Fly-fishing is kind of like golf. You alone hold the tools in your hands and you alone are responsible for a good shot, or a bad one.
Sure, you can blame the wind, the light, Mother Nature or the equipment if you make a bad cast or send a ball into the rough. But that’s your ego looking for an excuse to take the blame. The truth of the matter is it’s up to you to make a good placement with the fly, and like golf, you’re going to slice it once in a while.
You may be wading a flat or casting from the bow of a skiff with a veteran guide coaching you along, but it is just you holding that rod. I think that’s what makes fly-fishing, and golf for that matter, so rewarding. When you get a great shot and it all comes together, it feels fucking outstanding. Not just because of the tug of the fish, but the build up. The false casts, the repositioning, the changing of flies and tippet, the break offs, so many goddamn break offs! All of that torture will eventually lead to success. But you have to stick with it. You have to listen. You have to park your ego and take joy in the journey. If you don’t, you’ll end up throwing your clubs, or your fly rod, in the drink.
I’ve heard a lot of frustrated fishermen say they’re going to take up golf after losing a trophy fish. I usually respond to such nonsense by saying, “Golf is even harder!” But at least both sports make room for a cooler full of beer.
A CUBAN GUIDE AND A HAPPY GRINGO
I caught my first bonefish on fly in Cuba. It was not exactly easy, but I had the best coach in the world. I had been invited on a media trip to fish the Jardines de le Reina, the Gardens of the Queen, a vast protected archipelago of mangrove keys that stretches nearly 850 miles. It took me two days to get there, and I embarked from Orlando, Florida, less than 600 miles away. It was 2012, before Obama weakened travel restrictions to Cuba. We had to fly to Cancun, Mexico, where I met up with the group of journalists I’d be traveling with, a ragtag flock of fly guys who wrote for the best fly-fishing mags in the world. These guys were expert casters. Some of them were former guides, most were world travelers and all of them were great story tellers. I felt a bit out of place. I am only a part-time fly guy. I mostly fish with spinning rods when I head to the flats. I was the token bait dunker, but I was among the best group of fly-fishers in the world to learn from.
From Cancun we flew to Havana where we would spend the night in a very nice hotel located in the center of the city next to the central park. My head never hit the pillow. We took a classic Chevy convertible on a tour of the city, ate at a beautiful open-air restaurant in front of a once-grand cathedral that dated back to the 1600s, and we ended up at Cafe de Musica, a music filled nightclub, drinking till five in the morning and admiring the moves of the well-dressed Cubans on the dance floor. A quick shower at the hotel and then we boarded a bus for a six-hour drive across the island nation. We all slept through most of the bus ride. Then we hopped on a boat to take us to the Jardines, another six-hour ride but this time across glistening blue waters. By the time we arrived to our floating camp, there was only one thing I wanted to do… go fishing!
The guides met us on the deck of Tortuga, our mothership / hotel / cafeteria / bar. All of the guides were dressed in yellow ‘Avalon‘ fishing shirts, the company that runs this operation. They were friendly and most spoke very good English. A few spoke marginal English, but wore eager smiles. They helped us get our fishing gear ready. I had brought two travel spinning rods, a 9-weight fly rod and a 12-weight fly rod. They were more interested in my fly-fishing gear. Fly guys make up the majority of their clientele. The anglers paired up and headed out with a guide. I went fishing with Bjorn, a blogger and bonefish junkie. He runs Bonefishonthebrain.com. He was jacked up like a kid who had just drank his first Coke after eating three Oreos. We didn’t go far from the Tortuga, as it was already late in the afternoon. I was a bit slow to bust out my fly gear and opted for a spinning rod. It was strange, I felt a bit inadequate fishing next to Bjorn as he made long beautiful casts, presenting his hand-tied flies perfectly with not even a splash. The loop in his fly line unfolded majestically, like a banana. I flipped the bail on my reel and zipped bucktails and lead-head jigs with soft-plastic shad bodies across the mangrove flat. It didn’t take long for us to catch fish. Bjorn landed a mangrove snapper on his second cast. I caught some too. He also caught a nice jack and a baby barracuda. I jumped a juvenile tarpon that turned my bucktail into a corkscrew before jetting off to the great unknown.
I asked Bjorn for some casting tips and he happily obliged. It was nice to know that he didn’t think less of me as a bait dunker. And he had me casting a good 10 feet farther with just a couple of tips. One thing about fishing, and anything in general, is it’s okay to park your ego aside and ask for help. In fact, people respond to it. It’s a lot easier to learn this way, rather than trying to figure out everything on your own.
The sun began to fall and we headed back to Tortuga for dinner, drinks and some much-needed sleep.
We motored out early the next morning, and I told the guide, named Michael, that I really wanted to catch a bonefish on fly. He patted me on the shoulder and assured me that he would make it happen. “But first, tarpon!” he said. We ran to the “boca” or mouth of the mangrove creeks to catch a tide and cast for tarpon. We staked out and made blind casts for 30 minutes or so until we saw the brown submarines closing in. Big fish. My knees began to knock. We took turns on the bow, casting. I made a decent enough cast and a 3-foot-long beast turned on it. To set the hook on a tarpon requires a solid tug on the line. These fish have bony mouths. I was hooked up for about 15 seconds. It was the craziest 15 seconds of my life. The fish went airborne, took an immediate left turn and the fly line zipped out of my hands like hot rope. Ka-pow. The fish was gone. The line had wrapped around the butt of the rod. Game over.
Then I got to watch one of the seasoned guides from Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures catch one of these beasts so perfectly and with such ease that I nearly bowed at his feet. But he was cool about it. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “You have to pull the opposite way the fish is going, and a little luck never hurts.”
That afternoon Michael beached the boat on a sandy flat and had me hop out with the 9-weight. He put a couple of flies in his shirt pocket and walked with me. “We go find your bonefish,” he said. Poling up onto a fish is exciting. Wading up to one is gratifying. We stopped about 300 yards from the boat and he asked to see me cast. He pointed to rocks and things to see if I could get close to the targets. I was off about two feet off on average. He stood behind me and held my right arm in his hand, pulling it back and forward saying “stop” at about the eleven o’clock and two o’clock positions. Before too long, my casts were looking more like Bjorn’s. We started to walk again, but he let me get ahead about 20 feet ahead of him. I was stuck in my own head, thinking about my cast. Wondering if I had the best fly tied on. Was the tippet okay? Then Michael whistled. I stopped dead and turned back. He pointed out to my left. I looked and saw the fish tailing, head down in the mud. I began my cast… eleven o’clock, two o’clock… back and forth a few times to build momentum and get more line out. Then I let the fly land. “Strip, strip!” Michael said. The fly went by the head of the fish and it bolted after the little shrimp pattern. I didn’t have to set the hook on this one. The fish took off like a happy dog, flying across the flat. The slack line ran through my fingertips and came tight on the reel. I wish I could’ve seen my face. So proud. So happy.
I landed the bonefish. It was beautiful. Built for speed. Silver lightening. I’ll never forget that fish.