A Town Without Soup

Recounting fifteen years of fly fishing in Castro’s Cuba

[Story by David Profumo. Photography by Matt Harris.]

The in-flight movie is in black-and-white, the trolley runs out of liquor before it reaches me, and as we bank over the capital, most of the buildings below have been darkened by power cuts. This is 1997, and my first visit to Havana, a place with such acute post-Soviet shortages that its citizens are being urged to fashion shoes from banana leaves, and the pizza sellers, in the absence of cheese, are rumored to top off their handiwork with melted Chinese condoms.

Downtown is a warren of cobbled side streets with bebop music and tobacco smoke lurching from every bar—pockmarked facades, the thin reek of unsuccessful plumbing. At trestle tables tourists lurk, grouper jawed, eyeballing the mulatas, zebra-striped like reef fish, shimmying through the submarine gloom. There is a tarpon-gill clatter of castanets. Dancers swirl in shoals. With a bonefish pucker, I slurp on my cocktail straw, eyes as glassy and startled as my favorite foxfish. Mere hours after landing, I am adrift on the Cuban tide.

Fifty miles off the southern coast lies the archipelago of Jardines de la Reina, a marine national park where an enterprising Italian consortium (now Avalon) had secured exclusive sportfishing rights. Apart from their double-decker “boatel,” the Tortuga, this vast area was now uninhabited; the previous population of commercial fishermen and charcoal burners was considered a security risk by the Teflon Dictator, and he thoughtfully rehoused them in dormitory blocks designed in the Bulgarian concrete vernacular, far inland from their traditional livelihoods. We learned this the first morning from the faintly psychotic Pedro María Paláez—our guide then and on every subsequent trip—whose family used to live among these islands.

In years to come there would be Dolphin skiffs, but in those pioneering days we were chauffeured around in glorified rowboats: no radios, tree branches for pushpoles, outboards with cowlings as distressed as gladiators’ helmets. Flats fishing was virtually unknown, so this was the opportunity of a lifetime, like visiting the Florida Keys back in the 1920s, but with weapons-grade carbon fly rods.

The towering, mustachioed Pedro spoke not even Combat English—we communicated in a kind of Desperanto—and though he may not have had a charm school diploma hanging on his bunkhouse wall, a beadier-eyed companion I have yet to meet afloat, and he had the natural history of an unreconstructed hunter-gatherer.

Cuban transport is in a time warp—it’s either pre-Castro American automobiles or an oxcart

Though he had been forbidden from using his trusty slingshot, everything with a heartbeat—ibis, spoonbill, pelican—was appraised for its table qualities. After one shore lunch he showed us where they used to gather hutia, an overgrown arboreal rat (“delicious when pot-roasted with honey”), then scampered off through the mangroves and triumphantly retrieved a live specimen by hand. He released this catch with visible reluctance.

Back then in Castroland, Cuban cuisine was virtually a mirage. The dingy shop shelves stood empty. Ten bucks was a good monthly wage. An especially poor community was known as un pueblo sin sopa: “a town without soup.” The official newspaper, Granma, was highly esteemed as bathroom tissue, an eloquent comment on both Communism and the journalistic trade.

From the start, it was clear that JDR was teeming with fish. The flats were only just being explored—no prop scars, no picnic sites—and there was an impressive variety of terrain, from the turtle grass of Cayo Lisa to the intricate mangrove zone of Mariflores, where you could bounce a chenille crablet pattern off the arthritic roots around which bonefish were snacking like crazy at high tide.

“¡No mangli!” Pedro would roar, and we held them hard.

My boat partner, Don Jon, and I experimented with a few flies then new to the area—Pop’s Bonefish Bitters and Veverka’s Mantis Shrimp proved winners—and sometimes the shoals of macabe were immense. As their shimmering dorsals bore down toward our skiff, I felt like Admiral Nelson about to engage the enemy fleet. On one ocean flat, we took 43 in a session, and stopped only when my bleeding forefinger began attracting the nearby lemon sharks. (We hadn’t yet learned about stripping guards). Being Brits who had caught merely hundreds, but not thousands of bonedogs, we never became blasé about this abundance: indeed, I have seldom fished so hard. Most evenings I felt like Nelson after the Battle of Trafalgar, when his corpse was pickled in rum for transport home.

Along with minimal angling pressure, there was astounding species variety. Tarpon fishing, now a specialty out there, was entirely hit and miss, though we put a number of silver princelings in the air, and also bait-fished for them after dark. A delightful old guest guide named Feo supervised these operations. It turned out he had been one of Fidel’s more enthusiastic firing squad volunteers after the Revolution.

Fifty miles off the southern coast lies the archipelago of Jardines de la Reina, a marine national park.

Fifty miles off the southern coast lies the archipelago of Jardines de la Reina, a marine national park.

When it comes to the salt, I’m not one of those purists who would rather take out his own appendix with a Boga-Grip than use anything except an artificial fly, and we happily sank sardines into snapper holes, slung pencil poppers at jacks, and trolled for grouper off the reef. Twice, Pedro found schools of bonito and small tuna busting bait balls, and we nailed so many (to supplement the Tortuga’s menu) that his boat looked like the site of a drive-by shooting. We drifted over a 30-foot whale shark, and even though they’re plankton feeders, I flipped it an UltraShrimp, just on the off chance.

Each season, the Tortuga improved, and so did we. Instead of automatically specifying “Gotch,” Pedro would now clamber down from his new kicker bridge and fussock critically through my fly boxes. There was also a trend toward chasing permit, though Don Jon and I still regarded this as a unicorn hunt. Then, in March 2000, It Happened.