On the morning of our 5th day of fishing, it once again came as a surprise when I saw my fishing partner had changed, the WorldCast crew was switching it up. Today I’d fish with Mike Dawkins, Chris Littauer’s partner from the Victor, Idaho fly shop that originally introduced me to the Teton River back in September of 2018. Back then they put me on the river with an iconic American river guide named Joe Harris. He rowed while Simbo and I casted. It took a trip to Cuba to get a chance to actually fish with a WorldCast guide.
I’m lucky to have hit the water on skiffs run by expert Cuban guides with 2 world class American anglers. Littauer is a specialist of the long cast with an elegant style. Dawkins is more creative and unstructured in his approach. As the day wore on I watched in amazement as this man skipped flies into slots under mangroves that I never would have thought reachable.
Thursday morning was like none other. As our guide Juan emerged around the corner, from a mangrove bordered horizon, it looked like his Dolphin was gliding across a mirror, the sea was slick and calm. No bumps on the ride out, no distinction between the sea and the sky on the edge in the distance. We cruised at full speed across a long flat with Simbo & Chris Littauer in Osyani’s skiff just off our stern. It occurred to me that Osyani must have a bigger engine as his craft followed then passed ours with ease. The difference between a 70 and 85 horsepower Yamaha engine became clear on the morning glass we shared. They carried on, we turned left toward the never ending view and quickly switched off. Floating for several hundred yards in silence, just soaking in a magnificent morning.
As Juan climbed on to the platform above his Yamaha outboard, Mike encouraged me to take the deck. Armed with my Orvis 8 weight and a very light weight white shrimp fly I scanned the flat spotting boxfish, starfish and rays at 50 meters. Mike quietly reminded me to lead cruising fish with more distance than usual as there was nothing to camouflage a landing line “this is the spookiest water we’ve seen all week”.
Polling along the flat, silently moving at a snail’s pace, bonefish started to cruise into view, in groups of 3 and 4. Following Mike’s suggestion I casted the fly 10 meters in front of one of the first groups that Juan spotted, let the fly rest on the bottom, twitched 3 strips and was tight to my first fish of the day. Mike was setting up to shoot photos with his telephoto lens so he let me remain on the deck and I caught another, slowly floating across the transparent water wondering how I was so lucky, to be in one of the worlds most pristine ecosystems, untouched by man’s foolishness with 2 men that understand the task at hand better than most and who were happy to share their knowledge.
When we turned a corner on the flat and quietly approached the edge of a long mangrove-trimmed shoreline Juan spotted a crocadillo several football fields ahead. On closer inspection we realized it was surrounded by a school of about 30 tailing bonefish. Then, we saw 2 pods of bones preceding it. The water was knee deep, the bottom pristine, soft sand accented by clumps of thin seagrass, we decided to wade.
Impressed by Mike’s relaxed approach. He again encouraged me to take the lead and followed by holding the camera under the right arm and his fly rod in his left hand. As Juan provided hushed direction from the anchored skiff behind us, I cast several times to the lead school, spooking the group at first then leading them just enough to again allow the fly to rest on the bottom and strip to gain the leader’s attention. It was like catching fish in a glass bowl, everything was magnified by the perfectly calm water in bright morning light.
After about 20 minutes and 2 or 3 bones to hand, Mike took the lead. With his camera strapped, lens hanging down his spine he maneuvered the 8 weight with precision and hooked a large bone after a few casts. Working effortlessly he handled the rod with one hand as the fish ran his line almost into the backing. Juan had anchored the boat again and waded over to help land this one and I enjoyed attempting to capture the scene on video with my iPhone only to find that it wasn’t cooperating.
This is where I learned the importance of an internet connection, my iPhone storage capacity had reached its limit after a week of shooting photos and videos. In Cuba, on the edge of the world there is no internet connectivity, my phone was constipated. What a drag, turning the phone on and off provided enough to catch a few seconds of the action which I did, but it was unfortunate as this was a setting that I’d never experienced before. Leaving me, Mike, and Juan to capture memories with Mike’s camera. In the end this turned out to be a needed lesson and one that I’ll carry forward on my next trips. More focus on the experience in the moment and less on the camera phone.
We continued to wade the flat for another hour. It was peaceful and calm, no wind to interfere with a cast or blur the water. As we walked toward the croc it seemed to keep its distance, the bonefish provided Mike with shadows and reflections that his powerful lens brought into focus, I teased the boxfish with my shrimp fly. The first one became interested and moved on the fly dangling at leader’s length from the tip of my rod, others cautiously approached from the deeper water, in a short time I had 12 fish circling and nipping on the fly. They all appeared to be 2 or 3 pounds with square shoulders, large eyes and a forked tail. Curious fish with small mouths, hardly big enough to inhale the fly.
Time came to end our bonefish bonanza on the flat. Juan took us north, to my surprise the mothership came into view as we skimmed the perfectly calm surface around the same mangrove edge that Juan had appeared from earlier in the day. I asked for a boat break in an effort to air-drop some video assists into my laptop.
Stepping off the deck of the Dolphin I noticed Mike Nelson waving from the top deck. Quarantine didn’t seem to be upsetting him, at least he didn’t let on. I mentioned my concern that he was missing a perfect smooth water day to chase Permit and he shrugged his shoulders saying “it’s not that bad, could be a lot worse, I’ll have plenty of time to catch up on my next trip on the Yucatán, Permit will be extra spooky today”. On my way back to the skiff I thought how amazing it was that I seemed more upset trying to make room for more video on my phone than Mike was to be restricted to the boat for the last 2 days of fishing.
Pulling off the aft deck of the ship Juan said “snook” Dawkins smiled and said “of course”. It wasn’t long before the three of us were staring at a sandy bank bordered by hundreds of yards of verdant green brush on the edge of a long patch of thick seagrass looking for snook wandering between mangrove roots in search of misguided bait.
At first there were none, then they appeared, barely leaving cover then turning, sliding back into the roots. I casted and stripped the fly making awkward attempts not to hit the branches before the water. A few snook looked, no grabs. We spotted 3 fish on the move, just a few feet out from the brush, I had a shot but missed them. Then Juan suggested we change our strategy.
With the next group of snook, moving in and out of the shade beneath the mangrove leaves, I cast the fly right to the edge and let it rest, as we’d done with the bones earlier in the day. This time when the snook came into view I twitched the fly several times with short bursts, striping to bounce the shrimp off the bottom and it worked. I had the fish on for 2 or 3 minutes, it bolted out into open water crossing the skiff’s bow then headed back toward cover. Somehow, as it cruised parallel to the shore line the snook spit the hook. My line was tight and a second later it was loose, floating to the surface.
When Mike approached the bow he used a side arm casting technique that I’d not seen before, literally skipping the fly toward the deepest sections of the brush. As the cautious snook moved in and out he held the fly steady waiting for the bigger fish to move on it. A productive method engaging a larger snook, we observed the whole sequence as the 15lb fish bolted from what looked like 6 inches of water to inhale the fly, then it rose out of the mangrove’s edge like a largemouth, on a frog, mouth wide and bursting completely from the water.
For the past 5 days I’d been asking our guides to put us on snook and now it was happening. Mike played the fish for 10 minutes before it settled and came to the side of the skiff. Mission accomplished.
Dinner that night featured spiny lobster and pork chops. Everyone at the table was pleased and the staff beamed with confidence. If only they had an offering that added flavor. While the proteins on our tour were always well prepared and nicely presented, they lacked a finish. No limes, Chili’s or sauces that might take the fish to another level. In Cuba chefs use what’s available and it seems finishing touches are the result of unique ingredients, not to be had in a controlled society.