Interview: Chico Fernandez on Cuba, Jazz, Fine Food and Fishing from Canoes
Marshall Cutchin: When most people think of the pioneers of fly fishing, we think of people who started long before it had any “marketing” value. Chico Fernandez is one of those people. He began saltwater fly fishing in Cuba in the 1950s and then he moved to Miami and began developing many of the fly patterns and techniques and the ideas that made saltwater fly fishing the sport it is today. He is an author, a teacher, and a consultant, and he’s spent decades traveling around the world and sharing his excitement. But he is also an accomplished musician, and a lover of fine food and watercraft, and I’m really happy he could join us here today. Welcome Chico.
Chico Fernandez: Thank you, I’m glad to be here. Excited to be here.
Cutchin: I’ve got so much to ask you and there is no way we can fit it all into a short conversation but hopefully we can hit some of the highlights and see where we go. One thing I’m really eager to ask you about is canoes and fishing from small boats. First tell us something about how you got started in fly fishing in the first place?
Fernandez: As you said I was born in Cuba. I was born to a family of fishermen. My father fished; my uncle fished; everybody fished. By the time I was six I was in this small town by the water called Manzanillo on the east coast and we fished bottom fish in the days of no engine and those days we had to row to the areas to bottom fish for snapper and all of that sort.
I was always an angler. By the time I was 12, I became a spin fisherman. By the time I was 15 or so, I was using a spinning rod with jigs and surface plugs and catching snook and baby tarpon and black bass at Treasure Lake and so on. My father at that time made some deals with real estate and made a lot of money and ended up very quickly buying a big yacht, a 62-foot Chris Craft I believe.
For some reason Dad could not find a Cuban captain that would please him—I don’t know why, it has been a long time—but he came to United States in Miami and got an American captain who spoke in Spanish to communicate with us and brought him over to live in Cuba. He was a fly fisherman and when I took him to the mouth of the Jibacoa river, a little creek, to fish for snook and baby tarpon, and I took my spinning rod and my yellow jigs and all of that, he brought his Orvis Battenkill bamboo rod and a Medalist reel and Ashaway line, I believe, and Joe Brooks streamers, which were feathered streamers with a hackle up front, not like a Seaducer—everything was tied up front and chenille on the body —and caught snook on fly.
Marshall, I became enamored with the fly line, which is poetry in motion. It was just … it was me.
Soon I got my dad to buy me an Orvis Battenkill 9-and-a-half-foot for 8 or 9 weight [line], which was a GAF in those days, which Joe Brooks recommended. [Editor’s note: “GAF” was a pre-AFTMA letter designations for line size and taper, in this case matching a 9-weight weight-forward floating line.] I still have that rod, Marshall, and every winter around Christmas I take it out and either fish it or cast it. By the way, it makes a very big loop. It doesn’t make the loop that graphite makes, but you know what, if you get your timing right, you can still cast the whole the line just the same.
Cutchin: Maybe you can Chico.
Fernandez: You are good to me, but the rod is very heavy, especially tip heavy, very slow. You think it is not going to go that far but the sweep is so forceful and long and that the line goes and goes and goes. Anyways, so I fished there for a few years and caught snook and went to Isle of Pine and caught baby tarpon in Isle of Pine, the bonefish there, and cast to many permit, but I didn’t know about weighted flies. The best I got were follows and flashes and you can’t photograph any of that. I never hooked a permit.
In 1959, with the revolution and communism coming to the country I left real quick. My parents left in a small airplane and I had a racing Mercedes 190 two-seater, and in those days you could come from Havana to Key West on a ferry at night and I brought the car. I was going to race. I eventually sold the Mercedes and financed my education at University of Miami.
That’s how I started. I came here, started in the [Miami] Rod and Reel Club and immediately med Flip Pallot, John Emery, and Normal Duncan. I think we were the only kids that were fly fishing those days, but that’s how we started.
Cutchin: We were you aware of saltwater fly fishing as a sport, did it have that sort of cache back then, or was it just something that you guys were happy to do together because you thought it was fun?
