Havana Dreaming II

 

A crowing rooster roused me from sleep, not unusual in Key West, Florida. But when the pig grunted, welcoming the morning and I inhaled the aroma of last night’s Cohiba cigar lingering in the air it dawned, I’m a little farther south……a tad over ninety miles south to be exact, fifteen minutes west of Havana, Cuba.

My crib is a small, comfortable room in a private house, (Casa particular) in Jaimanitas, a suburb of Cuba’s capital city. The town sits on the mouth of a mangrove lined, dark river flowing into the blue Atlantic. This is my second morning at the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast and already my landlords regard me as their own. This is the Cuban way. This adoption process takes place daily throughout the country with visitors who seek sun and rum on the largest Caribbean island. But with Americans it’s different. America and Cuba are neighbors, practically kin.

My mission is to check out Cuba’s fishing, and to see if the wide variety of angling options can be tapped on a modest budget. I’m not interested in an expensive all inclusive week at one of the government sanctioned live-aboards or multi-storied resorts. Instead I want to see the country and talk to the people whose livelihood is fishing. From past visits to the island, I’m familiar with Cuba’s two party financial systems. There’s the government mandated economy and the private sector with its lower prices and unique standard of service.

As I lay awaiting the sun, listening to the grunting pig and the crowing roosters, my arrival at Jose Marti airport and the improved emigration process comes to mind. On past visits the government demanded to know exactly where I would stay each night. Yesterday, when informed of my opened-ended fishing schedule the official merely stamped my visa and said. “Have a nice stay.”

Chino, an old friend and newly appointed guide and I will spend the week searching out fishing holes within easy reach of Havana. Our transportation is his 1952 Chevrolet Power Glide. “It’s an international car.” Chino said, beaming with pride at the freshly painted aqua and white reminder of another age. The engine is a Peugeot diesel, the brakes from an Audi, and the transmission and steering wheel are courtesy of Toyota. Chino couldn’t have been prouder had the car been a new Rolls Royce.

Running into Chino and his ancient auto was a stroke of luck, not genius. A lack of fluent Spanish can make any trip to the countryside – where road signs are as scarce as Americans – frustrating. Cars with English speaking drivers are readily available in Cuba. Chino’s translating will prove invaluable in the search for the best salt, fresh and brackish water fisheries.

My recent findings and tips about the angling mecca of Cuban waters, the best time and the most economical method of exploring them will appear monthly in Coastal Angler Magazine. Join me and native guide Chino in the months ahead for an incredible journey through America’s back yard, Cuba.

Havana Dreaming I

Word flashed around Key West as it always does. Jimmy Buffet didn’t invent the cocoanut telegraph, he just named it. The year is 1990 and boats are crossing the Florida Straits. As America poised to restart a “people to people” contact policy with Cuba, we at the southernmost point were already sailing for Marina Hemingway….. After all, it’s only “Ninety Seven Miles South.”

The 90’s found us – much to the amazement of the rest of America – enjoying the warm hospitality of our closest Caribbean neighbor. Havana became our best kept secret. At times, on offseason crossings, we ran across not another Yankee visitor, not a single American. No political agenda motivated our trips…. we came to fish and dive.

We made friends and became willing purveyors of much needed hope to a populace suffering through a difficult era, “The Special Period.” Bonds formed with a warm, cordial people under the watchful eyes of suspicious overlords.

We brought baseball bats and medicine, powered milk and shampoo, multi-vitamins and microwaves. On one trip we landed a new bike and traded it to a young boy for his rusted Chinese relic. On the eve of Christmas’s official re-emergent, we served a traditional turkey dinner dockside and chuckled as an amazed marina guard paused, puzzled by the first dinner plate he’d ever held without beans.

After rounds of fresh mint Mojitos, Cohiba cigars, and some of the finest music in the world, we set off. In sight of Havana’s skyline we caught sails, marlin and wolf-packing wahoo prowling a stone’s throw beyond the surf line. On the south side we stalked endless sandy shallows for schools of bonefish, permit and tarpon, and on a mountain lake, an old Cuban pointed out sunken tree trunks where largemouth bass—imported from Lake Okeechobee and the King ranch in Texas- grow to mutant proportions in waters that never chill. We dove pristine reefs and swam among colorful clouds of tropical fish, hovering over Elkhorn corral gardens.

