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.
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, Mont. — 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…