Fernandez: There was almost no one doing it, to the point that I remember Flip and I and I think Little John [Emery] going to Everglades City to get a sandwich because we would go to Tamiami trail and fish for snook, as we still do sometimes. Then the gas stations that are there now and all the food—there was nothing there. You had to drive all the way to Everglades city to get a sandwich or something to eat. So went over there and we were talking about catching 12- or 15-pound snook and losing a 20-pounder. One of the locals there got up and yelled at us and told us we were damn liars. “No one can catch a snook on a fly rod!” He was so upset he couldn’t stand himself. We tried to explain but of course we were “damn liars.” Okay.
The point is that I don’t think this was a bad guy. I think this guy was absolutely sure that you caught bluegills with the fly rod. You didn’t catch snook with a fly rod. That’s how it was. In Cuba they thought I had a whip and said, “What are you doing with that? Oh my god, he has got a hook at the end. You are going to kill somebody with that boy. What are you doing?” We encountered all of that, but the other side of that coin is that some of the fishing was ridiculous.
In Cuba, they didn’t fish for snook because they cooked it with the skin on and it tasted like urine. They hated eating snook. No one thought of skinning it, and there were snapper and many other things to eat.
Baby tarpon in the river were a nuisance. I used to buy Hayes popping bugs, the Hayes that they use for bass fishing, and hook baby tarpon 5 to 20 pounds. I had a wonderful time. Fishing areas where the river meanders through sugarcanes and when it got high in noon, we would sit in the tall sugarcane shade, eat a Cuban sandwich, have an Ironbeer—which is actually a very, very old fashioned Coca-Cola type Cuban soda which is still being sold in Miami. It is like 100 years old, the company now. I don’t know why Ironbeer, why an American name. Anyway we’d do that and then take a pen knife or case knife and cut the trunk of the sugar cane and peel it and chew on the sugarcane as dessert. Then later in the afternoon the tarpon would start rolling and we would go back to fishing again.
Those days, no one knew and they had no idea … if we saw someone in the Tamiami trail fishing, I guarantee I knew the person intimately. If there was someone fly fishing in that 50-70 mile stretch anywhere and in the canals that crossed the Everglades, the Marko Canal or any of that, even at a distance I saw the casting style and I said, “Oh, that’s such and such.” I would know in a minute. That’s how little people were doing that.
Cutchin: Just getting back to Cuba for a minute, I mean there is still something of a time warp going on there right? I think I saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain traveling down there recently and I think he was there on the wall in front of Havana City….
Fernandez: The Malecón.
Fernandez: Yes that’s like a sea wall. A sea wall that doesn’t touch the water hardly ever. There are rocks in front for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 feet.
Cutchin: The remarkable thing was there were still the local citizens there using yo-yos to fish with, which I think you’d be familiar with if only if you have fished in south Florida or Cuba.
Fernandez: Absolutely. I still have my father’s yo-yo made out of wood, carved with his name he roughly carved with a knife. Listen, when you throw a live sardine and hook a 25-30-pound king [mackerel] and the line is ripping through your hand the yo-yo is ricocheting all over the boat—you know how fast they can be—until you can tighten on them and bring them back. I’ve caught a lot of big fish on yo-yos. Fun to do and an easy way sometimes to bring a meal home.
You can cast it long ways if you know what you are doing and you swing it over your head like a cowboy with a lasso but the amount of line in the air is a lot—like 7, 8 feet—very long. Just like fly fishing. The more line you carry in the air the further you can cast, right?
Cutchin: Sure or the concept of the rod just being extension of your arm. Right?
Cutchin: Your arm is your rod in that case, right?
Fernandez: That’s correct.
Cutchin: We are inventing anything new when we point a tarpon rod at the tarpon and we are basically handlining a fish in.
Fernandez: Absolutely. It is the leverage. For certain fishing like the yellowtail at night, which my father loved to do where you chum the yellowtail, you end up marking your line with a knot with a piece of thread or tape to where when you bring it in and you get close to the knot, you know you are going to get hit again because that’s where the school is. If the chum is working well they keep coming slowly closer so you could either moving that tape closer or you know before you get to the tape you are going to get hit again. But when you hook the big fish at night, a really big fish, or when the shark grabbed the yellowtail, oh man, you got to watch out.