Fishing and diving off Cuba’s shores is “magnifico.” Bass rich reservoirs spill into snook laced rivers, scarcely angled. On crystal flats schools of permit roam, never having seen a fly. Off the rugged eastern coast migrating tuna pass close, funneled through the Windward Passage, while off the lonely west side whale sharks gather, gorging on snapper spawn. Warm, clean, nutrient waters bathe the shores with visibility at many dive sites exceeding infinity. With more shoreline than Florida, out-islands, marshes and mangrove lined estuaries, flowing rivers and deep water reservoirs…… Cuba is indeed a sportsman’s Eden.

 

Cuba is also a land to love. Havana at night is magic. Outside the cities, green forested mountain ranges hide lush flowered valleys. The interior’s rolling central plain rises to terraced mango and avocado orchards, stopping short of sheer rock cliffs, separating miles of snow white beaches. And exotic towns like Santiago and Trinidad de Cuba are home to 500 year old cathedrals and ancient Morro castle forts, keeping silent watch over the harbors.

I return after a nine year hiatus to a people with every reason to distrust Americans, instead they welcome us as relatives reuniting after a family spat. Besides, everyone in Cuba has a cousin in Miami.

Mullet Man

“In Norse mythology the sea giantess Ran cast a fish net to trap lost sailors.”

Today, along Florida shores, one of man’s oldest forms of fishing is used primarily for catching bait.

But,to cracker cast-netter James E. (Jed) Daniels, the proper use of a throw net is for table fare, specifically Black Mullet.

Since retiring from Florida Power and Light, Jed doesn’t spend his days rocking on the front porch spinning yarns, though a better yarn spinner never lived. Instead he continues what he’s always done, just more of it. Casting a ten foot net, he traps fat tasty mullet for his family, neighbors and friends.

Raised on the north side of the Alafia River, (we from the south bank called them Yankees) Jed started school at Riverview Elementary in a set of wooden buildings today’s kids would find primitive as Abe’s log cabin.

“From the time I can remember my dad netted fish.  He had seven mouths to feed on a railroad man’s pay, during some rough spots mullet meant we didn’t go hungry.”

“We used to night fish from the buttress under the Alafia river bridge. Dad and I walked the tracks out to the catwalks after dark, carrying two big buckets and his twelve foot nylon net. He knew all the railroad’s night watchmen so we never had a problem crossing the swing bridge. From the walk he’d throw down on fish coming out of the shadows into the green navigational light. It was eerie green on that side of the bridge; to a young’un it was spooky”

“We’d fill the buckets and walk back along the tracks. If the night man was around Dad would leave him a couple. One thing I learned early about catching mullet, they are a fish best shared. Seldom would dad quit without a few extra for a neighbor. We weren’t the only poor people around.”

To young river boys, opening a net full circle is a rite of passage, sure as slaying a lion signifies manhood to a Zulu tribesman.

“About twelve, I starting going with my brothers or my friends.  One night, I got the scare of my life. Knowing better, I made a throw between the walks surrounding the concrete bridge pilings. The net was swept into the barnacle encrusted support by the tide. This was my dad’s net so ripping it loose was not an option. I stripped and climbed into the water to untangle it.  Right then a Manatee surfaced next to the piling and took a loud breath.  To this day I can’t tell you how I got up that catwalk so quick.”

With marriage to high school sweetheart Debbie, came membership in an island club a little farther south. Debbie’s family owns a beach cottage on Little Gasparilla Island, prime mullet land. Jed and his father in law Lloyd Sims waded the hard sand shallows around the island, net in hand

. “Lloyd taught me the art of quite wading, not lifting your feet from the water, stalking, like hunting.”

With age comes wisdom. Now Jed relies on the art of ambush, letting the fish come to him.  Early mornings finds his skiff tucked into the mangrove shoreline, sun at his back.

“If the sun is in their eyes, I can throw right at them. Without that advantage I try to throw from behind the school. Often I let them pass before casting.”

White rope herding is another old Florida trick shown to Jed by Coon Strickland, a Ruskin Mullet man.

“Coon used to set up on the edge of a small cut opening to a known travel route along the shoreline. Then he stretched a white rope out from the shore, across the path. When the mullet file down the shore and come to the rope they turn. They won’t cross what they think is a barrier. The trick steers the mullet into the cut, within net range.”

