The Slam Is Grand in the Keys : Fishing: Catching permit, bonefish and tarpon in the same day is one for the books for an Encino angler in Florida.


A half-moon on the wane provides the only light for three men in a 17-foot skiff heading out into the blackness of the Florida Keys at 4:48 a.m., arguably up to no good.

Smugglers once plied these reefs, more recently drug runners, whose propellers have left enduring tracks in the shallow sea grass, as an off-road vehicle scars the desert.

The quarry is tarpon. Two have put their confidence in the other, Capt. Vic Gaspeny, who reassures them: “Where we’re going I’ve never gone in the dark before, so we have a reasonable chance of running aground.”


Besides, Gaspeny adds, their chances of catching fish are nil. He has tried to maximize the odds by dragging his guests from the Cheeca Lodge at this uncivilized hour, but the tides are less than ideal, the moon is wrong and the current is bad.

Gaspeny, 41, should know. After 20 years, the consensus around Bud ‘n Mary’s Marina and the Middle Keys is that he is the best of the fishing guides who lead anglers to the three hard-fighting, saltwater game fish of the shallow reefs and flats.

Ted Williams called them the Big Three: tarpon, bonefish and permit. Around here, Williams was better known as a bonefisherman than as a ballplayer.

Find that hard to believe? At a banquet for the Redbone-Bonefish charity fishing tournament last year, a guide introduced himself to the man sitting next to him.

“Hi, my name’s Jack Backus,” he said. “What’s yours?”

“Wade Boggs.”

“Glad to meet you. What do you do?”

Fishing is a big deal here, and Gaspeny holds a saltwater fly line-class world record of 14 pounds 6 ounces for a bonefish caught on 12-pound test.

But he also is a pessimist. Gaspeny would rather paint the worst possible scenario than make promises he can’t fulfill. As another veteran guide, George Wood, says, if the conditions aren’t favorable and if you still want to catch fish, “You just got to fish the conditions.”


So Gaspeny is here this morning, he says, because “Arnold drives me to do things I don’t normally do.”

Arnold is Arnold Barry Gold, a 46-year-old Encino lawyer whose spiffy 37-foot cruiser rots in a slip at Marina del Rey because, since he discovered the Keys 10 years ago, he has found the fishing here more enjoyable than that in Santa Monica Bay.

Gold’s goal is to score the grand slam of the Keys, all three species in a single day.

“It’s done fairly often,” Gaspeny says. “But I’ve also gone a whole year without anyone doing it.”

And because Gold has only three days in which to do it, there’s no time to waste. Gaspeny has his 115-horsepower outboard throttled up across the flats and through narrow, winding mangrove channels, occasionally picking his way with a hand-held spotlight. In some places the depth measures only inches.

There is method in this madness. Tarpon, the largest of the three species, averaging about 70 pounds, prefer to feed in the channels between keys in the dark or twilight hours, when the water is moving on a tidal change. Gaspeny selects a spot under a concrete causeway and drops anchor against the current. It is still pitch dark.

“Our best chance is to catch ‘em early,” he says, baiting 25-pound-line with a blue crab the size of a silver dollar. “The lighter it gets, the warier they are.”


He places the rods in holders along the gunwales and advises his clients that when a fish strikes not to instinctively grab a rod and try to set the hook.

“Leave ‘em in the holders and wind down (the slack in the line). Let the tarpon hook himself. They’ll suck it in.”

Lifting or lowering the rod by hand could change tension on the line and spook the sensitive fish before it takes the bait. Once hooked, the rod is taken in hand.

Each of these special fish requires a special technique, reducing the element of luck, but they have two things in common: They are so wary that a motor or even a heavy step in a boat may scare them away--that’s why nobody trolls for them--and they all fight far beyond proportion to their size.

Zinggg! Gold’s rod bends and line flies off the reel. In rapid sequence, Gaspeny tells him, “Reel! Reel! Reel!” starts the motor and orders the anchor released on its buoy so he can pursue the big fish, tracking it with the spotlight.

