Havana good time - fly fishing Cuba
I just got back from my first long-awaited trip to Cuba to sample the flats fishing in the Jardines de la Reina region, leading a group of UK anglers in conjunction with the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT).
As UK representative for the BTT we were keen to introduce the already successful 'Travelling Angler' program to European anglers. This program allows anglers interested in the main flats species of bonefish, permit and tarpon in particular, to take part in a research-focused fishing trip run in conjunction with the BTT. We were lucky enough to have Operations Director and chief scientist Aaron Adams join us for this inaugural trip who gave several very interesting and informative lectures during the evenings to anglers and guides alike on the importance of research and conservation of these key game species which have such a valuable economic value to countries like Cuba. The long-term aim is to begin a program of tagging and other research in the country with help from travelling anglers and guides alike but there is still work to be done in agreeing the formalities with the countries official science community.
Working in conjunction with the well-known outfitter Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers, we had arranged to take over the floating mothership Tortuga which is moored permanently in the famed Jardines de la Reina area (The Queen's Gardens - named by Christopher Columbus) located around 50 miles offshore and very similar to the Florida Keys but without any development as the entire area is a designated Marine Park. Our group of 10 was joined by two other anglers from mother Russia fully focused on the great reef and bluewater fishing to be had and armed with heavy spinning gear to cope with tuna, local kingfish and large snappers and grouper amongst others.
We had arrived in the late afternoon after a very early morning start from the famous Cuban capital of Havana. We had an extra couple of days in town thanks to the Virgin Atlantic flight schedule and it was nice to be able to explore a little and adjust to the time difference. It is a serious trek to get to paradise but you know it's worth it once you arrive. A 6 hour coach ride to the port of Jucaro is followed by a 3 hour boat trip out to the Jardines de la Reina area. We had a good trip out with calm water but a brewing storm had the seas up on the ride home so bring some travel meds if you are at all seasick just in case.
The double-decker floating hotel Tortuga was comfortable and this size group fitted in perfectly sharing twin cabins with en-suite bathrooms. Meals were taken in the dining room with one large table which made for a great social occasion comparing notes and plans in the mornings and then swapping war stories over dinner in the evenings. Not surprisingly the dinners featured a lot of fantastically fresh fish and I think we must have had lobster every day too, prepared in 2 or 3 different ways with rice or spaghetti (a nod to Avalon's Italian ownership). At breakfast which was a choice of eggs with bacon if you liked, or fresh fruit, cornbread and toast, the lunch options were laid out on a table with plastic boxes so you fill them yourselves with whatever you wanted. There was also plenty of fresh tropical fruit, primarily papaya, guava and pineapple when we were there which tasted so much better than the same back home in England.
Out on deck there was a bar area at one end of the lower floor while at the other end was a more open area, used as a loading dock with the skiffs and also as a general chill-out area in the evenings. You could sit sipping a Cuba Libre or a cold Cristal beer as night fell listening to the sounds of tarpon rolling just outside the range of the lights from the boat. Adventurous anglers can attempt to cast to fish but with plenty of mooring ropes and obstacles all around it's a challenge!
Our guides for the week had been allocated on the boat ride over from the mainland already and so after the initial rigging was done on arrival the rods were stored on racks and the guides loaded them onto the skiffs each morning and unloaded and freshwater rinsed them each evening. What we found was that many of the guides had their favourite species or styles and so if you prefer to target a particular species or fish in a certain way during your visit it would be worth communicating this to Avalon when booking so they can allocate a guide who will be best able to accomodate you.
The group of pristine islands, reefs, channels and flats that make up the Jardines de la Reina chain run north-west to south-east for about 100 miles and you have the option to see a lot of them during your stay. The very fishable Dolphin skiffs used by Avalon make getting around quick and comfortable and have a useful backrest on the casting platform to help steady those not used to regularly dancing around above the water like us Brits. Lunch and cold drinks are carried on board in an ice chest for you and some of the views from lunch stops not to mention the visiting wildlife from the ubiquitous iguanas to the surprising bold hutia, a large rodent that can be as big as a small dog as we found out one memorable lunchtime.
But really of course, at the end of the day it is all about the fishing. Cuba is heralded as one of the most unspoiled flats destinations left on the planet and this is still true, thanks to both the marine park status which blocks development and to the exclusive operator arrangement that Avalon have secured which means apart from members of your own group, you do not see any other anglers the whole week. A few divers perhaps (Avalon also runs diving holidays)and the occasional local lobster fisherman but that's it.
My guide for the week, Leonardo, was introduced with a grin by lodge manager Andre as "The Tarpon Hunter" and this proved to be very true. He knew the best channels, flats and holes hidden in the mangroves to find our quarry which resulted in plenty of action for us and my father popping his 'poon cherry! Bonefish were often then seen as the backup plan when it was not the right time to fish for tarpon and there was a good mix of sight-fishing for larger singles and small pods of fish in the 8lb range and to schools on the flats to blind-casting into large muds of bonefish and other mixed species like snappers out in the large lagoons. We did not do much permit fishing ourselves, or not as much as I would have liked anyway, but others that did were rewarded with plenty of sightings daily (up to 20+ fish in total on some notable occasions) and a few shots but none were hooked all week which the guides put down to the moon/tide phase which they had said was not ideal at the start of the week.
Jack crevalle and barracuda make up the other significant targets of opportunity in the area with the jacks often becoming the evening's sashimi if they were unlucky enough to make the wrong choice. We spent a large portion of our week fishing the south-eastern end of the chain which has lots of soft-bottom not suitable for wading so we were largely skiff-bound. The harder-bottom flats are to be found at the north-western end I was told so another useful thing to know if you like to wade - make sure your guide know's this and heads in the right direction at the start of the day.
The three flies pictured in the main title shot of this article sum up my week in Cuba.
The chartreuse toad variant called the green cookie (slow sink with plastic bead-chain eyes) worked spectacularly well where others were struggling. When their guides were finally convinced to change flies to match, success followed suit. Purple had also worked well in the same pattern it should be noted. Maybe it was the relatively small size of the fly but I landed all fish hooked as it was engulfed each time deep down in the mouth. These fish were in the 20-40lb class so while not huge were able to give plenty of action on a 10 weight outfit.
The Avalon fly is rapidly gaining notoriety as the permit fly of choice in Cuba with many catches to its name already and I just read that the design is being tweaked and tested to try and make it even better if that is possible. You will be hard-pressed to persuade your guide to fish anything else such is their belief in the pattern. Avalon gifted us all a fly upon our arrival which was a nice touch I thought (that gave the eager fly tiers amongst us a chance to compare their own versions against the original).
The Cuban shrimp is also a brilliant go-to bonefish pattern. It is hard to see why you would need many other patterns as it just works 9 times out of 10. The main exception are the deeper muds in the lagoons where you will need some much heavier flys with dumb-bell eyes fished on longer leaders to get down to the fish.