Secrets of the Cuban Bass Pros

Cuba’s national bass fishing tournament is just like the Bassmaster Classic, except there are no motorboats, no sponsors, no TV cameras, and no cash prizes. Maybe that’s why they have so much fun By Bill Heavy RigobertoI came to Cuba after hearing a number of things too interesting to ignore. One is that there are serious bass anglers and some big fish down here. The other is that the national tournament is almost exactly like the Bassmaster Classic except for a few details. Instead of having $50,000 rocket sleds, the anglers fish from rowboats. All fishing is catch-and-kill. (Protein is rela­tively hard to come by in Cuba, and the idea of returning it to the water has not even gotten off the ground yet. The fish go to either the anglers themselves or the Cuban Federation of Sport Fishing folks who work the competition.) And instead of the winner’s getting half a million bucks—and many times that in endorsements and appearance fees—the top angler and team take home nothing more than a rinky-dink plastic trophy and bragging rights to being the best bass fishermen in the country. I am more than a bit nervous on the 500-mile drive across a good chunk of the country from Havana to Bayamo. The guys I’m going to meet are fellow bass anglers, of course. But they are also Cuban. I, on the other hand, am a citizen of El Empirio—as they refer to their northern neighbor—the most powerful country on earth. As we enter the city and my anxiety about meeting the 32 anglers competing in the Cuban national bass tournament rises, I tell my guide and translator, Samuel Yera, to stop at a gas station so I can arm myself with the one thing that bridges all socioeconomic barriers—beer. Samuel is a three-time tournament winner who failed to qualify this year because he spent too much time guiding saltwater clients for tarpon (which is why he is available to guide and translate for me). Ready with packs of cold Bucanero Fuerte, we park at the government dormitory by the local baseball stadium and head upstairs, guided by the sound of men’s voices spilling out of an open door. Meet the Champions “Sam-well!” calls a man sitting on his bunk when he catches sight of my host. A burly shirtless guy with a farmer’s tan, still dripping from a shower, he waddles over to embrace Yera. The men are sitting in the room, passing around a bottle of rum. Everyone crowds about their old friend, who is regarded as perhaps the most knowledgeable bass fisherman in Cuba. He introduces me all around, and I shake hard, callused hands. They are carpenters, security guards, and paper-mill workers. One is a local plastic surgeon, another a railroad engineer, another an artist. Special passes from the government allow them to be absent from work for the tournament. American anglers ready themselves for competition by studying the lake and fine-tuning their GPS settings. These guys have been strengthening their legs, backs, and especially their hands. The last thing the men want is blisters or fatigue slowing them down as they row to and from a spot that might hold a kicker fish on the three-bass stringer that each will weigh in. I pass out beer and survey the room: eight beds with about 2 feet of hanger space in between, a bathroom off the end, a tiny porch outside. Some men have two rods, some just one, plus a little tackle box of some sort and, neatly ironed, the shirt and pants they will wear on the water. Some have an everyday ball cap and a special one with a fish on it for tournament finery. It strikes me that these guys, the top bass anglers in Cuba, have less gear than an average 10-year-old boy in the States. Samuel is soon lost to me, deep in rapid conversation with a knot of anglers. They don’t speak English and I don’t habla español, but through smiles and gestures, we find ways to communicate. One of the younger guys, with curly black hair and a Red Sox cap, motions me over to show off the plastic worms that he, like many others, makes himself. He uses dental clay to shape a mold of the bait to be copied, then melts down old lures, scrap plastic, whatever he can find. He mixes that with some kind of oil, heats it, and pours it into the mold. The result is a worm that looks surprisingly true to the original, right down to the faint Power Bait lettering on the tail. The 9-inch black worm he displays has a few flecks of rubber where it shouldn’t, but it will certainly catch fish. My new friend with the handmade worms is curious about something. Through Samuel, he asks my opinion: Do I prefer the Mann’s Augertail worm to that company’s Jelly worm? The Augertail has more flutter, of course, but sometimes the subtler action of the Jelly worm is better