The Gift

Vance McCullough


As we enter that great period of limbo between Christmas and New Year’s Eve wherein nobody knows what day it is, or even the time, I reflect on a gift I was recently able to share. Truth is, I received more than I could ever give.

This was my second trip to Mariel, Cuba. Our 13-member team had three main objectives – share the love and good news about Jesus Christ and His forgiveness, help build an education wing for the local church, and deliver supplies and tools.

Last year, I made friends with an angler named Andy. We fished together and I was mightily impressed at the resourcefulness of Cuban fishermen. By the time we headed to the water, our trip had become an outing for half the church and our entire ministry team. I got to see how the locals used wooden rings as hand reels and how they spun their bait and lures overhead before casting them by hand into the water. A few, like Andy, had small fiberglass spinning rods and reels. A tiny handful of manufactured lures were prized possessions and were shown off with the pride normally associated with the island nation’s ubiquitous antique cars (’52 Chevy’s are the most common, therefore, probably the best built).

Most casting involved a hookless wooden float/popper made of whatever materials could be sourced. One guy used a ping pong ball. The idea was to facilitate a long cast, keep the hooks above the ever-present rocks and make noise to attract fish to the actual lure below. Behind the popping device was a leader with a small offering attached, usually a bare j-hook adorned with only a Strike King spinnerbait skirt. At least that’s what it looked like.

That was my first fishing trip in Cuba, and it was an eye-opener. I immediately wondered what these talented and relentless anglers could do with some more modern gear, so this year my return trip to Mariel included a personal ‘objective 3(b)’ – to deliver fishing supplies to my boy, Andy along with the medical items and construction tools.

I called Steve Miller – not the singer, but the really talented Steve Miller – at American Fishing Wire and he hooked us up with some great fluorocarbon line and shock leaders. Patrick Sebile’s A Band of Anglers shared so much stuff with us at an event this past spring that I instantly knew I would be shuttling a lot of it along to my Cuban fishing buddies. In fact, many in the fishing industry donated without knowing it. Strike King has been more than good to me for years and I was able to pass along the goodness. Z-Man, Rapala/VMC, LIVETARGET and Gambler will all catch ‘grandes’ along the coast of Cuba.

And, eventually, in her lakes as well.

Almost nobody I spoke with last year knew what a largemouth bass was, or that exceptional specimens swim in the numerous lakes on the island’s interior. An American missionary showed me a picture of a man on a bicycle toting a stringer of 3-pounders in another town. As we waited for our flight out last year, a Cuban man in a modern tournament jersey showed my pictures of multiple 10-pounders he had caught during the previous week. To give credit where it is due, my curiosity over Cuban bass began way back when I read in Jimmy Houston’s autobiography, Caught Me A Big ‘Un, that he had indeed caught ‘big ‘uns’ in Cuba many years ago.

I must have lit a fire in Andy’s mind with all the talk of largemouth last year because this year, as we stood on the flat roof of the church, looking out across the salty bay, he said, “Most of those lures you gave me will work for bass, right? I really want to catch my first bass. I am going to find a lake where I can get in there and fish!”

This year though, Andy had to leave for Pinar del Rio, a legendary fishing region in Cuba and he did not go to the beach with the rest of the construction crew that I fished with on our day off. But before he left, Andy gave me a gift – a few handcrafted jerkbaits made by his friend Tony in Mariel.

“These, I believe, will be good for the bass?” said Andy. I noted that the color schemes on a couple of them were perfect for Florida largemouth both, in Florida as well as any he might find in Cuba.

I was extremely honored that he would share these with me.

Andy’s trip to Pinar del Rio did not go as he had hoped. We didn’t catch ‘em on the local beach either but I had great fun teaching a couple of anglers how to use baitcasting gear. They were amazed at the ‘new’ technology, perplexed by the ‘problema’ of backlashes, and fascinated with the challenge of mastering the baitcaster. The catching of fish was a secondary goal at this point. A barracuda did follow our Engage Lures Twitshad but under the bright sun we had no takers.

