Category Archives: Fly Fishing

How To Make Cuban Coffee

The convenience store at the gas station had an aromatic little kitchen tucked into the corner, behind the registers, so there was no way to resist buying an empanada.

I have heard two working theories about the prevalence of spices in meat dishes of tropical origin. But whether the spices harbor antibiotic properties or trigger cooling perspiration seemed beside the point: I’d already built a sweat from walking the canal perimeter.

peacock water
Hit them where they live.

I like to fish the culverts and the dead ends where the water is a mirror that shatters upon impact, after the fish jumps out of it to escape what’s fighting against it only to be pulled back under by gravity. Five minutes later it is a mirror again. (Thank the miracle of surface tension.) The next interruption comes from the far gentler landing of a size two ensconced in craft fur. It causes tiny ripples to pulse outward in concentric circles.

Fresh water is the most under-appreciated aspect of the Florida experience. (They wanted to drain the entire swamp in the 19th century, the sonsabitches.) But there’s also food. Key lime pie made with real key limes, moros y cristianos, ropa vieja, country grits and collard greens, Bahama bread and cracked conch and grilled pompano that your neighbor gave you.

The trick to Cuban coffee is the espuma–the foam they make with sugar and a little just-percolated espresso. This little cafe next to a barbershop in Miami Beach makes it perfect. They pass it over the counter with four plastic shot glasses but I just drink it straight from the styrofoam cup.

Hey, It’s World Pertry Day

I follow the PEN America Center on Facebook and the organization posted this great quote last week:

“To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

― Galway Kinnell

Poetry gets a bad rap for being soft, or whatever, but it stuck for me in college because of a professor I had named Peter Balakian who was such a cool cat in that he liked watching the NY Giants and fishing for fluke and was friends with Ginsburg and Derek Walcott and showed there’s no one way or the other you have to be. Plus he touted Bob Dylan as a great American poet.

On that note: He’s talking about songwriting, but this quote from Steve Earle in the Nashville episode of Sonic Highways struck too in how words can work in the way Kinnell expressed it. Earle said,

“The only part of your experience that anybody gives a shit about, is the experience that they go, ‘Oh, yeah, that happened to me and that sucked..or, that happened to me and it was great.”

With that in mind here’s a couple links to some people putting it down about fishing. A couple are not poems in the technical sense but to me they read like poetry:

Welcome To Texas

North and South

The Traveler

Technically Salmon

Wants and Needs

Solitaire for Two

 

Transaction

The fish on the edge
of the weeds
is not thinking about me
in the same way
that I am about it.

Unless it felt the vibration
of my footsteps
on the bank
it is not thinking about me
at all.

There is no apotheosis
in making the loop
unfurl over the surface
of the water.

But I like the spike
of electricity
that shoots through the back
of my head
in the instant between
when the fish meets the fly.

And I like the kinetic energy
in the high modulus carbon fiber
when the line comes tight
in my hand.

The reasons for this
lie encoded deep inside
double helix patterns
assembled in strands
born of ancestors
from before the era
of recorded history.

The fish has it, too,
which is exactly why
it explodes in ambush
on my mimic that twitches
past it.

And why, after,
it uses every cell
in its body
to move fast away
from death.

Ghost of the Hippocampus

It was an overshoot, a lousy cast, and it scattered the fish but they quickly regrouped and the guide told me to keep stripping the fly and two started competing for it and one beat out the other and then I had to clear my line.

I remember that moment in Andros South because, like a lot of my fishing, it was mechanically less than perfect but the connection still packed a physiological charge, like lightning seeking a path to ground. And because, for whatever reason, it was the last time I felt and saw a bonefish eat a fly.

That happened about five years ago. Before I caught my first bonefish, in 2005, it seemed like such an important thing to be doing, to need to have done, that now it seems odd that it took someone else’s recent post about Andros South to realize that somewhere along the way, fishing for bonefish transitioned from something I do to something I did.

boneflies2

There are plenty of things I used to do, like play ice hockey or drive stick shift, but fly fishing is something I still do, and probably the thing I have done for the longest amount of time. But what to make of the parts of it stuck in the past tense?

Maybe it circles back to what it all is to you in relation to everything else. Is fishing linear, a list of accomplishments to check off in succession? (That’s a hard thing to quantify anyway–in 1999 I caught a blue marlin in Hawaii but that qualifies as an experience rather than an achievement.) Or is it more of a fluid thing with ebbs and flows or does it evolve into  Wordsworthian spots of time?

Either way it’s not like “did” in this case has complete finality because there’s still the attainable possibility of “will do.” I don’t know when or where yet, but one day a bonefish will swim onto a flat,  unaware that it is moments from mistaking my fly for a fleeing shrimp. When that happens, I’ll ride that lightning.

bonefish-flat

BOOKS: My Life In Fishing by Stu Apte

I had heard and read that Stu Apte was a pilot, first for the Navy and then for the old Pan American airlines, and when I interviewed him for a Midcurrent.com article about the late George Hommell, I remember thinking, “That’s the kind of voice I’d want to hear over the intercom at 35,000 feet.”

