Travel Log: Last Cast of the Day
March 21, 2011
Tide: Low, rising.
Wind: ENE, 8-10 knots.
Long day, longer with the piss-poor fishing, the worst we’ve had here, ever. In our memories we could project ourselves back to that magical land where we found flats dotted with schools of tailing bones; today we don’t recognize the place. Even the North Coast was no help. A belligerent nor’easter turned it muddy and fishless, mostly. We’d bagged it for a bad job and were just about to jump in the truck when I did spot a cruising pair. I managed to feed both, but missed the hookups due to over-eagerness .
That’s the trouble with being able to see fish in almost any conditions, you end up fishing regardless of whether you should or not. Sometimes you learn that you can actually fish in a gale. Sometimes you learn that the weather isn’t the problem.
Most of our day is spent traveling, and it’s hard to decide which is worse: the dusty drives in the truck—it’s dry season here and exposed inland swamp produces a smell like a slow-cooked dockside dumpster—or the listless walks up and down empty beaches. Even The Point—our old standby—nearly let us down, grudgingly granting a single bonefish. The fact that it was Rachael’s first made it a celebratory occasion instead of the consolation prize it would have been under normal conditions . However, after the high-fives and hugs, the rest of us were no closer to putting fish on our lines.
So, back on the southern flat now—the tips of four flats boots and a pair of Chuck Taylors in the water—we survey the empty flat, and I mean empty. The tide is out, and if it weren’t for the smoldering swamp upwind, you’d be able to smell baking shellfish from the road. Our hope is that the water should be rising now: a good tide to find bones and, if the fishing gods are merciful, permit. That is, after all, what we’re really here for, my dad and I. Bonefish are fine, but permit, well, they’re the stuff obsession is made of.
Far down the beach I think I see a disturbance. After a day of fruitless searching, on the right tide, there is only one response: you run. You run trying to avoid half-buried rocks, keeping your eyes locked on the nervous water you hope is a fish; you run because you’ve been waiting all day for this and you never know just how long (or short) their feeding time will be.
I arrive at the spot breathless and adrenalized, trying not to blink as I scan for another sign. There! A beautiful black tail cleanly breaks the surface and disappears. Permit! I toss my pack and 6-weight on the beach and wade out, pulling line from my big rod on the way. I’m high-stepping, trying for that impossible combination of speed and stealth, pointing my toes on each forward step so my foot slides into the water with as little disturbance as possible. The intense feeding posture of the fish gives me enough confidence to rush it a little, but I’m still too late. I get one shot, maybe two, and the fish is gone.
I always question myself when this happens: did I wade to quickly, cast too close, splash my back-cast? Or, did the fish simply feed for as long as it was going to feed, regardless of my presence? By this time Dad and Rachael have caught up and I explain what happened. The fish are here, let’s keep our eyes peeled. Anybody not actually casting, grab the camera and roll. They’re tailing; this could be it.
The next fish tails 200 yards back the other way. This time it’s a huge disturbance and within seconds I’m running again. The thrashing tail gets more violent the closer I get: a monster permit feeding in only a few feet of water. I can only run so fast, dodging rocks and driftwood—a twisted ankle now would spell the end of my fishing—but the huge tail prompts me to reckless speeds. Again, I’m too late. I’m almost out to the fish, line off and ready to go, when the permit gives one last thrash and departs.
This time I’m sure the fish was unaware of me, but it’s hard not to read a little contempt in that last tail flick. My companions finally join me:
Ok. Why are we running?
Well, because of exactly what just happened. We spotted that fish from, what, 200 yards away, and even with running my ass off the fish was gone before I could get a cast off. That’s why we run.
That fish looked to be heading upwind, so I reel in and start walking. Sometimes if you match the pace of these fish you’ll find them again. The bottom out there is uneven, a series of troughs and peaks. They could very well still be feeding, but in water too deep to tail. But when they hit the next shallow spot you’ll spot them… if you’re in the right place. Amazingly this logic pays off and we soon spot another dark tail breaking the surface. It’s a smaller fish, but feeding intently.
I feel guilty, having taken all the “shots” so far this evening, but Dad is way down the beach and Rachael insists I go ahead. She’s already got the camera out. This fish allows several shots, some incredibly close. The sun has already set and night is falling fast, so spotting the tail is getting harder and harder. I also imagine my little crab fly is near impossible to see out there in the gloom, amongst all the turtle grass. I’ve got to get my fly in the fish’s face without spooking it, so I cast aggressively, right on the fish. Again and again I cast, stripping slack as soon as the fly hits, feeling for the inevitable take, but it never comes.
I don’t know how long this lasts, a couple minutes, maybe, but the fish seems to disappear for agonizingly long periods, only to tail again further upwind. I’m backing up, trying to face the fish and keep ahead of it at the same time. Emboldened by the permit’s intent feeding, I place my fly as close to its head as I can. Then, between casts and for no apparent reason, the fish explodes! I clearly see its flashing progress as it shimmers sideways off the flat, leaving a series of smooth boils pointing toward deeper water. I stand dumbstruck, wondering what I did wrong. At times the flashing tail was barely 25 feet away, and I’d back up to put space between us. Did the fish hear me, see me?
Rachael keeps rolling, capturing my confusion and exasperation. I mean, it’s ok when you know what you did wrong—you line a fish or bean it with the fly or cast too far and it bumps your leader. You can live with that. But when a fish spooks for no (apparent) reason, you kind of want a do-over. You realize that particular chance is gone, irretrievably vanished into the past, and (as much as you’d like to) you can never retake the last cast of the day.
1 Yes, I see the irony there. [back]
2 That, after all, is the nature of one’s first bonefish; this mere fact elevates the status of that catch to at least three, maybe four hefty bonefish for everyone involved. Over dinner later you can console each other by say, “Well, the fishing was pretty poor today, but so-and-so still caught her first bonefish… on the fly too!” Everyone else at the lodge (or bar) will know what you mean. [back]