Cuba

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Our guides peel shrimp on the Avalon's stern. Photos by David Lansing.

I was down in my stateroom, lying on my bunk, alternately dosing and reading, when I felt the Avalon slow, shutter, and then come to a dead stop in the water.  Since I knew we were in the middle of the open ocean, still a couple hours away from the port of Jucaro, I assumed the worst: That the boat was having engine problems. I quickly scrambled topside to see what the problem was.

A couple of the guides, as well as Leissan and Jorge, were scrambling around the sides of the boat. I went out on the bow. Headed straight for us was a rusty old fishing trawler with black nets flapping from extended booms making it look like a sad old pelican bobbing in the water. My first thought was that the trawler was in some sort of trouble and we’d stopped to help out. But Suliet told me that it was a shrimp boat and our captain had made a deal over the radio to trade for some of their shrimp.

An hour later, the shrimp were on the table.

So the shrimping boat swung around to our stern and Eric, the captain of Avalon, slowly backed the boat up close enough that we could make the exchange: a bushel of fresh shrimp for four dozen eggs and a bottle of rum.

Once the exchange was made, the guides dumped the bushel of shrimp on the stern and, with the Avalon once again headed for Jucaro, peeled what looked like about 150 or so shrimp. An hour later, Eduardo had cooked them in a spicy red sauce and Suliet was serving them for lunch. What a perfect way to end the trip.

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The last morning

Hardy and Nick perched on top of the world on our last morning in the Jardines. Photos by David Lansing.

We ended our stay in the Gardens of the Queen the way we began it, with Hardy and Fletch fishing with their sons, Cam and Nick, and Greg and I together with Keko. The last morning on the boat is like finishing the last few pages of a book you wish wouldn’t end. Usually there’s always one or two stragglers making a late appearance for breakfast but this morning everyone was topside early. Greg was doing his back stretches when I came up shortly after six. Fletch and Nick were quietly reading. Hardy was organizing his gear and Cam was listening to music on his iPod.

Suliet started bringing breakfast to the table and asked how everyone would like their eggs. I drank a cup of coffee and looked out over the water towards the old fishing boat wreck on the edge of the mangroves. A cormorant was standing atop of the  wheelhouse drying his wings. He was facing the rising sun and the honeyed light it cast on him made him look a bit like some ridiculous character trying to catch an early morning tan. The conversation around the breakfast table was subdued. In the beginning we had all been very keen on keeping a notebook with the totals of our daily catch—who caught the first bonefish or tarpon; who caught the most—but nobody showed any interest when Cam asked if he should total everything up. It wasn’t that we weren’t interested in knowing, it’s just that by totaling it all up we’d be acknowledging that the trip was over and we still had a few hours left of fishing this morning.

We took off in the skiffs about 7:30. Just as on the first day, Greg and I went with Keko. He told us that the Avalon would lift anchor shortly after we went out fishing and move to the staging area by the permanent boat, Tortuga. We had to be back at the Avalon by 10:30 for the four hour journey back to Jucaro.

I did not care about the fishing this morning. All I wanted to do was sit in the skiff as Keko poled, taking in the Jardines for the last time, memorizing the sad cry of a scarlet ibis flying over the mangroves and the way the light shined like broken glass on the surface of the shallow flats and the way your cracked lips always tasted of salt when you were on the water. We had said two years ago that that would be our last trip to the Jardines, but we had come back for one more adventure and it had truly been the best of the four trips but it seemed unlikely we would come back again. So I wanted the feelings that I had in the Jardines to tattoo themselves on my soul so they would always be there for me and I could recall precisely what it felt like to be in this preserve where there were still many turtles and sharks and wild birds and fishes of ever kind. I wanted to have this moment etched in my mind forever because I knew it would not stay like this, that it was something rare and precious that I had experienced now four times, perhaps for the last.

Keko headed the Dolphin skiff south, skirting the outer edges of the mangroves, but every time he came around a bend and slowed the engine we discovered a boat already there with the guides working the shallows. All week long we had had the Jardines to ourselves but suddenly it seemed crowded. That’s because the clients on Tortuga and Halcon also had to be back at their boats by 10:30 so everyone was working as close to the mothership as possible. Nonetheless, Keko decided it would be better to go further away, even if it took us more time to get there, and fish where no one else was going. He took Greg and I back to the bonefish honeyhole, that unique spot of U-shaped reef where, if the tide was right, the bones massed and where Greg and I had caught 14 bones in a little over two hours earlier in the trip.

Greg catches the last fish of the trip. Photo by David Lansing.

As before, Greg got out of the skiff and walked about fifty feet away from the boat, setting up at a 90 degree angle from where I was on the tip of the boat. The morning light was such that even with polarized glasses it was almost impossible to see beneath the glare of the water’s surface so we were blind casting, but since we’d been here before and knew the contours of the reef we at least had an idea of where the bones might be if they were around. We both tossed our flies out in the honeyhole and stripped in short, quick bursts, the way Keko had taught us, but neither one of us was getting any hits. I didn’t care. I just liked the motion of whipping the line behind me, feeling it load, and snapping it forward so that it shot out in a straight line for forty or fifty feet. I would have been happy to do this for an hour even if I knew for certain there were no bonefish in the area.

