The inshore waters of Cayo Cruz and Cayo Romano, where we spent our time, are startlingly beautiful. Curtains of light and dark race across white-sand flats while warm, clear blue water laps at your ankles. In six days on the water, we never saw another angler. The fishing possibilities stretch across thousands of acres of pristine flats. The fishing itself was easy at times, and tough at others. But I’ve found that steelheaders make the best traveling anglers–our expectations are naturally so low, we’re happy anytime we find a fish or two. And we found plenty more than that in Cuba.
But life–and the fishing–in Cuba is bound to change. On the cusp the Americanization that’s about to descend as embargoes are lifted and U.S.-Cuba relations are normalized, there’s much to consider. Today, at least in the rural areas we visited, there are hardly any cars, no gas stations, and very little commerce. Horses, bicycles and feet are the primary transportation options. One of our guides asked me, “Is it true that in the States, most families have their own car?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that most have more than one.
I was told that everyone makes the same amount of money, about $17 per day. Doctors make $24. When I asked if people wanted to make more, the reply surprised me: “Why? There isn’t anything to buy.” Property crime (at least in rural areas) is low, because everyone has the same stuff. The State owns all property and homes. To prevent “escape,” the northern coastline is largely off limits to Cuban citizens. I felt as though I were experiencing the last true experiment in socialism.
The positives are that Western-style consumerism, and all that goes with it, is largely absent. The pressure to strive, excel, get ahead that propel life in a capitalist society, if they were there, were not visible. In combination with the usual tropical indolence, this seems to free the people to relax, enjoy life and move at a slower pace.
On the other hand, without any monetary incentive to excel, excellence, as we define it, can be hard to come by. Without pride of ownership, the houses and properties lack maintenance and tend to fall into disrepair. The lack of simple “luxuries”–fishing line, for example–prove vexing to locals. And restrictions on personal freedoms we take for granted feel oppressive.
Cuba is about to change. The first direct flights from the U.S. will most likely begin arriving before the year is out. Access to Western products, media, and ultimately, lifestyle, will create disruptions and desires in Cuba that I doubt anyone can foresee. Which is to say, the time capsule that is Cuba today, with it’s horse-drawn buggies and ’56 Chevys lovingly held together with bailing wire and tape, is about to open. And Cuba, for better or for worse, will never be the same.
Permit are an obsession for many anglers, mostly because they’re nearly impossible to catch. Some people I know have spent thousands of hours and dollars without landing one. A couple months ago, I was telling my buddy Yvon that since I’ve spent very little time fishing tropical flats, and zero time chasing permit, catching one wouldn’t have the significance for me that it should. I simply don’t have the personal history to put it in context. “Oh, then you’ll catch one for sure,” Yvon said, “The worst people always catch the best fish.” And he was right. With no experience, no context, very little skill and complete beginners luck, this blind pig found not one, but two, acorns. That’s one of them above. Go figure.
Another thing I had no context for is the concept of a “Grand Slam,” which is to land a permit, tarpon and bonefish in the same day. But I happened to land the permit pictured above early one morning, and suddenly, the guide was in a whirlwind. He cranked up the motor and off we went to the tarpon spot. The blind pig strikes again: On the first cast, I hooked and landed a small tarpon of about 40 pounds. The fish leaped higher than my head seven times! Better to be lucky than good, I suppose. That’s me, above, getting my butt kicked by the “baby” tarpon. I can only imagine what a 100 pounder fights like.
Sadly for the guide, I did not complete the slam. It meant nothing to me, but I could tell he was disappointed we didn’t find the easiest part of the slam, a bonefish, that day. I was just stoked to have caught some cool fish. Fortunately, on other days, we found lots of bonefish in shallow water, and for me, walking around the flats on my own and casting to these fish was the most fun. Without the boat or a guide, I could work at my own pace and just kind of figure things out. Of course, I didn’t spot nearly as many fish, and I won’t say how much time I spent casting toward elongated coral chunks and fish-shaped rocks, but I had a blast. Pictured above is a nice bonefish I hooked in ankle-deep water.
One day, Yvon and I walked about five miles through shallow backcountry flats to find good numbers of extremely spooky bonefish in little saltwater ponds, streams and lakes. Yvon crushed these wary fish left and right with his new soft-hackle bonefish fly, while I had lots of follows and refusals with traditional patterns. I eventually broke down and had to ask to “borrow” a fly. When the tide went out, we found ourselves hiking on dry land where we’d been casting to bonefish earlier. Stay tuned for more from Cuba…
We interrupt the Cuba travelog for a brief commercial message: I will be at the Patagonia Portland store to talk about fish hatcheries and their impact on wild fish, fishing, public finances and larger environmental issues, next Thursday. There will be beer, food and other festivities to lighten the mood. If you’re in the area, please come by and check it out. We will now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. Stay tuned for more Cuba.
Cuba, of all places. I was lucky enough to spend last week aboard a big boat on the north coast of Cuba, as a guest of one of the great benefactors of wild salmon and steelhead. It was a gathering of salmon people: a commercial fisherman from Scotland, a guy who’s building a sustainable dry-land salmon farm in Nova Scotia, a leader of Pacific Northwest salmon conservation, and a handful of others, including my buddy Yvon, new friend Mauro, and…me. This was going to be interesting.
After a redeye from Seattle to Miami, a quick hop to Nassau, and another flight to Cayo Cruz, Cuba, we set out on a five-hour bus ride to the boat. We arrived at dusk, with warm tropical air washing away the jet lag, and great expectations for salmon talk, and the task at hand, fishing the flats. As darkness settled in, we took small skiffs out to meet the boat we would be living on for the next week.
In the morning, we were greeted with bright skies and water that vibrated with shades of blue and green I’d never even imagined. Paradise. For a coldwater, high-latitude fisherman from Puget Sound, it was overwhelming. And bright. Even with dark glasses, I couldn’t stop squinting from the sun, or smiling from the colors. The stoke was on. That’s Yvon below, as the hunt began. Stay tuned for more Cuba…
On our hunt for the wily pork buns, potstickers and shumai rumored to inhabit select regions of the Northwest, we were joined by the Bennett family–Josie, Marie and fellow fish guy, Brian–as we combed through the wilds of Seattle’s International District. Our quest led us to this secret “Location X” where we also scored the rare and delicious har-gow (shrimp dumplings) and some sticky rice, which was well hidden in dense leaves…
Sometimes you just have to get out of the woods and off The Rock, as Bainbridge Island is affectionately known, and go get some dim sum. Last weekend, the fast and decisive withdrawal of spraying permits for pesticides on coastal oyster beds seemed like reason enough to celebrate. So we stuffed ourselves with dim sum, visited with our friends, and enjoyed the beautiful weather as we strolled around the city. Well worth the effort.
Stay tuned…I think I’m going to have some cool stuff for you here shortly. And if it takes a little while, please be patient. Hope you are all well.