Hatch Interview: Will Benson

Story by Will Rizzo

Growing up in the Keys, Will Benson understands the distance between south Florida and Cuba can’t always be measured in miles. Stand on the bow of a skiff off Key West and you’re half the distance to Havana as Tampa. Yet in its post-revolution isolation, the island had become a blank spot on the map, slipping back to terra incognita for most anglers.

Reports from across the Straits of Florida were as hard to read as the island’s politics. By some accounts, the backcountry of 1950s Florida still existed on the island, perfectly preserved. Others described vast, empty flats, stripped clean by a hungry nation. As it turned out, both were true.

In 2013, Benson, a filmmaker and fly guide, visited the island with the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. The result is his film 90 Miles. We caught up with the Key West native to talk about Cuba, our shared future with the island, and why he’s obsessed with permit.

The film’s title, 90 Miles, refers to the physical distance between Cuba and the Florida Keys. It’s really close and really far at the same time. That plays into the subject of the entire film, how connected and yet disconnected we are.

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In 1980, the year I was born, Fidel opened the port of Mariel, in what was called the Mariel Boatlift, where a lot of Floridians went over and picked up family members. It soon became apparent that Fidel was also sending released prisoners and people from insane asylums to Florida.

There was a tremendous amount of craziness in south Florida during that time. The movie Scarface is based on it.

But a lot of kids I grew up with came over on the Mariel Boatlift. Kids who were babies at the time, kids I played baseball with. They’re very much a part of the fabric of our community. There’s a lot of love for Cuba, for the island, and the culture.

When I was 13, I caught my first permit on a fly. I was bit by the bug.

My life was basically over when I was thirteen.

Why climb Everest? Because it’s there. That’s why I fish for permit. They’re here and the most difficult fish to catch, at least in my backyard.

It might be as hard to catch a 1,000-pound blue marlin, but only because there are fewer shots and you have to go to some of the most remote locations in the world.

Permit are tangible perfection. That’s why doctors, lawyers – motivated, smart people from around the world – are led to this particular form of saltwater fly fishing on the flats.

It’s pure hunting. It’s incredibly visual. There’s adrenaline. It requires this purity of thought and composure. And if you do everything right, you get to hold perfection in your hand and let it go.

Be careful. Permit can ruin your life.

We share a lot of natural resources with Cuba – we’re connected by the ocean – and the fish travel back and forth. In a lot of ways, one depends on the other.

When I was 13, I caught my first permit on a fly. I was bit by the bug.

My life was basically over when I was thirteen.

We went on a educational and cultural visa to meet with the department of flora and fauna – basically their fish resource managers – to open up communication and so they could learn from some of the mistakes we’ve made in south Florida.

The Florida Keys has had a declining bonefish fishery for a number of years. We’ve been beating our heads against the wall trying to figure out the problem.

Bonefish, like many other species, group up and go offshore to spawn in the blue water. The larvae incubate from 30 to 50 days. At that point, they need to land in a medium-energy surf habitat and then grow up to be juvenile bonefish.

In the Florida Keys, there are places off the north coast of Cuba that very likely provide us with juvenile bonefish.

If those locations can be identified, we may have solved a big part of the puzzle in reinvigorating the Florida Keys bonefish fishery.

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We fished the north coast of Cuba, Cayo Santa Maria, for two days and then the Zapata National Park on the southern side. It’s just astonishing, so beautiful.

It looks like the Florida Keys, it looks like the Bahamas, and it looks like the Everglades. Cuba has basically everything.

If you scoured the entire coastline of Cuba, you’d find similarities to the best locations around the world.

A lot of the island’s north coast has been completely decimated and overfished. But since the Cuban government enacted marine protected reserves with only catch and release sports fishing allowed, they’ve seen almost an immediate rebound.

Small, one to two-pound bonefish. Large tarpon. And some incredibly big permit. We’re five to 10 years away from it being really healthy.

On the south side, you’re looking at one of the most ecologically intact places in the world. It’s phenomenal.

There’s stuff there we haven’t seen for 100 years in the United States.

Cuba in the late-eighties, when the Soviet Union pulled out, basically starved. Out of the sacrifices that were a part of everyday life, came a long-term outlook for sustainability.

That’s not really adopted here in the United States. In a certain respect, Cuba is really advanced

There’s a lot to learn from Cuba, and there’s much they can learn from us. The really important thing to remember is we’re connected by the natural mechanisms of the world.

If we look at the things that connect us, not the things that make us different, both sides of the Gulf Stream can benefit.

Will Benson’s films and his guide service are available at World Angling (303-725-1203; worldangling.com)