Flying Ants

I guess Carl had been coming to the island of St. Croix for the month of March for 2 or 3 years before he caught up with me. A retired medical doctor, in his mid-80s, well traveled, and an avid fisherman with experience in the tropics, he had searched for any and all local information on bonefish, permit, or any other flats species. It is hard to describe to someone who has not lived on St. Croix, but there is no information available on flats fishing. Catch and release fishing and guiding for same were pretty much non-existent concepts then. Even now, all local fishing is catch and keep, generally regardless of fish size, and there may be only a part-time guide or two. All that said, even though St. Croix will never be a fishing-only destination it does supply some good fishing.

Finally, during his third March on St. Croix, Carl called my office at the Virgin Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife. At first, I was hesitant to give up my favorite spots, but after some time on the phone I warmed to him considerably. That first March, it was 1995, we hit every flat on the island in search of permit. March is usually a windy month, but it was even windier than normal in 1995. We carried spinning gear since I didn't think we had a chance with fly fishing gear in the 25 knot winds. Early morning, late evening, mid‑day, cloudy, sunny, it didn't seem to matter. For two weeks we tried, but there were no permit to be found. In all that time, I saw one tail flicker briefly in the distance. Carl never saw a permit that first year.

In the months between that first March and March 1996, Carl and I conversed via mail. We planned for the next March, and related happenings in our respective homes. By March 1996, we were both very much looking forward to round two. Within a day or two of his arrival, Carl stopped by the office and we set up the first outing for that weekend. We decided to meet at my favorite flat at dawn on Saturday.

The northeastern Caribbean normally has a dry season from February through early May, and 1996 was right on the mark. It had not rained for weeks and the pasture land we had to cross to get to the flats was the golden brown of dried hay. The hot cloudless days were quickly warming the flats, so the cool mornings would be the best time to search for permit tailing on the flats.

On Friday evening, as I loaded my fly rods into my truck, it started to rain. A welcome sight under most circumstances, but I worried about the dirt road to the flat. The rain continued for a couple of hours before stopping. That meant the dirt road that went straight to the flat would probably not be passable. We would have to take the shorter road and walk the beach to the flat. I wanted to be on the flat at daybreak, and knew the walk would add some time. I called Carl and moved the meeting time up an hour.

In the pre-dawn of Saturday morning, the winds were light and the sky clear. The air was damp from the night's rain. As I drove on the paved road that bisected two large spans of pasture land, I suddenly heard the sound of raindrops on my windshield. Lots of rain. NUTS, was my first thought. Then I noticed that the windshield wasn't wet. Again, the sound of raindrops, but no rain.  Then in the glare of the headlights I saw a cloud hovering above the road. I slowed down to take a look.

Flying ants. Tens of thousands of them. Awakened from the dry season by the night rain. They were everywhere. It seemed like every 50 yards there was another swarm of ants hovering over the road. I took this as a good sign, I told myself. A sign of the coming summer, when the permit are most plentiful and more agreeable to being caught.

A few minutes later, I met Carl at the dirt road turnoff, he loaded his things into my truck, and we drove the mile to the road’s end.  As we walked along the beach to the flat, I told Carl about the ants. He said he saw them too. I told him I thought that was a good omen. He checked his leader one more time.

From the minute we walked onto the flat until almost noon we saw fish. Some too far too chase, some close, and many within casting range. I saw the largest permit I have ever laid eyes on that morning. The base of its tail was as large around as a baseball bat - the thick end. I just watched the fish tail and move off, no sense in even trying. It would have been useless to hook that monster without a boat to follow it.

Carl had solid shots at 7 or 8 fish that morning. The first few were buck fever. Bad casts, spooked fish, tangled line. It was actually great to see that someone with so much fishing under his belt, someone who had caught permit on fly before, could still get the fever. A couple fish saw the fly, but weren't interested. Finally, one fish was interested and tipped on the fly. The line twitched, and Carl set the hook. No fish. Either Carl had set the hook too early, or the fish had spit out the fly too quickly. He was frustrated, but having a great time. Welcome to fly fishing for permit.

We went back onto the flats many more times during that March of 1996. Each time we saw fish. Each time we went home with no fish hooked. After one particularly frustrating morning towards the end of his stay, I could tell Carl was starting to feel vexed. I tried to comfort him by saying that everyone who pursues permit is vexed at one time or another. Some longer than others. Some seemingly forever. I assured him that if we were not able to get a fish this year, surely we would the next. That is when he held my shoulder and said "I'm getting old. There might not be a next year."

In late summer of 1996 there was an envelope in the mail from Illinois. Carl, I said to myself. I was already planning to write him with plans for next year as I opened the envelope. But it wasn't' from Carl. It was from his wife. After a successful open heart surgery, he had been moved to recovery. All looked good. Then one night his heart stopped, and he was gone.

In the years that followed, I often thought of Carl when I was out on that flat. I wish he could have caught, or at least hooked a St. Croix permit. I used to think about what we could have done differently. The close shots. The near misses. But then I realized that even though he didn't catch that permit, even if he knew he would never catch a St. Croix permit, he still would have come back and tried. And he would have continued enjoying the experience, the scenery, the company, and the conversation. Just like I did. I miss those visits.