in heavy cover. I interrupt the translation to throw my hands up in despair. “Who the hell knows!” I find myself nearly shouting. I feel as if I’ve stumbled into some inverted reality—Alice in Bassland. “Besides, you know more about American baits than I do!” I take an equilibrium-restoring swig of the rum. There Has Been a Small Change Samuel informs me that there has been a change for tomorrow. The government promised 16 rowboats for the tournament but has delivered only eight. So the two-day event will now run over four days, the field alternating until everybody gets two full days on the water. In the United States, this would have provoked charges that the tournament was no longer fair. Not least among the reasons: An approaching cold front promises a difficult bite for whoever is on the water when it arrives. But we are not in the United States, and so four days it will be. Actually, rowboats are quite a luxury, according to Samuel. “Most of our tournaments are done either wading or fishing from inner tubes.” Some of the men, he tells me, are market fishermen. They rise before dawn to bicycle to local lakes, spending all day kicking around the water. Eight or 10 hours later, they deflate their tubes and ride home carrying rod, tackle, fins, tube, and their catch. This sounds like it would be fun for a while. To do it day after day, to have to do it, might not be. I look around the room and notice the oars in the corners. For this, the national championship, each team has to bring its own. One set with aluminum shafts leans against the wall, but the others are completely homemade, poles with splits of roughly shaped wood nailed or screwed to the shafts. Two pairs sport blades of corrugated aluminum, a common roofing material, that has been hammered more or less flat. The mood in the room is relaxed and happy. Tomorrow, on the water, they will compete. But for now they are celebrating having made the cut and seeing old friends. Samuel says there are about 80,000 members of the Cuban Federation of Sport Fishing, the organization that sponsors tournaments, of which number he believes 30,000 are bass anglers. “But this is the most important tournament in Cuba, because we believe bass are the hardest fish, the most sporting. It’s a big honor to the winner.” The tournament began in 1969, and this is the 25th time it has been held on Lake Leonero in rural Granma province. When the rum reaches me again, I take another swig, grimace, and pretend to suffer mild convulsions. “Ah,” I finally gasp. “Que bueno!” They laugh. Maybe I’m okay after all. Some of the rods, I notice, are rigged with neon-bright orange or yellow line. I ask Samuel if the bright line doesn’t spook fish. “You don’t understand,” he says, smiling. “Here there is no learning curve. The first time a fish gets caught is also the last time.” One guy suddenly discovers something beneath his bed and holds it up with a cry of exclamation. It’s a coconut shell filled with flowers, bird feathers, colored stones, and a tangle of old fishing line. “Santeria!” he announces—the Cuban folk religion that blends Christianity and African animistic beliefs, including the power of charms and spirits. Someone has put it there to jinx him. He deadpans that his skill is such that he will defy witchcraft. The room erupts in loud, friendly derision. Not Your Average Yanqui Bass Tournament Samuel and I seem to be doing an odd little dance. The deal is that I hold up lures for his inspection and he keeps shaking his head. He negates a 43⁄8-inch jointed Rapala. He turns down a 6-inch bubblegum floating worm. “Bigger,” he says. We’re in a motorized skiff on Lake Leonero. The anglers, two-man teams from Cuba’s 14 provinces (plus an extra team from the host province and one from the Island of Youth, off Cuba’s southern coast), are spread out over the lake somewhere around us. I’m here to watch the fishermen, but Samuel says we need to keep our distance from them, especially on the first day. “The fish and the anglers are both very sensitive to noise.” This, I am pretty sure, is bull. I think Samuel just wants to catch some fish, partly to ease his obvious chagrin at not being in the race, and partly because he is just a diehard bass man. And the bass on Leonero like their baits not only big but apparently disruptive, too, because the lure that finally gets the nod is a no-name Devil’s Horse–style topwater. This fat cigar of a bait has propellers fore and aft, and treble hooks the size of little chandeliers. It’s so big and raucous that I’ve never even been tempted to tie it on. But Samuel likes it. “Now you’re speaking,” he says. I ask why the fish here prefer big lures and whether that is the case all