Hunting Unicorns

Posted by & filed under TANGLES - GUIDES BLOG.

Over the course of the last nine seasons guiding trips for TroutHunter, I’ve come to realize that there are several types of anglers whom I regularly encounter.  The first is the, "I’ve never done this before, and I just want to catch one fish,” beginner.  From there, anglers quickly transition into the, "I’ve caught my first fish, now I want to catch them all,” numbers-hunting intermediate angler.  The third type of angler is the more advanced, "I only want to catch the biggest, or most impossible fish,” such as the bank feeder underneath overhanging streamside willows where only the perfect cast will do, or pretty much any fish on the Harriman Ranch.  The last category of angler can be characterized as the "nirvana” angler, who is "just happy to be here,” and finds joy in the camaraderie of fishing or in the tranquility of the natural world and the river.  The trout may or may not come, but are, to these select few anglers, a bonus.  As you may imagine, the nirvana angler is a rare pleasure to guide, as the pressure of producing a fish, not only to the fly, but to the net, is alleviated.  These anglers understand that there are factors inherently outside of the guide’s control, such as the sun, the clouds, the wind, the rain, the hatch, the water flows, the fish’s desire to eat any given fly on any given day, and of course, the angler’s casting and angling abilities.

So it was armed with this knowledge that I approached my recent trip to Playa Blanca resort in Mexico with the TroutHunter crew.  I told myself that regardless of the expenses of the trip, that I would be a nirvana angler, just happy to be there.  My hopes were high, but my expectations were decidedly low.  

I had only previously fished with a guide in warm saltwater for one day while vacationing in the Bahamas many years ago, and had some good success, catching a number of bonefish.  However, I had never fished for, let alone caught, a tarpon, snook, barracuda, or permit on a fly. To be guided for six days was going to be a treat, and I reminded myself to enjoy the entire experience, including the travel, lodging, meals, guides and fishery, regardless of the fishing.  

I poured myself into preparing for the trip by reading articles, watching video, tying flies, and speaking with friends, colleagues, and clients who had made similar excursions.  I spent a couple months cranking out flies and readying gear.  A friend and good client sent me his saltwater fly box to borrow, with a note that simply said, "for tarpon, the black and purple (Puglisi) works most days, for permit, just pray…” These words would prove to be a foreshadowing of things to come.  Looking back now, perhaps the most accurate conversation I had was with my good friend and fellow TroutHunter guide, Zach Wheeler, who made the pilgrimage to Playa Blanca last winter.  After describing some patterns which the Playa guides preferred, Zach laughed and told me that regardless of the fly or my past fishing experiences that I would absolutely fall apart the first time I found myself standing on the bow of a flats skiff with a permit tailing in front of me and a guide telling me to "cast now.” At the time, I thought he was joking, but oh, how right he was…   

In preparing for the trip, I had countless conversations with TroutHunter co-owners, Rich Paini and Jon Stiehl, who have far more flats fishing experience and have hosted this trip to Playa Blanca annually for several years.  Rich asked me about my angling goals for the trip, and I expressed my desire to catch just one permit.  He told me nonchalantly that "we’ll make sure you get one then.”  His confidence helped to bolster my own, and when I saw the fishing schedule for the week, I grew even more excited.  Rich had set it up so that I would be fishing with himself and stud permit guide, Jorge on our first day of guided fishing.  I was fired up!  

The day we arrived at Playa Blanca, the lodge host, Jeff brought us to the expansive flat where the guide boats were moored for some afternoon, unguided wade fishing.  This was an opportunity to get familiar with the 8 and 9-weight rods and to attempt to dial in our eyes to finding the elusive flats fish in the water.  I was encouraged to just see my first bonefish, although it saw me before I saw it, and having spooked it, I caught just a glimpse of the silver ghost as it fled the flat to the depth and safety of the turtle grass beyond.  Despite the fleeting interaction, it helped me to adjust my eyes, and in short time i was able to find and land bonefish.  I also had shots at a school of small permit that zipped in and out of the flat at an extremely high rate of speed.  I was ill-prepared for the speed of these elusive members of the Jack family.  Their big, sickle-shaped tail enables them to comfortably cruise at a rather ridiculous pace.  One of the anglers in our party managed to hook and land a permit on that first night, and my excitement for fishing with Rich and Jorge the next morning only grew.  

