Nice article from Journalist Bob McNally
Here’s what they may find, because I fished there when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the Mariel boat lift was winding down.
Nearly two dozen Americans made that trip, fishing from boats with Russian-made “Mockba” outboard motors in a virgin spot called Lake Redonda near the city of Moron, smack in the middle of Cuba.
It was the early 1980s, and while 125,000 Cubans seeking American freedom were pouring into South Florida (courtesy of Castro and Carter), American fishermen were quick to leap to the island nation in hopes of catching the next world record bass.
To this day that Cuba largemouth bass angling is the best I’ve experienced anywhere at any time. And having lived in Florida for nearly 40 years, I’ve had some memorable days in many places, including Texas, Mexico and Honduras.
We fished Lake Redonda three days, as the first modern Americans to tap the lake. And the bass acted like it. We’d fish from daybreak to mid-day, take a siesta and lunch in a lake-side cabana. Then fish from early afternoon until dark. Two men and a Cuban guide fished per boat, and we caught 75 to 150 bass per day. They’d range all sizes, but there were staggering numbers of 4 to 8-pounders. Some touched 10 pounds, and the biggest I saw might have made 11 pounds.
Oh, how good the fishing was.
Redonda is clear, big and round, near the coast, and surrounded with a maze of tangle-root mangroves. The lake held 50-pound class tarpon, however, and while we chased schools of them and cast to plenty, none were hooked.
Why chase tarpon when the bass action was among the best in the world?
One incident shows how phenomenal the fishing was. My boat partner and I were casting to a mangrove shore getting nice bass regularly, often seeing schools of 4 to 6-pounders swimming along. I spotted a solo 6-pounder in 4 feet of clear water holding just outside mangrove roots. I cast a 12-inch plastic worm to the fish, opting for big lures to thwart the constant strikes of small bass. We watched the bass immediately come to my lure, suck it in, and I set the hook.
It fought great, cutting back left and right, but after a couple minutes I got control of the fish, only to have it leap high and throw my lure. I watched it plop down in Redonda’s clear water, then turn toward the mangroves and safety. I alerted my pal to the fish, and he immediately dropped a second plastic worm on it.
The 6-pounder hit his lure, slugged a bit, and then that second hook pulled free.
I was ready, spotted the mostly-whipped bass settle, and cast my plastic worm to it. It hit – for a third time – and I pulled in a beaten and incredibly unsophisticated bass. It surely was a fish that had never seen a lure, heard a motor, nor knew anglers were out-and-about.
There were no boat depth finders, and only weak electric motors, but the guides were skilled and enthusiastic. I remember the fiberglass boats were serviceable, but rough. The outboards were Russian-made Mockbas, and they were a disaster. None had cowlings because they were worked on so frequently by guides and mechanics. To turn off a motor, a guide placed his hand over the exposed carburetor to choke off the engine.
In each boat there was a small flat pole onto which a large white pennant could be raised. The guide raised the flag when the motor died and couldn’t be restarted. That signaled a “rescue boat” that would travel around the lake looking for broken down craft, and would then swap out one Mockba for another.
This was during the height of the Cold War, and the Russians were not our pals. So the joke of the Redonda trip was that “if Russians make ICBMs like they make Mockba outboard motors, the U.S. has nothing to worry about.”
Many of the guides wore T-shirts with bright-color butterflies on them. I learned that “butterfly” is what Cubans called the lucky island inhabitants who “flew” from the island to the U.S. during Mariel, and the wearers of those tee-shirts envied those who made the American journey.
After three days our hands were so raw from holding and releasing big Rodonda bass with sandpaper-like lips, we had to tape our thumbs and fingers to prevent bleeding. I never experienced that before or since anywhere in bass country.
One afternoon our guides asked if anyone wanted to shoot a few pigeons and doves. I jumped at the opportunity, because the incongruity of armed Americans wandering around the Cuban communist countryside was too good not to experience. I was loaned a side-by-side shotgun that looked old enough to have been used by the
Conquestadors, with double triggers, and chokes as tight as a 30.06. I didn’t hit much, but the birds were there, and the guides wanted every one to eat at home.
Memories of that Cuban fishing trip are still vivid. I recall that residents said the lake and surrounding area had been owned at one time by the famed folks of the King Ranch in Texas. They stocked Redonda with bass back in the 1920s, and enjoyed fishing it until Fidel “nationalized” it following the “revolution.”
Unquestionably the biggest disappointment of the Cuban trip was not making the greatest photograph of my life.
As we were driving back to the airport we were informed that there were military aircraft on the runway. Taking photos at the airport would be a security threat, and any cameras seen would be confiscated.
We arrived and there were six Russian-made MiG jet fighters parked in a row near the small airport terminal. As I walked around a circular driveway in front of the terminal, I noticed a park bench with a Cuban man sitting on it. I walked over, glanced up at the MiGs, and in that singular frame of sight I could see: the jets in the background; a large bronze bust of Jose Marti (the 1880s “Apostle of Cuban Independence”) behind the park bench; the leathery face Cuban man puffing a huge Cuban cigar; and atop his head was a New York Yankees baseball cap.
Incongruity personified, and I couldn’t shoot the picture for fear of camera confiscation.
But I was tempted, oh how I was tempted.