The tarpon’s round, orange eye flashes like a reflector from beneath the surface, and twice the 100-pound fish leaps and tail-walks, its silvery sides iridescent in the black void of sea and sky.


In eight minutes it is alongside and deemed a legal catch--the rule of thumb being whenever the leader runs into the first line guide on the rod. Virtually all tarpon, bonefish and permit are released in the Keys, either by removing the hook or by cutting the leader. The hook disintegrates in a short time.

Since last year, an angler must buy a $50 tag to keep a tarpon.

“It’s a shame to kill ‘em,” Gaspeny says. “I saw only one brought in last year.”

The anglers catch three more tarpon before sunrise. One of 112 pounds leads Gold, his arms aching, on a merry chase through the pilings under the causeway. At dawn they see dozens more cruising the clear, green depths.

Later, in the afternoon, they will try for permit and bonefish--”a very long shot,” Gaspeny says, noting the particular conditions. Gold will get a bonefish, but the permit will elude him this day and the next day, too.

Those whose lives revolve around the Keys fear that more than fish may be eluding them. They fear losing the Keys as an unspoiled recreational resource.

A sign welcoming visitors calls Islamorada “the sportfishing capital of the world.”

Sure, a first-time visitor thinks, where have we heard that before?

But within a couple of days, he is almost convinced. Sometimes the 80-degree water is so clear that when anglers go offshore to fish for yellowtail, they must cloud the water with sand balls to improve the fishing.

Nine oil companies hold 73 drilling leases off the Keys. While they stand symbolically poised with their rigs just over the horizon, Congress keeps renewing a series of yearly moratoriums to prevent the sale of other tracts, but there are no permanent assurances. An accident could be disastrous for this fragile environment.


Gaspeny says: “If oil ever gets onto these flats and settles at low tide, it would kill all the grass and animal life, and it might never come back.”

President Bush, also in Islamorada seeking bonefish on this particular weekend, resisted local pressure to announce a policy against offshore drilling but said that when he did issue a declaration, he expected the residents “would not be too disappointed.”

One day to go and still no grand slam. Rain squalls move over the Keys and the wind is blowing 25 to 30 knots, kicking up a four-foot chop that sprinkles the sea with whitecaps.

Against Gaspeny’s better judgment, the three go forth once more, because Gold wants the grand slam so badly. He asks Gaspeny to try first for the most difficult prey, the permit.

Many regulars around the Keys have never even seen one caught. They are so smart that one guide, Backus, says: “They all went to getaway school and got straight A’s.”

A permit, built like a round, flat rock, averages 20 to 30 pounds. It is capable of blazing bursts of speed, after which it rests without yielding line by using its slab sides to resist the pull, like a sea anchor.


Gaspeny draws on all his resources--mainly, the detailed log he keeps of the conditions for every fishing trip he has made. The guides guard their knowledge and favorite spots fanatically. A newcomer must learn the hard way, as they did.

For permit and bonefish, Gaspeny uses spinning tackle. Permit call for 15-pound-test line.

“You’ll feel a bump,” Gaspeny says. “He may not run away from you, so reel quickly until you feel pressure, then set the hook--hard.

“There’ll be one rock within a half-mile, and they’ll go for it. Or they’ll charge the boat so hard you’ll think they got off (the hook). Just keep reeling.”

Today, permit fishing means risking the meanest of the wind and waves on the open flats. The little skiff tosses like a cork as Gaspeny anchors. Waves splash over the bow, drenching everyone. He explains that a little wind is good for catching permit because they can’t see the tackle as well and are more aggressive in chasing their prey, but this is too much.

Then, a rainbow develops in the southwest, low on the gray horizon. Fishermen love such omens. A couple of minutes later, a rod bends. Gold goes to work, and the conditions are forgotten.

“Keep the pressure on him,” Gaspeny says. “Don’t let him rest. He’ll start fighting again.”


First the permit--later estimated at a tough 26 pounds--heads straight for a nearby shallow bed of coral and sea grass, hoping to tear the line. Failing that, he heads back to Gaspeny’s discarded anchor buoy.

“Get your rod down,” Gaspeny tells Gold. “OK, he’s clear.”

