Schools of permit, bonefish, and tarpon revive one angler’s grand-slam dreams in Hemingway’s waters.
[by Will Rice]
WHEN GROWING UP IN A STATE WITH A POPULATION THE SIZE OF IDAHO’S, the supposed six degrees of separation between any two people in the world dwindles to two or three, and on the night Ernest Hemingway died near my home, I discovered there was only a single degree separating the two of us. Partly because of that illusory connection— The Old Man and the Sea was the first serious literature I read—Cuba has been on my bucket list since long before the bucket became an impending reality. So when the opportunity arose to finally travel there, I jumped at it.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
I called my friend, writer Rich Chiappone, who has a serious love–hate relationship with permit, and tried to persuade him to join me. His response was that permit are the only fish to have evolved a middle finger, and he had been on the receiving end far too many times. But it was January in our home state of Alaska, and I knew he had visions of palm trees and white sand beaches. When I told him that Avalon, which runs the Cuban fishing programs, had taken over 500 permit on a fly it developed specifically for the waters we would be fishing, he thought for a minute and said, “When do we leave?”
Fast-forward a few months, and a lot of paperwork, to where we’re waiting in Mexico City for a flight that will ostensibly take us to Havana, Cuba, although the Aeromexico website reads “destination unavailable.” Cuba is apparently still terra incognita.
In a Foreign Land
Havana is a city trapped in an apparent time warp. Horse-drawn carriages, immaculately restored old Chevys and Buicks, and egg-shaped, three-wheeled taxis share busy streets with massive tour buses and strolling Cubanos. Every bar has a live band, and most street corners seem to host a couple musicians. An Afro-Cuban beat provides a soundtrack to the city. Artists line the blocks-long embarcadero, families fish off the malecón breakwater, and a collection of leaky wooden skiffs, indistinguishable from the one that carried Hemingway’s old man, lies at anchor under the cannon of a Spanish-era Moorish castle. It is a fascinating and once-beautiful city, fallen into serious disrepair.
But Havana is not our destination. We are heading to Cayo Largo, a string of islands 50 miles off the southern coast of the main island, surrounded by vast flats that give promise of tarpon and snook, permit and bonefish.
This is pure tourist country, lined with resorts and white sand beaches. For someone whose fishing accommodations usually consist of a tent or cheap motels, it’s all a bit surreal. Instead of drinking beer with scruffy guys in need of a shave, we are surrounded by middle-aged Europeans who have spent an unhealthy amount of time in the sun. It’s not an all-beach crowd, though. The Norwegian guy checking out of the room next to us shows us his tattoo celebrating a super grand slam caught here several years prior, and a photo of the 30-pound permit he caught the day before.
Mauro Ginevri, who runs the Cayo Largo fishing program, greets us on our arrival, and after lunch, delivers us to the dock of the marina, where Avalon has its base of operations. We are introduced to our guides, rig our gear, and receive a small selection of Mauro’s creation, the Avalon permit fly. It is an odd-looking thing, with a keel of brass beads and strips of rabbit protruding from the sides like furry outriggers. It represents a shrimp, which means you fish it with a strip. Unlike with crab patterns, the permit do not have time to count the legs, or whatever it is they do. It is the primary reason Cayo Largo has developed a reputation for better-than-average permit fishing success.
Our guide, William Guanche, speaks perfect English, has a great sense of humor, and has the focus of an apex predator. Our first morning starts with a long run across miles of gorgeous flats. An hour later, William stops at a place indistinguishable from the waters we passed. I take the bow, and almost immediately blow a decent shot at the first permit of the trip. Ten minutes later, William says “tarpon,” and I switch rods. The tarpon, about 50 pounds, slides three feet under my twitching black and purple toad. “You got a slow sink line for that rod?” William asks.
The spare spool isn’t in my boat bag, so we move out to the reef that guards the island from the open waters of the Caribbean. It is live coral—the healthiest reef I have seen in decades. A small swell breaks just along the top as we pole the shallow water along its inside, looking for the schools of tarpon that often cruise the inshore shallows.
They are not here today, so we leave the open water and motor through a maze of mangrove tunnels, pushing branches aside and sliding over submerged logs, and spooking heavy-bodied snappers. We emerge on the far side of the island in a series of glass-surfaced lagoons. Baby tarpon cruise along the shore, moving in and out of the roots. When we can get the fly to them, they are aggressive and as aerially inclined as their larger cousins, silver explosions against the dark shadows of the mangroves. Rich takes a big snook, his first. One hundred yards farther, William points to a collection of sticks and says “snook.” He keeps directing my cast until one of the sticks eats my fly and proceeds to wrap me on a mangrove root. All in all, it is a great start to the week.
The following morning we stay closer to camp and fish along the shoreline. Mangrove shoots jut a few inches above the surface, a single leaf, maybe two, sprouting from the top. They are spaced 5 or 10 feet apart, just enough room to find a casting angle to get a fly well inside. And there is good reason to make those casts. Tails flash, dorsal fins split the surface, and broad backs bulge the water as big bonefish, singles and doubles, search for their morning meals. Some hookups result in drag-screaming runs to open water; others create a cat’s cradle of line woven through the shoots. No fish weighs less than four pounds.
By late morning, the tide shifts and we head out into open flats, three or four feet deep. The water is crystal clear, but we can see in the distance what appears to be a large submerged sand bar. In fact it is a mud, perhaps four acres of milky water, by far the largest I have ever seen.
We pole along the edge of the mud, a long cast from where the opaqueness shades into a translucent blue. Unlike the typical blind casting into the murk, we are sight-fishing. The bones are on the bottom, too deep to see, but the permit stay high in the water column, appearing and then disappearing along the milky edge of the mud. There are a lot of fish. At first we agree to switch positions whenever the caster gets a shot. But it quickly becomes evident we would be jumping up and down much too often. Three shots and done, be ready to cast as soon as you step foot on the deck.
They move fast, and casting to them is like pass-shooting doves, snap shots at twisting, deceptive targets. Most are at the edge of our casting range, reachable if we have the self-control to wait until our backcast straightens all the way behind us, but moving so quickly that permit fever is rampant. William is ruthless in his criticism of our screwups, and they are many. We set records for the number of ways we can avoid a hookup, and when we do get it right, the fish refuse to eat; in other words, typical permit fishing, albeit more intense than any previous experience.
All things end, though, and too soon the parade of permit passes. Sandwiches and beer make their midday siren call. Eager to find another mud, we sit on a beach, flicking bread to a pack of ravenous iguanas.