It would cut your hands and everything else, and of course in those days Marshall, we Cubans never used gloves—you know it is a macho thing. They say in Spanish “Un gato con guantes no captar ratónes.” Meaning a “A cat with gloves can’t catch any mice.” You got to have your bare hands. It is a dumb way, to have your hands cut, but on the other hand, I can’t criticize it too much because I was one of them without the gloves too. I just loved to have my hands cut.
Cutchin: I don’t want to get too far off the subject but I mentioned you are also a musician, a jazz lover.
Fernandez: Yes I’m a big jazz fan. I was never really great on the clarinet. Everybody has an excuse. Mine is that I started when I was 50 years old or so. There are reasons why I didn’t start earlier, which had to do with protocol and the family that I lived with and at that level we lived you didn’t learn an instrument. But I started late, and the clarinet is not a great instrument to start late—a blowing instrument. But you know it is like chemistry, it is like falling in love. It would have been more practical to learn a guitar or piano, but I love the sound of a clarinet. I love the piano and the guitar, but for me it was about blowing through wood. I’m a big student of Benny Goodman and Paquito D’Rivera, the magnificent clarinetist. That’s what I did for many years, and I got to where I could play and understood more improvising and so on, but I love jazz—that’s my favorite music. Then Cuban music, I love that of course, and classical Spanish guitar. I love that too.
Cutchin: But didn’t you tell me once Benny Goodman called a clarinet a torture stick?
Fernandez: No he didn’t. Some of the older musicians have called it that, and at University of Miami, when I used to take pictures of all of them in black and white, it was always called the torture stick. For Benny, no he could do anything. He could play any scale. He was a master at that. He played scales every day of his life, including the day he died, so he could blow, man.
Cutchin: It sounds like you’ve always been attracted to things that were just a little bit harder than the average.
Fernandez: Yes, when I started fly fishing in Cuba it was like, “What are you doing? Is it easier doing that?” “No it is very hard.” “Okay but once you learn you catch a lot more fish?” “No you catch a lot less fish.” “So you bring very few fish home?” “No I mainly release the fish.” “Okay we are through talking. Go talk to some to some other Cuban.” [laughter] It was like “hello.”
But jazz was the same way. My father said, “Who are you listening to?”
“Well I’m listening to Dizzy Gellespy.” I didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Gillespie’ then.
“Why, I mean we have wonderful Cuban music. Don’t you like that music?”
“I love that music but I’m listening to someone play the blues.” Count Basie at the piano playing the blues. I just felt it to the core. I don’t know why. I never smoked a cigarette in my life but I smoked a pipe and mixed my own tobacco. When I came to this country so did Normal Duncan and John Emery, and we all had a big calabash pipes and smoked them while we fly fished on the Trail. I did that for many years. I quit 20 or 30 years ago, but I did that for years.
I don’t know why. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t have a choice. That’s what I liked.
Cutchin: You also like cooking right?
Fernandez: I love cooking. My mother—we eventually became very wealthy and all of that and she had a chauffeur, and we lived a different life once we made the money. In those days if you had lot of money you had several maids and it was a different world. Believe me it was a different world. She still continued to cook a lot and she went Saint Michel [school] for cooking and she could make pies, and she could make all recipes of black beans and rice and red beans and rice with sausage, and the Cuban garbanzo-and-rice mix, which has ham and pork and chorizo sausage, and yeah, she was a cook.
My wife is a cook. She is from Pennsylvania. She makes the chicken and dumpling and the apple pie from scratch, but she also does the black beans and rice and the pico de gallo and all the other stuff. I cook too. Matter of fact, I thought someday I will write a cookbook because I know several really well-known Spanish chefs that cook Spanish food. I’m very knowledgeable and I’m very well read, so I thought that one day I’m going to do that. But anyway, yes, cooking is a big deal. Keeping the weight off has also been a big deal!
Cutchin: I was just about to say my stomach is growling listening to you describe all that food, and I’m a big fan of Cuban food.
Fernandez: I walk two miles very fast almost every day and do Tai-Chi. I’m not overweight, but I have to work at it.