over Cuba. “It’s not,” he replies. “Some places you need small lures. And I don’t even know the reason they prefer the big lures on this lake. They just do.” The morning is calm; a light wind ripples the water. Using Samuel’s baitcasting reel and a 6-foot rod, I cast and retrieve. The lure is wiggling like some hyper­active dachshund that fell off the dock when a bass engulfs it. It disappears in a sudden sinkhole of water and I set the hook, the fish diving, pulling left, heading for the pads. I turn it and bring it in. It’s the gamest 2-pounder I’ve ever tangled with—fat, healthy, and thoroughly ticked off at having a hook in its mouth. Samuel is casting a large Zara Spook on a big spinning rod, and soon both of us are catching fish every second or third cast, a number of which run 3 pounds. It’s crazy-good video-game fishing, the flat-out most sustained largemouth action I’ve ever had. After about 10 minutes of this, Samuel stows his rod. “No good here,” he says. I ignore him, cast again, and ask if he’d mind explaining just what the Sam Hill he’s talking about. “Place like this, you can wear your arm out. But you can’t win a tournament.” What, I ask, would it take to win? “Here? You need an average of 5 pounds each fish to be competitive. To win, it usually takes an average of 6 pounds, maybe a little more.” I look at him. He’s smiling but he’s not kidding. We need to invade this country. Having Fun We move the boat. It is January, and the females are getting ready to spawn, Samuel says. He is looking for a certain water color that he says the bass prefer. “Where it is ­coffee-colored—you see over there?—you will not find fish. And often the big females nest in the open water, away from the pads. Often they like green hydrilla flats. If you are just fishing the structure you see, you will not get them.” The We keep moving. At last he anchors near a big flat off a channel. On my fourth cast, something smashes my lure. “Big bass!” Samuel says. “Big bass!” It bends my short baitcasting rod nearly double before I get it to the boat. It has a mouth like a trash can. Samuel says it’s a 7-pounder. That would make it the second-biggest bass of my life. I catch two 5-pounders over the next 15 minutes. “Having fun?” asks Samuel. On the way back to the put-in, we cruise by some of the competitors. Most are scattered over a single area, a large bowl surrounded by endless pads. One boat, however, is off by itself, fishing a more distant edge of lily pads. It’s the team from Las Tunas, a neighboring province, an experienced duo that is expected to do well here. The guy at the oars stops when he sees us, calls to Samuel, stands and struggles to hoist a stringer that’s so heavy it’s all he can do to lift it clear of the water. There are about 10 fish on it, big oblong bass. One will go nearly 10 pounds, another just over 7. In the United States, you no longer see such a sight. That’s a good thing, of course. Any lake would get fished out fast if it were subject to a sustained harvest of its biggest bass. On the other hand, it’s something to behold. The guys will winnow the catch down to six, three per angler. The biggest looks to be a 10-pounder. There are two others that will go close to 7. The Las Tunas guys tell Samuel that they lost two big fish, one of which would have gone 10, when the line got tangled up with the anchor rope. They have caught virtually all their fish on big worms. And they are fishing them in a way I’ve never seen. The guy in the bow has a 9- or 10-inch dark worm Texas-rigged on what looks to be a 3/0 offset worm hook with about a 1/8-ounce sinker. He has a 7-foot spinning rod, which he uses to throw the worm as far as he can. Then he reels it steadily back, just like a crankbait. On his fourth cast, he suddenly stops reeling at what must be a strike of some kind. He pauses for just a second, lowers the rod, reels in slack, then sets the hook hard. His line begins to dance, and soon he is boating another 5- or 6-pound fish. I have Samuel ask him what the take is like. “Just the sensation of weight, or maybe a tap,” he translates. “Nothing strong. They inhale it, not bite it. You give them a moment, take the slack, and hook them.” The guy says they fish the worm higher or lower in the water column as conditions dictate. “We fish always this worm,” one of them, Onix Hernandez, says. “If I see fish hitting the poppers of other fishermen, I just fish it closer to the surface.” They never let it hit bottom and never stop reeling unless they feel a fish. I’ve never heard of crankbait-style worming. But many things, I’m learning, are different in Cuba. And it’s awfully hard to argue with what works. Back on shore, the boats are pulling