Crouching at the bow of a small motorboat, trying not to make a sound, I wonder if my Cuban guide, Juan Carlos, agrees that we make for a strange scene.
You see, we’re very near where, more than half a century ago, a bunch of CIA-backed Cuban exiles tried - and failed spectacularly - to overthrow the Castro regime.
On this warm November morning, I’m part of a new kind of American invasion of the island nation’s infamous Bahia de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs, this time armed with fly rods.
The Bay is in the Cienaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, an aquatic Eden more than triple the size of the Everglades that is home to around 200 bird species, some of which exist nowhere else, along with manatees and crocodiles, plus umpteen schools of prized sport fish such as the permit, tarpon and bonefish.
Never miss a local story.
Only 10 anglers per day are allowed in the part of the reserve we’re in this morning, called Las Salinas, 80 square miles of mangrove flats just west of the Bay of Pigs. Today, I have the whole place to myself. Or, as I’ll gush later to fellow fly-rodding nerds back home: fishing heaven.
I had arrived the night before after a quick flight from my hometown of Tampa, followed by a couple-hour car ride southeast from Havana to my hotel in Playa Larga, situated at the northern tip of the bay’s beach.
Able to swing only three days of playing hooky this trip, I had decided to spend about half my time chasing bonefish and tarpons while also enjoying local culture, including home-cooked meals in family-run restaurants known as paladares.
(Yes, it is still illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba as tourists. To travel there legally, you need to do so under one of a dozen approved categories. Would-be fly fishers typically go under the “educational” or “person-to-person” categories. The outfitters who arrange these trips - in my case, Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures of Bozeman, Montana - also take care of these details.)
Soon after hitting the water with my guide, I know I’ll be back.
Juan has just finished giving me a quickie tutorial on bonefishing, including tips on casting in wind. He explains how he will direct me to cruising fish by describing the face of an imaginary horizontal clock, with the boat’s bow at high noon. Behind me he stands atop a short platform, gently poling the skiff over improbably clear water.
“Be ready,” he stage-whispers, eyes on the shallows somewhere ahead. “Eleven o’clock. Thirty meters. Cast. Now.” Though unable to see the fish, I do as commanded. I pause for a couple of seconds, letting the tiny Rubber-Legged Gotcha fly sink the foot or so to the sandy bottom, then faintly twitch the line in my left hand, hoping to make the lure appear to be a hapless crab.
At first, I wonder if I’m imagining the bump of a fish inhaling the fly. With my left hand, I give the line a sharp yank. A moment later, the hooked fish bolts.
“What a pretty sound,” Juan says of my whirring reel’s high-pitched whine.
Several minutes and as many runs later, I’m cradling my first-ever bonefish before releasing it.
“Big boy,” Juan says of the sleek near-five-pounder. Boys, he explains, are what he calls all bonefish because the Spanish word for them, macabi, is masculine. Similarly, permit are girls. Tarpons, because of grammatical gender and size, are big guys.
Spooky boys are bonefish alerted to the presence of an angler. With my erratic casting skills and adrenaline-addled eagerness, it is a term I hear often today. Still, Juan is as patient as he is talented at putting me in front of many dozens of bonefish. By late afternoon, as we head back to the dock, I’ve landed and released a respectable seven bonefish.
By car, we make our bumpy way back down the dozen-odd-mile, single-lane dirt road we came by. Again we pass flocks of bright-pink flamingoes wading in shallow waters in search of shrimp. On the road ahead, we glimpse skinny wild dogs, which vanish as we approach. Though normally wary of people, they can be dangerous, especially during mating season, Juan says. His brother was once treed for several hours by a grumpy canine Romeo.
After a quick shower and can of cold Cristal Cuban beer at my hotel’s little beachside bar, I’m off to dinner at my first paladar, Chuchi el Pescador, a few minutes’ taxi drive away. Like most, it’s a home turned into a small restaurant.
Two teenage waitresses lip-sync lyrics to Cuban pop songs playing on a nearby radio while delivering courses of delicious roasted and marinated (and locally caught) lobster, squid and octopus to me and a handful of European fellow diners.
A long day of fishing - and ambitious sampling of my new favorite beer - convinces me to reluctantly decline my driver’s offer to show me the local nightlife in favor of sleep.
