Retired Coral Gables physician Marty Arostegui fled his native Cuba in 1960 when he was 14. Busy with career, family and fishing — setting 420 International Game Fish Association world records on various types of tackle) — he never returned to the Communist-ruled island until 2010. Of course, it was his passion for fishing that drew him back.
Now the 66-year-old IGFA trustee is working to promote recreational angling in Cuba, and maybe along the way encourage a less-hostile relationship between his former home and his adopted land.
“Time has passed and we’re getting older,” Arostegui said. “Maybe there are other ways to bring about change that don’t involve a constant state of antagonism.”
Arostegui said he has no wish to debate the politics of U.S.-Cuba relations. Instead, he focuses on person-to-person interactions with regular citizens, visiting international anglers and fisheries officials in Cuba.
During a couple of recent trips to the island, Arostegui and IGFA president Rob Kramer and conservation director Jason Schratweiser have managed to interest anglers who compete in the annual Hemingway Marlin Tournament in using circle hooks to catch and release the spindle-beaked giants. The IGFA delegation showed tournament competitors from Cuba and around the world how to rig baits using circle hooks and how to drop back and hook fish. Circle hooks have been mandatory for years in U.S. billfish tournaments when using live or natural baits, but the Cubans and others weren’t familiar.
This year, the Americans got the tournament to set aside a special prize category for using circle hooks and presented the winning crew with a David Wirth sculpture. Next year, Arostegui said, tournament officials have pledged to make circle hooks mandatory, and to implant satellite tags in some fish to help advance scientific studies on their growth and movements.
But, he said, “remember that everything over there is subject to change without notice.”
Offshore fishing is not the only pastime Arostegui is helping to nurture.
A keen interest in exotic fish lured him to the Hatiguanico River about 1 1/2 hours south of Havana, where African sharp-toothed catfish, known locally as claria, abound. The toothy non-natives were brought there years ago to launch an aquaculture program, but they spread out of control after a hurricane blew out dikes that enclosed them.
Last spring, Arostegui and local fisherman Jose Ramon Cuza, president of the Cuban Federation of Sportfishing, decided to try for a world-record claria on fly rod using an ultra-fine two-pound tippet and a fly made out of marabou feathers.
It would be quite an angling coup if they succeeded. At the time, only four IGFA world records had come out of Cuba — and none were caught by Cubans.
Arostegui caught a fish that weighed a little more than a pound. A few minutes later, Cuza topped it with a three-pounder. The two were jubilant.
“That day, two Cubans from both sides of the Gulf Stream caught two world records on the same day in Cuba,” Arostegui said, smiling.
Cuza has since been named an IGFA representative.
Arostegui said he also is interested in helping promote the island’s bountiful Cayo Largo flats fishery for bonefish, tarpon and permit, and a fledgling school that trains Cubans to become flats guides.