The next morning we were greeted by clouds, and when we got to the boats, all the guides were in their rain jackets.  While that may be a blessing for fishing the Henry’s Fork in June, it most certainly does not make for perfect flats fishing conditions, as the clouds make it more difficult to see fish through the surface.  Nonetheless, Jorge was able to find and to put me on permit, but i was not able to get it done.  "Tranquilo, Pat…”  "You are, como se dice, too tense man, i can feel it when you’re casting,” i can hear Jorge saying to me from his poling platform.  Casting a 9-weight with a lead eyed crab pattern 60 feet to a cruising permit that i cannot see was well outside my comfort zone, and that first day I felt much like I did the first time I ever fished to a rising rainbow on the Ranch...humbled and awestruck.  Despite Jorge pleading with me to cast like it’s just a rainbow trout out there, I flubbed a few casts and threw my signature tailing loop that often rears its ugly head when I get going too fast.  Poor Rich deferred to me and watched helplessly as I messed it up all day.  I got my butt kicked day one.  And I loved every second of it.  I found myself understanding Rich’s obsession with permit almost immediately, and made it my mission to try to get one over the course of the week. Tarpon, bonefish, snook, and barracuda no longer interested me.  Tail between my legs, I reminded myself to be a "nirvana angler,” and thanked Jorge for just giving me the opportunity.  He had done his job, and quite well.  

Days two, three and four brought more of the same.  Guides David and Andres both made the best of difficult weather conditions and gave each angler with whom i was paired shots at cruising permit.  My eyes got better, and now when they said, "10 o’clock, 60 feet” I typically was able to see the nervous water.  Getting the fly right there, right now was more challenging, but I was slowly dialing in my timing on the 9-weight, lead eyed crab combo.  Now if only I could get the permit to slow down from the seemingly 30mph at which they effortlessly cruised the flats, I may actually have a chance.  On day 4, fishing with David and my friend and client, Dr. Brian Voortman, I actually had a permit eat my "squimp” fly.  I had it on for all of four seconds before the fish spit the fly.  David reminded me that we’re fishing with 20lb test fluorocarbon and that I should stick ‘em harder.  I turned to Brian and said, "fishing for permit is like hunting (bleeping) unicorns.”  I got one step closer, and I was even more hooked than before.  

On day five I was paired with fellow TroutHunter guide, Ryan Loftice, and guide Carlos, who has guided Espiritu Santu Bay for 23 years.  The weather conditions were finally right, and having seen pictures of Rich’s 20-something pound permit caught days earlier, hopes were high.  Ryan had a permit eat and spit the hook on its initial run.  Shortly thereafter, I found myself on the bow of Carlos’ Dolphin skiff, looking out over "la boca de Rio Cuatro,” which, on this day, looked like glass.  In the distance, something caught my eye, and I pointed with my rod.  "Si amigo, palometas,” Carlos replied.  He slowly poled the 200 or so yards to wear the fish was tailing, and set me up with about a 60 foot cast.  "Can you cast now?”--Carlos inquired.  I laid out the fly close to the fish, but not quite close enough.  Again, i watched the sickle-tail peak out through the glassy surface.  "It just ate a crab,” Carlos said.  "Try again, more right.”  I made another cast.  And another.  And another.  Finally, on my fifth cast to this very large, very patient permit, Carlos said, "perfect!,” as my fly landed.  The word was music to my ears and I listened intently to his instruction as he guided me through my retrieve, "striiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiipppppp, striiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiipppppp, now leave it…….now striiiiiiiiiiiiiiiippppppp.”  I took deep breaths and tried to calm myself down as my knees knocked and i trembled with excitement while retrieving long, slow strips in cadence with Carlos’ instruction.  "He’s coming,” I remember hearing Carlos say before feeling the tug. I strip set, and it was on.  The permit made a screaming run, and the last thing I remember hearing Carlos frantically say to me was "watch your line.”  I looked down just in time to see the last of my slack line wrap a half hitch knot around the fighting butt of the 9-weight rod.  Pop...just like that, it was over.  So fleeting.  So fun.  My desire and budding obsession with permit continued.  I reminded myself yet again to be a "nirvana angler” and thanked Carlos for his effort, apologized for my failure, and began to bury several of the complimentary 8oz. Coronitas packed in our boat cooler for the day.

I was slated to fish the final day with Jon Stiehl, but Jon and Rich decided to fish together for the first time in several years, and so on my last day of fishing, I found myself alone with Carlos.  This was going to be my day.  Just me and Carlos and the elusive unicorns of the flats.  By now Carlos understood that I didn’t have to catch fish to have a good time and enjoy the day, although it sure would be nice to check off that permit box.  We returned to the mouth of Rio Cuatro, where we had seen several fish the day before.  It wasn’t even 8:30 in the morning when Carlos’ motor shut off, he stepped up onto the poling platform, and I onto the bow.  I pulled off about 60 feet of line from my Hatch 9-plus and looked up just in time to see nervous water coming towards us at about 70 feet.  I pointed and Carlos replied with his typical calmness, "Si, amigo, palometas.”  We both then lost the fish in the cloud cover, only to have them re-appear moving quickly to our left at about 30 feet. As always, Carlos saw them first from the platform, "cast now, 30 feet, 9 o’clock!”  I flipped out a cast which was met with a "Perfect!” From Carlos.  "Leave it, leave it…..Now striiiiiiiiiipppppp….” Bang, i felt the grab and struck back only to feel the line break.  "Yes,” Carlos said.  

