Saltwater fly-fishing, Cuban Guides & the Stockholm Syndrome
by Justin Maxwell Stuart
Prior to a recent trip to Cuba one of my close friends mentioned in passing that
despite a fishing experience par excellence he had been somewhat taken aback by the
brusque manner of his fishing guide. Now, as he was of an artistic persuasion, I
mused that maybe this was on account of his occupational outlook on life; however
I determined to reserve judgement until I had experienced the situation firsthand.
I was to fish at the Jardines de la Reina, an extraordinary fishing paradise about
100 kms west of the Cuban mainland. It consists of broken strips of Mangrove forests,
small strips of land surrounded by crystal green waters. These shallow plateaus border
an oceanic reef where the sea-bed drops away making for fantastic diving as well
as fishing. The area itself was heavily fished and exploited until Fidel Casto declared
the area a national park in response to security concerns that this isolated network
of islands created off mainland Cuba. Consequently an area which had been heavily
over exploited has now regenerated to an extent where it provides one of the best
and least exploited saltwater fishing destinations on the planet.
The fishing guides are all Cubans and for the most part have either worked since
the start of the original sport fishing operation or are subsequently connected members
of family. Their status as guides in Cuba puts them in an extremely privileged position
both in status and in pay. They are at the top of their hierarchical tree and they
have a swagger that reflects their position.
Day one and we are off Bonefishing. For those who have not fly-fished in saltwater
before this is probably the first notch on the ladder. The fish are more often plentiful,
capable of staggering runs but at times requiring the sort of patience and precision
casts that would make a chalk stream fisherman feel at home. My fishing partner and
myself score quickly notching up eight fish between us. Our guide is happy and my
concerns are dispelled. We then change tact and decide to pursue Tarpon in and around
the small mangrove channels. This requires a totally different approach, heavier
flies on a ten weight rod, different reactions, and a different method of striking
the fish. In summary we fall short of expectations. Equally, we are not rewarded
with the encouraging cosseting comments that one might expect!
Three hours later, the tables have turned. We have both miraculously caught a Tarpon
each and the glow of achievement radiates from us both. For my fishing partner it
is his first Tarpon and he is positively radiating satisfaction. As we start to head
back to the lodge our guide suggests we try for a permit. These fish notoriously
difficult to catch and will casually ignore even the best presented fly but we want
to be on the enviable edge of scoring a grand slam on our opening day. The equivalent
of a Scottish McNab it consists of catching a bonefish, tarpon and permit, in one
day on the fly. Lady luck shines and we are presented with three castable opportunities
at beautifully tailing permit. Their lazy dorsal fins rise out of the surf as they
forage amidst the waves. This is however as close as we get to grand slam victory
and whether it was our own incompetence or the finicky nature of the permit we are
rewarded with a flow of expletives as a result of our fumbled attempts.
As we return to the lodge, both brimming with the day's excitement and thrilled at
the missed opportunities, I muse on our failures, more than adequately drummed home
to us, by our guide. We are after all on holiday and have paid handsomely for the
privilege so how can it be that we are treated as incompetent schoolboys and are
chastised so. Wherever I have come across professional guides I am more often than
not struck by their dedication, the long hours they dedicate and their enviable knowledge.
I have met guides who have been intoxicating with their enthusiasm and some who are
simply intoxicated but rarely ones who express such indignity at what I feel are
my natural shortcomings.
By day three however something strange is starting to happen. Perceptibly my skills
are becoming more refined and honed as I adapt to different situations with greater
alacrity. On occasion I am still humiliated by my nemesis on his lofty poling platform
yet whilst taking the punishment on the chin, I resolve to soak in each instruction
methodically and refuse to be beaten down again. Strong winds sometimes skew my cast
or reduces my reach and for these I am admonished but I now can pre-empt his expletives
and often do so robbing him of his moment.
Emotionally however something even stranger is taking place. The idea of swapping
my guide for a more demure one seems outrageous. He is methodically efficient in
the way he manages to locate fish. He manoeuvres his boat in strong currents and
winds where I, on the time I tried, pirouetted down the channels with the grace of
a foundering oil tanker. He manages to navigate himself around literally hundreds
of kilometres of identical looking mangroves avoiding the multitude of sub-surface
obstacles with alarming speed and ease. Out here there are no signposts, no GPS and
little by way of any meaningful landmarks yet we navigate to tiny secluded corners
where the fish are holed up amidst an area of such vast wilderness you have to see
it to comprehend it.
It suddenly occurs to me that I am in the grip of the 'Stockholm Syndrome'. Where
a captive starts to identify and becomes emotionally connected to his captor. I have
the best guide and although on occasion I am verbally beaten, I soak it up like a
recalcitrant dog. So now I must conclude that my friend was right and sometimes the
guides can be bullies. But I would not swap my bully for anyone else. He was extremely
able and dedicated, maybe more so than any others I have come across. It took time
but he drummed success into every opportunity that presented itself and I have certainly
come away feeling like a more knowledgeable and more experienced fisherman.
Now that I am back home, released from my captor I can analyse my experiences more
objectively. Saltwater fly-fishing is primarily based on sight fishing. Unlike the
infinitely rewarding yet more often unsuspecting tug, as ones line goes tight when
fishing for Atlantic salmon, in saltwater, for the most part, your fish has been
spotted, stalked and all going well, cast at. Tensions and adrenaline are understandably
significantly more pronounced throughout the whole process. That is not to say there
are not other factors that are at work. Language difficulties and the pride, prestige
and reward that goes with being a successful guide all play their part.
Let me momentarily swap sides and ask the question as to the feeling expressed by
even the most demure angler when after a lengthy battle with a leviathan, at the
final crowning moment, the hook pops out as a result of a bodged net job? Expletives
flow! Blame is apportioned! Now consider the feelings of the guide when after infinite
patience, skill, and back breaking labour, (try poling a skiff and you will understand
what I mean), he has successfully manoeuvred you into the perfect casting position.
A moment later, a lazy cast or instructions ignored and the moment and opportunity
is lost. Suddenly I empathise with my guides feelings.
So maybe I am still afflicted. The Stockholm syndrome has its grip. Maybe however
the surge of excitement that goes with stalking and deceiving ones quarry, followed
by the reel spinning, arm wrenching battle that ensues means that I for one will
put personal pride aside, let the boss do the talking and enjoy some simply electrifying
fishing as a result.