Stalking Cuban Bones

Eric Kiel
by Charles Gaines - Cuba - June/July 2012

Few spots in the world offer better flats fishing than the waters off of Cuba. Just don't expect any amenities

>Check out the bonus photos from the writer's fishing trip and watch a short video of bonefishing in Cuba's Zapata Peninsula

Over three days in Havana, I had felt pleasantly locked in a 1950s time warp. Now I was fishing in one. I stood in the tiny V-shaped bow of a ten-foot fiberglass pirogue kind of thing. It was old and green, its only engine a wiry little guy in the stern named Lazaro, who poled the miniature skiff along at a handsome clip with a weathered driftwood stick. Over a million acres of virgin swampland and over 100,000 acres of prime bonefish grounds surrounded us. Somewhere out there, each in a similar skiff, were mis amigos Ethan, Des, Richard, and Eric, and no one else. Not another boat of any kind. The nearest condos, Jet Skis, and Margaritaville T-shirts were ninety miles away in Key West. And as Lazaro poled us up to the morning’s first flat, putting to wing a pair of white ibis, I felt ten years old again.

I was that age when I caught my first bonefish, in June 1952, fishing with my father out of the old Walker’s Cay Club in the Bahamas. We fished with spinning rods, hooks baited with conch, and no sunscreen from a rowboat powered by a guide poling with driftwood. The club slept six or eight people in concrete bunk rooms. Dinner was eaten
with the guides, whatever fish you or someone else had caught that day. The generator went off at ten, and we shared the little saltwater swimming pool with a three-foot blacktip shark named Hank.

These days such a place would not pass for what’s known as a “bonefish destination.” The myriad of these in the Bahamas, Belize, Venezuela, the Seychelles, and elsewhere are, almost without exception, stylish lodges featuring “island gourmet cuisine,” frequented by an international army of garrulous fly-rodders clad in Orvis and Patagonia. Since 1952, I’ve put in my own tours of duty at plenty of these places, enjoying most of them and coming to love a few. I have no problem with working showers and forty-thousand-dollar bat-out-of-hell skiffs. But after you’ve been to enough of them, modern bonefish destinations start to blur into a characterless, if-it’s-November-this-must-be-Abaco whole; and over the years I’ve longed to pass through a wormhole back to something like the Walker’s Cay Club—a place with enough unmistakable there there to make it impossible to wake up and have to spend a moment remembering exactly where you are in Bonefish Nation.

The Zapata Peninsula is on Cuba’s southwest coast, some two and a half hours’ drive from Havana. At 1,745 square miles, it is Cuba’s largest maritime wilderness and by far the vastest swampland in the Caribbean. The peninsula is very lightly inhabited by humans, and a chunk of it the size of Delaware, known as the Zapata Swamp National Park, is protected from poaching and commercial exploitation. This jewel of a bird-watching, diving, beaching, and fishing resource has the good luck to be in Cuba—which under Castro has, perhaps surprisingly, locked up 22 percent of its land under some form of environmental protection, among the highest of any nation; and where (to date, anyway) there is little if any capitalistic incentive to develop it.