Bulls and Cows

The dirt road that leads to the shoreline adjacent to my favorite flat is cut through a mile or so of cow pasture on the south side of St. Croix.  The south side of the island is a wide, flat stretch of land, born at the base of the center‑island ridge of hills, which slopes gently into the sea.  This pasture land is reminiscent of photos I've seen of the African Plains B polka dots of acacia scrub, with thorns sharp and tough enough to flatten a truck tire, are scattered in fields of waist-high grass that glow green after a good rain before fading to a soft golden-tan as the ground dries again. 

An occasional large tree towers above all else, punctuating the scene.  During the heat of the day cows are often gathered in the shade provided by these large trees.  A fresh sea breeze pushes waves across the sea of grass, creating a green or tan mirror image of the turquoise-blue ocean in the distance.  During periods of prolonged and heavy rain the dirt road becomes impassable, and the distance from the main road across the pasture to the shoreline must be walked.  After a rainless period of a few days to a week, depending how much and for how long it rained, the dirt road is once again dry enough to drive on.

The pasture is broken by lines of barbed wire fence, which the ranchers use to keep the bulls separated from the cows and calves.  The dirt road passes through two gates - each made of barbed wire strung between straight, upright branches an inch or so thick which were cut from the surrounding brush - which are suspended between two large posts on either side of the road.  To get through each gate, I have to get out of the truck, open the gate, drive through, then get out and close the gate before continuing along the road.  It's just a small nuisance most of the time, but can be a real pain when the cows are hanging around the gates.

One day my friend Norman was driving through the pasture on his way home after a good day on the flats.  As he came to the inner-most gate, he saw a large bull feeding along the fence about 50 yards away, but thought nothing of it. He had opened the gate, driven his truck through, and was walking back to close the gate when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.  He turned in time to see the bull moving toward him, gaining speed, with no intention of stopping. Seeing there was no way to stop the bull or to close the gate quickly enough, Norman stepped to the side and watched as the bull passed only a few feet in front of him, through the open gate and into the next field.  Norman closed the gate and drove to the farmhouse to let Kiko know what had happened. After hearing the story, Kiko laughed - that next field wasfield was full of young, mature cows.

After passing through the gates, the road bounces along parallel to shore, with only a tall stand of sea grape and manchineel - short, bushy trees that can tolerate the salty air and occasional incursions of the wave-pushed sea of the beachfront - between the road and the beach.  The road then makes a sharp bend to the right, cutting a path through the seagrape, and ends at a small shanty on the beach.

A narrow seagrass flat runs along shore, starting about 300 yards to the right of the shanty, and continuing over the distance of a five minute walk to the left.  I have seen an occasional bonefish on this flat as I ready my gear, and even as I break things down at the end of the day. But barjacks and barracuda are the real players on this narrow, shallow strip of seagrass, and can often be found cruising along the drop-off that marks the edge of this flat thirty yards from shore. I imagine that years ago, before the bonefish all but disappeared from St. Croix (overfishing and habitat loss), this flat was teeming with bonefish.

As I ready my gear in the morning, about 200 yards off the beach I can see the waves coming in from the deep ocean rise up as they reach the shallows of the reef and break over the reef crest, turning into lines of white foam that roll across the back-reef flat. This back-reef flat extends from right to left the same distance as the inshore flat, but is separated from the inner flat by a 100 yard wide, six-foot deep channel.  A five minute walk along the beach to the left brings me to a spot where the channel shallows to a knee-deep stretch of grass flat that connects the shoreline and the outer flat. I usually bypass the inner flat and opt for the walk because the outer back-reef flat is the home of the permit.

The permit flats of St. Croix, and of many other islands in the Caribbean, are located on the shoreward side of coral reefs.  The shallow reefs break up the surf coming in from deeper water offshore.  Over time, this wave energy has pushed coral debris and sand from the reef toward the shore.  Since the shallow reef serves to slow the wave-generated currents in their push toward shore, much of the coral debris and sand is deposited immediately behind the reef.  This area is known as the back-reef.  Eventually, seagrass and algae take root in the back-reef and spread into the lagoon, which results in a further slowing of currents and more deposition of debris and sand. In some spots, small colonies of finger coral grow among the seagrass. When everything works out just right, the back-reef is built into an extended shallow area - a back-reef flat.  Permit love to feed on the crabs, shrimp, urchins, and small clams found in these shallow back-reef flats, and the shallow hard bottom makes these areas perfect for the wading angler.

The tides in the northeastern Caribbean are generally pretty minor, the water level changing perhaps a foot if not less through a normal tidal cycle.  But I've seen the flats completely exposed at an extreme low tide, the tops of the green seagrass burned a dark brown by the tropical sun. Other times, especially after a long period of heavy wind and seas from the southeast, the flats can be almost too deep to fish.  In any case, the water level determines which flats can be fished and when.

Although I have seen permit cruising a back-reef flat on a rather low tide, for the most part the water must be at a minimum depth before permit venture onto a flat.  On the other hand, if the water is too deep, it is difficult to spot the telltale dorsal fins and tails of cruising and feeding fish. Figuring out the optimum water depth for each flat is a large part of the puzzle to finding permit feeding on the flats. 

