well full of crab and shrimp in case the wind, or the fish, won't let us fish with flies.

Our second boat is captained by Mike Sobr, a fisherman out of Sarasota. Sobr's boat is a prototype-a Panga flats boat, built in Mexico. It's beamier than the classic Keys skiff, but at 21 feet long still only draws about 10 inches of water, fully loaded. Sobr's angler will be Field & Stream's contributing photographer and Montana trout aficionado Dusan Smetana.

This cast of characters is thinking big. At a 6 a.m. war council over scrambled eggs and grits, we decide to go to the Marquesas, a wilderness atoll 30 miles west of Key West, to fish for permit. The Marquesas are nothing but a tangle of bushy mangroves formed in a great necklace of green islets around a submerged limestoneilltop, but this hill lies in the middle of the ocean, miles from anywhere.

Inside the Marquesas is a pristine 2-mile-by-2-mile seagrass meadow. Such fields are the habitat for the crustaceans that are the diet of bonefish and permit. Because this atoll's inner bay is sheltered, and because it offers such rich food, many larger species use the meadow for breeding grounds. Crucial to the equation is the turtle grass. More than 30 species of tropical invertebrates depend on the grass, which is the absolute rock upon which the food chain of the Keys' $34 million annual sport-fishing industry rests. The meadows of the Keys, including the big one inside the Marquesas, form the largest seagrass bed in the world.

The Marquesas are an aquatic Mojave. One dresses to fish them as one dresses for the desert: long sleeves, long pants, nose masks, kepis. As the backcountry of the backcountry, the Marquesas have for decades exerted a strong pull on the fishermen of the Keys. Hemingway took John Dos Passos there on a fishing trip in 1929. A snapshot of the two writers on that trip is framed in Hemingway's dressing room in the old Whitbread Street house in Key West. In it, both men stand on the great sea meadow in long pants, with no fish, wet to their knees.

Chard and Sobr blast their boats out of Key West harbor, bound to fish Hemingway's flat. At Boca Grande Key, we hit the big channel water coming off the Atlantic, and Chard's 18-footer vaults into the air from swell to swell like an oceangoing dope runner. The only way to take it is to stand up and hang on to the console rail. Chard calls this a "calm" crossing, then smiles a little wicked smile.

At the atoll, we pass quietly through a cut between keys to Mooney Harbor, a 7-foot-deep piece of water in the southern quadrant of the great Marquesas meadow, and enter the grand amphitheater of fish. Waxy green mangroves surround us. Chard noses the boat north, to a big flat inside the elbow of the northern Marquesas. It is a white-hot day. There are no humans here except for us.

We begin by baitfishing with crab on 8-pound-test. On a fly rod or on spinning rigs, the angling routine in these skiffs is like 19th-century whaling on a small scale. The guide is elevated on his platform over the motor. Rod in hand, the angler stands at the ready on the foredeck, exactly as the 19th-century Cape Codders stood ready to harpoon whales. The difference is that whales are a whole lot easier to see than permit.

Sobr and Smetana work the eastern side of the meadow. Chard works west, parallel to the mangrove shore. I stand, shifting my weight from foot to foot, ready to cast.

A lemon shark lazes by. Lemons are bone and permit predators, so he's good to see. Then life, which is to say, everything on the meadow, seems to sag. Chard sniffs the air and calls it: We're moving to a different section of the flat. I muse on the shimmering knowledge of guides, how they have brains that actually think like fish. I reel in, stow my rod, and turn to the console, and there stands Chard, line shooting off the back of the boat, his reel emitting the low moan of being punished by a large fish. It's our permit.

Chard can't pole and fight at the same time. He hands the rod to me. I jump on the foredeck as he jumps back on his poling platform to dress the nose of the boat into the fish.

"He came from behind," Chard says, shrugging coolly. He's got a blisteringly fast cast. His friends call him Wyatt Earp, for his quickness on the draw.

Permit fight like truck drivers whaling on you with tire irons. Specifically, permit are huge pompano and thus are richly muscled, with a deep V tailfin cut for heavy pulling. They're fast, but the runs are not as electric as those of a bonefish. Instead, they use their huge lateral muscles to try to pull you in the water, or break your leader, or yank the rod out of your hands, whichever comes first.

This one is pulling out my line on the port side of the boat. He's got 90 feet of it already, and he's curling around like a mule for another go. I can feel his back working. He runs aft, then crosses to the starboard side. Sometimes, the fish I fight remind me of certain people because of the quality of the battle. This permit reminds me of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld beating up a pack of reporters at a Pentagon press conference. Every time I drill down on him, he sets his jaw, adjusts his glasses, and smacks me back.

