Think about a place where you can fish more than 100 miles of flats without seeing another fisherman, a place where the flats fishing is so good that you can catch seven species of fish in one day, a place where big bonefish run toward your fly when it hits the water too hard, rather than streaking off the flat in the other direction, a place where you have a legitimate chance for a grand slam every day of the year, a place where big permit are as plentiful as they were in the Florida Keys 30 years ago, a place where you can wade miles of white-sand flats in your bare feet for big bonefish, a place where you’ll find enough big jacks, ’cudas, and sharks on the flats to wear you out!
This place used to only exist in my dreams, but now, it’s a reality, and it’s been right in our backyard all along. It’s called Cuba.
The Jardines De La Reina
These islands—hundreds of little keys (“cayos”), rich with mangroves, palm trees, pristine beaches, and endless flats—form an archipelago 70 miles off the southeastern coast of Cuba. They are protected by the third longest barrier reef in the world, and one of the first white people to see them was Christopher Columbus, who gave them the name “Gardens of the Queen.”
They form an island system similar to the Florida Keys—130 miles of key islands and flats, about the same distance as from Key Largo to Key West. But in this saltwater wilderness there is just one fishing lodge with a dozen flats skiffs fishing the entire area—the Italian operation Avalon and its floating lodge, the Tortuga.
Four years ago Captain Orlando Fl. Rodriguez Romay, the Cuban minister of fishing, signed a new law banning all commercial fishing, except for lobsters, in most of the Jardines. Later, an Italian group called Avalon Fishing and Diving Center signed an agreement acquiring exclusive use of the area in the Jardines De La Reina islands for sportfishing and diving.
Despite heavy commercial fishing pressure before the ban, the Jardines has remained an unspoiled place, primarily because they are situated from 50 to 70 miles off the Cuban coast and are not easily visited, even by the Cuban people.
The Avalon Fishing and Diving Center was originally created as a dive operation, attracting divers from all over Europe to its world-class reef diving. But Pepe Omegna, one of the four Italian partners who runs the operation, saw the tremendous potential for the flats fishing and quickly developed it, outfitting his operation with the best skiffs and trained fly-fishing guides.
A floating hotel, the Tortuga is the base for Avalon’s fishing and diving operations. The 110-foot, double-deck, steel houseboat is moored in a channel, protected from the wind and waves. The boat has eight air-conditioned rooms, each with its own small bathroom and shower, and up to four bunks.
Downstairs, on the first floor, an air-conditioned dining room, complete with a TV and VCR, allows guests to play back video action they shot that day, with a generator running round the clock and providing 110 volts.
The dining is a blend of American, Italian, and Cuban recipes specializing in native seafood, including mutton snapper, grouper, and lobster, with choices of two or three entrees. A highlight is Italian cheese and herb pizza served as appetizers each night on the afterdeck, along with the pina coladas, rum and tonics, and Cuba Libres (rum and coke).
Most of Avalon’s clients come from Italy, other European countries, and England. But over the past two years Avalon has attracted a surprising number of American fly fishers who have heard of the fishing in these pristine waters and are willing to sneak into the forbidden land to experience perhaps the best saltwater flats fishing in the world.
In addition to the Tortuga, last year Avalon added an 80-foot luxury yacht, the Halcon, that accommodates from six to eight anglers and tows three or four flats skiffs behind. The skiffs allow anglers to cruise the islands and explore unfished outlying areas that are long runs from the Tortuga.
With the tutelage of several famous American guides and anglers, the Cubans have become excellent guides and good fly fishermen. Give them a fly rod and they’ll double-haul a 100-foot cast, or show you just how to work a fly to make bonefish charge and inhale it. They spot fish 100 yards ahead of the boat and direct your casts from the poling platform. They are as good as, or better than, any guides I’ve fished with in the Caribbean, and they work long days and fish as hard as you want. Although Spanish is their native tongue, they speak enough English to communicate with their anglers.
The original Avalon guide boats were fiberglass catamaran-hulled and just adequate for fly fishers, but last winter Pepe imported ten new flats skiffs, equipped with poling platforms and 60-horse Yamaha motors. The new skiffs run 40 miles per hour in smooth water, allow the guides to cover a greater fishing range, and run fast in chop.