Raul, a musician in the church, learned quickly how to pick out backlashes. “As soon as you get good at picking those out,” I assured him, “you won’t get them anymore.” He got a lot of practice on this windy day as we waded along a broad, round sandbar at the confluence of a river mouth and a wide bay that opens on the Gulf of Mexico, marked by the towering spew of white waves constantly crashing into the short rocky cliffs of the Cuban coastline a half mile away.

The 2nd largest coral reef on the planet is nearby, the largest being situated 90 miles north in the Florida Keys. Coral reefs host reef fish that pass along toxins to top predators such as barracuda. In my experience, an 18-inch ‘cuda is fine eating. Many Cubans will tell you this is among their favorite, its sweet, white, flaky meat enticing them to eat even the very large fish that have, occasionally, accumulated enough ciguatera toxins to cause serious illness. Most of the people I spoke with have had ciguatera poisoning, the most extreme case lasting for months and causing my friend, Lester, to bang his knee against a wall repeatedly in an effort to numb the pain in his joints. It was the best medicine he had at the time. The fever and nausea didn’t last as long but were very unpleasant.

People in the States don’t understand why anyone would take such chances. People in the states aren’t as hungry. Food is rationed in Cuba. Citizens can buy a certain amount of it at a great discount. After that it costs a lot more, if you can find it.  So nobody is throwing away a five-foot barracuda.

Andy is smart about it “I test a small piece of the meat before I eat the whole thing.” He had a pair of giants in a photo he showed me. He fishes miles from shore in an old-fashioned inner tube. Called ‘cameras’ in Cuba the tubes are readily available as the classic cars there still use them. They are lightweight, portable and affordable. Andy has decked his out with utilitarian as well as decorative features, you know, just as many of us do with our boats. A boat is a boat and an angler an angler. No difference in that regard.

Raul passed my collapsible travel rod and baitcasting reel to Frank, an engineer at the local power plant. Frank and I have played baseball, ping pong and, because he all but made me do it, soccer together. “Vance! Why didn’t you take the shot,” he asked me as we ran toward the goal and he passed me the ball. ‘Frank. I explained, believe it or not, I tried to kick the ball, I just missed it,’ I replied.

But here, now, with a baitcaster in hand, I was a master. The outstanding competitor that he is, Frank caught up quickly. Well, as long as he didn’t cast into the wind. I waited a while to share that secret with the boys. I was having fun watching them figure it out and pick out backlashes. With braided line.

That was a marvel to them – that this thin, supple line was rated for 65-pounds. “It’s made of bullet-proof fibers,” I told Frank, who speaks English quite well, having been educated at the University of Havana. He shared the info with Raul in Spanish. We talked about different ways to attach the fluorocarbon leader. Thanks again to American Fishing wire for sending those!

As Frank and I left Raul with the rod and reel, I found a small fish on the beach. Frank rinsed the sand off of it and said, “let’s have some fun with this!”


He told the rest of our group, “look what we caught!” After he told them the truth, the preacher had a great idea – as I learned on this trip, some things are universal. With a little trick photography, we staged a photo of Frank and the ‘trophy’ jack.

My fishing buddies in Cuba are great people. They laugh often, share freely and deeply appreciate things many of us take for granted. I’m already thinking about next year and the rods and reels I’d like to take them – mostly spinning outfits which work well for saltwater applications, even though my talented friends adapted quickly to baitcasting gear when that’s all I had at the time.

If you’d like to follow the fishing scene in Cuba, check out the Facebook page: Al Jig En Cuba – which loosely translates to ‘jig fishing in Cuba’. My buddy, Andy is on there, along with a lot of others. Fishing is a universal language, but the ‘translate’ feature will still come in handy for many of us on this page. Y’all check it out and give a shout out to your fellow anglers across the Gulf.

In no way does the author of this article encourage anyone to eat barracuda. I lead a charmed life and have gotten away with all manner of bad decisions. While small ones rarely have enough toxins built up in their system to poison a diner, the consumption of reef fish, especially of their heads and organs that store toxins, can cause violent illness.