The decades old van rumbled and bounced down the marl road past flaming red flamingos sifting brine shrimp through ceramic painted beaks. Ahead, at the road’s end lay our destination, the shallow clear waters of La Salina, Cuba.
Once a hub of salt mining, this isolated point at the southern tip of the Zapata peninsular now attracts fly fishermen from around the world. Set within the Zapata swamp –the largest wetland preserve in the Caribbean – just two hours outside bustling Havana, La Salina seems light years away from Cuba’s capitol city.
When Dr. Robert Douville boarded the charter plane in Key West he had never heard of La Salina. The southernmost city ophthalmologist was bound for Cuba to confer with counterparts he’s been consulting with for years.
Spotting my fly rod case, Doc instigated a conversation about fishing in Cuba that lasted throughout the fifty minute flight. Phone numbers were exchanged and plans were hastily made for a joint journey to Zapata.
Four mornings later we left a sleeping Havana under a brightening sky, speeding southeast down the divided highway called an autopisto. Later, tour buses and groups of birders would follow, depositing there human cargo at the crocodile farm before continuing on to Playa Giron, known to Americans as “The Bay of Pigs.”
Access to La Salina is limited and strictly controlled. Advance reservation are required and only six skiffs are available for booking. These shallow water, non-motorized craft, powered by pole hold a single angler and guide, and of course a fly rod or two.
Our guides, Julio and Elio are both over sixty, fit and honed by days on the pole and bronzed by years under Cuba’s tropical sun. And, like most fishermen I’ve met in Cuba, they’re knowledgeable, proud and partial to Americans, regarding us as neighbors and friends.
In less than fifteen minutes Julio has led us into the first mangrove pasture, entering this watery garden on the flood tide of a waxing moon. Responding to his instructions, we stand legs spread, balanced precariously in the bow of a craft resembling more a dugout canoe than a Hells Bay Skiff.
Silence now is our friend and the sound is deafening, the stillness only interrupted by the soft swish of the pole and the scrape of nursling mangrove shoots against the fiberglass hull.
Within minutes the first bonefish is spotted, gliding along the edge of a storm damaged mangrove clump. Its dark silhouette easily spotted against the lighter brown of the rich bottom as the seven pound fish meanders, unaware of our presence.
This would be the program of the morning with singles, pairs and sometimes trios of bones scattered, fining, tailing and feeding in areas only accessible on the high water. Later groups would form into protective schools of twenty fish or more, moving in unison, driven from the cover by the falling water.
Stopping for lunch we anchored together, chatting with our new Cuban friends, bursting with excitement over the plentiful fish, the serenity of the area and the richness of the environment.
“I can’t remember the last time I fished and didn’t see another boat.” Doc said, between bites of a fresh Cuban orange, angel finger bananas and smoked ham and cheese, sandwiched between slices of freshly baked bread.
“The real challenge,” I added, “Is not finding or hooking these fish. It’s landing them among the roots and mangrove shoots.”
We had lost several this morning while our guides pushed, instructed and dodged around what can only be dubbed as a bonefish obstacle course.
Doc kicked back watching a pair of pink Flamingos crossing the blue sky, headed to join the feeding frenzy of their peers.
“I began practicing medicine in Key West in the eighties.” He said. “I love Key’s fishing, but I could very easily get used to this.”
Capt. Phil Thompson