“Bound By Water” is a monthly column focused on all things water in the state of Florida from fisheries to conservation to the people who affect it. Come on in; the water’s wet.
The white light of the tropics was everywhere in February when I curled up on the porch of Will Benson’s house on Lower Sugarloaf Key just west of Key West. At Will’s, nobody was home, because everyone had run out for the morning rituals. I was there as we planned to fish that day. In the meantime, I picked up a copy of the New Yorker on the counter, and I went outside, nestling into an Oliver Sacks essay about the role physician’s play in their patient’s lives.
In the story, he parses the contingencies of how physicians help patients face their mortality, how they guide the grieving through the motions as their loved ones slip into Alzheimer’s or terminal illness. I took a photograph of the page, and I promised to send it to my mother, because about two years earlier her husband (my stepfather) survived a severe traumatic brain injury. The accident and its fallout altered the course of our lives in ways we were coming to terms with every day, still.
Once I finished there, I gave my grandmother a call in South Africa. It was her 89th birthday. She wasn’t doing well after breaking a few ribs, and now stomach pains plagued her. We caught up, and I told her that I loved her, reminding her that she hadn’t lost her sense of humor. She told me that she felt like in the course of a day she was suddenly 89. Life had caught up with her.
As we hung up, I went inside, and I sat down at a desk and wrote the following about permit fishing, which was what Will and I planned to do that day:
This type of fishing—which demands the deepest depths of pragmatism that your mind can afford—summons the most superstitious parts of your being. It requires adept vision, tact, and patience, but maybe most of all—persistence. But in the same step, you also worry that you might wear the wrong hat, bring a bad luck omen onto the boat, or that just one false step might spell disaster for the day. It conjures up your most logical and most irrational faculties all at once. It possesses you in surprising and sometimes evil ways. Its ability to pinpoint your most impressive accomplishments and exceptional shortcomings in the course of sixty seconds is spectacular. It saturates every atom of your body, and for those of us that fall under its spell, it haunts us eternally—this type of fishing.
Once I put down the last line, I headed downstairs to respool some fly line. Then Will arrived. We dropped the boat into the canal behind his house and ran west into the Backcountry with the hope of catching a fish.
Thursday was the third day we fished together that week. And in the three years before, we fished together a fair amount but never more than a day here or there. This week was meant to be the week when we finally caught a permit together. I’d put hands on 16 fish prior, but I’d never caught a Lower Keys permit; and to catch a permit here is paramount to the Olympics, the World Cup, or the U.S. Open. And during the two previous days that week, we found an innumerable amount of fish, made good shots, even fed four fish.
And on the third day, we were brimming with confidence and a sort of quantum zen.
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be enough to make good on the promise. I met shot after shot with awful casts. There were some cases where the fish turned onto the fly, followed it: even kissed the damn thing. But we didn’t come tight, and the frequency of losses, of squaring off against how badly you wanted something, broke me. This was and remains the eternal story of permit fishing. It is undoubtedly the most difficult saltwater species to catch on fly. It’s part of the allure, because it’s something that regardless of skill, status, or goodwill, will reduce you to nothing. It will peel back the viscera of your ego, layer by layer, until it just stares back at you coldly. No posturing. No pretension. It leaves you entirely vulnerable.
Late in the day, once the medley of philosophical debates, cerebral calisthenics, and physical exhaustion melded together, we poled one last flat. The tide was pouring in, and the water took on that range of lucent blues and greens so indicative of the Lower Keys in the evening. The knife-like tail of a permit appeared down the flat, and we took a shot. The fish turned toward the fly—replenishing our faith in the faint possibility we could catch one–but was spooked and disappeared. Then as we swung further west onto the edge, Will spotted a fish and walked me into the shot as he told me, “To the left, shoot ten. Drop it.”
“Easy,” he said as the fly sunk and found its way with the current. I collected the line, making sure my leader remained straight, and then I made one long, impossibly slow strip, and the fish ate. Will screamed some mix of obscenity and disbelief, and I made sure to clear the line and well, not f*** this up. And as the line spilled off the bow, we saw that this was not a permit but rather a barracuda. The obscenities repeated.
We broke the fish off and idled back out to the channel—completely broken and defeated and laughing.
On the run home, the north wind sweeping off the Gulf pushed us further in, and we ran towards No Name Key before slipping beneath U.S. 1 where we hugged up against the ocean side of Big Pine Key to run a calmer line on the lee side of the Keys. By coincidence, we passed the area of Big Pine Key known as Long Beach Road. My stepfather and mother owned a house here for decades. After my stepfather’s brain injury in 2017, insurmountable medical bills loomed. The house in the Keys would buoy them for a year or two if it sold, but then Hurricane Irma tore through the Lower Keys.
As we ran along the edge, I saw where the house stood, where other houses once stood, along with the moribund mangroves standing testament to the storm 18 months later. And in that moment, it felt like I was running by our family’s past. I thought of the accident. I thought of where my stepfather was at that very moment, where my mother was. I took note of where I was; where I was headed, and it stung. It felt like two periods of time touched in that moment.
Later when I stepped off the boat, I realized it was February 28, and it had been exactly two years since my stepfather’s accident. And after the past few days had stripped me down to my most vulnerable and raw state, the realization carried a certain weight.
In part, the seemingly prosaic act of permit fishing had carved out some clarity of mind for me in the little bit of time I’d done it in the past few years. It made me take note of where our family was and where we were headed. As I wrote two years prior about permit fishing, this type of fishing was less about landing a fish and more about the pursuit; about the philosophical push within ourselves to challenge ourselves incessantly, endless, to unearth some subterranean part of ourselves. Now, those words took on a whole significance as I wondered what would I find next, when I’d be faced with the next shot, and if it’d be any good.
This Bound By Water column originally appeared under the headline “A Spiritual Reckoning in the Lower Keys” in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 12, The Swimsuit Issue.