How a Cuban Exile Changed the Trajectory of Fly Fishing

After fleeing the island as a teenager, Chico Fernández landed in Florida, where he would stumble into a trio of fishy friends, eventually quit his corporate job, and go on to make a lasting mark among anglers

Chico Fernández gives the game fish in Florida’s Everglades National Park a brief break.


Chico Fernández gives the game fish in Florida’s Everglades National Park a brief break.

Chico Fernández’s favorite everglades bird is the green heron.

“You know how he is always perched on the downward slope of a mangrove branch?” Fernández asks, as if everyone knows where green herons prefer to perch. That’s what he loves about the bird, he says. It stands with its head down and bill cocked toward the water, hunched over and at the ready, always prepared to thrust its beak toward an unsuspecting fish. Always ready, one might say, to make a cast.

Fernández stands on the casting deck of a flats skiff when he asks the question, firing it over his right shoulder to a big guy poling the boat forty yards off the Indian River Lagoon shore. Fernández holds a fly rod in his right hand and a fly in his left. He wears blue jeans and a Tilley hat. At eighty-four, he is spry and fit, and thanks to consistent tai chi and a decent diet, he can, say, still fish for giant peacock bass in remote Amazon rivers for hour after hour, seven days in a row. But age has bent him ever so slightly, so he stands ever so slightly stooped, as if he, too, is perpetually ready to cast.

Which he is, and has been for nearly all of his life.

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The pantheon of world-famous Cuban fishermen is not overly large. One is a fictional character, Santiago, Hemingway’s iconic Old Man. Another is Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s captain on his boat, Pilar, and the real-life inspiration for Santiago. The late Jose Wejebe is certainly on the list; the Havana-born guide and television personality was mentored by the likes of Stu Apte and Flip Pallot and rode a rocket ship to stardom after his show Spanish Fly debuted on ESPN2 in 1995. Sadly, he died in a plane crash just outside of Everglades City, Florida, in 2012.

Then there is the man born Jesús Manuel Fernández, known in marinas and tackle shops the world over simply as Chico. Over the past half century, the dapper, soft-spoken Miami resident has occupied the forefront of saltwater fly fishing. He has developed many flies, including the Seaducer, an early snook fly that is considered a breakthrough design, and the Bonefish Special, still used on flats everywhere. He has served as an ambassador for some of fishing’s most iconic brands—Sage rods, Hell’s Bay Boatworks, Nautilus reels, Costa sunglasses. In an era when television had just started broadcasting fishing shows such as The American Sportsman and Pallot’s The Walker’s Cay Chronicles, Fernández was crisscrossing the globe, knocking down world fishing records and writing and photographing for an astonishing trove of magazine articles and books.

And today, what he has done for more than sixty years is what he continues to do: fish like crazy, and translate for others what is so seductive, and confounding, and rewarding to the soul about the act of convincing a fish to eat a fly.

Fernández arrived in the United States in 1959, the year Fidel Castro became prime minister of Cuba after the overthrow of president Fulgencio Batista. Born in Havana, Fernández moved to the small coastal town of Manzanillo with his family when he was very young. He remembers falling in love with fishing when he was four and five years old, handlining small snappers and groupers from nearshore reefs. At some point his father connected with the Batista regime and grew to be a very successful businessman. The family moved back to Havana, splitting time between their home there and a soaring beachfront mansion in Playa Jibacoa. They had a chef, chauffeur, house staff—the works. His father hired an American to captain the family’s new sportfishing boat, and Fernández watched one day in astonishment as the man cast a fly, the fly line looping and rolling and unfurling overhead. “I knew,” he says, in his soft crooning voice, “that my life would never be the same.”

But he would soon have to leave his native country as part of the historic Cuban diaspora that took place during and after the Cuban Revolution. As a Batista supporter and friend, Fernández’s father and his various businesses were tied up in the old Cuban political order. He had to flee, Fernández says, or he would have faced grave danger.

