Chico’s First Tarpon - Cuba 1956
Chico’s First Tarpon on Fly.
I was six years old when my dad and my uncle took me fishing for the first time. They used heavy cotton hand lines dyed brown with mangrove roots, and wrapped in a crisscross fashion on a stick. Years later we would use a Cuban YoYo to hold the line. My passion for fishing grew fast and by the time I was 12 or so, I was using a spinning rod, both for bait and lures. And soon I was catching snook, tarpon, jacks, black bass and many other species. I thought I knew it all. Typical of a teenager.
But in 1956, my dad hired an American captain to run his new 62’ sport-fisherman. The captain, besides using spinning tackle, turned out to be a fly fisherman. One look at the big fat fly line unrolling in the air and I was in love - the smell of bamboo, the beautiful flies, the leader construction, and the casting, of course. I didn’t know it then, but I had started an affair that would last the rest of my life.
Soon I had a couple of fly rods. And Orvis Battenkill 9 ½ feet long, which I still own, and a metal fly rod who’s name I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I used my spinning tackle less and less. Occasionally going out on a fishing trip without the “back up” of a spinning outfit, only fly. And I thought this was so cool.
At that time, in the late 50’s, I never saw another Cuban fly fisherman. And mind you, I fished all over the place. In rare occasions, I would see an American fly fishing that was there on vacation or working for a large corporation. As far as I know, I was the only Cuban fly fisherman at that time.
Anyway, in those days, I hung around with a small group of spin fisherman that was very advanced for it’s time. We made our own jigs, wrapped or re-wrapped guides when needed, worked on our reel’s drags and swapped information. We fished all around the island and took many big fish with spinning tackle with 8 and 12 pound line. I was the only one of the group that fly fished, and I remember that my fly fishing affair was looked upon with amusement by the group, and as highly impractical.
One of the favorite places to fish, specially for tarpon, was the old small village of Surgidero de Batabano, a port on the South side of the island less than an hour’s ride from Havana through a winding bumpy road that still brings back good memories. The port of Batabano, had a large marina where we would rent a row boat. The fishing destination was not far way. We were looking, among the many commercial boat anchor, for one that was cleaning fish at the time. If I remember correctly it was usually less than a half hour of rowing to reach one of these boats.
As you approached the working vessel, several fishermen would be on their knee in front of a large pile of fish. They would select the mangrove and lane snapper, grouper and other commercially valuable fish, and stack them, with their bellies down on a big wooden box. The cooler in those days. Then, when no more could be lined up on the bottom, they would pour a layer of crushed ice, and begin to stack another layer of fish, then another layer of ice, and so on until the big box was full and a new one was brought up to deck. But in the meantime, all the “undesirable fish”, parrot fish, grunts, undersize fish of all kinds, maybe a few crabs and odd shrimp were discarded over the side.
Also visible from our row boat, even at a good distance, was a dark half circle against the side of the vessel, maybe 30 to 60 feet in length what was pure tarpon. And in that mass there were fish ranging from about ten pounds to over one hundred. Fins and flashes constantly showing as the tarpon competed for the next discarded fish. Often catching them just before the tossed fish reached the water. It was quite a sight.
When you cast in the dark mass you never knew how big a fish you would hook. Often we had to row after them returning when the fight was over. And hoping they had not finished cleaning the pile, or the fishing would be over.
If you cast in the middle of this dark mass, you would hook a tarpon immediately, of course, but this would be a mistake, because as the fish ran through all the other tarpon, your line would be constantly rubbing on other fish, and invariably you would be cut off. So we soon learned to hook our fish at the edge of the half circle. We still lost fish, but we landed a few. And in order not too loose valuable lures, we often just used bait. After all, they would take anything, even a piece of white rag.
One day, after thinking about it for a long time, I decided to hook one on my fly rod. My friends knew this was coming.
Because I was a purist, probably still am, I thought that the “only” tippet to use on fly was eight pound tippet. How I came to that conclusion I don’t know. Maybe because my favorite spin tackle was eight pounds or because eight pounds is what I would use for bonefish. Anyway, for me eight pounds was fly fishing, twelve pounds was barbaric.
This particular day, I remember that there was only one boat cleaning, and they were about finished. So the familiar half circle against the big vessel was small, with just a few tarpon. That was fine with me, I only needed one. So as soon as my friend rowed me within casting range, I cast my best Joe Brooks yellow streamer at the edge of the half circle. I was hooked up immediately.
After a few jumps, the fish left the area for deeper water, and we followed. I probably did not have the best knots those days so I suspect that my eight pound test tippet was probably closer to six pounds at best. Anyway, suffice is to say that the fight was long. At the end, the fish was dead tire and so was I. If it had been a boxing match it would have been called a tie. But I was thrilled, and so was my friend. So when we got to shore, we decided to take the tarpon home to show my dad. And to take pictures. The car never quite lost the tarpon smell.
At home, in the kitchen scale, he weight just over 20 pounds. My mom took the photos, and them both my parents, my aunt and the maid, agreed that it was time for me to dispose of this “non edible” fish.
Up to that point, I had felt that this was a most wonderful experience, and that I had learned a lot from it. But the learning was not over. To dispose of my tarpon I drove by myself to the Almendares river, only a few blocks from my home. I parked the car and walked a few hundred feet through the bushes to the water’s edge, carrying the tarpon in my arms. Then I remember gently putting it in the water and letting it slip away. The current turned him on his side, and it flashed with the light, then he was gone. I stood there for a few seconds on my knees in silence. This was sad. This was a waste. And for once, I knew it.
I had thought that landing the tarpon with my fly rod would be a great learning experience, and it was, but the real big lesson turned out to be when I had to release it. I matured quite a bit that day, and in many ways, became a better fly fisherman.