Published in Fly Lords, June 2019
By: Kyle Schaefer
Patrick leaned firmly into the chain link fence with a calm yet focused look on his face. His solitary hand skillfully worked, breaking up a seed-laden nugget of greenish-brown Bahamian swag. In a flash, Patrick finished spinning up a perfect mid-day joint and without hesitation brought fire to herb.
Patrick weighs in at 90 pounds and has only one functioning arm. Be careful not to quickly judge though; Patrick is as able as any man or woman. I complimented Patrick on his dexterity and he responded after glancing at an impossibly heavy trailer and said, “Kyle, I can do absolutely anything I put my mind to… If I want to lift that trailer, all I have to do is believe.” I was struck by Patrick’s wisdom. He’s absolutely right; we all can do anything we put our minds to. We are only limited by the parameters we arbitrarily set for ourselves deep in the synapses of our brains. This moment has stuck with me – a reminder of how lucky I am to be immersed in this South Andros culture with lessons unfolding all around me.
The 9-month bonefishing season at Bair’s Lodge was beginning to wind down. As far as anyone knew, no angler had ever caught a permit fishing from Bair’s Lodge for the past 25+ years. There were rumors of another guide on the island landing a couple permit over the years but nonetheless the elusiveness of this South Andros specimen was intimidatingly formidable.
As manager of the lodge, anytime a gap in the schedule popped up I was out scouting, exploring, staring at Google Earth, talking to locals, and of course fishing which usually consisted of standing on the bow with fly in hand searching and scanning. We were making progress but the ultimate goal still eluded the guide team and me. I’d had my shots, and I was even lucky enough to hook a permit halfway through the season only to lose it 5 minutes into the fight. The permit history on South Andros and my previous permit baggage didn’t matter though; my morale stayed high and Patrick’s words repeated in my ears… “all you gotta do is believe”.
Weather, schedule, and tides all lined up perfectly on an early May morning. Veteran guide Chris, his brother Clayton and I planned to hop in a skiff and pole around some permit water for the day. With 15 years of experience guiding flyfishing on South Andros, Chris is our “least” seasoned guide at the lodge. Chris has the x-factor and a distinct fishiness to him. He’s hungry to grow and learn; it’s clear that Chris’s best days on the platform are still ahead of him. The fact that Chris is the “least” experienced with 15 years under his belt shines light on how deeply experienced the Bair’s Lodge guide team truly is.
We pushed off the beach and headed south. I shared the bench with Clayton, a Bahamian Sculling (rowing) Champion with arms like tree trunks and shoulders that could carry the world for a brief moment in time. Clayton grew up fishing, lobstering and diving on South Andros. His passion for the water is beautiful and his stories are captivating. I tuned into Clayton’s tales as intently as my distracted mind could; thoroughly preoccupied with my goal of bringing flyfishing’s most elusive quarry to hand.
Today was the day, I was sure of it. Everything was going our way from the look on Mother Nature’s face to the perfectly balanced chemistry on the boat. Patrick’s advice was my compass and we let those vibes guide us through the start of the day.
We pulled onto the flat with the sun at our backs. We kept our eyes peeled for free-swimming permit but hoped to find one riding on the back of a stingray. When permit pair up with rays it can be a great opportunity to fool them into eating a fly. It wasn’t long before we found a feeding ray but no dancing partner was present. We continued to pole down the flat just outside of a raised sand bank when we spotted our first fish. The 20-pound permit was about 120 feet ahead, free swimming and almost invisible. Clayton, a guide in training, was on the pole and despite Clayton’s obvious physical strength he struggled against the wind to get the boat in position. I got several shots in front of the fish before the wind had pushed us out of range.
Chris swapped out for Clayton on the poling platform and my confidence immediately went up. Chris and I just click when we’re on the boat together and our hunger to land our first permit was strong but never desperate.
As we got within the last few hundred feet of our first pass we found 2 permit feeding on the back of one ray. Once in range, I let my longest cast go with confidence. The fish reacted to the fly but we were unable to reach an agreement. I waited for my windows and delivered the fly several more times. I quickly changed flies to another crab pattern while Chris skillfully kept the boat in position. Again, we fired several shots and nothing. The fish clearly saw the fly but these permit knew exactly what they wanted and presentation had to be perfect. I changed flies two more times before selecting a big mantis shrimp. I placed the fly right on their noses and the two permit left the ray; they were clearly feeling our pressure. When the two permit were 150 feet away they finally turned and headed back to the ray. I stood in ready position waiting for them to return to home base. When the fish were about 30 feet from the ray I started my cast, aiming right for the back of the ray, exactly where these fish were heading. By the time the fly hit the water the two permit were facing one another with the fly directly between them. I was showing them a new fly and the element of competition between the two fish was present. The fish on the left slipped up, charged the fly, and ate. I stripped twice, as long as I could, finally feeling the weight of the fish on my line.
Our team was finally tight with a beautiful South Andros permit! The fish cleared the line at my feet in a flash and I said “bye” to my fly line as it zipped off my reel. I watched layer after layer of backing peel off the reel when the fish finally slowed. I had my drag firmly set in an effort to quickly tire the fish ensuring a healthy, safe release, the obvious first priority.
I worked the fish in with a mixed bag of feelings including equal parts euphoria and anxiety. I’d lost permit before and I knew this deal wasn’t sealed until we were grabbing tail. By the time I worked the fish to the boat I could no longer hear my thoughts. Chris and Clayton’s cheers and laughter filled the air on the remote permit flat.
As I reached for the tail grab, the fish made a final short run back to the north where she was met by a formidable foe. A 5-foot blacktip shark had entered the arena, fired up to join the chaos. Chris immediately hollered, “Get the pole Clayton, get the pole, get him with the pole, Clayton!” Clayton’s shoulders rippled with strength as he grabbed the pole and without hesitation jumped into the water, running directly towards the blacktip. Meanwhile, I loosened my drag, giving the fish a chance to escape without fighting the resistance of my line. Clayton was a pole’s length away from the shark when he lined up his first jab – direct hit. He threw several more jabs and the permit emerged from the churned sandy water. I got my line tight and with a few quick revolutions of the reel I had the permit boat side. I slid into the water and tailed the fish. A wave of joy and pure relief washed over me, having realized that we’d successfully achieved our impossible goal, filling my soul to the brim.
We proved Patrick right that day. The Bahamian people hold simple, potent wisdom and secrets that are integrated into daily routines. Goals are built to be met and should be pursued with a confidence and vigor that exterminate doubt, creating space for only success to thrive. I am grateful to spend my days managing Bair’s Lodge, surrounded by these wonderful people learning, growing, exploring and fishing.