When the family left Havana, they brought very little with them to Florida. Fernández’s father fled first, with Chico and his mother following a few months later. Nineteen-year-old Chico packed his Mercedes 190 two-seater racing coupe with jazz records, conventional fishing tackle, and his prize possession: an Orvis Battenkill bamboo fly rod. His mother brought a shoulder bag filled with a stash of emerald jewelry and Patek Philippe watches. They hopped a ferry that ran at night from Havana to Key West and met the rest of the family in Miami. No one in his family has ever returned.

What happened next is one of the great coincidences in sporting history. A few weeks after Chico arrived in Miami—or a few days, as the timing changes with the teller—he walked into a storied fishing and bait shop at the corner of U.S. 1 and Twenty-Seventh Avenue named the Tackle Box. It was a classic joint. Live shrimp, pinfish, and crabs were housed in repurposed concrete burial vaults. Sitting around were a bunch of Tackle Box regulars, including a young Flip Pallot, who remembers the day vividly.

“In walks this Cuban kid,” Pallot recalls, “speaking English with a heavy accent. At the time there were very few Cubans around, and he said he was new in America and wanted to meet somebody to go fishing with.” To Pallot, Fernández sounded like Ricardo Montalbán. “We all thought Chico was the coolest thing ever,” Pallot says, “and he and I have been the best of friends ever since.”

A collage of two images: A man at the front of a boat with marsh in the background; an osprey flies off with a fish.


On the bow and always on fish patrol; an osprey soars off with a fish breakfast.

Over the next few years, a foursome emerged from the Tackle Box gang that has little precedent in the fishing world. Pallot and Fernández were joined by John “Little John” Emery, who would become one of the most well-respected South Florida fishing guides before his tragic passing from skin cancer in the seventies; and Norman Duncan, an inveterate tinkerer and inventor who developed the Duncan Loop knot and had a full-blown rod- and reel-making shop in his garage. Fernández calls the group the Four Musketeers, and their exploits bordered on the epic.

While taking night classes at the University of Miami, the friends would practice fly casting in the school’s parking lot. They drove to the Florida Keys and fished for giant tarpon under the bridges that stitch the archipelago together. Five- and six-foot-long tarpon would stage in the shadow of a bridge, waiting for shrimp to ride the incoming tide. The young men discovered that if they stood on the bridge, timed their casts to miss oncoming traffic, threw a big fly, and let the tide carry it back under the bridge, the tarpon would strike.

“Hook an eighty-pound tarpon like that and you know who’s going to win,” Fernández says with a chuckle. “They would go down the current and jump a couple of times and sometimes you might lose the whole fly line.” At the time, fly lines cost eight bucks, he says. “Back then, you could easily go on a date and get lucky for eight dollars,” Fernández says with a grin. “So we had the idea to make a cheap fly line. We took a piece of 200-pound monofilament, tied it between two clotheslines, and sanded it into the shape of a weight-forward line. You could almost say we invented the intermediate fly line.”

A man holds a fuzzy fly that is green and white.


Fernández holds one of the many variations of his famous baitfish pattern.

Their bonds formed in a crucible of experimentation. Saltwater fly fishing was in its infancy. Equipment was rudimentary. There were rods, Fernández says, “that Godzilla couldn’t cast.” The four young men paired an obsession over gear with access to Duncan’s shop and helped forge the path for the emerging pursuit of big-game fly fishing.

“We put all of our time into fishing,” Fernández says. “You could not imagine how consumed we were with it. We were students of the physics of every aspect of fishing, and little by little we learned from the very building blocks. And there is a benefit when you learn that way. It beats being spoon-fed, to know the ‘why it works’ and not just the ‘how.’”

