Exploring the rising tide of Cuban flats fishing
On January 1, 1959, Castro and his band of armed rebels stormed Havana, crushing the Batista regime. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1963 President John F. Kennedy invoked travel restrictions under the Trading with the Enemy Act. As the story goes, Kennedy, recognizing the finer things, procured 1,200 “personal-use” Petit H. Upmann cigars before the embargo came into effect. Cuban flats fishing, however, remained at that time well off the presidential radar.
As a direct effect of the trade embargo, more than 50 years later Cuba is a land lost in time. Its lack of U.S travelers may have helped cripple its economy but, in an ironic twist of fate, hasn’t hurt the fishing. It’s protected it. How good can a fishery teetering on the ramshackle pillars of communist Cuba be? As good as Belize? The Keys? Los Roques? With enough salty destinations to spin the globe and point, do we need yet another to feed the insatiable animal within? The short answer is, “Yes, Cuba is that good.”
This island archipelago, located 90 miles south of Key West, is peppered with national marine preserves rich in aquatic biodiversity, including migratory tarpon, permit, and tailing bonefish. Its forbidden fruits—outstanding flats fishing, quality cigars, fine sipping rums, and a city superimposed in 1950s-era steel and mortar—offer untapped potential and hope.
Hope. You can hear it in the voices of Cuba’s top flats guides, poling Dolphin skiffs on government-enforced, 20-day-on, 10-day-off schedules. And you’ll encounter similar sentiments from the thousands of embargo-crashing Americans already visiting the country annually.
In the wake of a new administration and the bill introduced in Congress in 2010 to lift the long-standing travel ban, Italian-owned operation Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers continues to field inquiries from a rising tide of Americans. Will those same fly fishers be storming Cuban flats anytime soon? If yes, any notion of the rebellion yet to come requires only three basic armaments: foresight, flies, and good fishing. Viva la revolución!
Jardines de la Reina
Fishing in Cuba is like hitting rewind on the clocks of time—imagine casting alongside Keys pioneers during the heyday of the ’50s and ’60s. Within the Jardines de la Reina archipelago, there is no pressure from competing fishing operations or recreational vessels. Other than the posse that launched alongside you earlier that morning, the panoramic views remain unstained in all directions. Development is nil. Commercial fishing is restricted to bluewater, outside the reefs. And shallow-water gamefish—robust populations of bones up to 10+ pounds, tarpon up to 100+ pounds (in season), and permit—act suspiciously unsuspicious to your flies. Well, not necessarily permit . . . but here they’re less suspicious than in most places.
We arrive in Havana late on a Friday night, sip sugary, crushed-mint mojitos, and when our heads finally hit pillows, the phone begins buzzing like an incessant housefly—one you just can’t kill. It’s 5 a.m. and the imported, Japanese luxury bus is waiting outside. It’s filled with singing Europeans, some South Africans, and a couple of Canucks and U.S. gringos ready to be whisked away to the port town of Jucaro. I’m last to stumble on—and first to pass out. From Jucaro, where many of the local guides reside with their families, it’s approximately four hours by ferry into the Jardines heartland, where your floating hotel, the Tortuga, awaits.
Geography. Named “Gardens of the Queen” by Christopher Columbus, the Jardines de la Reina is an uninhabited chain of islands, similar in climate and geography to the Keys. Once purportedly a favorite fishing haunt of Castro, the island system runs more than 100 miles to the northwest from Cuba’s southeastern coast. The company Avalon, through its Cuban government ties, has exclusive fishing access to the area. The Jardines was designated a Cuban marine park in 1996. Today it’s one of the largest marine parks in the Caribbean at more than 837 square miles, with more than 600 cays and islands to explore.
Tarpon. For anglers at the comfortable, well-provisioned digs at Avalon’s floating Tortuga, there are numerous tarpon flats located a 15- to 45-minute run from base camp. Morning tarpon fishing involves poling flats anywhere from 3 to 6 feet deep—both inside, on, and just outside a reef. At low light, cruising tarpon are difficult to spot, and you seek roving and stationary schools, with backs, tails, and fins shimmering in the early-A.M. glow.
Afternoon tarpon fishing, depending on your guide, involves longer runs to a large turtle grass and sand flat called Boca Grande. Boca Grande, which could easily swallow several NFL-size football fields, starts shallow against a mixed mangrove and beach shoreline, widening and gradually deepening to about 3 to 5 feet. On an incoming tide, guides station the Dolphin skiffs at various points throughout the flat, planting their 20-foot Stiffy pushpoles into the grass, and waiting for marauding schools of ’poons to peel out over shallow water. The fish run in formations of rogue singles and doubles to larger schools of 20+ tarpon.
In good overhead light, you see fish from hundreds of yards out as their black backs provide missile-like contrast against the bright, turquoise-green bottom. With deft maneuvering by your guide, you take position to intercept. Casts are from 50 to 80 feet long, leading the fish by about 3 feet. When tarpon come into range, immediately start stripping—medium to long, and quick. The reward—when everything clicks—is an eat on the first cast.
