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.