Even before we docked for the first time in Marina Hemingway in Cuba, it was obvious that many Cubans are either incredibly smart and strong or desperate and reckless.
The first Cuban boat we saw was a huge styrofoam block that a fisherman had cut into the shape of a boat and had paddled two miles into the Gulf to fish for mahi mahi with a hand line. This was not the only improvised boat we saw. There were others made out of car hoods, wooden shipping pallets, bundles of bamboo on rubber inner tubes and 20 to 30 buoys tied or taped together.
That first impression was just part of a fascinating trip to a country that once was off-limits to American fishermen. I was there to compete in the 66th annual Ernest Hemingway Billfish Tournament during the first week of June. I was asked by a great friend, Bob Whitlock, and several of his fishing buddies from Fort Myers, Fla.
Bob and his friends fish from Fort Myers through the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, and all had some experience fishing for billfish. I have fished throughout the United States, including several times in Alaska and Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, St. Kitts, Bequia, Mexico and even Israel. For many years, I have fished in Canada (including above the Artic Circle). However, I had no experience with billfish.
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But I jumped at the chance to fish in this special tournament in a special place. The waters around Cuba are deep blue, crystal clear and have tremendous sport fishing opportunities. The northern shoreline is nourished by the fertile waters of the gulf stream current.
This current contains the chain of life that puts Cuba in the path of a wide variety of pelagic species such as blue and white marlin, sailfish, as well as multiple species of tuna, mahi mahi, and wahoo. The underwater canyons and deep trench that lie extremely close to Havana combine with the gulf stream current to create an amazing place to target billfish. The inland lakes are reputed to have outstanding bass fishing that has never been touched by tourists.
This tournament was full of tradition Ernest Hemingway founded, fished in and won several times. This was just the second year since the United States began its embargo of Cuba that boats from the U.S. could legally fish in the tournament.
This year, 97 boats entered, and half were from the United States. This tournament was considered by Cuba to be one of the most important events of the year because it offered exposure to the world. In addition to the teams from Cuba and the United States, there were boats from Canada, Lithuania, Argentina, Russia, Holland, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain, Italy and France.
Billfish include white marlin, which can weigh up to 100 pounds, sailfish, which usually run in the 40- to 60-pound range, and blue marlin, which can grow up to 500 pounds in Cuban waters. In other parts of the world, blue Marlin can exceed 1,000 pounds.
The tournament does not allow the fishermen to take the fish out of the water, and each crew must produce videos or photographs of all fish being safely released without being harmed. To be counted as a catch by a team/boat, a team member must touch the leader while the fish is hooked, and there must be a video or photograph of the fish, while a team member is touching the leader, with enough detail to confirm its species.
This is difficult because the leaders are sometimes 25 to 30 feet long, the fish might be 20 feet underwater and the fish never stops moving, so everyone on the team must work together to getting the fish close enough to properly photograph or video in order to get credit for the catch.
In this tournament, the size of the fish was not a factor because the fish weren’t weighed, but each sailfish earned 150 points, white marlin were 300 points and every blue marlin was 500 points. Trolling with teasers, which are hookless lures designed to get the fish’s attention, combined with hooked lures and natural baits, was our game plan.
It appears that the first and foremost goal of a billfish fisherman is to persuade the fish to swim up to the surface. Billfish are found in waters up to 7,000 feet deep so this is a huge task. If you entice a billfish to rise to the surface, then you have to get it to bite and then keep it on the hook for periods that can last four hours before the fish is in a position to photograph and release.
Throughout the four official fishing days of the tournament, the weather was very calm, and the heat and humidity were suffocating. However, as all fishermen know, when a fish is on, every discomfort is forgotten. The sky, sea, cloud and the beauty of the billfish provided amazing visuals.
Marlin are usually a shiny gray color, but when they are attacking a bait, they change into an almost psychedelic blue with streaks that almost radiate. An excited blue marlin pretty much does whatever it wants to do, including ripping into and destroying all the lures and teasers and any other fishing gear associated with the boat. Even though they have a very small mouth, they can eat a 30- to 40-pound tuna in a single bite. It is impossible to describe the excitement during the assault, hooking and fighting of a charged-up blue marlin, and that memory will never be forgotten.