Cutchin: Speaking of walking, that’s a great way to talk about the next subject. You said to me once that you felt like you could pole a canoe farther than you could walk. It just reminded me, I think, of that core fascination or passion that anybody who has poled a boat for a long time really understands, really feels sort of in your bones about pleasure of pushing a small boat along. It really doesn’t have anything to do with motors or crossing big water or anything like that. It is really about being in flat water—whether that’s water on a flat out in the middle of the ocean or back in the backcountry where you like to fish so much. What is it that drew you to that whole part of the sport?
Fernandez: Probably the fact that it goes, as you said, back to basics. Of the crafts—probably because it is light, but mainly because of the shape—the canoe is perfect. It has a bow, and then it tapers back at the end, so it parts the water and brings it back in. Where a skiff, no matter how light and narrow it is, still has to have a square back to put the engine on, and because it needs not just a place to put the engine but needs displacement in the back. You are going to be standing all the way in the back. That’s weight and the engine is too, so you couldn’t have a pointed stern. But a canoe not only is set light and narrow, but the shape is so perfect.
The difference in poling a skiff—some of the latest super-light skiffs that you and I know about—and poling a canoe that’s maybe say 60 pounds as opposed to poling 1000 pounds of boat with engine and so on—is 100 to 1. Or I don’t know, 80 to 1. I can’t even picture it. You can do it with one hand. It is nothing. It is so insanely efficient. I’ve clocked myself for a long time in ideal conditions at about 3 miles an hour. If I could keep that up for 10 hours—I probably couldn’t but certainly I could do it for 5, 10 hours and that would be 30 miles. Five hours would be 15 miles. I couldn’t jog 15 miles. I’m not in that kind of shape. You just glide—unbelievable.
You can go just as fast paddling, sometimes a little faster if you are both paddling hard, but here is one person doing that. You could be eating a Cuban sandwich or you could be fly fishing while I’m doing the poling.
Another thing I love about a canoe: even though some of the latest skiffs like my Hells Bay draws five inches—you have a boat that grows very little—the canoe draws maybe 3 or 2-1/2. But the big difference with the skiff, your skiff and mine with the engine, is that it has to be generally launched where there is a ramp or something. You bring the car there. Here you portage the canoe over mangroves, over anything and dump it in an area that there is no place to launch.
When you get in and shove the boat out one push and the canoe glides 10 feet, you are into wilderness already, Marshall. You are in nowhere land. No one has been there. That’s what is so wonderful about it. I like the very basic: no electronics, no engine, nothing. There is nothing more pure than that. Believe me, I love my skiff, and it gives me the range, whereas the canoe doesn’t give you any range to speak of. It is just a different thing. I wouldn’t trade one for the other. I have both but yes, the canoe is special.
Cutchin: Most people when they think about poling a canoe they think, “Gosh how do you stand up and pole at the same time?” But you said something very interesting to me once about what you would consider a poleable canoe, and you said something about stability.
Fernandez: Yes, most canoes today are not made for hunting and fishing. They are made to go fast, to travel long ways, to go down wide rivers and all that, but the original canoes, and the canoes I have, are the design of the 1880s, are flat-bottomed. They have a keel and are 36, 37 inches wide. Not super wide. If they are super-wide—39 or 40 inches—they’re a tub and you can’t cover water, so it is a compromise. But I guarantee you Marshall that you and I could stand on it—not as easy as you can stand on a boat—but you could be comfortable enough fishing standing, which is how we fish. But it needs to be flat-bottomed.
Now if you talk to an expert canoeist, he will say a keel is no good. “You can’t maneuver the thing, you can’t do this; you can’t do that.” He is absolutely correct if what you are doing is canoeing and that’s all you are thinking about, but when you are fishing and you start poling you lose yourself looking for fish and the angler in front loses himself looking for that big snook lying in low water. You can’t be thinking of just the canoeist. You’ve got to have enough initial stability that you are not thinking about that. It is a different game. If the canoeist has not been an angler, he is thinking of what he needs just to go canoeing, but no, we are going fishing in the canoe. You need a canoe 16 feet by 36, 17 by 36, 17 by 37—no more than that.