With the new skiffs, the guides can run from 25 to 35 miles in one direction from the Tortuga and do it in comfort. The prevailing winds in the Jardines come from the east. We found that most of the good bonefish and permit flats are on the windward (north) side. These flats are ideal for morning fishing, with the sun and wind at your back.
Bonefish are the primary quarry, and they are large and stupid—a good combination. Bones average between 2.5 and 3 pounds with many fish in the 4- to 5-pound class. Although fish over 10 pounds are caught each year, a good angler should expect to catch bones weighing from 7 to 8 pounds. These fish are neither selective nor leader-shy, except on the shallow-water turtle-grass flats, where they can be both.
Larger flies work great on the sand flats, because the fish can spot them from a longer distance and hear them plop into the water. Standard bonefish flies, like Crazy Charlies and Gotchas (#2-#4), work well on the wadeable sand flats, but they do not fish well on the turtle-grass inside flats. There, unweighted and weedless shrimp imitations (#2-#4, green) with stiff split-mono weedguards, fished on a Monic Tropical Clear Floating Line, allow you to fish delicately the thin, low, incoming tide waters over the grass without hangups. And they draw urgent attacks from the bones.
White Clouser Minnows are deadly on the sand flats and just about any crab pattern can cause a bonefish to charge and suck it in. I found that my #4 McCrab was murder on big bones. I caught my largest fish on a #2 Del Brown’s Merkin permit fly. I like my Yellowstone Angler 12-foot bonefish leaders tied with Mason’s hard nylon for the butt and midsections, with 12-pound Ande Premium clear monofilament for the tippet.
You fish from the boat over the vast turtle-grass flats and wade-fish the white-sand flats. When wade-fishing, both anglers can fish close to the guide, using his eyes to spot fish, then separate for interception shots. The wading conditions are the best I’ve encountered anywhere in the Caribbean—little coral, and mostly hard, sandy flats that you can wade barefoot.
The Jardines have some of the best permit fishing in the world. The flats are similar to the best flats around Key West, where big permit have access to the safety of deep water and come up onto the flats to feed heavily on high incoming tides. The Jardines permit are plentiful and big—from 20 to 35 pounds—and the flats have light-colored bottoms where fish are easily spotted, even in cloudy weather.
One day, after catching mutton snapper and several tarpon on the flats, we went looking for permit on the high incoming tide. Our guide Coki set me up for a perfect interception with two big fish tailing and feeding along the flat toward us. I got a good shot in front of the largest fish with a #2 McCrab, and it raced forward and pounced as the fly sank toward bottom. I set the hook hard and we were off to the races. Ten minutes later, we had the fish in the net, weighed it on my Chatillon scale (30 pounds), and released it.
With several tarpon and a big permit in the boat, Coki wanted a grand slam—a bonefish, tarpon, permit, and mutton snapper in one day. (Pepe had told the guides that he would provide ten cases of beer for them if an angler caught a grand slam on flies.) Completing a slam with a bonefish was the easy part. Although we had a perfect permit tide, Coki was anxious to put that bonefish in the boat, so we headed for the nearby bonefish flats. I quickly had a 3-pound bone to the boat. That night Pepe paid off and the guides had their cerveza.
The best permit fishing in the Jardines comes on the higher tides, with a high incoming the best, providing good fishing right through high- and back down to mid-falling tide. As in tarpon fishing, virtually all the Jardines permit fishing is done from skiffs.
The biggest surprise of my 1999 trip to Cuba was the great tarpon fishing. We found no big tarpon, but did find many fish in the 15- to 30-pound range—a blast on a 10-weight rod. The guides know where to find the tarpon, because the great fish remain in the island system all year.
In 1998, we were armed with too few flies and tarpon leaders, but in 1999, we arrived with plenty of leaders and Deceivers. We found great tarpon flats 20 miles east of the Tortuga, where tarpon living in the channels emerged onto the lee-side flats with the falling tide. Schools of from 20 to 50 fish rolled lazily in the shallows. They were extremely aggressive, and any decent cast brought a half-dozen fish chasing and jumping on our #2/0 white-and-grizzly Deceivers. We jumped 20 tarpon in two hours one morning, and landed perhaps seven—as much fun as you can have with a 10-weight rod.
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