To attract and catch a marlin, it takes a very smart person with a lot of experience and skill. My friend Bob hired one of the best known tournament guides in the Florida Keys and Caribbean, Greg Eklund. Greg operates his boat, a 48-foot custom sport fish named “Cloud Nine,” out of Islamorada, Fla.
Every day, Greg had to manage the interesting personalities on board, fishing laws, customs laws, weather, baits, navigation, complicated fishing gear, boat engines, radar, fish finders, water depth and temperature — not to mention food, drinks, dock masters, vendors, restaurant recommendations, menus, taxi cab drivers, first aid, and even jokes for all on board. He had fished in Cuba several times between 1995 and 2001, when access to Cuba for U.S. fishermen was denied. Greg claimed that he felt like he had been in jail for the past 15 years, waiting to return to fish the famous waters off Havana.
Our mate was William Bassett, who has probably caught, hooked, and guided for more billfish than anyone on earth (approximately 3,100 trips) during the past two years, in Costa Rica as the mate on the Chaser II. He is a virtual fishing machine and a master at managing the people, attitudes, and all equipment on deck. Greg had selected him to run the deck for the tournament, and it was Williams’ first tour in Cuba.
With their experience and knowledge, Greg and William guided our boat to a third-place finish out of the 97 boats competing. We were only one fish short of winning the entire tournament, an accomplishment that no one could have imagined. The tournament included two days of fishing with a lay day before the final two days.
We finished the tournament with four properly documented marlin catches. However, I believe we had as many as 10 to 15 bites or hookups that resulted in losing the fish because it was never firmly hooked or it tossed the hook during the fight. Because these fish were never removed from the water and weighed, no accurate weight was ever recorded, but Greg estimated that the first two were just under 100 pounds, the third one was over 350 pounds and the last one was 250 pounds.
But the fishing was only part of what made this trip fascinating. Cuba is a special place, a country that few Americans have set eyes on. I think there is a difference between “poverty” and “not having much.” Most of us visited both the old “La Habana” and the new “tourist Havana.” The new “tourist Havana,” the one visited recently by President Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones, was new or freshly painted and repaired. The “real Havana” was full of people playing dominoes or cards on the streets and sidewalks, houses and apartment buildings that were crumbling and rarely painted, almost no air conditioning, very few personal cars, clothes hanging to dry out from old apartment windows, the smell of exhaust fumes and the dense smell of the refinery fumes, and stores with little merchandise.
Many people we met were outgoing and wanted to talk to us about the United States. They were friendly and gracious and seemed to be very happy that Americans were finally starting to appear more frequently.
As many know, there are virtually thousands of cars from the 1940s and 50s (called “Yank Tanks”) on the street. Their exteriors are beautiful, the interiors are sometimes shabby but they are always fun. We toured the city in a 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible one day and a 1952 Chevy convertible on another day.
However, the highlight for me was a visit to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s estate. Of course, it is now owned by Cuba, and I doubt that Ernest was happy about that, but it is very well preserved. The pool was freshly painted deep blue because a new movie about Hemingway will be filmed there this summer. His famous fishing boat, “Pilar,” was on display as were the graves of Ernest’s four favorite dogs.
On the wall in his bathroom, by his scales, he wrote his morning weight in hundreds of lines that are still readable. At the end of our private tour, we had his favorite drink, which was pineapple, mint, rum and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. We stood by the desk where he wrote “Old Man And the Sea,” a book that I read as a child, have thought about for 60 years and now, at my age, am starting to understand.
Even with the new changes to the tourism rules, most Americans wanting to visit Cuba must legally qualify by having a confirmed reason to visit that is among the 12 specific travel categories, including cultural, religious, scientific and athletic events. Fishermen may quality for travel under the new “general license” category. Otherwise, they must receive permission from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The basic travel restrictions are designed to prohibit Americans from spending money on the communist island.
I will never forget this special fishing trip. The fishing, the character of the island and the wonderful people made it an experience that was unique.
About the author
Stan Wilkins, 69, is a lawyer and director for the law firm Slagle, Bernard & Gorman in Kansas City. He and his wife Susan live in Overland Park and have three children and five grandchildren. He is a lifelong fisherman, acquiring a love of the sport from his grandmother. “She drove herself to farm ponds when she was 94,” Wilkins said.