Keko kept glancing at his watch and finally he said to reel in, that it was time to go. Greg was still a good forty feet away from the skiff and although I knew he could hear Keko, he was ignoring him. I reeled in and sat in the boat watching Greg cast. It was a thing of beauty. Such pure, simple movement, the line whipping back and then bam, he’d bring down the hammer and the fly would dart out maybe a hundred feet in front of him. Keko kept looking at his watch but didn’t say anything. Greg knew it was time to leave. “Just two more casts, Keko,” he said. “Just give me two more.”

Keko was silent. We both watched Greg cast a very long ways and start stripping the line and neither of us was really surprised when we saw it go tight and Greg’s pole bend at the tip. He laughed, pleased with himself, and we laughed as well. He played the fish for longer than normal, letting it run whenever it wanted. Finally he brought it in and held it up for us to see. It wasn’t a particularly large bonefish. Certainly nothing compared to the ones we’d caught in this same spot at the beginning of the trip. But it did not matter. It was the appropriate ending to the trip. Greg carefully removed the fly from the bone’s mouth, gently put it back in the water, moving it from side to side to get water into its gills, and the set it free. We watched it slowly swim away. Then Greg walked back to the skiff, got in, and silently we headed back to Avalon, our fishing adventure over.

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Lunch on an island

Last night we asked Suliet if it would be possible for Eduardo to pack lunches for us today so we would not have to come back to the Avalon to eat. The end of the week is quickly approaching and we’re all becoming more aware of exactly how few hours we have left on the water and we want to make the most of it. Suliet said it would not be a problem. She would instruct Eduardo to make up some sandwiches in the morning and she would tell the guides that we would go out fishing after a morning dive and stay out the entire day.

The boys got back from diving around ten and by ten-thirty we were back out on the water fishing for bonefish. In the past we have had our lunches on an old lobster barge parked in the mangroves but the last hurricane that came through the Jardines a couple of years ago sank the barge. Instead the guides had decided that we would gather around one or so on a little island where there was once a fisherman’s hut, built long, long ago. The guides have carved out an area on the white sand where the hut was and have used the scrap to set up a little impromptu benches and a table. They’ve also hung a couple of hammocks from trees in the shade right down on the beach.

Cam snoozes after lunch on the island. Photo by David Lansing.

I was fishing with Cam and Fletch was with Greg. Hardy and Nick were off somewhere with Jimmi, looking for tarpon, and we weren’t sure they’d make it back to the island so they took their own lunches and sure enough we didn’t see them. It was a fine spot for a picnic. There was just enough speckled shade to keep the hot sun off of you and the sand beneath our feet was white and fine. By the time Cam and I got there, Fletch and Greg were already eating. We had some cheese sandwiches and rice with chicken and cold Kristal beers. After eating, Fletch and Cam made hollow spots in the sand and stretched out under the shade. Keko and Coki swung in the hammocks, chattering in Spanish, talking about the areas they’d taken us to go fishing and what we’d seen. A couple of hermit crabs came by while everyone was taking a little siesta, carrying their homes on their backs, looking for scraps from our sandwiches.

I was just about ready to fall asleep in the shade when Coki came up and said it was time to go. “Five minutes more,” I said, keeping my eyes closed. He looked at the rest of the boys who were all conked out as well. “Okay,” said Coki. “Just five minutes.”

And sure enough, in exactly five minutes Coki was back, gathering up the garbage and the leftovers from our lunch. Time to go, he said. We are here to fish, not sleep. We gathered up our packs, helped load the garbage into the skiffs, and pushed off from the island. “Now, my friend,” said Coki over the roar of the outboard engine, “we go for tarpon.”

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The easiest way to fly-fish for bonefish is to stand knee-deep in clear water over a sandy bottom, moving parallel to the shore as the school of bones move. The most difficult way to catch bones with a fly is to fish from the nose of a skiff in muddy water dotted with young mangroves. If you are lucky enough not to land a fly in the swaying arms of the mangroves themselves and to actually hook a fish then you have to contend with the bone wrapping the line around and around a juvenile bush until the line breaks. It’s a frustrating way to fish.

Yesterday Nick and I were out fishing with Keko in one of those difficult patches of water where small mangroves rise up out of the water like weeds in an abandoned lot. Nick did a good job casting where Keko wanted him to, avoiding this mangrove and that until he was able to hook a bone. The fish took off with his line, as they are want to do, and it wasn’t two minutes before it had wrapped itself around not just one but two small mangroves.

