Bad news on the boat, Mike Nelson tested positive for Covid. He wasn’t feeling 100% so the doctor checked him out, after a brief examination, Covid procedures followed, the results quarantined Mike to his 12×8 room for 5 days.
Every man on the boat went silent. Then quiet concern floated in conversations about the next steps. First and foremost for Mike (could he stay on the boat?) then for the rest of the people on the mothership. Of course it was strange as we had all been together for several days and Mike was the only impacted passenger, the crew was fine too. He took it like a hero, hard to watch a man who had traveled all the way from the mountains of Montana to chase Cuban Permit get sidelined.
On review of the guide assignments I was surprised and excited to learn that my day would be spent with a new guide. Simbo and I were scheduled to fish with Juan. Another guide from Zapata, Juan got the skiff up on plane quickly. The breeze was cool out of the east, clear blue skies, he handled the boat with a lighter hand, not quite as aggressively as Osyani. While we thought Osyani an excellent guide it was a nice surprise to be in the hands of a new man. Another man from Zapata who has 10 years of guiding in Cuban mangrove under his hat but 2 years of Pandemic shut down to dig out of. He told us about life in Zapata during the shutdown, no clients, no skiffs, he fed his family fish that he caught with a hand line from a 14 foot sailboat, old school. Juan’s a bad ass with a soft touch providing quiet, enthusiastic direction from his perch above the Dolphins’ 70 horsepower engine.
Short ride to a mangrove in view of the mothership, 3 casts in the corner and C.L. was tight to a tarpon. When Cuban guides say “tarpo”, I say wow, it’s intense. Like a bolt of electricity at the end of the line, his tarpo tail walked for a second off the bow and then made a “B-line” for the free standing 20 foot rootball of a mangrove at the stern. In seconds both Juan and Chris were saving Chris’ T&T 10 weight fly rod’s tip, working the fly line by hand, making their way to the tippet and eventually untangling the potential ratsnest and landing the baby tarpon safely, releasing it to swim back to the shelter the canal it was born into.
We moved deeper into the chain of canals and Juan shared yet another secret lagoon, this one was guarded by 10,000 cormorants. They were flying low at the mouth of the channel and taking off from every branch as we turned down the long curves of the lazy river. Each time I thought we were setting up to cast into a corner that Juan knew held tarpon, another dozen birds would jump from branches. When a cormorant jumps from a mangrove he lands briefly on his feet on the water below then starts running, slapping the water as his wings build speed and spooking everything in the zone. This had no impact on Juan’s enthusiasm, he continued to pole the skiff deeper into the lagoon, spotted a crocodillo and almost as if he’d written the script, the birds in that corner were absent.
We sat motionless in the center of the murky pond, watching the 8 foot long, dark loglike creature slip below the surface. As if on cue, 25 meters to the left of the disappearing reptile the fin of a tarpon slipped across the glassy surface and once again, Juan quietly called out “tarpo”.
It was my turn on the deck, I casted three times and wham the line was tight.
Juan’s secret lagoon was productive. After I landed, Simbo photographed and Juan released my first tarpon, Simbo caught 3 more in a matter of 25 minutes. All baby tarpon of about 15-20 pounds, all frisky and flashy and very exciting.
Motoring out of the lagoon we watched a cormorant dive head first off the top branch of a large mangrove, 2 minutes later it popped up on the opposite side of the pool and life in the murky water of a Cuban swamp carried on.
Lunch was delicious, Spanish style rice with peas and chorizo topped with a roasted bone-in chicken thigh, skin on seasoned with salt and cut in 2 pieces. A Veracruz style salad with diced red peppers, sliced cabbage, white onion, green olives and a splash of red wine vinegar and vegetable oil. In Avalon style the salad was dressed by my hand with condiments from the breakfast table and plated picnic style in a no-name Tupperware style plastic box with a faded pink lid. This floating Cuban luncheon program is original and on target.
An hour later we were silently crossing a massive flat. Mild wind conditions distorted the surface just enough to camouflage a falling line and not give up our position but required a shortened cast. We covered what seemed like a ½ mile and saw nothing but sharks and boxfish. A group of bones cruised the waving grass to Simbo’s left, he was on the deck. His first cast landed on target but the camel hair colored avalon fly went unnoticed. His second cast turned them on and a small gang of bonefish swooped in. CL smiled, set the hook with a quick strip and landed the ghost quickly.
Back on the Permit track we weaved and crisscrossed the flat for another 30 minutes until a 20 inch high dark wedge, skated across the pink Cuban sand. Simbo loaded the rod with 2 quick false casts and let go. A mid sized Permit was swimming directly toward our bow and his cast landed 3 feet before the cruising fish’s nose, it turned, sipped and took just enough of the fly to bend C.L’s rod slightly, then the rod tip returned. Disappointment filled the air.
Not one to stay in any given position too long, Juan fired up the Dolphin and took us on a late afternoon run to the north. We settled on the edge of a canal that had a deep, dark blue channel, blind casting a sinking line for cruising adult tarpon. Both Simbo and I took turns in the deck to no avail.
At 4:30 our rods were stored and we started the long cruise back to the mothership. That’s when Juan’s true colors as a die hard guide really shined. With the warm sun on our shoulders to the west, Juan had the engine opened up running near full speed, his workday was technically coming to an end when all of the sudden he slowed the boat to and idle and quietly said “Hey Simbo, want to catch another bonefish” With his finger pointing to the shore about 200 yards east of us we quickly realized that he had spotted a school of bonefish tailing in the shallow water about 5 feet off the shoreline in the sandy shallow water beside a pile of beached lobster traps. For me it was one of the most beautiful sites of the whole trip. With early evening light hitting the tailing fins at a hard angle, Juan’s sharp eyes had picked up the clue that big bones were happily feeding, my pal Chris smiled and responded “let’s give it a try”.