Another old friend Lurch uses a very different approach.

” He calls the mullet with a”Myakka Fish whistle. Claims it slows them down too.”

As with all saltwater fishing, Jed adapts his hunt to the tide.

“On the incoming the fish are feeding, milling, heads down, concentrating on the bottom. On the outgoing, especially on a big fall, they have only one thing in mind, getting off the flat. That’s when they’re toughest.”

Jed finds the taste of the Bull Bay mullet cleaner than fish from the Alafia which is muddier and further from the Gulf. Most important is the handling.

“One reason why commercial mullet aren’t popular is their strong flavor. This is because commercial fishermen can’t break their necks. Fish houses won’t buy them that way. Bleeding and icing the fish immediately is critical for a mild taste.”

Jed filets his fish and skins them rather than scale and fry the meat skin on.

“I find the skin make them oily. I also never allow my filets to touch fresh water. Clean them and put them in a mixture of salt water and ice. That’s the Florida way.”

Timing is a large part of taste when it comes to mullet. In late summer and through the fall they began to accumulate a layer of tasty fat, just under the skin.

“This fat is important especially when smoking fish. Not only does it add to the flavor, but also keeps the meat from sticking to the skin.”

Connoisseurs of poor man’s caviar or mullet roe sleep in two camps. The white roe of the males and the female’s yellow eggs mature in early winter fostering a palate divide among their fans.

“Some prefer the taste of the yellow others like the white. I like them both but you have to be careful. Eat too much of either one and they will give you the trots, if you know what I mean.”

Most popular mullet nets have an eight to twelve foot spread with a mesh size of one and one eighth inches. The weight varies with personal preference and depth considerations. One of the best spots to prefect your throw is atop an elevated golf tee.

” Hurry,” Jed warns. “Come the first strong nor’easter they’ll be gone, off to the gulf to spawn.”

Smoked or fried, served with cheese grits topped with tomato gravy , beans and swamp cabbage, hush puppies or cornbread, mullet remain a southern staple, holding a place of honor in most native Florida households.

Key West Carnival Ride

 

“A Key West Carnival Ride”

“In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to love.”

Schools of spawning permit join the procreational pursuit at a most spectacular of gatherings.  In multitudes of silver and gold they mass, holding over a few picturesque spots suspended in crystal waters of the outer bar. Trinity is one such site, a name coined by divers in deference to three coral peaks rising 20-25 feet above a white marl bottom.

Located on the outer reef or “bar”, this ridge of coral disappeared beneath the waves at the end of the last Ice Age, millennia ago. Running east to west, with an average relief of 10 feet, this outside reef is a phenomenon, occurring nowhere else along the Florida Keys chain.  Trinity is a deep spot, 55 feet, and sits inside the Atlantic drop-off due south. Bathed in nutrient rich currents, often by the Gulf Stream itself, the ledges, walls and sea-fan forest of Trinity draw resident fish and traveling schools, layered at times from surface to sea-floor. On clear water days the sandy bottom reflects the tropic sun, lighting an outdoor aquarium.

By the second week of April, on rare calm days, spawning permit rise above the corral pinnacles bathing their egg laden bellies in the warm sun.  Often, pin prick fins spike the surface giving up the school. In sun, the mother-permit flash golden, ripe with the next generation. When flushed, they file beneath the boat matching numbers and moving with the herd mentality of buffalo. Seen from below, they flow over submerged ridges like Hollywood Indians sweeping down on circled wagons.

We’re aboard a powder blue Yellowfin 42 with four high horsepower Mercury’s strapped to the back.  Eight minutes out of Key west Harbor, a new Trinity record. Only Popeye’s fried chicken boat made this run faster, and he was on the outward bound leg of the world powerboat championships.

As one friend Jim Butters put it following a furiously fast ride in the behemoth center console, in less than calm seas. “This isn’t a boat, it’s a carnival ride.”

Captain T.J. Ott is at the wheel. A young man mid-twenties, T.J. is beyond his years in fish miles. T.J.’s a professional tuna harvester, a skill learned from his dad. Six months of the year he battles thousand pound blue fins with rod and lance. Winter months he’s at the family home in Key West, ranging his ocean rocket west to Dry Tortugas then east to Cay Sal Banks, relentlessly pursuing a tug on the line and fish in the box.