He sounded confident and direct over the phone, with a hint of military cadence, and when he started telling stories about his pioneering fishing experiences in the Florida Keys, I just shut up and listened.

That’s the same way I felt reading through Apte’s new book My Life In Fishing, ($29.95, Stone Fly Press). It’s a collection of 38 short essays where Apte tells anecdotes collected during his life chasing fish.

my-life-in-fishing

There are stories of Apte fishing for snook with Ted Williams, traveling to Costa Rica with Curt Gowdy, and hosting the ex-president Harry S. Truman on a bonefishing trip that also involved the former first lady, a full bladder and an open livewell lid.

There’s the story of a chance encounter with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba that led to mojitos, of being pulled into the water by Joe Brooks’ record tarpon, of wade fishing for largemouth bass in the Everglades….The whole collection is fun to read.

The best thing about the book is the brevity of each individual story. You could imagine Apte in his guiding days, entertaining clients with such stories while poling around for a shot at a big tarpon.

On that note, I always love hearing the stories of these early anglers figuring out the tackle and techniques to land big silver on a fly rod . In one chapter, highlighted in a pull quote, Apte says, “I am never happier than when I’m prospecting the Florida Keys flats for tarpon, fly rod in hand.”

Although I must admit when I read that quote it reminded me of an  episode of Andy Mill’s “Sportsman’s Journal” show from the old Outdoor Life  Network. I remember Apte fighting a tarpon from the bow of the boat and Mill asking something along the lines of, “Is there any better feeling in the world?”

“Yes,” Apte deadpanned. “Sex.”

You could say Apte was right on both counts.

The Alone Experiment

My friend Todd told me about this Swedish YouTube show called Experiment Ensam, where the protagonists conduct a social experiment by doing communal activities alone. He sent it because of the most amazing episode of the show, where Bob Dylan performs for an audience of one. That is insane.

But the series of YouTube episodes, which also involve doing things like walking on coals and karaoke, brought me back to my personal fishing habits, especially of the past  year. Recently, on many of the days where I  found time to fish, I fished alone. Due to whatever circumstance (and for God’s sake don’t register this as a complaint) most of my fishing came in stolen moments–times where I slipped out with a rod and a fly box and took joy not necessarily in the catching but just in being able to do it at all.

I posted several years ago about the virtues of solitude. I still dig it.

There is also no doubt that part of the appeal of the fly fishing community is taking part in the fly fishing community. Is fishing alone worth it? Is there value in experiences that are not shared experiences, that live and die within you? I say, Yes.

But there’s this new twist: In this era of social communication, does fishing alone and then posting about it constitute a shared experience? Maybe. After all, our man’s “solo” experience with Bob Dylan has (as of this typing) 502,420 views. But then again, according to this Rolling Stone article about the video, he refuses to watch it.

He doesn’t want to ruin it in his mind.

This One Time in Cuba

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When the rain stopped the tarpon started running along the edge of the mangroves in numbers so thick they looked like they were being poured into the water, shimmering in the current like a silver mudslide.  They were small, but I had never hooked a tarpon on fly prior to that moment, so I didn’t care. That I was there at all, about to cast a fly in the back reaches of Rio Hatiguanico in the southwestern portion of the island of Cuba…that was enough.

The news that we are normalizing relations with Cuba brought the memories of that trip rushing back: An expedition into Cuba as it emerged into the 21st century, still trapped in a geopolitical time warp that made little sense even in the spring of 2000. This was not supposed to be a fly fishing trip. I went there legally, on assignment for my employer Boating Magazine to cover the 50th Anniversary of the Hemingway International Billfish Tournament,  started by Hemingway in 1950 and still recognized by the International Game Fish Association.

We went by boat from Key West and sprinted across the Straits of Florida. Our craft was a 35-foot Donzi center console with triple Mercury outboards and bright day-glow graphics. When we entered Cuban waters we got stopped by a gunboat with a high-caliber machine gun mounted on a turret at the bow. They wanted to know why our boat was purple.

We arrived at Marina Hemingway and the customs agents asked if we wanted our passports stamped. You could say no–half the boats in the marina were Americans who came by way of the Bahamas or Mexico. But my being there was legit, I wanted the stamp. Mostly because no one else I knew would have one.

A man approached us on the docks and handed us his business card. It read: NAME REDACTED, and in quotations under his name, “Whatever You Need.” I still have the card.

There were Americans there for the tournament for various purposes that were legal in the eyes of the US Government. There was a U.S senator on a fact finding trip, a restaurateur from Arkansas who was a friend of Bill Clinton, a humanitarian group distributing educational supplies to local schools, and a reporter from The Miami Herald who was there incognito.

We had to pay cash for everything since we couldn’t use American credit cards but everyone accepted American paper money. We took cab rides in American cars from the 1950s and Eastern Bloc cars with weird dashboards and bastardized amalgamations of Studebakers and Trabants cobbled together to run. The cabs would take us  to paradores in Havana and we would enjoy table service in the living room of someone’s home.

