In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, who with his friends fled and took all the money. Castro inherited a country that was broke. At this time, Joe Brooks was arguably the best-known fishing writer in the world. Fortunately, he was my mentor and helped further my career immensely.
About a week after the revolution, Joe called and invited me on an all-expenses-paid, 18-day trip to fish in Cuba. Much to the dismay of my devoted wife, I agreed — when you are in your mid-30s and are addicted to fishing, a revolution is only a small speed bump. Joe explained that Castro paid him to bring outdoor writers to Cuba with the hopes they’d return home and write about the fishing.
I fondly recall our first adventure. Before the revolution, a few American anglers were catching monster largemouth bass in Treasure Lake, located deep in the vast Everglades-like Zapata Swamp. We were really excited as we rode a narrow-gauge sugar train with tracks laid on top of the spongy, marshy ground. The train wheels ran in more than a foot of water, and looking back as we progressed forward, I remember watching the sunken tracks pop back up to the surface.
A Cuban guide in a skiff met us in a deep ditch paralleling the tracks. As we ran the ditch, I asked him if we’d catch bass. Stopping the boat, he told me to cast. On my second delivery, I caught one of the biggest largemouth bass of my life.
Later in our journey, we had access to a 50-foot sailboat and crew. We spent almost an entire day getting to the remote northern coast that was completely vacant of both people and other boats. We fished an area called Cayo Gallina. The hard coral flats were easy to wade, and we even stumbled onto a blue hole. Any fly dropped into that hole was attacked instantly, but almost every fish was lost on the sharp coral sides.
By 1959, a few people in the Florida Keys were talking about a strong and fast species called bonefish. I’d caught many northern and some saltwater species, such as bluefish, stripers, small tarpon, snook and seatrout among others, with fly tackle. Married with two kids to care for, I didn’t have enough money to buy mosquito underwear, so I had no fancy fly gear. I fished with a Fenwick 8- or 9-weight rod and a Pflueger Medalist Model 1498; though it was an inexpensive outfit, I was able to subdue most anything I hooked. I modified the reel by cutting out a thumb-size hole in the side plate opposite the handle. The drag system worked by me inserting my thumb in the cutout and pressing against the spool.
I was a child of the Great Depression. My father died and left my mother to raise four children, of which I was the oldest. We had to live on welfare, which in those days was literally next to nothing. Basic foods were available from a distribution center, and as a result, to this day, my taste buds are so bland that I’m often teased by my friends. I eat nothing with four colors, and the only spices I tolerate are salt and pepper.
With our sailboat anchored in a channel the first night, I was a bit apprehensive when they served a dinner with several patties of crushed crackers and fish, but as it turned out, it was delicious. I found out later it was fish that had been steamed until the bones were soft, mixed with ground crackers and deep-fried. It was bonefish.
The next morning while wading a beautiful coral flat, our guide excitedly starting yelling, “Mucho grande macabi!” I saw nothing. Then, a silvery tail broke the surface. I cast a size-one fly in front of the fish and twitched it several times. The guide was yelling as the fish took the fly and turned. My rod bent and the reel handle spun in a blur. Realizing something had to happen or I would get a bad backlash, I stuck my thumb into the side plate to apply pressure. The spool was spinning so fast, it pained me to press hard, so I applied just enough pressure to control the disappearing backing.
My guide shouted all sorts of instructions in Spanish, none of which I understood. Finally, the reel stopped spinning. Looking at the distant flat, I could barely see the fish. It was difficult to comprehend any fish of that size could run so far and so fast. After three more long runs, my guide picked up the tired fish. Suspending it on a spring scale, I learned it weighed 10 pounds. It was at that moment when bonefish forever became my favorite fly-rod target. It was years before I caught one bigger.