Strip-Strip-Strip, Wait,…

April 14, 2018

In February, I got a phone call from my brother-in-law, Dave. He was extending me an invitation to join him and his party on a return fishing trip to Cuba. Dave fishes a lot of places and according to him, this was one of his favorite fishing destinations. I told him I would think about it but, what I thought about were reasons why I couldn’t go. Mostly all work related excuses. Meanwhile, Dave emailed me information on the fishing trip and it sounded wonderful. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I had to go!

The next couple of months I was busy tying flies of all sorts. Some were recommended by the outfitter, some were tied by friends and others were patterns I found online. It was fun and therapeutic tying flies for the variety of fish we would be targeting. There were streamers, shrimp, crab patterns, and an assortment of other flashy flies to catch the eye of a hungry fish or maybe just the eye of the angler.

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On March 30, with U.S.A. passport and Cuban visa in hand, I arrived in Havana, Cuba and joined Dave and his group. There would be seven of us leaving in the morning on a tour bus to Jucaro where a yacht awaited our arrival.

The ride to Jucaro would take about six hours. Once outside of Havana, we were swallowed-up by the country side. There were horse drawn carts and bicycles and many people along the way waving money at the bus hoping to catch a ride. The road was rough with many potholes, rutted pavement, and cracks along the way. It made sleeping difficult with your head against a constantly rattling window. I wondered how often the bus company had to replace tires and shocks. California roads had nothing on this place.

We stopped at a roadside rest area and I remember thinking how familiar this place felt, just like home in Hawaii. No, not tour buses stopping at tourist traps, I meant the weather. After all, it’s nearly the same latitude. I saw banana, sugar cane and mango plantations. I saw a man walking the streets with a fighting rooster tucked under his arm. I could feel my skin again and loved the fact that there was no static electricity discharges upon touching metal objects. There was one big difference between Hawaii and Cuba… I couldn’t understand anyone as the local language spoken was Spanish.

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Quick stop along the way for refreshments, souvenirs, and bathroom break.

We pulled into Jucaro, found our boat, met the crew and were soon leaving port for the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), an archipelago six hours to the south.

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Cuba Map

Each morning, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise, the smell of strong robust Cuban coffee and a great breakfast. The guides were lodged on a nearby island and would come to the yacht with their flats boats for breakfast, load up lunch and gear and depart for a full day of fly fishing the island reefs.

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Breakfast sunrise

Breakfast Sun

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Guides ready & waiting to start the day fishing
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Loading the flats boat for a day of fishing

The guides are trained for a couple of years prior to becoming guides. Bimba, the senior guide has 22 years under his belt. They were all very knowledgeable about where, when, and how to find and catch fish and the best rigging to use. The area is large and expansive with channels of interwoven mangroves throughout. It was amazing to see the guides navigate the area knowing where to go and how to get there without the use of any GPS navigation. There are no mountains to reference your location, just the sun and its daily trek across the sky, the wind direction and changes in tidal flow. Everything is flat except for the outline of mangroves on the horizon. I’m amazed at the vast ground we covered and the ability of the guides to run an outboard motor at high speed dodging shallow coral heads/rocks. Several times I found myself lifting my legs in the boat as if to help the boat miss rocks underneath it.

For those of you not familiar with this type of fishing, it’s all about seeing the fish first. Otherwise known as sight fishing. The guide motors the boat to a spot, shuts off the motor, stands on top of a raised platform in the back of the boat and pushes the boat around with a long pole. When he spots fish, he tries to get the fisherman (who is standing in the front of the boat) in position to make a cast. Often the fisherman can’t see the fish and simply relies upon the guide for directions such as where to cast and how far. If the fly lands in the right spot, the guide will then tell you when to start stripping the fly in the water.

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On the lookout for tarpon flashing as the sun catches them rolling in the water.

Now, I love fly fishing. I wish I got out more frequently to enjoy it. When I do, it’s usually in small streams where there isn’t a lot of distance casting. Here we are in the open sea with wide open water and a little bit of wind just to make it challenging. That’s why I normally started each day by telling the guide, “I’m sorry” as I stepped into the boat. Just so he knows ahead of time, I’m likely to mess up. Uh, scratch that, I’m going to mess up.