Nobody mentioned Castro by name. In fact nobody mentioned him at all. We were told that locals would touch their chin to signify the bearded one. The only political statement anyone made to us referred to the expatriates living in Miami. It was about the idea that when Cuba one day became liberated, the expatriates expected to reclaim their old land. In an unguarded moment, a Havana resident talking to us said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

We did not feel watched. We could move through Havana rather freely except for once when we tried to enter a town square and were turned away by police. “Just for Cubans,” they told us.

We went to Finga Vigia and took pictures of Hemingway’s boat, the Pilar. We drank at La Bodeguita Del Medio and El Floridita and met Hemingway’s boat captain Gregorio Fuentes, who was 102 at the time. We had cigars at Hotel Nacional and listened to the house band play “Oye Como Va.”

We paid cash for a rental car and watched a Cuban Beisbol Series game at the stadium in Pinar Del Rio between the home team and Santiago. We unwittingly gave a beer to a missionary from Saint Louis who’d been sober for years and set him off on a bender. We were mistaken for major league scouts at the stadium. (The arena did not have beer and hot dog advertisements but slogans written in Spanish that translated to things like, “No obesity and sedentariness.”)

We had an off day and I wanted to go fly fishing. The recognized place for that is Jardines de la Reina, but that was too far afield for a day trip. I asked the concierge at the Marina Hemingway and she gave me the number of an ornithologist who studied the resident and migratory birds of the Zapata Peninsula. He could take me fishing. I called him on the phone and he spoke English. His name was Osmany and he could take me by boat on the Rio Hatiguanico for $75.

We rented another car (a Hyundai!) with cash and drove along the Autopista until we exited to head due south. The town of Playa Larga, at the north end of the Bay of Pigs, houses an International Bird-Watching Center, which is where we presumed Osmany worked. We picked him up in town and he directed us along local roads to pick up a second man he called Señor, who hopped into our car carrying a six pack of Cristal beer and a bottle of rum. Señor did not speak English but he smiled and held them aloft to us.

We drove west until we reached a pounding dirt road leading into the Zapata National Park. We finally reached what looked like a single-room house sticking out of the foliage on the banks of a canal. A woman came out of the house and offered us little cups of Cuban coffee. Señor jumped into the shallow water and pulled two green skiffs out of the reeds. Each skiff had a 10-hp Yamaha outboard and he yanked the pull cords and we stepped into the boats.

We pulled away into the tributary and headed along the Rio Hatiguanico as it flowed West into the Gulf of Batabaño. I showed Osmany my limited saltwater fly box and he picked out a yellow and white clouser and I tied it to my tippet. The little house on the canal would be the last sign of human activity, other than our two boats, that we would see.

The dense mangroves and tree canopies made the river’s shorelines seem impenetrable, reminiscent of the 10,000 Islands in the Everglades but with no channel markers or chickees. We flushed thousands of birds and Osmany started naming them. (I wrote some of them down once but have since lost the list.) We saw a tocororo–the Cuban national bird.

We stopped at a point along the mangroves and the water was so clear I could see several snook swimming along the submerged roots. The water held no tannins to darken their skin and they looked like sleek chrome missiles. I cast to the largest one and it turned to my fly and, before I could gain control, ran my leader into the roots.

We drifted and spotted a pair of jack crevalle swimming and I cast to them and one ate the fly and pulled the boat downstream. It finally tired and we released it and watched it swim away.

Living for a time in Florida I grew used to storms appearing out of nowhere so when the skies darkened over the swamp I knew we would get wet. We could see the sheets of water moving down the river and Osmany fired up the engine to outrun it but we could not. He and Señor aimed the skiffs into the mangroves, which held the deluge to a shower but we still got soaked. Señor threw us cans of Cristal and we drank them in the rain. When we finished the beer he cut a can in half and filled the halves with rum and handed one to me.

“In Cuba we drink rum for breakfast, rum for lunch, rum for dinner,” Osmany told me and I passed him the half-can of rum.

The rain stopped and we eased back into the river but Osmany didn’t start the engine. He grabbed my fly box and pulled out my last yellow fly–a yellow and white Deceiver. We sat there drifting and Osmany didn’t speak but he had a twinkle in his eye. “My friend,” he finally said. “The time is now.”

We heard them first, like a liquid stampede, and that’s when we saw the stream of silver. I cast along the edge of it, like I would have to a striped bass boil, and a small tarpon peeled off from the flow and ate it. He quickly changed directions and started running out the line on deck and soon he was reversing the reel and then I felt it the split second before it happened–he was going to jump.

The little tarpon rose into the air and fell back down and dashed toward the mangroves and jumped again and switched directions towards the open river and I breathed a sigh of relief–I would not lose my first tarpon. At that moment, the geopolitical status of this country–or anywhere else in the world–didn’t matter.

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