When Fernández mentions a particular fish species, he often pantomimes what it’s like to fight that specific fish on a rod. He wraps his hand around an imaginary cork handle and pivots from the waist as he simulates the action. For a jack crevalle’s head-shaking fight, he will jerk the rod up and down. A brown trout’s bulldog run has him bent over, intense, his hand held close to his chest. When speaking of a tarpon, he will point his thumb to the ground, as if he is putting the tip of the fly rod into the water, about to set the hook on the very beast he is discussing. This visceral connection to the act of fishing, this coupling of mind, body, and spirit, is emblematic of just how closely tied Chico’s entire life has been to the act of catching a fish.

In the early 1970s, Fernández went to work for the corporate office of Burger King, housed in a high-rise office in downtown Miami. He was, to put it mildly, a fish out of water, and after three years of suits and ties, he walked away. He wasn’t sure what lay in front of him; he only knew that it had to differ from what was behind. Throughout his brief corporate career, he’d never stopped fishing. He’d never stopped innovating. He was already being introduced as a celebrity angler.

Two men hold poles on a skiff in the ocean.


Guide Alex Zapata poles the skiff over promising water while Fernández remains at the ready.

“I shouldn’t have quit,” he says. “It was crazy. When I told my father I wanted to find myself, he shook his fist at me and said, ‘You are yourself! What the hell does that mean?’”

Fernández’s wife at the time, an international flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, wasn’t happy, either. Fernández remembers her looking him in the eyes and saying sternly: “Fishing for a living? You better make it happen.”

His first gig was writing for Pleasure Boating magazine. He made fifteen dollars per story, and Fernández was off and running. He fished and wrote. He fished and tested gear. He fished and taught fly casting. As his name recognition grew, tackle manufacturers began to send him gear to test and evaluate. Soon, he was charging a hundred dollars a day for his expertise. A big break came when Scientific Anglers asked him to try out a new bright orange fly line. Chico asked for double his fee, and got it.

He hosted fishing trips to Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand, all over the Bahamas, and the Yucatán Peninsula. Boat manufacturers turned to him with sponsorships, first Hewes and then Back-Country, whose owner went on to start Yellowfin Yachts. Clothing companies came calling. When a few folks from the heritage rod-building brand Fenwick started a new company called Sage, Fernández became one of the first to sign on as a product adviser and ambassador. He never made huge money, but fishing and hustling were the only two things he knew to put together that paid the bills, so he never stopped. He wrote books on fishing for bonefish and fishing for redfish. Sometimes he would pack up to forty-five weekends a year with fly-fishing schools, speaking events, or hosted trips.

And after so many years, “Chico is still a presence in the fly-fishing world,” says Al Keller, sales and marketing director for Hell’s Bay Boatworks, who also happened to be the big man on the poling platform when Fernández was marveling at green herons and busting mullet. Keller recently attended ICAST, the world’s largest sportfishing trade show, with Fernández, and couldn’t believe how many rod manufacturers, fly designers, and fans still flocked to the instantly recognizable Cuban. “People still want to know what he thinks about gear and innovations,” Keller says. “And he is never standoffish.”

Fernández was the nice guy without the big ego, and he pieced together a living and a huge amount of fame in a rather small world. Against all odds, he will say, it worked.


Fernández’s home in a south Miami neighborhood is as trim and trig as his own pressed shirts. It’s a low, shaded one-story house on a manicured lawn. Inside, there is zero clutter. Things are just so. On his kitchen counter, bags of chips, nuts, and crackers are carefully rolled up and secured with rubber bands. It’s not a house stuffed with mementos. There are a few oversize photos of Fernández with very large fish—tarpon and sailfish and the world-record forty-two-pound-five-ounce redfish he caught in North Carolina on twelve-pound tippet in the spring of 1981. Old Fin-Nor and Seamaster reels adorn a bookcase. But Chico doesn’t wear his fishing on his sleeve. It is a great love, and a great comfort, and the source of his employment. But the sounds of surf and rivers and singing reels are not the only soundtracks to Fernández’s life.