Cutchin: A longer canoe than many people would think of as being the standard I suppose.
Fernandez: 16 and 17 are pretty standard. The longer the canoe, obviously the more displacement and the higher you float and everything being equal the faster it goes but the harder it is to spin around. I could use an 18-footer in the flats easy, or even more, but when you go through the many creeks in the Everglades, the 18-footer at places it won’t turn. It is just too big to make the turn, and I find 16 and 17 a better compromise for that. That’s why my canoe one is a 16 Merrimack and the other one is a 17 Old Town Tripper.
Cutchin: What do you use as a pushpole when you are poling?
Fernandez: The average pushpole is 12 feet. That’s very, very average. I have an 11-footer and a 13. But I like to have a two-piece pushpole in a canoe because when I go through mangrove tunnels and there is current, I don’t want to be paddling. There is slippage on paddling.
I split the pole in two, sit down and pole up a creek real fast because, first, there is no slippage on poling against the bottom and, second, the bottom is always hard because there is current wherever there is a tunnel. I’m constantly slipping and going through tunnels that have got mangroves over you; you can’t pole even with a 12-foot pole, so with a 6-foot pole I can pole real well. All my canoe poles are two-piece.
Cutchin: Terrific idea. You wouldn’t normally think of that, but unless you’ve been in the mangroves and you realize that lot of time getting from basin to basin you are traveling through those small tunnels.
Fernandez: Absolutely, and the pushpole can be super-light, 2 pounds or less because, remember, it is not pushing 1000 pounds of boat with engine and all of that. It is pushing a very slippery, very narrow 70-pound canoe with two people in it. The pushpole doesn’t have to be that that strong, within reason. That’s something else: I always carry a spare pole split into two, tucked into one side of the canoe, because I don’t want to go 10 miles somewhere in 9 inches of water and the pole breaks or something happens to it and I’ve got to try to paddle back in 9 inches of water—you’d die doing that. No no I carry a spare pushpole, absolutely. Never have I had to use it, I must admit, but I’m carrying it.
Cutchin: What about the actual fabrication of the canoes that you like to fish out of? Are there particular brands that you like?
Fernandez: One of my favorite is the Merrimack. It is built with very light Kevlar, very thin, and then it has got cherry wood ribs and I think ash gunnels. It looks exactly like an 1800s canoe, but instead of wood and canvas it has got Kevlar outside—which you don’t need if you are in Canada, but you need in the mangrove world because there are rocks and there are pieces of mangrove sticking up. Something is always poking to the bottom of the canoe. Unfortunately you can’t have the old classic wood canoes, which are still being made.
The other thing that we hadn’t talked about is that you can go to remote areas in the canoe by dragging it with your skiff. Now I’ll either put the canoe on top of my Hell’s Bay; one end will go on top of the poling platform and the other end would be tied on the bow, so the canoe is facing down like a Porsche. It has got some aerodynamics and then I crank the engine up and go at 30 miles an hour. The other thing I do that I like even better is I simply take the canoe behind the boat and bring 3 feet onto one side or other of the engine on top of a cushion and tie it and I take off at full speed.
Full speed for me is 30 miles an hour, or 28. Then I can go to Flamingo in the Everglades and go to Broad River or go to Rogers or Little Sable Creek or whatever. Then I take the skiff to the mouth of a creek and launch the canoe and pole back inside somewhere and bring everything with me. I don’t leave anything in the boat. Never have had any problem, but that’s a way to get way back, float in 3 inches of water. You need the skiff to fish those areas; otherwise you need four days to get there by paddle. That’s a very practical way to go.
Cutchin: Speaking of speed, you and I have traded stories about this as well, but going faster doesn’t always equal catching more fish, does it?
Fernandez: I have come to the conclusion after watching some of my heroes—Steve Huff, Dave Denker and so many others that are great guides—I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes you catch a lot less because you are trying to get to one spot fast and you are covering 20 miles of the Everglades and when you are doing 50 miles an hour and even more that you are not going to look at anything else. I can’t tell you how many times travelling at 28 miles an hour either I or Steve or Dave Denker would stop 20 minutes into the ride and say, “Wait I see something.” “Yeah those are tailing fish.” And we never get any further than that the whole day. That happens often.