The permit like to come through the shallow reef onto the back-reef flat, and there are some areas that permit seem to like better for crossing over than others.  For some reason the fish prefer to go through the reef rather than around either end into the channel that separates the inner flat from the outer flat, and then up onto the shallows from the back side.  I have seen permit ride a wave through an especially shallow section of reef to get to the flat.  It's an amazing site to look into the face of a clear, knee high wave as it crests over the shallow reef and see a large permit, perhaps 15 pounds or more, smoothly surfing the inside of the wave onto the back-reef flat.

Time of day is important to permit feeding on the backreef flats.  First light in the morning, and last light of the evening seem to be their favorite times.  A friend and I kept a log of how many permit we spotted per hour of fishing, and broke it down by time of day.  The morning and evening time periods won hands down. Add a rising tide to dawn and dusk, and chances are high that permit will be tailing on the flats.

Since the light level is so low during these times of day, there is little chance of seeing a permit in the water through the reflection on the water surface.  The only way to spot a permit under these low light conditions is if it shows itself.  The tip of a dorsal fin may poke through above the water surface as a fish cruises over a shallow spot.  Sometimes, dorsal fin and tail, and maybe even the permit’s back, are exposed to the air as the fish squeezes through especially skinny water.  One time I even saw a large fish swim sideways through inches of water to get from one deep pocket to another.  I saw what looked like the tip of a permit tail flash off to my right, but when I looked it was gone.  As I made my way over to the spot where I saw the tail, I saw a large silver flash in a spot so shallow the tips of the seagrass blades were exposed to the air. As I watched, still not believing what I saw, a large permit passed 20 feet in front of me, swimming on its side, its large eye staring up at me.  When the fish saw me, it became more hurried as it skimmed through the shallow water and quickly reached deeper water and was off.

Despite the occasional shallow water antics of permit, the most common sighting is to see the tip of a tail of fish feeding in deeper water as it digs in the bottom in pursuit of a meal.  A fish feeding aggressively in shallow water may wave its entire tail above the water surface.  I once saw the entire tail of a giant permit break the surface, and flop back and forth like a whale waving its fluke. The base of the tail was as large around as a baseball bat – the fat end. I didn’t even think about casting to that fish. There was no point, it was uncatchable.

Most amazing is the ability of these fish, even those in the 20-pound class, to disappear in such shallow water.  I can't count the times I have moved toward a tail breaking the surface just out of casting range, only to arrive at the spot and no longer see the fish.  More than once, I've even had a fish pop up right in front of me and then vanish as quickly as it had arrived. 

Beginning in November, and usually continuing straight through March, strong northeast winds, locally called Christmas Winds, blow non-stop for weeks at a time, often at 20 - 25 knots.  While there are still fish on the flats during the cool, windy winter months, fishing for the relatively few fish that venture onto the flats is difficult due to the high winds and heavy seas.   Occasionally, the winds abate for a few days and there is a decent shot at spotting fish in the brief period of calm seas.

The Christmas Winds usually subside by May, making fly fishing for permit a real possibility.  My friend and I kept track of how many fish we saw by season, and spring and fall seemed to be the best times; May and June in the spring and September into October in the fall.  Unfortunately, September, when the water is the warmest of the year, is also the peak month for hurricanes on St. Croix.

In the spring and fall, the winds are usually light and from the southeast, and some days there is no wind at all.  In some years the windless periods last for a week at a time. The seas are generally calm, and on those days with no wind the Caribbean Sea is as flat as a back-yard pond.  It is on these days I called in sick to work and made a day of it on the flats.

The water in spring and fall is noticeably warmer than during the winter months, and I think this is what brings the permit into the shallow water.  During the winter, if the permit are up on the flats, they usually cruise at a rapid pace, stopping only briefly to feed before moving off again.  It can be tough to track and catch up with permit on the flats in the winter.  Their summer feeding is less hurried than during the winter, with the fish cruising slowly across the flats, sometimes appearing to hover in one spot for minutes at a time.  Fish are more likely to stay in one spot to feed, and are more likely to feed aggressively.  Feeding, distracted fish are easier to approach and to present a fly.  In the winter months, it is most common to see single fish on the flats, but in the spring through fall permit often cruise the flats in small pods of two to six fish.  Sometimes, larger schools of a dozen or more fish assault the flat; a dozen fins approaching in unison across a stillwater flat is an overwhelming sight

By most standards, I think the permit found on St. Croix's flats are large, with the average fish weighing in at around 12 to 14 pounds.  I have seen fish on the flats that approached 50 pounds, and fish in the 20 pound class are common.  Using spinning gear, a friend once cast to and hooked a large permit that was part of a pod of a dozen large fish, only to have the fish peel all of the 20 pound line off the reel before breaking the line at the hook.  The hooked fish was followed across the reef at breakneck speed by the other fish in the pod, and after breaking the line, joined the pod as they slowly made their way back onto the flat and resumed cruising and feeding.  The power of these fish can=t really be understood until you feel one on the end of your line.  And as if it isn=t tough enough with spinning gear, chasing these big fish on the backreef flats on the fly is a Quixotic pursuit.