Standing on the casting deck of the beat up Dolphin; everywhere is life. Huge flocks of birds litter the sky. Starfish the size of dinner plates expand and contract under the changing lens of the ocean surface. Great schools of baitfish flit around in a physical display of anxiety.
“We kid him all the time because his wife is very ugly.”, my Cuban guide explains, matter of factly, from the poling platform. He’s referring to another guide with the outfit. One that shall remain nameless, because, despite the apparent open secret in Cuba that he has an ugly wife, I’d rather not contribute to her international infamy. Our small gasps and chuckles only serve to confuse him. “It’s ok, because she is very ugly. He knows it. He is a very religious man.”
Apparently this is meant to make it obvious why he’d be happy, or at least not offended, at the insults from his fellow guides. Don’t ask me. Sometimes guides have odd outlooks on things.
We’re bobbing deep in the heart of an archipelago the size and geography of the Keys, about 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba. This chain of low-lying mangroves and islands is the crown jewel of the National Park system for the country of Cuba. Jardines de la Reina. Named by Christopher Columbus for it’s sheer beauty; The Gardens of the Queen.
This National Park is teeming with life. Sharks, Tarpon, Permit, Bonefish and every other sea creature that should live in a place like this, does. Iguanas and hermit crabs prowl the beaches of the small islands we slide onto for lunch. Gators lounge in the bays, looking for easy meals and Rays slide over the bottom in great numbers. Like I said, teeming with life. What it is not teeming with is people. At least not Cubans.
The Cuban National Park system is one of the truly pristine wildernesses on the planet. The reason: Cubans can’t go there. Our tour guide in Havana stated that they were off limits to all the a few very elite. The official websites state that for a small fee anyone can enjoy the park system, but in a country that pays everyone $10 a month, even a nominal fee might as well be a keep out sign. Sure we were able to fish it, and it was great. But we are wealthy white people with the means to pay for and navigate a complicated system of buying time from an outfit in Montana that buys time from and outfit in Italy and owns a minority interest in a partnership whose majority owner in the Cuban government. See what I mean, might as well be a keep out sign.
This system of completely closed lands in great for the wildlife, and really great for the privileged few that can afford to get there, but it is hardly a land owned for the benefit of the citizens. It isn’t anymore public land than Castro’s complex is public land. Or the Capitol Building in Washington DC. Sure, technically the people own it, but go try and have a look around and see how it works out.
Three month’s earlier I was sitting in the back of a Panga trying to look like I wasn’t there. My Mexican sailfish guide was circling and cursing the boat of a team of poachers that had set a trot line for 4 miles to catch billfish and dorado. The screaming would get heated and eventually a handgun would make an appearance, but not before, in a series of complex, choreographed maneuvers, our boat and another run by a guide with our outfit, had stolen 4 miles of trot line from the poachers. A short run from the poachers later and we were left to think about what had happened and ask the guides what the hell that was all about.
“They are poachers. They catch and kill sailfish illegally.” Rody, the head guide, explains. “They know, we protect the water for 25 miles in each direction of Puerto Vicente. The walls of my house are decorated with trot lines.”
More conversation made the entire picture very clear. The government prohibited the harvest of the big billfish, among others species, but didn’t enforce the ban at all. And merchants openly purchased the catch and sold it to tourists on dinner plates in both Ixtapa to the north and Acapulco to the south. But for this small stretch of Pacific Ocean the guides had taken matters into their own hands. They’d been protecting this water for 30 years, sometimes by force, from the encroachment of poachers. And for their efforts maybe the best billfishing in the world is hidden in this tiny sanctuary off the coast of Mexico. We raised so many fish I lost count.
Here was water that could be a true attraction to fishermen from around the globe. Vast expanses of public water open to anyone with a boat that floats. Guides who can scrape together enough pesos could launch businesses that use the public water for their benefit. Moreover, the general public can and does use this water for both livelihood and sport. But the extreme lack of resource management has left this part of the ocean overrun with people in a short-term grab of the resources and thus, almost on life support.
Four month’s prior to that, I was standing on a sandbar at the mouth of a river in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. We had already landed so many salt fresh Silver Salmon that I’d broken a rod and my arms are sore. Enough, in fact, that I’m talking to the manager of the lodge I’m staying at (who is guiding us today) about the intricacies of running a lodge in Alaska; a conversation that only comes up when the fish are numerous and a good number have been landed. While he explains to me the oversight by Rangers of the harvest and the permitting process required fish certain rivers, I’m fighting cartwheeling silvers and grunting my acknowledgment. The river is stuffed with fish. In fact, every river we’ve been to has been stuffed with fish and the fishing has been incredible.
“From this river we are allowed to take two fish per angler, and we can only fish it a certain number of days a week.” the manager explains. “It makes sense. No-one wants to see too many fish harvested and most of our sports would rather catch and release anyway.”
As he stood there explaining to me how the system works, it dawned on me. We’ve managed a real sweet spot here.
This is what makes our Public Lands system the best on the planet. Far from perfect, but wonderful none-the-less. We’ve managed to make available huge tracts of land to people who want to recreate on it in many different ways. That access has been left effectively available to every citizen of the United States. We’ve also navigated the tricky straights of allowing people to make a living using public resources, but only with the kind of oversight and resource management that help preserve it for everyone. Whereas, in other places extremes are reached that either destroy the resources or make them completely unavailable to most of the people, we’ve learned to walk the fine line between resource management and public usage. Consequently, we are the only developed nation on the planet that still has wild lands; that has game available to anyone willing to buy a license and has places for people to go and enjoy nature in it’s honest, naked and raw form. For kids to learn, vacations to be had and memories created. We aren’t perfect but we are pretty damn good.
Now there is a movement afoot to destroy that system. Washington DC is careening down the path of turning over Federal Public Lands to the states in a thinly veiled attempt to force their sale. My own local Senator responded to my request for an interview that the transfer of land was a necessary step to reducing government spending and balancing the budget. This transfer of Federally held land to the states has always met with the land being sold for resource extraction of development. In fact, the number of acres of State owned public land has shrunk almost 90% in some states.
While environmental groups, sportsman groups and a number of other organizations have come out against the proposed transfer, only a massive public outcry will divert Washington from it’s current trajectory. In other words, we need people to not only stand against the transfer, but to tell everyone they can find that it’s happening and why it’s deplorable. We all need to not only sign the petition at http://sportsmensaccess.org/, but to share it and encourage others to do so. Because if we fail to stop this extreme regression in our public lands policies before they get started, there is no turning back. And eventually we may find ourselves wishing we could get access to the beautiful and pristine resources that are off limits to the public, or running off poachers with our handguns.
Dan Fraiser is an experienced freelance fly fishing writer and Author of The Orvis Beginner’s Guide to Carp Flies: 101 Patterns & How and When to Use Them CLICK HERE to Order
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