You’ve got to be fishing through the whole area. You got to be looking also. I’ve gone with guys that do 50 miles an hour. When you get there you got there 15 minutes earlier or 10 minutes early—you are not going to save [much time] on a 30-minute or 20-minute run anyway, and then it takes you 10 minutes to get ready. Your shirt is upside down; your glasses are bent up the other way. One of the rods came off the rod rack. It takes a while to get going. But the other way you are relaxed. I decide to wipe my glasses. Maybe I get a bite to eat and maybe I would have a sip to water. Maybe I decide to sharpen the hook and be ready. When Huff stops I just step out, take the rod and walk into the bow. I’m ready to go. I don’t have to rearrange myself and re-dress myself.
I don’t know many people you can catch as many snook with as you catch with Steve. He doesn’t leave early but yet he is fishing the minute he leaves. And there have been exceptional days on a trip [planned] all the way to Shark River, which is 55 minutes to an hour and 5 minutes in a skiff, when we had stopped five minutes into the run right there in Chokoloskee because he says something or the conditions were right and he hadn’t realized it before. All day we fished there. If he hadn’t been looking, we would have gone an hour away and left that.
Cutchin: Yeah I’ve spoken to Steve about that very idea that and with Harry Spear and others as well, but if you leave the dock with a mission in your head that you have to be at a certain place at a certain time, you don’t pay attention to all the different things that are happening, all the subtle little clues that are telling you that they may not be exactly the way you envisioned it as you were thinking about what you were going to do. Then you oftentimes do miss those incredible opportunities that are just sitting there waiting for you because they are not expected or they didn’t say that was going to happen in the last book that you read.
Fernandez: Right, right you never know, And you know I’ve even taken it one step further: I’ve always said, “You can’t live for the moment of the strike alone.” I really enjoy the ride to the fishing spot. Think about it. You are riding in the state-of-the-art, usually shallow draft, boat, riding sometimes in 7 inches of water, sometimes in deep water, sometimes on areas where you see birds all over flying over the boat or at a distance or whatever, going through mangrove tunnels. How can you block that out? Like you are closing your eyes and only waiting till you get there an hour later so you can catch a snook? How can you miss all of that? That’s part of the whole thing. I enjoy that ride. I really do.
Cutchin: If you don’t pay attention to it you are really missing one of the great pleasures of shallow water fishing.
Fernandez: Absolutely. The real great guides, Timmy Klein, who is one of the great bonefishermen, he points out all kinds of stuff if you are listening. “Look at the bottom. See that turtle grass. That’s really rich. That turtle grass is almost 9 inches long. It holds a lot of food, blah blah blah. Why don’t we stop in there.” [I might say] “Shouldn’t we be bonefishing?” “They are there but this is a wrong tide. It is still too high. Actually we will be stopping here later in the afternoon and look at this channel and blah blah blah. These potholes have a lot of mangrove snapper. When we go back look at them and you see that etc. etc. etc.”
Even for that reason, you don’t want to go fast. Also, when you go really fast in the shallow water, you kill fish. You kill stingrays. You sometimes hit a gamefish, a redfish or a snook. I’ve seen them killed. I’ve seen people hit porpoises. You can’t go super shallow, say two feet, one foot or even less at 50 miles an hour, but people do. I think slow, deliberate… enjoy the moment.
Cutchin: Of course using a smaller engine has a lot of advantages to it. We have spoken about that before in terms of just the way a skiff is designed, it is designed to ride or even rest perfectly flat isn’t it?
Fernandez: Absolutely. I think that’s so important, and I’ve certainly experienced the same boat with three different engines and the difference is huge—how it feels and how it handles. When the engine is too heavy and the boat sits low in the water in the rear, you push forward and the boat being at an angle you push a much bigger hull weight, and that’s noise. And the fish, as you will know, feel it as well. Poling the boat is harder because you are pushing the boat at an angle instead of flat. It becomes a very poor displacement when that happens.