The next day brings non-fishing activities, including visits to a crocodile zoo and a kitschy replica Indian village on an island that wouldn’t be out of place in my home state of Florida.
By midday, I’m starting to regret my decision to take a break from fishing, until my driver suggests a stop at the Cueva de los Peces, or Cave of Fish. True to its name, the pondlike saltwater cave is home to fish. Then I walk across the road to try snorkeling in the bay, teaming with sea life, including colorful corals. Only hunger and a lack of sunscreen finally pull me from the sea.
After a lunch of grilled fish and cups of sweet, dark Cuban coffee, we drive a handful of miles southeast along the Bay, past billboards denouncing U.S. imperialism, to the village of Giron. The site of some of the heaviest fighting during the Bay of Pigs invasion, the seaside hamlet also has a museum commemorating the conflict and Cuban victory. If the woman who sells me my entry ticket, or any of the other folks who work here, have mixed feelings about an American visiting, I wouldn’t know it from their warm greetings.
This evening’s meal at another paladar, Restaurant Don Alexis, offers fresh surprises: venison and crocodile, grilled tableside over charcoal by the gregarious proprietor and chef, Alexis, who seems as delighted to share his food as practice his English.
By the third morning, I’ve quit bothering to set my alarm, ceding the job to a local rooster’s punctual and full-throated crowing.
A half-hour drive north brings me to Rio Hatiguanico, a freshwater haven for tarpon fishing. I tie a finger-length, black-and-purple tarpon fly on my line as my guide, Alfredo Gonzalez Marrero, slaloms our boat up the twisty river. I’m the sole angler on the river today.
Killing the motor, Alfredo points upstream. “Tarpon rolling,” he says, pointing to a narrow spot in the river where something big and silvery briefly surfaced.
I cast down the middle of the leafy tunnel. Stunned by the sight of a tarpon’s maw engulfing my lure, I hesitate and strike late, missing my chance. I cast again. This time, I set the hook and the leg-long fish leaps skyward, shaking free of the lure. As bites taper off, we pull anchor and head farther upstream, eyes out for telltale rolling of feeding tarpons.
The first - and only - fish I land today is a nice-sized snook. I imagine my fishing pals would be bummed to miss catching a tarpon. But as we head back down the river that afternoon, I feel lucky just to have come here.
Abercrombie is a writer based in Tampa. His website is paulabercrombie.com; find him on Twitter at @paulabercrombie.
If you go
Where to stay
Hotel Playa Larga
Several dozen one- and two-room cinderblock bungalows, with air conditioning. There also is a main dining room (serving breakfast, lunch and dinner), beachside bar and dance floor. Rooms start at around $45 per night.
Casa Zuleida y Vinola
A charming beachside hotel and restaurant run by a local fly-fishing guide and his wife. Rooms start at around $30 per night.
Rooms and whole houses also available for rent through Airbnb.com and Homestay.com.
Where to eat
Chuchi el Pescador
A cozy paladar (family-run restaurant based in a home) that serves local seafood dishes. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations recommended. Dishes start at around $2.
Restaurant Don Alexis
A popular, graffiti-festooned paladar. Its specialties include charcoal-grilled venison and crocodile. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations recommended. Dishes start at around $2.
What to do
Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures
Global fly fishing-centric travel agency offering guided trips to (so far) several areas around Cuba, where fishing without a sanctioned guide in protected areas is illegal. Land-based and live-aboard-boat-based trips for groups and individuals available. Basic guided fishing in the Playa Larga area is around $700 per angler, per day, including round-trip transportation to and from Havana. The company can also arrange for you accommodations and non-fishing activities.
Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fish)
Halfway between Playa Larga and Playa Girón, on main coastal road
A local roadside attraction featuring flooded cave inhabited by, yes, fish. No entrance fee here or across the road in the bay. Shack-like dive shop rents SCUBA and snorkeling gear. Open daily.
Museo Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs Museum)
Small but surprisingly interesting museum dedicated to the Bay of Pigs invasion. Though all captions and other text are in Spanish, photos and other artifacts do a good job of telling the story from the Cuban perspective, as do the remains of an American bomber and other military vehicles. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Entrance fee of around $2 per person.