It is mid-afternoon and Rich is in the bow when William says, “Permit. Nine o’clock. Long cast.” Rich casts to the semiopaque water, and as the fly hits the surface, 8 or 10 permit emerge from the murk. There is no hesitation when the first one eats his fly.
The fish makes a screaming run along the edge of the mud, and then, like all permit, turns broadside to maximize its power. But the hook is well set, and William is soon grabbing the fish’s caudal wrist and hoisting it from the water. Rich is ecstatic. A lifelong jinx has finally been broken.
Like many lodges, Avalon has a few spots that hold resident baby tarpon, reserved for those who already boated a bonefish and a permit. The possibility of a grand slam is on everyone’s mind.
After a couple of fishless spots, William finds a tiny cleft in the mangroves, perhaps 20 feet across at the mouth and covered with overarching branches. Deep inside, where a tiny creek emerges, we see a flash of silver. Finally, after 20 minutes of testing the physics of fly lines against mangrove trees, one of the tarpon ventures far enough to spot Rich’s fly. A few minutes later, he earns the 476th grand slam taken at Cayo Largo.
The next morning we set up along the edge of a deep channel where the current is running strong, its deep azure shade confirming its connection to open ocean. We can see fish rolling, reassuring us that down below, tarpon are hunting for bait swept in with the current. My line comes tight on the second cast, and 40 feet away, the water explodes.
The resident tarpon at Cayo Largo are not big by Florida standards. Most are in the 30- to 60-pound range. But from my standpoint, that’s the perfect size, big enough to put a bend in a 12-weight and not so big that your partner is looking for a nap between innings.
The morning’s activity alternates between tarpon and bonefish. Just after lunch, I stick the best bone of the trip, an eight-pounder that far outfights the few larger fish I have caught in other places. We decide to look for permit. A second grand slam may be in order.
But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.
William takes us to a deep cut running between two flats. I miss a couple of tough shots and then a small school of permit appears along the drop-off. A good cast and the lead fish charges the fly. I strip-strike. Nothing. The drifting boat and charging fish created too much slack. I pick up and throw again, the fish turns, and the same thing happens. Two missed strikes from the same fish. William is beside himself.
He calms down when he sees the next fish. Two permit, right at the surface, moving toward us in deep water. These are not the schooling fish we have been seeing. They are the size of manhole covers, 25- to 30- pound fish. There is plenty of time to set up, and I drop the fly in front of their noses. I make a short strip, and one of the fish lights up and moves to the fly. The line comes tight, and I set the hook. William screams obscenities in at least two languages. A footlong barracuda has appeared from nowhere and stolen the fly from the permit.
Minutes later we see another school moving along the edge of the flat. Just as my backcast straightens behind me, the fish turn and head directly toward us. I try to make the adjustment, but drop the fly short. “Wait! Wait!” William says. The fish get closer. I twitch the fly, and the lead fish charges it. I feel the hit, but before I can react, the fish sees the boat and darts in another direction.
The three best chances of the trip, all in the space of 30 minutes, and with a grand slam in the pocket. Salao.
Bad Days Are Still Good Days
The next day the weather changes. The air is heavy and humid, and although we find tarpon and snook cruising a beach, nothing eats. We discover during our last three days that Cuba is like everywhere else. There are good days and slow days, although our slow days still include plenty of fish. We find recalcitrant permit following rays and along the edges of the muds. One shows an interest in my fly, but a bonefish snatches it first.
That last afternoon, we work the edge of a mud. William says “Big bone! Eleven o’clock.” I can make out only indistinct shadows, but the fly hits the right spot. William is excited. “He’s coming! He’s coming!”
The line comes tight, and once again we hear William’s multilingual collection of curse words. One of the other fish, about four pounds, grabbed the fly. “Man, the fish he stole that fly from was three times that size.” Salao indeed.
Rum, music, permit, tarpon, warm and charming people—what is not to like about Cuba? After fishing flats all over the world, it has become my new go-to spot. But next time I am going to stop in Havana and find a Santería priestess who knows a bit about curing salao.
Will Rice live in Alaska and is the author of Fly Fishing Secrets of Alaska’s Best Guides and co-author of Fly Fisher’s Guide to Alaska. You can see his photos at www.willricephoto.com.