An early morning phone call from key’s captain Steve Rodgers was short and to the point, permit on the bar. Rodgers, a native son Conch captain is privy to inside info, always one of the first to know.  We’ll have a day or two before word spreads and boats flock to the site. Secrets don’t last in the southernmost city.

Nikie and I join T.J. and Diesel, a fish hound black Rottweiler weighing in at eighty pounds. Constantly in the shadow of our captain, Diesel stakes out a spot at his master’s feet, daring any challenge. He’s veteran crew and knows where the ride is softest and dry.

The spa-size live well teems in crab. Some, half-dollar size baby blues imported from Miami, others corral colored sand crabs caught this morning by Nikie, wading a shallow bar. All are declawed.

We’ll hook these squiggling crustations thru the pointed end of the carapace on a half-ounce plain lead jig. Thirty pound leader connects the weighted offering to twenty pound braid spooled on Shimano spinners, Flora-carbon of course.  Seven foot Star graphite rods, in tandem with the lead jig provides casting range with backbone enough to muscle a fish. Unlike wreck or tower fishing these permit have no close cut-off place to flee to, a common occurrence around structure.  Given enough head they will scrape the hook across the sand bottom or dash under a sharp edge overhang, attempting to rid themselves of the bothersome tug.

There is reason to horse these hard fighting members of the jack family in. Sharks, most often the Great American Hammerhead lurk just out of sight. Shadowing the schools these anvil-headed monsters run large, over 10 feet, some eight hundred pounds.

While conjuring a plan for a first drift a shout and splash turns every head. Our informant Steve Rodgers, leading a charter has been fighting a fish since our arrival. Now, the tan tail of a 12 foot shark slaps the side of his Conch 27 while the other end devours his angler’s twenty pound permit.  The fisherman freaks. Not used to seeing a tail the size of a grown man waving at eye level he seems convinced the shark wants him.

With engines at a quite idle, T.J. eases up to a school. We cast our crabs into a group of tiny points directly above a cloud of milling, flashing shapes. Reacting to the splashes, the fish move forward and down. Free-lined off the spools our baits sink with them. Two of the three crabs are eaten. I strike and miss, Nikie’s reel is whining her rod bent double.

The bent rod sends Diesel into frenzy. He covers the length and breadth of the Yellowfin barreling by any unfortunate bystander, barking his excitement, cheering Nikie on. Paws on gunnel Diesel watches for the fish, if he’s disappointed not seeing a giant tuna it doesn’t show.

 

Nikie fights this fish like the seasoned pro she is. She holds the spool and lifts the rod smooth, never jerking, then winds down even and fluid. With skills honed hoisting Halibut in Alaska, this beautiful bartender-angler is a fish in the boat kind of girl.

The action is fast with multiple hook-ups and our luck with the sharks holds thru a few close calls. We release nine hard fighting permit, missing a dozen more. Low light brings our slugfest to a halt when wispy clouds gather blocking out the lowering sun. Fueled by cooling air over warmer water these late afternoon formations are common in the spring, the fish disappear with the light.

Another eight minute ride, then a slow swing by the Mallory Square sunset extravaganza ends the day.  We watch “The great Rondine” wiggle in chains. A high wire artist balances on one leg and twirls plates. Cat man directs a pride of felines thru circus routines climaxing with a leap thru a flaming hoop. Nowhere else on earth does this land and sea dichotomy exist.  But what to expect when one boards a “Key West carnival ride?”

The Quiet Quest

Results of a sucessful "Quiet Quest"

The Quiet Quest

A bikini clad woman on the bow, a sickle tail flagging in the windless morning, from my elevated perch on the poling platform this alluring combination is “as good as it gets.”

It’s mid-September in the Florida Key’s backcountry, the horizon boat-less. Over the mirrored Gulf of Mexico to the north, billowing storm clouds ramble slowly, their menacing flashes silenced by distance. Rebecca, poised, rod in hand is still as the day. Her ever present exuberance throttled by an approaching fish. The only outward signs of excitement, a slight tremor in the rod hand.

From above we’re closely scrutinized by a regal Bald Eagle perched in a stout black mangrove tree, anchored on a sand spit key a stone’s throw away. Though wary and watchful, he seems content to glare thru yellow eyes.

“Wait.” I say softly, just above a whisper. “Give him another few seconds.”