In 15 minutes, the permit is in the boat, photographed, then released. One down, two to go.

The anchor is retrieved and Gaspeny drives to a bonefish spot. Again, it’s a new game. He even lowers his voice as he stops the motor--seemingly, in reverence as much as caution.

The bonefish are special to the people who fish for them. They are terrible to eat and average only six pounds--anything over 10 is considered a trophy--but even Ted Williams, often taciturn, rhapsodized about them “as the toughest saltwater fish that swims.”

Williams once to hit baseballs and catch bonefish. There are none on the West Coast. Experts say there are more bonefish in the Bahamas but bigger ones in the Keys, which have produced eight of the 13 world line class records--six out of Islamorada, where Williams used to live.

The rods, baited with shrimp on 10-pound-test line, remain in the holders, but Gaspeny reminds Gold to retrieve it before winding, keep the line tight but keep from setting the hook “until they decide where they’re going.”


A bonefish, sleek and strong, seems built for business. Its large, chrome-cast scales look like armor plate, and it will run like a torpedo, burning off 200 yards of line in a few seconds, rest for a minute as the angler reels him in, then run off 200 more.

“Don’t bother to try to crank,” Gaspeny says. “It won’t do any good. You just have to wait until he stops.”

Bonefish are found on the saltwater shallows of sub-tropical regions in one to six feet of water, sometimes less, with the water moving on the tide, bringing them food.

The method guides favor is to shut off the motor, drift onto the flats and push the shallow-draft skiff along quietly with long, fiberglass poles while looking for “tailing” bonefish, those with their snouts in the mud after crustaceans, while their tails flip spray above the surface.

If the wind is too strong for poling, they’ll “stake out”--jab the pole into the sand and tie the boat to it and cast the lines out 20 or 30 yards.

Zinggg! The line flies out, and in eight minutes Gold has an 8 1/2-pound bonefish, photographed and released.


Two down, one to go and it’s only 9:05 a.m. But the last catch for the one-day slam--the tarpon--won’t be as easy this time.

Late in the afternoon, a persistent east wind continues to howl as Gaspeny waits at Bud ‘n Mary’s for the mullet lady to arrive with his bait. Down the road at the Cheeca Lodge, nobody has gone para-sailing for two days, and Gold sees the palm trees are still bent double.

It’s not a good night to go fishing, but Gaspeny won’t even try to talk him out of it.

“This is ridiculous,” Gaspeny confides to a passenger as they approach the fishing grounds. “If it weren’t for his quest for the grand slam, we wouldn’t even be out here.”

In these conditions, he usually allows a customer to cancel.

As Gaspeny sets the lines, he tells Gold: “Your chances of hooking one are one in a million.”

Gold nods, stoically, and thinks: “That’s what you said the other morning.”

Three times Gaspeny tries drifting with the wind and current, and twice tarpon rise to the bait, playing out a cartoon-like sequence as they make great leaps trying to grab the little mullets skittering across the crests. But the drift is so fast that the tarpon keep missing, so Gaspeny decides to anchor.

That brings no success, so Gold suggests holding a rod in hand low to the water so the wind won’t bow the line as much. Gaspeny agrees. With the sun dropping behind Long Key, anything’s worth trying--and it works.


Gold hooks into a tarpon so large that he can do little more than fight it to a standoff. It never leaps, preferring to hug the bottom, but after several minutes Gold manages to raise it enough to bring the leader into the first line guide.

The fish still hasn’t been seen, but Gaspeny says: “When you intend to release the fish, the rules say that’s a legal catch.”

Gold’s face says otherwise.

“I don’t want an asterisk next to my slam,” he says.

So they try some more, as night settles in and the wind blows relentlessly.

At 8:10, 25 minutes after sundown, Gold hooks up again. Ten minutes later he has a 100-pound tarpon beside the boat, exhausted and defeated. Gold has his slam and Gaspeny cuts the fish free.

It will be a long, rough ride home in the dark.

“I want you to know, Arnie,” Gaspeny says, “I wouldn’t have done this for just anybody.”