in to the mud bank that is the landing area. Pigs and chickens run around, looking for any crumbs dropped from lunch bags. The Las Tunas team shows me its worms: all hand poured and rigged on homemade light football-type jigheads. Their fish are still on the stringer in the water. Most of the fishermen are playing it close to the vest, keeping their stringers submerged. This is partly to keep the fish wet as long as possible—they won’t be officially weighed here but back in Bayamo, a two-hour drive during which the fish will be out of water. And it’s partly just to keep other teams guessing about how they did. That afternoon, in a small square in the dusty city, the official weigh-in finally takes place on old-fashioned mechanical scales that might have been borrowed from a fruit stand. Moving away from the pack has paid off for Las Tunas. They are in first place with six fish weighing 38 pounds, more than 6 pounds ahead of the second-place team, Villa Clara, which has 31 pounds. One of the Granma anglers has his photo taken with a fish of just over 10 pounds, the biggest bass caught in a tournament on Leonero in years. The guys who didn’t get to fish today look grave. Thirty-eight pounds is not unheard of, but it will be tough to equal, let alone surpass. The Beauty of UglyStik On the second day—my last, since I had only expected to be here for a two-day tournament—Samuel once again takes me fishing because of his commendable wish not to disturb the other anglers. Once again, I’m using his baitcaster, while he uses the big spinning rod. I tried the latter for a couple of casts and disliked it. It’s too big, too heavy, not particularly sensitive, and a lot of work to crank. He hefts the rod. “It’s what every Cuban asks his family or friends in the States to bring him,” he says. “Seven-foot medium-heavy UglyStik spinning rod with a Penn 7500 SS.” “Why?” He hefts it again, working a topwater. “Durability,” he says. “An UglyStik is like a ’57 Chev­rolet. Almost indestructible.” I look at the Penn reel, all 25.5 ounces of it, with its measly three ball bearings. “A Cuban would take this over a Shimano or a Daiwa every time,” he adds. “Very dependable. Goes forever. And easy to work on.” He grunts, sets the hook, and pulls in a 5-pounder. “Time to move. Look for the big ones.” We don’t find the big ones, but we do tire our arms out on the 2- to 4-pounders. And there are worse ways to spend a day. As we head back toward shore, we pass not too far from one of the two teams from Granma province. One evidently has a big fish on because he is excitedly telling his co-angler to get the net. But the net man lunges at the fish awkwardly, frightening it. The fish jumps close to the boat, and the line goes slack. Both men slump back to their seats, despairing at having lost what was obviously a huge bass. Samuel shakes his head in commiseration. “It’s just because they’re not used to boats, not used to nets. We don’t carry nets when we wade or tube. That fish, it could have won them the tournament maybe.” It could have, but it didn’t. A few days after I arrive back in the United States, I get an e-mail from Samuel. Las Tunas won the tournament with a two-day, 12-fish total of 78 pounds 8 ounces. Granma was just 5 ounces behind. The fifth-place team, he writes, from his home province of Villa Clara, should have finished in third place. “They had an 11- or 12-pound fish on a big Husky Jerk. But it made one last run by the boat and opened the treble hook and escaped.” On my last evening in Bayamo, I am once again sitting on the end of a bed drinking beer with the guys while a bottle of rum slowly laps the room. I have brought an entire duffel bag of plastics, lures, and line cadged from Yamamoto, Berkley, and Rapala. I dump it out on the floor, and it vanishes in the time it takes a school of piranhas to clean a cow carcass. The only problem is that most of the plastics are tiny, 6 inches or less. No matter. Some anglers are even now squeezing the packs to gauge how well they will melt down to be recast into larger baits. One of the guys from Granma can’t even wait that long. He pulls a 4-inch Senko (green pumpkin) from its pack, studies it, hefts it experimentally. Then he cuts the first 3 inches off one of his 9-inch black worms with a knife, carefully heats both the cut tip of the worm and one end of the Senko with his lighter, and presses the two together until they cool. The result is a 10-inch, two-tone hybrid ribbon tail. He smiles, wiggles it seductively, lifts it for my inspection. “Beel?” he asks. “What you think?” I give him a thumbs-up and a smile, already vowing never to throw away a chewed-up worm again. “Oh, yeah. They’ll clobber that thing.”