You are really not gaining much. And as far as gaining speed, if you want to go a lot faster you’ve got to do a lot more than going from 40 to 60 horsepower to really go a lot faster. You pay a huge price. And then with the heavier engine you use more fuel, so now you may need a bigger gas tank—and fuel is 6.1 or 6.2 pounds per gallon. Another 10 gallons or 15 gallons becomes 60 or 90 more pounds, and the bigger gas tank is a bunch of more pounds and the engine was bigger. This thing mushrooms for nothing. Yes the small engine is the way to go. There is no doubt. If you are going to be an angler, it is the way to go.
Cutchin: We could talk forever and I would like to follow up this conversation with some discussion about fishing strategy and fishing in skiffs. But before we wrap this one up I would like to ask you something, because I just chuckle every time I remember you saying it a few weeks ago. It had to do with pattern development in flies. What do you said was, “Red and white flies have gone out of style at least three times in the past 50 years.”
Fernandez: Oh yes, that’s so funny.
Cutchin: I think that could be said of a lot of different aspects of gear and techniques, as both things did get farther out and forgotten and reinvented and claimed for commercial purposes over and over again, but when you started fishing in saltwater, there were some basic patterns around that probably transferred over from different types of fishing.
Fernandez: Some from freshwater.
Cutchin: What’s your perspective on that whole transition? You’ve seen that now for the past 50 years you’ve been watching fly development. What strikes you as the more interesting part of that?
Fernandez: I think that the biggest discovery that’s really an improvement is the one that we basically found, or some of the guys in the Keys discovered, that a weighted fly for bonefish, for permit, even for redfish was as a whole a better fly than a non-weighted. Yes in super-shallow water sometimes the darting action of a non-weighted fly is good, but that’s an exception. In super-shallow water—anything else than even tailing bonefish and tailing redfish—we still weight the fly, even though it might be a light bead chain or something like that. When I started we used a lot of Joe Brook patterns and a Phillips pink shrimp, which was not a great fly. None of the stuff was weighted. We got bonefish and so on, but we never got permit. The permit did not follow.
Cutchin: Is that because there was resistance in the flying fishing community to the idea of throwing a heavy fly, was it considered … ?
Fernandez: We didn’t know about that. As a matter of fact, the first permit I caught Marshall, I caught it on something called an Optic fly, which was really a short-shank hook, white Marabou and a bead—you know the big bead, one big circle, not a bead chain that goes over the wrap of the front of the fly. You painted it and painted a big eye. When you dropped it of course it went down, with the Marabou then the most resistant [material]. I caught a permit. I think it was a 11 pounds, and while I was decidedly happy, you think I would’ve discovered [why it worked]. It didn’t have to do with the eye, it had do with the thing dropping when I stopped it, and the fish came down and tailed on it.
Cutchin: Was that your intention or was it something you were just trying out for the first time?
Fernandez: I was just trying that out because I couldn’t a get a permit to hit, and years had gone by. You think I would have thought about that but I didn’t. It still didn’t click. I remember a mathematician, a guy with a PhD in mathematic from the north-east—I can’t think of this name but he had connections with 3M—and Scientific Anglers gave him some fly and in the mid-sixties went to fish with Woody Sexton, do you know Woody?
Fernandez: He got two or three permit. I asked the guy, “What did you catch it on?” He said, “The Optic fly. You know I dropped it and it went down and they grabbed it.” I said “You know I got my permit that way too and blah blah blah.”
Anyway but eventually as you know we started weighting flies. Nat Raglan came out with Puff the Magic Dragon that had glass eyes, and then we put epoxy around the glass eye. What we were doing is getting the flies weighted. And then the crab came in but the crab was weighted [too]. That whole thing—the idea that Woody could weight the fly even though we were fishing in a foot of water, which doesn’t make any sense—you realize you want the thing to go down, to escape down. We didn’t catch that, but Nat did and so did Huff and so did Del Brown.
Cutchin: Do you think that was because at that moment in time, the guys were beginning to think of what is the behavior of the prey these fish are actually going after?