Ten long minutes later, I've got the honorable secretary tuckered out, but before he submits, he tries to run under the Panga in a last effort to put a shadow between him and me. I work him out from under the boat, and we land him. He's 20 pounds, a big one-blue and liquid gold and glorious in the wild Marquesas sun.

"Dude," says Chard. "We are Marq-i-fied."

The Bonefish
At six the next morning we're back fishing off Little Torch Key, poling along a flat right next to the Atlantic, fishing for bones on fly rods. The permit have-clearly-telepathically radioed from the Marquesas to tell the bonefish not to show up for us here. There is nothing on this flat; even the ubiquitous cormorants have evaporated. In the distance, we can see Smetana on the upswept prow of Sobr's Panga casting his spinning rod once in a while. But to what? In an hour, they motor over.

"Let's get out of here," Chard says to them.

"Uhh, we saw maybe five groups of five bones, couple of permit," says Sobr, diplomatically. "They were coming up the other side."

It's a classic Keys moment. The boats are on the same flat, 200 yards apart. One has multiple shots at serried pods of fish. The other gets skunked.

Still, we decide to shoot north into some better tides and some tight mangroves. A quick 12-minute run at hyperspeed, and we're in a different aquatic arena, farther from the ocean, more vegetated. Some of the mangroves are so close that you have to lift your back cast to clear them.

"Dude! Behind me!"

I whip back to face him. Chard wants me to cast around his pushpole at a bone some 30 feet off the back of the boat. I throw a sidearm shot that snakes past Chard. The cast wasn't horrible, a bit to the left, maybe. I strip. The bonefish doesn't spook so much as he collects his hat and cane and saunters off.

It's midafternoon, and the heat bears down on the flats with physical weight. Chard and I bonefish, because we are men, and because we caught a permit, making the next thing on our grand slam list a bone. We pole through tight mangroves near Big Torch Key.

Smetana and Sobr have been working a rank of mangroves about a hundred yards east. We don't see them for long stretches, but then we hear aur hands, whichever comes first.

This one is pulling out my line on the port side of the boat. He's got 90 feet of it already, and he's curling around like a mule for another go. I can feel his back working. He runs aft, then crosses to the starboard side. Sometimes, the fish I fight remind me of certain people because of the quality of the battle. This permit reminds me of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld beating up a pack of reporters at a Pentagon press conference. Every time I drill down on him, he sets his jaw, adjusts his glasses, and smacks me back.

Ten long minutes later, I've got the honorable secretary tuckered out, but before he submits, he tries to run under the Panga in a last effort to put a shadow between him and me. I work him out from under the boat, and we land him. He's 20 pounds, a big one-blue and liquid gold and glorious in the wild Marquesas sun.

"Dude," says Chard. "We are Marq-i-fied."

The Bonefish
At six the next morning we're back fishing off Little Torch Key, poling along a flat right next to the Atlantic, fishing for bones on fly rods. The permit have-clearly-telepathically radioed from the Marquesas to tell the bonefish not to show up for us here. There is nothing on this flat; even the ubiquitous cormorants have evaporated. In the distance, we can see Smetana on the upswept prow of Sobr's Panga casting his spinning rod once in a while. But to what? In an hour, they motor over.

"Let's get out of here," Chard says to them.

"Uhh, we saw maybe five groups of five bones, couple of permit," says Sobr, diplomatically. "They were coming up the other side."

It's a classic Keys moment. The boats are on the same flat, 200 yards apart. One has multiple shots at serried pods of fish. The other gets skunked.

Still, we decide to shoot north into some better tides and some tight mangroves. A quick 12-minute run at hyperspeed, and we're in a different aquatic arena, farther from the ocean, more vegetated. Some of the mangroves are so close that you have to lift your back cast to clear them.

"Dude! Behind me!"

I whip back to face him. Chard wants me to cast around his pushpole at a bone some 30 feet off the back of the boat. I throw a sidearm shot that snakes past Chard. The cast wasn't horrible, a bit to the left, maybe. I strip. The bonefish doesn't spook so much as he collects his hat and cane and saunters off.

It's midafternoon, and the heat bears down on the flats with physical weight. Chard and I bonefish, because we are men, and because we caught a permit, making the next thing on our grand slam list a bone. We pole through tight mangroves near Big Torch Key.

Smetana and Sobr have been working a rank of mangroves about a hundred yards east. We don't see them for long stretches, but then we hear a