"He broke me,” I replied.  

"Huh?!” Carlos responded.  

"He broke me off.” I muttered.

"No way, man, I saw you test those knots,” Carlos was incredulous.  "It must have turned right when you set.” The next several hours were spent searching for permit and discussing the various ways to properly set the hook.

"Do you hit ‘em hard or just stick ‘em nice and easy?” I asked.  

"Don’t overthink it,” he pleaded, "you know how to fish, just fish.”

We left Rio Cuatro and went to another spot.  I flubbed a shot at three cruising permit that I never saw, but attempted to cast to based on Carlos’ instruction.  I was deeply embedded in my own head at this point and Carlos must have felt it and/or seen it. "Let’s go back to Rio Cuatro,” he said, "you have confidence there.”

As Carlos cut the engine at 2:30 in the afternoon after returning to Rio Cuatro, I asked him if he liked baseball, ready to make a bottom of the ninth reference.  "No amigo, solamente el futbol,” he replied.  

"Ok then, we’re into the penalty minutes and we’re losing by one goal.”

"Siiiiiiiiiiiiiii…we have to leave in only 10 minutes because it’s a long ride back.”

"Entiendo, I understand.”

Then on cue, nervous water.  I point my rod.  "Si palometas, cast now!”  But the fish magically turn as my fly turns over towards them.  Bleeping unicorns, I’m thinking to myself.  "Quickly pull it in and cast again, more left!” I frantically strip my line in and make a much shorter 30 foot cast to my direct left.  "Yes, yes,” is all i remember Carlos saying before feeling the tug.  I strip set and the line comes tight.  Game on.  The fish rips behind me to my left towards 7 o’clock.  I’m clearing my line when all of a sudden it stops…I look down to see some of my slack line had blown into the water during my retrieve from my initial cast and is now wrapped under the bow of the boat.  

"It’s caught, it’s caught,” I yell to a helpless Carlos in a panic.  Pop….it’s gone.  

"No way man, no way! No puedo creerlo, que pinche mala suerte! In veinte tres anos, i don’t remember bad luck like you have!  I think next time you come you shave your beard amigo, the palometas don’t like it.” And with that Carlos smiles and hands me two Coronitas.  "You got it to eat your fly,” he reminds me.  What a great guide.  Making light of a bad situation, and instantly reminding me that it’s just another fish, and I’m here as a nirvana angler.

"Carlos, this place is amazing,” is all I can muster.  

"Si amigo, I know already I’ll see you again.”  

"Si.  Yes you will.”  

I can see how it can be interpreted that my fishing that week was a failure, but I beg to differ.  Fishing for unicorns, or permit as they are also known, opened my eyes to an entirely new frontier of fly fishing.  It was an interesting perspective to be guided.  Whether real or perceived, I felt a palpable pressure to perform at my best for guides at the top of their game working their asses off to get me the fish of my dreams. I was reminded of my first visit to the Henry’s Fork back in 1994, when, as an 18 year old kid, I was greeted by huge rainbows rising to green drake mayflies.  I put down several of those big ‘bows before I hooked one, and then I promptly broke off the first one that ate my fly.  The second eat I got about took me into my backing before spitting my fly.  When I finally landed my first Harriman Ranch rainbow, I was literally trembling with excitement.  I have a feeling that if and when I do get my hands on a permit, I will once again feel that same emotion.  In the meantime, I’m just happy to have been there.  Playa Blanca and Espiritu Santu Bays are truly special places.

4 Comments

  1. Mark Rougeux

    Great story! Hope you get to go again soon. Your candor is very encouraging to those of us on the new side of intermediate. My wife and I had the same sort of initial trepidations when we first came to your place in 2014. I could really relate to what you were thinking. Looking forward to returning this September with R and R, and won't feel so bad about our screw-ups, knowing it can happen to even the best of us!

  2. Per Brandin

    Pat!! Wonderful story and I feel for you and with you. I've been chasing permit in the Keys for years and have yet to even solidly hook one, but I am never happier or more excited than when I see a happy permit just beyond casting range and Simon is poling towards the fish. Nirvana angler indeed. Thanks man.

  3. Kevin Parsons

    Pat, A great piece. Nirvana is a great place to be. Your memories of your trip to Mexico are like many of our common experiences of just fishing and being there being the reward. Not whether or not you landed the fish. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

  4. Evan

    Good stuff Pat!

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