Rebecca and I have been following the movements of the lone tail for a full five minutes, seems hours. In whispered silence we track the fin, aggressively searching a sliver channel. Working up the edge of the narrow slot the shadow pauses, the black tail surfs above an expanding cloud of sand, pushed into the flowing current by a burrowing head.  The sound of rushing water racing by the skiff seems deafening, the velocity rivaling a swollen mountain stream. I’m holding tight to the imbedded push-pole vibrating in the outgoing tide, conscience of the catastrophe any noise will bring. The fish is close, a hundred feet.

“Anytime Becky, lead him, remember the current.”

Rebecca takes a breath and holds, aping a sniper setting a shot, cocks an arm and shoots the half-dollar size crab at the foraging target. Her aim is precise, the offering lands two feet up-current of the head. When the fish turns for the crab breathing becomes impossible. Rebecca, holding the twelve pound braid lightly, between two delicate fingers suddenly let go.

“He’s got it! I felt him pick it up!”

She flips the bail, the Loomis rod bends and the number two circle hook buries into soft skin covering carapace crushing jaws. Rebecca whoops, spooking the eagle to flight and with the flash of a silver dragster, the permit streaks across the sugar sand.

The fish is fifty yards away before the pole is freed. It dips into another finger channel as I push in pursuit. Rebecca holds steady, watching the dwindling spool rapidly surrender line. When she turns I’m pleased to see a smile and not the look of panic most anglers would wear.

“You’ve learned well grasshopper.” I tease, meaning every word.  In the school of shallow water permit stalking she’s my prize pupil, and I beam like a proud father.

For those of us addicted to the “Prince of the Flats” mornings like this are the high of highs. Permit is the Holy Grail of shallow water angling. With ladle size eyes and lateral line sensitivity surpassing Doppler radar, an adult permit foraging in a foot of water rivals any angling challenge.  In tranquil seas such as todays, the difficulty expands exponentially by the power of ten. One of the most accurate characterizations describing “The Quiet Quest” came from friend and fellow guide, Travis Rolan.

Just hours before sunset, within sight of Key West, we’re tossing flies at multitudes of permit cruising glass water. Wakes cut far and wide across the turtle grass flat, we’re silent as ghost. Still, a strange radius, an invisible border lying just beyond Travis’s ninety plus foot casting range repels our skittish marks.

“I don’t understand.” I said. “We’re making no sound. The light’s low, so they can’t be spotting us. What’s spooking them?”

Travis watched another set of fish peel away, just out of reach.

“They feel us.” He states metaphysically. “It’s a Zen thing.”

This theory goes hand-in-hand with a practice many flats guides employ. They disconnect their skiffs battery cables on calm days, believing permit pick up on the electrical field and shy away.

It’s doubtful even the most proficient fly angler could have hooked the fish Rebecca battles. Without the extended range of a spinning rod, or the enticing vibrations of the live crab, the odds of “an eat” drop alongside those of elephant hunter armed with a slingshot. Delivering a crab pattern to a distant strike zone, let alone linger it the time necessary to achieve a take would be next to impossible in the swift current.

Captain Alex Boehm, golfer Jack Nicklaus’s full time guide believes, “Chasing permit with a fly rod defines an angler.” I’m onboard with that.

Rebecca’s reel burning fight is now at the half-hour mark and again the tail waves, signaling another tactic for escape. Desperate to rub the pesky hook from its jaw, this wily member of the jack family demonstrates surprising intelligence. All Rebecca can do is hold, rod high and retrieve line while I push hard, cutting the distance to the digging fish. Finding no relief again the permit bolts off on another line stripping dash, the primary use for that oversized tail.

Once the permit reaches the end of its run the flat narrow body turned sideways is nearly impossible to wrench in on light tackle, creating a stalemate. During these lulls extra vigilance is paramount. This is shark country. The Bulls, bellies tucked in, strike from nowhere, led by vibrations of the struggling fish into the skinniest of waters, another reason to stay as close as humanly possible.

Forty-five minutes has elapsed since hook-up. The worn fish is at the boat. After grabbing the convenient tail handle, we codify our success with the camera. An extraordinary battle between a beautiful, intelligent, skillful woman and her handsome, cunning, prince is finished, now, forever etched in two like minds, shared one morning with an Eagle in the solitary splendor of the Florida Keys.