A crowing rooster roused me from sleep, not unusual in Key West, Florida. But when the pig grunted, welcoming the morning and I inhaled the aroma of last night’s Cohiba cigar lingering in the air it dawned, I’m a little farther south……a tad over ninety miles south to be exact, fifteen minutes west of Havana, Cuba.
My crib is a small, comfortable room in a private house, (Casa particular) in Jaimanitas, a suburb of Cuba’s capital city. The town sits on the mouth of a mangrove lined, dark river flowing into the blue Atlantic. This is my second morning at the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast and already my landlords regard me as their own. This is the Cuban way. This adoption process takes place daily throughout the country with visitors who seek sun and rum on the largest Caribbean island. But with Americans it’s different. America and Cuba are neighbors, practically kin.
My mission is to check out Cuba’s fishing, and to see if the wide variety of angling options can be tapped on a modest budget. I want to see the country and talk to the people whose livelihood is fishing. From past visits to the island, I’m familiar with Cuba’s two party financial systems. There’s the government mandated economy and the private sector with its lower prices and unique standard of service.
As I lay awaiting the sun, listening to the grunting pig and the crowing roosters, my arrival at Jose Marti airport and the improved emigration process comes to mind. On past visits the government demanded to know exactly where I would stay each night. Yesterday, when informed of my opened-ended fishing schedule the official merely stamped my visa and said. “Have a nice stay.”
Chino, an old friend and newly appointed guide and I will spend the week searching out fishing holes within easy reach of Havana. Our transportation is his 1952 Chevrolet super glide. “It’s an international car.” Chino said, beaming with pride at the freshly painted aqua and white reminder of another age. The engine is a Peugeot diesel, the brakes from an Audi, and the transmission and steering wheel are courtesy of Toyota. Chino couldn’t have been prouder had the car been a new Rolls Royce.
Running into Chino and his ancient auto was a stroke of luck, not genius. A lack of fluent Spanish can make any trip to the countryside – where road signs are as scarce as Americans – frustrating. Cars with English speaking drivers are readily available in Cuba.
For first time travelers to Cuba, Havana is a must see. Narrow stone streets separate magnificent architectural monuments in this former colonial capital…. it exudes old world charm. At night, except for the tropical aromas and reggaeton beat, it could well be Seville or any number of European enclaves. Take heart fishing junkies. Even if you fall under the city’s spell of scent and sound, an angling fix is close.
Fifteen minutes west of the bustling city sits Marina Hemingway. A port of entry, it’s home to a charter fishing fleet. Modest priced half and full day trips seldom venture out of sight of land.
Most half day excursions troll the cobalt waters east to the mouth of Havana Harbor where the view is spectacular and captains work the tide line. Full days often continue east to the deep waters off Cojimar where a Tim Tebow pass thrown from shore would land in a thousand feet of water. This small, sharp-cliff seaside village – made famous by Hemingway – is also known for its broad-bill swordfish population
Marlin, sails, dolphin, wahoo and tuna are the primary target species. According to captain Jose Enquries – a man who eats and sleeps marlin – early summer through fall are best for bill-fish with larger blues showing up in September.
Jose adds that fall is also the time for wolf-packing wahoo. These predatory packs prowl close to shore between Marina Hemingway and Marial Harbor to the west. So close in fact that captains often blow horns to alert inner-tube floating fishermen and free divers, hunting in the path of the trolling boats. Four rods down at a time is not uncommon, most fish are in the twenty to forty pound range.
The marina is also host to the early summer Hemingway marlin tournament, one of the oldest billfish contest in the world.
It’s a wise to pack a few of your favorite lures as the supply is limited. Most Cuban charter captains would prefer the gift of a modern chugger-head to a tip at the end of the trip.
For the inshore fisherman there are alternatives to hand lining snapper off the Malecon, Havana’s famous seaside esplanade. Snook and a few tarpon are found in the brackish river mouths west of the city along the seaside Marial autopista. In the beautiful beach town of Playa Baracoa, snapper, jacks and barracuda are within casting distance of shore.
Unusual bone fishing may be an option. Native guide Chino claims, very large bones are caught off both the mouth of the Jaimanitas River and the adjacent town of Santa Fe. After digging small red sand worms, Chino wades waist deep and shuffles his feet creating a mud that attracts the fish. Then he backs away and casts the bait into the cloud.
So pack a rod anglers. Even if an extra couple evenings in Havana are desired, it doesn’t mean you can’t fish, and still dance the night away.