Why wouldn’t ya throw?
Standing on the casting deck of the Dolphin flats skiff as our Cuban guide, Keinlert, poles us across seemingly endless ocean flats in search of permit, I start to see the shapes of fish, a huge mixed school—some flashing silvery white, others dark torpedoes—moving through the too-deep-to-wade water directly under the boat.
“What am I seeing?” I ask Keinlert.
“The white ones are yellow jacks, the black ones, bonefish,” he answers from high on the poling platform. “Some big snappers there too.”
Oh, it’s just another school of hundreds of jacks and bonefish and snappers. Maybe thousands. That sort of thing happens here at Cayo Largo, Cuba. Every day.
Keinlert poles on, unfazed. I gawk at the sheer numbers of fish surrounding the skiff. It goes on forever. Do I make a cast? I do not.
We are looking for permit.
This is the third trip here for my fishing partner Will Rice and me, and we’ve learned that, time and again, when we site-cast to feeding permit, there is a good chance our Avalon permit fly will be ambushed by a fat five-pound bonefish, or a feisty jack or snapper feeding on the same shrimp the permit are. Now, with the light just right, I can see why that keeps happening. There are hundreds of times more secondary species than our main target.
I realize it’s hard to get sympathy complaining that we keep catching hard-fighting jacks and snappers—not to mention five-pound bonefish that take us into the backing, even on the heavy permit rods. Poor us. But we’ve come more than 4,000miles, and spent two days en route to get here; six separate planes flights for me to go from my home in Homer, Alaska to this little island 40 miles off the southern coast of Cuba that is possibly the permit fishing capitol of the world.
So, when I make a rare decent cast that actually lands somewhere close to a permit, and I see the targeted fish rush the fly and hear the guide yelp “Strike!” and I remember not to trout strike, and I strip-strike, and the line starts ripping through my hand on that first blistering run, I’ll admit that a grip-and-grin photo of me holding a gorgeous Cuban permit flashes into my mind in brilliant Kodachrome. And when the fish takes the line deep into the backing, what I do not want to hear is Keinlert groaning, “another bonefish,” the disappointment palpable in his voice. Yes, a five-pound bonefish is a real prize, a joy to catch and a blessing from the gods of fly fishing—unless it just wrecked your shot at a permit. Then it’s just “another bonefish.”
Seriously, maybe only in Cayo Largo could bonefish and snappers and jacks be such a “problem.” The sheer number of permit shots is itself almost unimaginable. The meticulous records that Avalon Cuba Fishing Adventures keeps—in its role as partner with other Cuban companies working to preserve the inshore fishery—confirm the level of permit fishing available: anywhere from 50 to 70 permit are landed each year. Numerous grand slams, and super slams (a bonefish, tarpon, permit, and one of the area’s numerous snook). This week, there are three sports in camp: Will and me, and our new friend, New Jersey angler, Don Wong. With only the three of us fishing the nearly 500 square mile preserve, stretching from the Isle of Youth on the west, to Cayo Largo on the east, Will manages one super grand slam; Don gets his first permit and a grand slam; I fail to catch a permit this trip, but get one of three “mini” slams (a bonefish, tarpon, and snook landed in one day). We lose count of how many bonefish, jacks and snappers we’ve landed.
Again, no disrespect is meant to the bonefish of Cayo Largo or the world in general. In fact, the most satisfying and memorable fish of the trip for me was neither the rampaging snook that tried to climb the mangrove trees around it’s snag-infested lair when it felt my hook, nor the reckless tarpon that hit my E.P. Peanut Butter fly after its partner spit the thing out. My favorite fish of the week was an average five-pound bonefish: a single that I stalked on foot in knee-deep water, sight-casted to, and watched charge the fly. Although I’ve caught bones twice that size, that’s a fish to remember. After a week of having them nearly become a nuisance, it was good to be reminded why they are the world class sport fish they are.
My point is only that, even when you are not getting what you’re hunting for, it’s probably smart to learn to enjoy what you’re catching. And enjoy each little surprise we did.
One of the hardest fighting fish of the trip was a medium sized horse-eye jack that struck while I was blind-casting in a channel for tarpon. That jack put a bend in the 12-weight rod that had me momentarily convinced I’d hooked one of the much larger tarpon. Of course, it didn’t jump. But, man, what a scrapper. Pound for pound—along with its cousin the jack crevale, and their Pacific kinfolk, trevally—it must be one of the strongest fish in the sea. Even the smaller yellow jacks that attacked both our permit flies and tarpon patters proved themselves to be incredibly powerful fighters. The same goes for several mutton snappers that hit flies intended for more celebrated species. (It was particularly painful to release the muttons. I’ve eaten them in other places and they are a delicious food fish. But the entire marine park is a no-kill area, off-limits to the harvesting of fish in any fashion.) Thank God for that.
On the last afternoon of the last day of our trip, the tide was too low to bring permit up onto the flats. So, Will and I finished the afternoon casting for tarpon in a deep channel. The scenery of the place alone would have been worth the money and time it took to get there. The channel was the intense cerulean blue the Caribbean is known for. Wading birds—white herons and egrets—worked the edges of the shallow flats, in the short mangroves sprouting on both sides of the cut. Overhead, frigate birds and a lone osprey drifted across the cloudless sky. Nurse sharks, lemon sharks, and stingrays coasted by beneath the boat like strange underwater birds of some kind. I was in no hurry to get back to Alaska in March.
For an hour or two, we took turns on the deck but failed to entice the school of tarpon that occasionally revealed itself to us. However, nearly every cast drew hits from the menagerie of other fish using the channel for their own purposes. Muttons, black jacks, yellow snappers, yellow jacks, all seemed to be competing for a crack at whatever we cast, and kept us entertained during this lull in the big game fishing.
When Keinlert said, “Time to go home, my friends. Last cast,” Will was on deck.
He launched a very long last cast halfway across the channel and started stripping. Something much bigger than the snappers and jacks struck. Again, given the deep bow in the heavy rod, the whirling reel, we momentarily thought he’d connected with one of the resident tarpon—which run to about 30 pounds—but again, it did not jump. This fish just took off, peeling line down to the backing. And it still kept going.
“What the heck is it?” I asked Keinlert, assuming he could see it from his high vantage point on the platform.
He shrugged, and guessed, “Big barracuda, maybe.”
“I don’t have a wire leader,” Will said.
Earlier, I had hooked a small snapper, and lost it, my tarpon shock tippet, and the fly to a barracuda that swallowed the snapper like a cocktail snack. Landing a barracuda without a wire tippet was a long shot, to say the least.
Yet, a short while later, the big fish tired enough for Will to get it on the reel and pump it in. It was, indeed, a big, very toothy barracuda, the tarpon fly conveniently hooked in the outside of its lip, tippet unscathed.
It was a colorful surprise ending for a great trip. And yes, we would have liked to finish that day, that week, with one more permit. But, like the Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want.” It doesn’t mean you can’t have a hell of a lot of fun trying. — Rich Chiapone