It winds through the northern edge of the Zapata swamp, defining the border of the largest fresh water preserve in the Caribbean. A mere two hours southeast of Havana, Rio Natiquanico is an eighteen kilometer utopia for fishermen and a bird watcher’s paradise, characterizing the best of Cuba’s environmental wonders.
Snook and tarpon for anglers, manatees and crocodiles for the naturalist, for the birders, it’s home to far too many species of fowl to list.
Chino and I met Filipe at the headwaters one morning accompanied by Michael, a fourteen-year-old American living in Columbia. The teenager is not an avid fisherman per say, but the young man has read about leaping tarpon and wants to try his hand.
The average visitor to Cuba would be hard pressed to locate the oft flooded road to the river, so much the better. Like many of this wonderful island’s secrets, you have to dig around to find it.
Penisula de Zapata is one of Cuba’s premier preserves. Its shape, resembles a Spanish boot, bordered on the east by the Bay of Cochino and ending at the Gulfo de Botapano to the west. At the heel of the boot is La Salina, one of Cuba’s premier bonefishing sites…. The toe, an isolated cienaga or swamp with no roads, no people, only accessible by machete blade or boat.
At the small dock, cool in the shade of giant trees, a brown stream flows over a small dam beginning its journey, winding and meandering, twisting and turning augmented by freshwater springs feeding clear cool water to the ever widening creek.
As we will soon see, the size of the tarpon will increase with the width of the river.
We’ll forgo the fly today substituting jigs and plugs cast with spinners. Fly is definitely an option but sinking tip line is crucial and casting in the narrow channels between thick foliage can be tricky.
Chino’s enthusiasm matches that of teenage Michael. He’s a fisherman, captain of a sportfishing boat at Marina Hemingway, winner of the 2013 Hemingway International Billfish tournament. But no matter the level of angling or the environment, with a fishing rod in hand, he transmutes back to childhood and the excitement of bringing home the snapper or jacks to augment the meager supplies of nineties Cuba.
Within minutes Chino hooks a nice snook right at the boat. The ten pound fish flashes a tannin tinted side with the defining black line denoting his species. “Conyo” yells Chino as the fish pulls the hook and disappears, returning with sore mouth to his mangrove haunt.
The river widens and Michael gets his shot when a fifty-pound tarpon grabs his rebalo plug and explodes leaping straight into the mangroves.
Filipe is desperate, attempting to turn the small craft around in the smaller river.
“I forgot to install the reverse in the engine last night” he says tongue and cheek. The equipment of this government controlled site is somewhat lacking. He uses a combination of motor and pole against the current and locates the braided line cut halfway through a tough mangrove branch the size of a man’s arm. But, there is no fish and no plug and Filipe’s disappointment is equally divided over the loss of both.
Two more bends and the river opened up to the width of an eight lane interstate highway. Filipe set two lines and we trolled plugs over a consistent bottom of hard sand averaging fourteen feet in depth. Michael and I would later confirm Filipe’s description with a cooling swim punctuated with Chino’s calls of “Look out, here comes a crocodile.”
We jumped another two tarpon losing both fish and another plug when the tarpon bit while Filipe was working on a line snafu.
A group of rowdy Australians passed and Filipe questioned their guide. “They jumps six fish.” He translated, “and landed one over one hundred pounds. It is always better to start early.”
As the boisterous Aussies disappeared back up river the quite peacefulness of the wonder river returned. Buzzards and hawks soared on tropical thermals about and the call of the large woodpecker announced the end of our excursion.
Filipe gave the helm to Michael on the ride back, a gesture that put a bright smile on the young man’s face and helped erased the disappointment of not landing his first silver king.
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