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Ray, looking for fish.

The guides want you to be successful. They work their tail off for you. Finding fish, maneuvering the boat into position so you have the best possible chance at making a good cast (and not hooking them). So, when the opportunity arises, the guide has pretty much done his part and now it’s up to you to do yours.

Guide: “Tarpon 11 o’clock, 70 meters. They’re coming. Maybe 10 fish. Do you see them? They are big fish. Get ready. Cast now. Long cast. More long. More left. Cast again. More left. Ahhhhhh, stop, they are gone. Let me see your line.”

The guide takes my rod and proceeds to cast 40-50 meters of fly line effortlessly and hands the rod back to me. “My friend, nothing wrong with the line, it’s you.” Then he starts speaking Spanish to himself. I’m pretty sure on several occasions he said something bad about my mother.

Me: “I’m sorry”

From time-to-time, the guides would check in with each other over the CB radio to see how things were going. This was of course strictly in Spanish. At least I’m fairly sure it was about the fishing and not comparing the performance of their clients in the boat.

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Bimba: “My friend, please put the fly in the water”

Our trip lasted a week and as our level of comfort and familiarity with each other increased so too did the teasing from the guides. I was making improvements or so I thought. Some of the more memorable comments I recall:

Leonardo: “Better, not good.”

Bimba: “Your flies are very pretty my friend but, not good for catching fish.”

Ray: “Tighten the drag. Is that all. Pfffttttt.”

Alexi: “It’s not the fly, it’s the fisherman.”

I can tell you practice casting is a lot different than casting to a fish that the guide has worked hard to find and get you in position for a shot. It’s kind of like a hunter getting “buck fever” when s/he sees a big buck, adrenaline is unleashed through his/her body, their heart races and they don’t remember how to breathe anymore. All that practice at the shooting range goes out the window if they can’t maintain their composure. According to the guides, that was a common observation. Clients would fall apart at the sight of big fish. I think I would’ve done better if the guide said nothing about fish and just told me to toss out a practice cast. Although that might be difficult for them, as they too may not be able to conceal their excitement.

Mid-day lunches were the only time we got a break from the intense sun. The guides would seek shade and head into the mangroves for a quick bite to eat. The local wildlife were accustomed to this daily visitation as you could hear scurrying noises getting louder as we settled down to eat. Lunches were huge and way too much for my appetite. I felt compelled to save some just in case… you know, Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway”. Yeah, I thought about that out there so many miles from the mainland with no communication, in a communist country… “Wilson!” At least I had a fishing rod and could catch something to eat… maybe.

Well despite my mess ups, the guides prevailed and found me stupid/hungry fish that would take my poorly presented fly. Everyone caught several species of fish throughout the week and it was a blast. The guides were very competent and they love what they do.

As the sun dropped out of the sky each day we were greeted with gorgeous sunsets and gourmet dinners. You just can’t underestimate the value of good food and what it does to a persons emotional state. The food was top notch. There also may have been some Cuban cigars and mojitos on deck.

A couple of times there were snorkeling adventures that presented themselves towards the end of the day. It was a welcomed relief to the hot weather and the clean clear water was awesome. The reef was beautiful and abundant with life. I felt myself aching for my Hawaiian sling. Later, we heard from those who came to the same area to SCUBA dive and they were extremely blown away by the rich species diversity and intact age classes of marine life they witnessed while underwater. According to them, it was a top diving destination.

Until this trip, I’ve never experienced a finger getting whacked from a screaming fly reel handle. That’s something a tarpon will readily do as it peels line off your reel, tail walking towards the horizon. Although my finger still slightly aches, it’s a pleasant reminder of a wonderful time I had in Cuba making new friends while catching a fish or two. Thanks for the invite Dave. This trip was definitely a wonderful memory maker.

Here are some items that I took with me that helped make the trip a success…

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4 thoughts on “Strip-Strip-Strip, Wait,…

  1. So.. you smoked one of those cigars?

    Like

  2. Damn Tod that sounds like a lot of fun. Again I have to live vicariously through you.

    Like

  3. Tod, WOW, what an exciting fishing adventure!

    Like

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