[Brickhead originally ran in the Summer 2010 issue of The Drake. For the all new Part II, click here. —ed]
QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO. HIS DOGS WERE torched. He'd forgotten to put sunscreen on his feet the day before. He had taken his wading boots off after a mile walk on the flats and just spaced it. His feet cooked on the deck for the rest of the day as he stood and stared, unsuccessfully, into the water looking for fish. Now, his white socks dried slowly around burnt toes as he stood on the bow of the panga. Today he didn't dare take them off.
It was early in the spring of 1981 and the world was a hot and tumultuous place. Earlier that fall, Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter, but the hostages were still in Iran. In New York City, Studio 54 had been closed for over a year. Most importantly, British Honduras was now called Belize and was on the verge of full independence. Rumors had been rampant about a treaty with the U.S., where any boat flying a Belize flag could be boarded and searched for contraband by the Coast
Guard. The heat was on, indeed.
As a simple, hard-working transporter of cocaine, the time had come for a move. He decided to shutter his small operation in Dangriga, move north to Mexico, and get a new start. He had "acquaintances" in Punta Allen. Now, when he had downtime from his business obligations, he also had new water to explore.
Staring out absentmindedly across the shallow water, his tongue licked at his thick mustache. He tasted the caked salt and squinted away a drop of sweat that pinched his eye. That's when he heard the turbulent, highpitched Spanish aimed his direction. He understood one word more clearly then the others: palometa. Then came the spanglish. "We git out, we git out," said his new friend, Isaha.
Isaha was a local fisherman with a boat. Isaha usually went out for lobster and jack but agreed to take this new gringo out for a cash fee. His words were an urgent whisper. They had spent a number of idle days on the water, looking. He followed Isaha as he quietly slipped into the green Caribbean waters of an area known as Tres Marias, named for the three islands that seemed equidistantly spaced, just to the south. As the two poled the flat throughout the day, the three islands had grown in size. They'd covered a lot of water.
He hit the ocean and it went quickly up to his stomach. This was a permit flat, but deep. The problems of the world and his enterprise left his mind as quickly as the big fish had materialized. They began quickly making their way toward the fish as it bobbed and slowly turned in the sea.
The most prominent features on the permit were its black markings and forked tail—both held his wide-eyed stare, standing out against the ocean bottom like a bright stripe of paint.
They arced around the fish, attempting to position the wind against their backs.
"Slow, slow," said Isaha. The subsistence fisherman and the sport angler got within fifty feet of the fish. One of his white socks slipped from his foot and was eaten whole by the ocean.
"Do you see?" asked Isaha. Sock gone.
"Yes," he responded. It was all business now. He was locked on. There was no way
to miss the fish, and he would not allow a misplaced sock to break his stare.
"OK, move round till you get good shot," whispered Isaha.
"Yes," he thought. He felt like a robot. He tasted the salt on his upper lip again and it stung his tongue this time. Things seemed to be moving fast yet going in slow motion—as people sometimes describe a car wreck.
He knew the chances of seeing the permit eat were slim, and that the smallest misstep or technical mistake could send the 25-pounder off the flat and back to the blue hole in a matter of seconds.
He knew all of this only intuitively because he had never caught one. During his downtime in Belize over the years he'd cast at many of these fish without success.
He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out through his mouth. He did it again and repeated his new mantra: "Do not fuck this up."
He repeated this phrase in his head again. Then another breath, slower this time, and with the rhythm of the long, silent steps he took along the bottom.
He continued doing an end-around on the bobbing permit, going unnoticed. At times the water pushed up to his rib cage and his elbows dipped into the water. Isaha suddenly was at his side again. His feet were bare and clearly visible on the grey bottom.
"Wait," Isaha said. He stopped dead in his tracks. He looked down to see where the 70 feet of fly line was, hoping that it wasn't wrapped around his legs or in some type of salty bird's nest. To his surprise, it wasn't. It trailed behind him in a tight, 35-foot loop.
"You steeel see him?" asked Isaha. His head snapped up. His eyes squinted through the sweat and sunscreen and focused on where the fish should have been. The aviators on his nose were beginning to collect condensation.
The fish was gone. He willed the large, forked tail to reappear but it would not.
"No," he said. Panic. He had taken his eyes off the fish and now... no more fish. A simple mistake, but the kind that destroys these opportunities.
"There, there," spat Isaha. "Nixt to da rock, da white spot. Point yer rod." Hepointed all nine feet toward a white spot on the bottom of the flat fifty feet from where he stood. He felt like he was in a tunnel. Isaha reached up and touched the cork of his rod handle and made a slight adjustment to the right. His arm was outstretched and his shoulder was pushed against his right ear. And there he was, as big as life itself. Big permit.
"You see now?" asked Isaha.
"Yes," he said. There was no way he could miss this fish now. The permit had turned and was facing him so he couldn't see the big tail. He could see his head—it was as wide as a large masonry brick. "Brickhead," he thought.
"You cast farther now. More left," said Isaha. He took another deep breath and began to work line out. He had a passable double-haul in good conditions but add in the deep water and the cross wind, and everything immediately went to shit.
His first cast wobbled and folded twenty-five feet from him—twenty-five or thirty feet short of the fish.
"No, no, no. You strip in now!" said Isaha. "You see him or not?"
"Yes," again, like a robot. I see Brickhead, he's right there in front of me, he thought to himself. The fish was even bigger then he originally thought. He stripped frantically to fix his bad cast and start over. A fresh new cast. Reboot. All sins forgiven.
His second cast miraculously punched through the wind. The loop was big and awkward and it still wobbled, but it somehow delivered the crab five feet to the left of the fish.
"OK, good. You wait," said Isaha. He sounded happy, happier then he'd sounded in days. The two stood motionless. He could not see his fly now but he could still see the fish and knew in his heart that the presentation did not spook him.
"Long steady strips, that is the way they like it," he told himself.
"OK, es-streep," commanded Isaha. One long strip, followed by another. The fish immediately reacted. There was no mistaking this. He moved two or three feet toward the fly.
"He sees it... es-streeeeep," hissed Isaha. It was as if Isaha was perched upon his shoulder, whispering methodically in his ear. The drama really began to build, and quickly reached a deafening crescendo of manic whispers. The permit moved straight toward his fly and Isaha continued to hiss commands.
"Es-streeep... es-streeeep." The permit closed the gap between himself and the fly. He moved from five feet to three feet, then three feet to two. It was going to happen. The permit was slowly moving toward the angler and his guide.
He was no longer breathing. Just long strips. He was focused. Isaha continued to hiss into his ear and everything around him melted away. Everything except his fly and Brickhead. He could now see both fly and fish.
He could see the permit's eyes, both of them clearly. He waited to see his mouth open. He waited to feel that slightest hick-up in the long strip. He waited for that slightest bump that signaled the connection. He willed the permit's mouth to open and eat. "Eat. Eat you fucker, eat!"
"Es-streeeeeeeeep," Isaha was almost squeaking at this point. The fish was less then 15 feet from the two of them.
And in one strikingly clear moment, before his wide eyes and tight jaw, Brickhead refused the fly, turned, and headed toward Punta Allen.
He delivered one more frantic cast to recapture the magic, but he knew in his heart it was over.
Both socks were now long gone. And so, too, was Brickhead.