Stalking Cuban Bones
The following morning, after a breakfast of fruit, cheese omelets, and electrifying Cuban coffee, we boarded our chartered bus for the fifty-minute drive to Las Salinas. That drive took us through the village of Playa Larga and past the ever-present little groups of people standing around chatting on the streets, and others on bicycles, in horse-drawn buggies, in oxcarts, and in the occasional two-toned Ford Fairlane or fin-tailed Cadillac. After you pass through a park checkpoint, the road becomes a one-lane sandy track winding through pine and white-mangrove forest, then opens up to views of lagoons and swamp and resting flocks of flamingos, as bright as hibiscus hedges, and ends at a small dock, a few geriatric boats, a large thatched-roof, open-air shed where you rig up for the day, and more fishing than you could cover in a lifetime.
Even a lifetime of being poled by the indefatigable Lazaro—who has worked as both an angling guide and a ranger in the park since 1995, and who told me he often poles as many as twelve round-trip miles a day. On the two days I fished the flats with him, though, we never made it more than a couple of miles from the dock; there was no need to. Most of the flats we fished—wading some and poling others—were hard sand and turtle grass; the rest were marl or a yellowish stone. They ranged in size from an acre or so to twenty times that, and the many bonefish we found on them averaged between three and five pounds, though we caught more than a few bigger than that. Des had shots at permit too one day, and there were plenty of barracudas around.
Bonefish flats and their watery environs all look pretty much alike no matter where you find them. But for me, a sort of prelapsarian purity distinguished the flats at Las Salinas, and more than once I put down my rod for a while to better enjoy it. Lazaro and I had lunch the first day with Ethan and his guide on one of the countless cays that give those flats, immense as they are, a feeling of being broken into discrete keyholes and basins. During the morning we had seen flamingos, ibis, egrets, herons, terns, pelicans, and ospreys; and not a sign that a human had been anywhere near this coast before or since October 28, 1492, when Columbus declared it “the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen.” Ethan lives in Manhattan, about which no one is likely to say that, and to which he had to return the next day. This was his first day of bonefishing ever. And though it was hardly that for the geezer who lunched with him, the pleasures of the moment were equally fresh and vivid to both of us.
We got to the Bocas via an hour’s putter from Las Salinas in an often-patched twelve-foot rowboat powered by a crotchety 9.9-horsepower Yamaha outboard. The approach to the barrier island winds around cays, over dozens of flats, and across a wide stretch of deeper water full of bonefish muds. Along its nineteen-mile length, the island is divided by five channels that run from the open ocean on its south side to shallow water on its north. Each about a half mile long and 60 to 100 feet wide, these channels and the little creeks and bays that run off of them are 24/7 fish cafeteria lines—unless a strong south wind blows, as it did on our second day in the Zapata, when Lazaro and I went there.
Blowing off a turbulent ocean, that wind and an incoming tide reduced both the visibility of the water in the channels and the fish population in them to zero, and for four of our five hours there I might as well have been blind-casting on my lawn. Finally, around 2:00 p.m., the tide turned and the water began to clear. In the hour before we had to leave to return to the dock by the park-legislated 4:00 p.m. deadline, I jumped two tarpon out of small schools and saw maybe a dozen more, along with a big unhungry snook. On the boat ride back Lazaro told me about how good the fishing can be in the channels and on the island’s oceanside flats with a light north wind. And on our last day, Des got to experience exactly that. It was, he said, like fishing in an aquarium packed to the walls with tarpon, snook, jacks, cubera and mutton snapper, grouper, barracuda, sharks, and rays.
All four of our days on the Zapata were trophy angling experiences, but it was the third I would hang on my wall if I could find someone to mount it. On that day we boarded the bus with the guides for an hour-and-change drive northwest, at first along the highway to Havana, and then over a series of smaller and smaller dirt roads, past palm-thatched huts with pigs rooting in dirt yards, to the government’s deep-country fishing concession and military post on the Rio Hatiguanico. Tied to the dock was a big party boat used for river tours, and five or six roomy, well-kept fifteen-foot johnboats with center consoles and 25-horsepower outboards. I was in the mood for a little camaraderie, so I shared a boat with Richard in the morning and with Des in the afternoon.
From the dock, we followed a feeder stream for about fifteen minutes to where it joined the main river, the banks jungly with mangroves and palms. Ospreys and buzzards circled overhead, and kingfishers, herons, and flocks of sanderlings flushed out ahead of us. Buried in a virtually unpopulated area of the park, the Hatiguanico is a true wilderness river, one of the loveliest I have ever been on. When we idled into it, the breath hung up in my throat. From that point, the river flows some nineteen miles westward through virgin forests and swamplands to the sea, and I had an almost irresistible impulse to ditch my plans for the next few days and bribe somebody into floating, fishing, and camping me down the whole thing.
But from a strictly fishing point of view, there is no reason on this river to stray far from the dock. The Hatiguanico contains fair to good populations of snook, cuberas, and jacks, but it is primarily, and gloriously, a juvenile tarpon fishery. Though many are caught there between 20 and 40 pounds and a few between 60 and 80, the tarpon average 5 to 15 pounds (my favorite size for that fish). The river teems with them. Taking half-hour turns, Richard and I cast streamers on quick-sink tips into the mangroves along the banks, and to rolling fish in bays where the river widened from its normal 60 or so yards across to over 100. I fished a weighted Black Death, and all day long it was the right fly at the right time and place—a situation as sweet as it is rare for me. For about three hours in the afternoon, I put a tarpon in the air on about every third cast—including one of close to 30 pounds.
In fishing as otherwise, some days are diamonds, some are stone. In my experience they just about balance each other out—which means I probably have some rocky salmon days coming up this summer to compensate for the Hatiguanico. But I’m happy to take them.
Richard French is an excellent angler, companion, and trip host, and a world-class enjoyer of life, with a somewhat old-fashioned, good cook’s knack for creating that enjoyment with whatever ingredients come to hand. It is his custom on Zapata trips to hold an après-fishing cookout on the last day for both the guides and the sports in the big open-air shed at Las Salinas. While four of us were out on the flats, Juan Miranda—a good-natured Chilean who is the general manager/troubleshooter for Richard’s angling operations in Cuba—cooked up a huge pot of pork shoulder Cuban-style, with lots of onions and tomatoes. It was served with another big pot of peeled, boiled potatoes, a tomato-and-onion salad, and a cooler full of Cristal cervezas. All that was followed by two bottles of rum, some of the best cigars on the planet, and an operatically setting sun.
The guides Lazaro, Gilberto, Eduardo, and Juan Carlos each had his picture taken with his sport, with one another, and with all of us. Then they ate and drank some more. God knows they had earned it. At most bonefish destinations, guides make between $400 and $650 a day, and often do as much running as they do poling. Lazaro and his friends pole for eight hours every day and get paid by their government around $25 a month—less than 85 cents a day. Not that they’re complaining. Lazaro told me he couldn’t imagine doing anything else or working anywhere other than the Zapata Peninsula.
In Miami, New York, Toronto, and many other places, developers and other business opportunists wait like buzzards on power poles for the fifty-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba to lift. Given the way the world works, within a few decades there will most likely be a Hyatt on the Hatiguanico and a “bonefish destination” at Las Salinas. On the bus ride back to Playa Larga in the dark—after the rum had been drunk, the stogies smoked, the stories told—I just hoped I would have time enough to get my grandsons down to the Zapata when each of them turns ten, so they could experience it in the same way, and at the same age, I did.