ISLAMORADA — Richard Stanczyk pointed down toward the pod of permit lingering over the wreck and told me to ready my bait.
"We might only have one shot at these fish," said the legendary fishing guide, 67. "Don't blow it."
Stanczyk, quick to point out that he was fishing the Florida Keys long before I was born, has seen his share of anglers miss big fish.
"Whatever you do, don't let that fish drag you into the wreck," he added. "Then it is gone for sure."
No better place
Stanczyk, owner of the famous Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada, became an international angling celebrity in 2002 when he figured out how to catch broadbill swordfish, a species previously thought to be nocturnal, during the light of day.
But on this warm summer morning, Stanczyk doesn't really care what he catches as long as it pulls.
"There's no other place like Islamorada in the world," he said. "When it comes to world records, we have everybody beat."
It is hard to say exactly how many former, current and pending world records have been set in what locals like to call the "Sportfishing Capital of the World," but a safe number would be in the hundreds.
With easy access to the inshore fishing of Florida Bay, offshore reefs and the deep, blue water where the billfish roam, Islamorada certainly seems like heaven for fishermen.
I was stoked to have a shot at a trophy permit, a species seldom seen, let alone caught, in my home waters of Tampa Bay. So when my bait disappeared in the whirl of feeding fish, I prayed the line would last long enough to at least get a photo.
"It is going to run deep," Stanczyk said. "Don't let it find that wreck."
I could feel the power of the fish, turning its body sideways in the water to increase the resistance on the line. It was like trying to reel in a doormat made of solid muscle.
Permit are typically found on offshore wrecks and artificial reefs, but the flats fishermen of the Keys also catch them on light tackle and fly rods in a few feet of water. These fish are usually released, the thought being that a permit let go today will live to be caught again tomorrow.
That's why in 2001 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission set up the Special Permit Zone in areas of South Florida. The regulations are more restrictive so the big breeders have time to reproduce.
To land a big permit — 20 pounds or more — is truly a noteworthy entry on any angler's life list. That's why I got nervous when the fish peeled off line, 1 foot at a time, and dragged it closer to the sharp steel hull below.
"I can't make any headway," I told Stanczyk. "It's like trying to stop a runaway freight train."
For 10 minutes we played this game. I'd pull and reel up a few feet of line, then the permit would take its turn and erase all my gains. Then, for a brief second, the permit took a bit of a rest. That's all I needed to turn its head. Slow and steady, I pulled up on the rod.
By now, my forearms were sore and sweat dripped from my brow. The tropical sun beat down on my neck, and I thought the fish might just outlast me. Then I saw a flash of silver 10 feet below. This permit was mine.
Stanczyk's mate grabbed the fish by the tail and lifted it on to the boat. "Let's get a quick photo," he said. "And then get this fish back in the water."
The process took less than a minute. Stanczyk placed the fish gently back in the water, and in an instant it was gone, down to the wreck it had tried so desperately to find before.
"You got your permit," Stanczyk beamed. "What's left on your list? Dolphin, wahoo, blackfin tuna?"