When he was a young teenager in Cuba, Fernández recalls, he saw a cartoon on television in which a large container ship was being tossed about by an ocean storm. A wooden crate loosened from the ship and fell into the ocean. The cargo crate washed up on an island and smashed into a large rock, spilling a saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and drum set onto the sand. The island natives picked up the instruments and immediately launched into a rocking big-band number. “It was jazz,” Fernández says. “And I instantly fell in love with that music. From a cartoon.”

A collage of two images: roseate spoonbills fly above trees; a black and white poster of a man playing guitar on a shelf stacked with books and fly reels.


Roseate spoonbills take flight; a shelf full of passions.

If there is a love to rival his passion for fishing, it is his love for jazz. At record shops, the young Fernández pored through bins of 33⅓ vinyl LPs, a relatively new invention in the music world. Later, a chance encounter sent his roots even deeper into the music. On a flight from Miami to New York, Fernández was sitting in first class when Dizzy Gillespie passed him on the way to coach. Fernández traded seats with a man so he could sit beside his hero, and the pair hit it off. They stayed in touch for years.

Ask him if his love for jazz is deeper than his love for fishing, and he puts his hands on his knees and leans forward in his chair.

A collage of two images: A man stands outside by a wooden canoe; a framed photo of a man holding a huge redfish on a boat.


Fernández at home with his beloved Merrimack canoe; the world-record redfish from North Carolina.

“I have the internal clock of a jazz musician,” he says, “not a fisherman. I can stay up until three o’clock in the morning, no problem. And I like to sleep late. I’m lucky that flats fishing requires sunlight on the water. It is a much better pursuit for a jazzman,” he says, laughing.

He looks out a window for ten seconds, fifteen.

“So, to answer your question, no,” he says. “But I have to think about it.”

In late 2022, Fernández joined a trip to the Rio Marié of the Amazon basin. It was an arduous journey, with two days of travel on each end of the fishing, separated by days filled with hours of casting heavy flies for big peacock bass. The fishing was off the charts, and the mother ship was a floating oasis of air-conditioning and fine food, but Fernández was more awestruck by the vast forests that canyoned the river. He convinced the local guide in his camp to take him and a few others from the group into the rainforest.

They clambered up a bank, overgrown and tangled, but inside the tree canopy, where little sunlight penetrated, the vista opened. Rivulets of water trellised the forest floor, and they spotted ten-inch wolffish and foot-long peacock bass. Some of the fish, Fernández says, looked as if Picasso had painted them. For a moment, he wished he had his small three-weight rod with him, but in the next instant, he was grateful that he did not. Walking in the rainforest was like meditation. Like his beloved tai chi. He had no motive other than to immerse himself in beauty and contemplation. Fernández spent seven days on the river, but his most cherished memory has little to do with fish. It is his time enveloped in the primal wildness of that forest.

“You cannot live for the moment of the strike,” he says, speaking of that instant when a fish suddenly and violently inhales or attacks a lure or bait. “You must live for the mangrove snappers and the turtle grass and the birds overhead. You must take the time to look for the eagle flying. You cannot miss the journey that brings you to the place where beautiful fish live.”

It makes him think of the transformation that seems to take place when people are introduced to fly fishing in salt water. In that juxtaposition of the extravagant and the sublime—the leap of a fish, the lightness of the rod—something happens when people catch a redfish, or tarpon, or bonefish on a fly rod. Every once in a while, Fernández says, someone will come through one of his fly-fishing schools. Perhaps the student is from Milwaukee, Fernández says, or somewhere like Milwaukee, and he stays four or five days and he attends the school and he hooks a hundred-pound tarpon and catches a redfish on his seven-weight fly rod and loses a snook in the mangroves. “Then the man goes back to Milwaukee and sells his house and comes down and buys a house in the Keys,” Fernández says. “This happens. I have seen it. And his wife is going crazy and saying, ‘What are you doing? What are you talking about?’”

She doesn’t understand, says Fernández. How could anyone? Her husband underwent a metamorphosis in the Florida Keys. One that changes people. One that changed Fernández when he first watched someone cast a fly. “The guy that left Milwaukee,” he says, “is not the guy that came back.”