“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”
Ok, this story starts off on August 3rd, 2016. I was in Key West, getting ready in my hotel room for a three-day excursion in the backcountry. My flies were set, my gear in order and my head was in the right place. If you’re new to the whole fly-fishing for the top three in the keys, bonefish, permit, and tarpon, you better rethink it. I prepared for months, casting into the wind with heavy flies working on my double-haul. I tied for hours making variation of barred shrimp patterns. Tying dozen upon dozens of Atpe tarpon flies. Crab patterns for days. I have a brief case full of flies, what I would estimate to be about $600 dollars worth a fly shop down there. All that and nothing was what I expected.
The views, second to none, the weather unpredictable, hot, sticky, humid weather anyone with an A/C would say, “You’re crazy”. The word oppressive doesn’t do it justice. 96 degrees with 96% humidity is the epitome of oppressive. Its something you have to experience for yourself. There’s a reason why summer is the slow season in Keys. Most people would just stay cooped up in their hotel rooms. This didn’t faze me. I was ready to go and was perfectly fine sweating it out. I wore long sleeves, hat, sunblock and whatever other piece of gear was necessary to get the job done.
I met my guide at about 630am that morning. Luke Kelly was my guide. If you want his info, I’ll place in the “The Salt” page on the site. He was fantastic; he knows the backcountry like no other. He was a coach, confidant, and counselor after a tough loss, more on that later. We arrived to our first spot about 30 minutes later. We cruised through the crystal blue water, which in itself makes the trip worth it.
At our first spot we began site fishing for some tarpon. Tarpon are usually to target of choice in the early morning. They feed during this time and are easy to spot when they break water. We had a few roll on the surface but not close enough to chuck my purple and black Apte fly at. We fished for about an hour with no fish movement. We decided to back up and move to our next spot. By that time the tide was on its way back out and the permit and bones would be moving. That first day was tough; we fished until about 2pm and decided to pack it in for the day. That’s the one thing about Luke I learned really fast. He’s a guide, yes, but he’s also a fisherman. He knows when to call it a day and he rewards you in the end.
The second day was pretty much the same. I was tough those two days following a big thunderstorm in Key West. My wife on the other hand had a good day, for the most part. I decided to take a seat for a bit after some unsuccessful casts and frustration. My wife, Erika, took the to bow. Luke spotted something in the distance and said “Erika, about 40 feet out drop your shrimp”. My wife rarely fishes, but that day you could have sworn she was a pro. She dropped that shrimp in the kill zone. Almost instantly the drag on her spinning reel started screaming. Luke responded with “You have no idea what you just hooked”. She hooked a trophy size permit. Luke estimated it to be about 20 pounds. She fought the fish for about 10 minutes until it wrapped her into some mangroves. I was both upset and pleased she lost it. I was upset because it would have been a great accomplishment for her. I was pleased because I wanted to catch one first. Selfish, I know. We got a lot of sun and again called it early, after the bite turned off.
The 3rd day was a different story. Erika decided to stay back that day. She had her fill for the trip. I met Luke at about 730am the third day, trying to take advantage of the current and tidal flows. We headed out to our first spot. He asked at my arrival if I wanted him to get bait for spinning gear or if I was “Fly or Die”. I said “Fly or die my man”. We headed out got to our first spot about an hour later. We were on the flat for about 10 minutes when Luke saw a school of bones moving toward us. He said “Nik, 1 o’clock, we have bones moving toward us. Make a 50 foot cast and let the shrimp sit for a second then tic it.” My cast was dead on I ticked that fly and a bone gulped it up and made a run. I had finally dialed in my cast after three days. After about 10 minutes on the line, I landed my first bone. I hopped down in the water and took a picture with my trophy. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I told Luke “If this is the only thing I catch today, I’m ok with that. That bone just made the whole trip”.
After that first bonefish we moved to the adjacent flat. I saw something moving around in the upper right corner. I asked Luke what it was; he thought maybe a lemon or nurse shark, “Not sure thought, didn’t get a good look” I trusted his word; he knows the flats better than I do. Not even a minute later I hear him frantically saying “1 o’clock 30 feet out cast and let it sit!!!!” I casted to his location and let the fly sit. “Tic it!” Then drag screaming, into my backing on my Nautilus. “You just hooked a trophy permit”. I watched it unfold; it was if it was in slow motion. I saw the fish coming and stop dead over my fly. It was amazing that the permit just stopped dead over my fly. I watched the permit gulp my fly. I battled the fish for about 30 minutes. I was a little out gunned on my Meridian 7wt. An 8wt or 9wt would have been a game changer. We were both in hysteria over the fish. I hooked and landed my first bone about 5 minutes earlier and now I was hooked into another trophy. The fish finally was giving up and I got the fish to the boat and started to turn him over for Luke to tail. Then it was if the world gave me the middle finger and I watched as my hook dropped out of the permit’s mouth. Luke and I both began shouting profanities and freaking out. I was sick to my stomach. I had hooked and lost a fish that people spend a good portion of their career in pursuit of. We fished the rest of the day chasing tailing permit, without any success. We packed it in for the day and I thanked Luke for an amazing three days.
So what did I learn? Salt-water fly-fishing will test your patience and skill as a caster. I always felt I was a pretty proficient caster. Not the best but not the worst. My regular fishing partner, ironically Luke, but a different Luke, not my guide, is a much smoother caster than I am. What else? Permit become an obsession. That permit hasn’t left my mind since that day. I can’t wait to get back down there and get my first permit. You find yourself out on the salt. Much like a backcountry trout stream, there are not a lot of people out there. A vast landscape and endless water makes isolation out here it’s finest. You contemplate life and who you are as a person. Peace and quiet isn’t the way of describing it.
Tell me what you think. Ask questions. Contact Luke for a great trip. In a new post I will detail the cost of my trip, where I stayed and where I ate.
Captain Luke Kelly.
Located in Sugarloaf Key, Florida
- Cast as much and as often as possible.
- Practice in the worst conditions (Wind especially) a majority of your casts are straight into a strong head wind.
- Use your guide.
- Your guide is your coach, confidant and counselor (Remember my permit)
- They will direct you to the right spot and casting.
- They are the experts; don’t guide your guide.
- Accept the fact that you may go back empty handed. These fish are trophies for a reason, they spook relatively easy and they refuse more flies than they take. The eat the fly and immediately know the different between a crustacean and your fly made of fur, hackle, and hair.
- Do not trout set!!!! You will lose 90% of the fish that take your fly. Strip strike is the name of the game.
- Scott Meridian 7wt
- Rio Bonefish taper WF7F
- Nautilus CCFX-2 6/8
- Barred shrimp pattern
- Seagaur guide provided tapered leader material
- Simms guide pant
- Columbia Omni-freeze long sleeve shirt
- Orvis neck gaiter.
- Rep your water cap.