Keko didn’t hesitate for a second. As soon as he saw that the fish was stuck and about to break the line, he jumped out of the boat and went after it. Now this may sound easy to do but it’s not. For one thing the bottom was extremely gooey and after every other step, Keko would sink down into the muck. For another thing, we were perched over turtle grass so he couldn’t really see the bottom. There might be jellyfish floating a few feet below the surface or a stingray or two gliding just off the bottom. Or he could step on a spiky conch shell or a hunk of dead coral. It’s treacherous out there.

No matter. Nick had a good-size bone on the line that was fouled in a bush and Keko was going to go rescue it. With one hand holding Nick’s line and the other outstretched for balance, Keko forged ahead until he’d reached the first mangrove the fish had gone around. He carefully followed the line around the bush and lifted it free. Then he headed at a 90 degree angle towards the second mangrove where the fish was really tangled good. Following the line, he untangled it until he came to the fish. He reached down in the muddy water and brought it up. It was a monster. Then, after he’d cleared the line, he released it and instructed Nick to start reeling in fast. Nick did as he was told and a few minutes later the bone, which Keko estimated to be between five and six pounds was at the boat. You can watch the whole thing on the video above.

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The boat spy

Hardy was feeling pretty damn good about himself on Sunday after landing several bones and a tarpon, his second of the trip. Actually, everyone had a fine day. Cam got four bones, Nick had a couple as well and a barracuda, and Greg got a nice-sized yellowjack which he brought back for dinner. When Hardy has had a particularly good day, as he did yesterday, he likes to gather his friends around him and wax on about how fine life can be. “Enjoy it, lads,” he’ll say. “Carpe diem.”

Usually after a day of fishing we sit around the lounge area of the Avalon. Suliet will make us cocktails—a different one every night—and then bring up one of Eduardo’s pizzas for an appetizer. But yesterday we finished fishing a little earlier than usual and it was still a very fine evening, calm and warm with no wind, so Hardy rounded up the group, grabbed the cigars and pizza, and headed up to the very top of the boat where everyone could sit around smoking their Cohibas and watching the sunset.

I’d forgotten to take sunscreen out with me in the afternoon and so was feeling a little dry and crispy and decided I’d let the boys have their cigars while I spread out on one of the wicker lounges and just relaxed. Suliet came out from the crew quarters and joined me and then Eric, the boat’s captain came out as well. This is rare. We have conversations with the crew all week long, of course, but seldom is there an intersection of work and pleasure where you can actually sit down with a couple of crew members and have a conversation.

Suliet was extremely amused when I asked who was the boat spy. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

Suliet wanted to know how the trip was going so far and if there was anything the crew could do, now or in the future, that would make the experience even better. I told her we were all very happy being on the Avalon and felt that we not only had gotten the best guides we’d ever had but also the best overall crew. And it was true. Eric speaks a little English but Suliet asked my permission to translate what I said into Spanish for him. He listened to her carefully and nodded, pleased.

“Now I’ve got a question for you,” I said. “Would you mind telling me who the spy is on the boat?”

“Excuse me?” she said, thinking perhaps she hadn’t heard me properly. “The spy?”

“At first we thought it might be Coki,” I told her, “but he’s too good a guide and fisherman to have time for spying so now we think it must be Leissan.”

Leissan was like an assistant on the boat. I don’t know what his exact title was. He was just one of the guys in the background who did whatever was asked of him from hosing down the dive equipment to bringing up platters of food from the galley. He was also extremely buff and had a bearing about him as if he’d been in the military at one time—or still was.

“You think Leissan is a spy?” Suliet said, laughing.

“Well, or maybe Jorge.”

Suliet started to laugh in that way when something is so funny that even if you try to stop laughing you can’t. “Please,” she said when she could catch her breath, “may I tell the captain this?”

Sure, I told her. Still laughing, she told the captain that we thought Leissan was a Cuban spy. The captain started laughing just as hard as Suliet. They’d look at each other, say Leissan’s name, and then bend over in fits of hilarity. The captain said something to Suliet and she said to me, “Please, he would like to know why you think Leissan is a spy.”

I told her that we figured every boat had to have a spy on it. Otherwise, what would prevent the crew from taking the boat to Miami. Surely there must be somebody on board associated with the military or security to make sure the crew stayed in line and also to hear what the American customers were up to. Suliet found this so hilarious that she started laughing and crying at the same time. She was laughing so hard I was afraid she was going to throw up. She translated it for Eric and he also got tears in his eyes laughing.

When they could finally breath again, Suliet assured me there were no spies on the boat. Particularly not Leissan. They do not need spies, she said. We all have families. Kids. You could leave us alone on this boat for a month and we wouldn’t go anywhere she said. Besides, we all like our jobs. And we make good money. And then she said the word “spy” again and started laughing. When she had partially composed herself again, she asked me if I would mind if she went and told Leissan and the others this story. “It is a very funny story,” she assured me.

And then she and the captain headed back towards the crew quarters, both of them giggling like little kids, anxious to go tell the Cuban crew the hilarious story of how the Americans think there is a spy on the boat.

I was just glad I could entertain them.

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