Fernandez: I think so. Nat Raglan was very good at what he did and Huff was probably born being good. I don’t remember when Huff was bad. I knew Huff before he guided. I remember the day he told me he graduated in Marine Biology University of Miami with a bachelor’s. The day after, we met at Bob MacChristian’s, who made the Sea Masters [reels], and we congratulated each other. I said, “What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to guide; I’m going to be a fishing guide.”
“Are you sure because we could do that …. “
“No, no that’s what I’m going to do.”
It was done. I think it was good already. Yes, he and Del Brown and Nat Raglan those guys, they gave it a lot of thought. I knew Nat also before he was a guide when he used to run the movies at the theater. He was the guy who handled the projector at the theater, and we used to sneak in there and I was there for free and we would bring popcorn and watch the movie three times in Miami Beach before he was a guide.
Yes, he went to sleep at night thinking about that. They discovered that. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. All of a sudden you could go permit fishing and catch two in a day. That was to me—being old and having seen where we were in the late fifties and sixties—it was hard to believe, but such was the case.
Cutchin: Getting back to your comment about flies going in and out of style, don’t you think it’s something of a commentary on how we decide what the latest, greatest fly is and the fact that oftentimes flies that worked 20, 30 years ago, the flies which we might should be using in this particular situation, but since they’ve “stop working or become unpopular” we don’t even think about them? Right?
Fernandez: I think very much. I think I told you that I researched the IGFA marine library and found that in the year 200, the first fly that they have is basically white feathers—which were little bit off color, almost yellowish—but white feathers with a red wool head, a red and white fly. It has been going in and out of vogue in the fly fishing world forever. That color was the color for steamers for black bass for years. In the thirties, Tom Loving used to use it and gave it Joe Brooks, who brought it to Miami. And of course he got snook and baby tarpon with red and white. A red and white fly, yellow with a red hackle. Or all-black; black is a wonderful color for baby tarpon, for snook. For big sea trout.
Cutchin: And night fishing, right?
Fernandez: In night fishing it shows the best silhouette.
Night fishing is wonderful. I went to fish in the Gulf of Mexico in the oil rigs and the big schools of jacks. The fly they used was all-black with a little bit of purple in it—dark purple—but the point is it was big black fly. I thought, Now you need something shiny because they are not going to take the [basic] black as well. Are you kidding? Threw the fly—they didn’t even move it, like it was a live sardine. They came up and grabbed it. That’s it.
When you see a big change now in flies in the last 20 years is that no one has rediscovered anything. What happened is, new material came in and they could do something that they couldn’t do before. The big, long, skinny barracuda flies came about because we got FisHair and we can tie a fly 8 inches long, 10 inches long. That’s why.
Cutchin: Remember when the Merkin came along? I don’t think anybody had been tying permit flies with Aunt Lydia’s carpet yarn at that point. Suddenly the craft stores in the keys were sold out of yarn.
Fernandez: They were all men buying it.
Cutchin: They were all men, and they were getting some fairly strange looks.
Fernandez: Yeah that’s true. I remember buying it and a woman saying “Does your wife want it?”
“No that’s for me.”
“Do you want the tan and the green?”
“I will take some of that pink.”
“Okay, you are in America. You can do anything you want.”
One of those things. I was one of the first people I think who took Merkins and did something else with them I think: in the chum line that was a great fly. The Merkin—when you got big, wise rainbow runners, which is a fish I like and wouldn’t take flies—they ate that crab really well. I also got and I still get some very good-size tripletail with a weighted crab.
Cutchin: One of the many topics that we need to talk about at some point is permit fishing, because I think for you it may be your favorite type of fishing, like it is mine.
I do want to mention that you are working on a redfish book, and that’s very exciting because the quality of your bonefish book was really extraordinary. If the redfish book is going to be anything like that I’m really looking forward to seeing it when it does come out. But can we please continue this conversation on another day, because there is so much we haven’t ….
Fernandez: Absolutely. I love talking to you Marshall. You and I see things very much alike and I’m very comfortable talking with you. We need to wet a line. I will bring the Cuban sandwiches and we will swap the pole.
Cutchin: I will eat them.
Fernandez: What a friend!