Jardines ’poons are not overly leader or fly shy. When you botch a cast, pick up and throw again. They will inevitably eat. Strip-strike with your line hand and hold tight until you’re confident the hook is firmly set in the tarpon’s tough maw. Sharp, strong hooks are critical. This string of events usually culminates in a jump(s), then a beeline for the horizon. Clear the deck line by spreading your rod and line hands apart. With your free hand, loosely pinch the line between thumb and forefinger—too tight and it will jump, potentially catching the rod’s fighting butt. Game over.
When the fish is on the reel, hold on and let the reel do its work. When the fish jumps, bow and point your rod at the fish to avoid having the hook unbutton. When the fish lands, crank furiously. Turning the fish’s head with a “down and dirty” rod angle is key to turning the fight in your favor. Once turned, angle the rod in the opposite direction the fish wants to move, tiring it as quickly and efficiently as possible. If it’s taking a half hour to land a 50-pound fish, use more drag and more muscle.
Avalon guide Bemba could often be heard yelling, “Cojones!” across the flat. I took this as a cue to “man up.”
You will spend most of your week at the Tortuga chasing ’poons in the 30- to 60-pound class. There are shots at bigger, migratory fish during the May through June window. Use 11- and 12-weight rods rigged with full-floating or intermediate sinking lines. We did not use IGFA leader and tippet formulas and instead stuck to basic 6- to 10-foot leaders, with 60- to 80-pound bite tippets.
Various tarpon-specific flies produce in the Jardines. Black-and-red and black-and-purple (#1/0 to #2/0) Puglisi Floating Minnows and Tarpon Streamers were the best during our one-week stay. Also carry Double Bunnies, Cockroaches, and Black Deaths.
Permit. Permit are the supermodel species of the Jardines backcountry. And, depending on your program, you’ll find them in good numbers up to 25 pounds and larger. Most of the Jardines’ best permit flats have coral bottoms, and are adjacent to reefs and deepwater drop-offs. The fishing is tide dependent and best during an incoming to high window, when fish move into the shallows to feed on shrimp and small crabs.
At the Jardines, there is good permit fishing on both north- and southfacing oceanside flats, with schooling fish as well as cruising and tailing singles and doubles. These flats range from 2 to 8 feet deep. Fishing to cruisers involves longer 60- to 80-foot casts and leading the fish by about 3 to 4 feet, allowing your fly time to sink into the zone—without spooking the fish. Tailers require closer casts: 1 to 3 feet.
Fishing permit anywhere is a game of precision and persistence. Take a deep breath and make your first cast count. Your guide helps you spot the fish and aligns the boat, in most instances, for ideal 11 o’clock casts. Depending on the size of the fish, you’re in for a relatively long battle (when it decides to eat), sometimes a half hour or more for bigger permit. If you’re fishing around coral, it’s rod tip up at all times. With fly line back on the reel, and the fish within striking distance of the boat, use side pressure to tire it fast and bring it to hand. Hell, it’s a permit; you need a photo. Keep the fish in the water whenever possible. Preferably, get out of the boat for the release.
At the Tortuga, you fish Avalon’s signature shrimp fly—designed by Mauro Ginevri based out of Cayo Largo. It’s caught tons of palometa at both locales, which is a confidence booster for both guide and caster. For permit, use 9- or 10-weight rods. Longer fluorocarbon leaders (10 to 12 feet), with 2 to 3 feet of 15- to 20-pound tippet are standard. Reels with smooth, perfectly functioning, powerful drags are mandatory. Tibor, Abel, Bauer, and Sage’s 6000 series all fit the bill.
During our one-week stay on the Tortuga, three permit were landed, ranging from 12 to 24 pounds. Combined shots between three boats and six rods totaled more than 50 over the course of six days. The three permit landed all ended in grand slams. (One angler lands a permit, tarpon, and bonefish, during the course of one day.) Bonefish in the Jardines can be gimmes. Catching permit (especially) and tarpon requires skill, finding favorable tides and light, and often, good luck.
Bonefish. Jardines bonefishing, as far as average size and numbers, is excellent by Caribbean standards. What makes it so good? Lack of fishing pressure is the definitive factor—including that from Avalon clients. From our experience with the Jardines guides, for instance, bonefish were the “redheaded stepchildren” of the mix, an afterthought reserved mostly for poor conditions and anglers green to saltwater fishing.
The guides, moreover, are so fully consumed with nonstop tarpon and permit action (understandably so) that we had to inveigle for just one day of dedicated bonefishing on the southern flats. It was worth it. Throwing to massive schools, singles, doubles, quads, and six-packs of 4- to 8-pound-average fish, produced smiles, even from a diehard, tarpon-loving Bemba. Typical bonefish shots are from 40 to 80 feet. Jardines bonefish do not require long leads. Cast the fly close to the fish—12 inches directly in front—and start your retrieve. Guides prefer a short, twitching action. Strip-strike, and be ready to clear your line quickly.
For most Jardines bonefishing, use 7- or 8-weight rods. We fished the Orvis Helios and Sage Xi3. Both performed perfectly. Use shrimp patterns: Gotchas, Crazy Charlies, Mantis Shrimp, Ragin’ Cravens, and EP Spawning Shrimps. Fly size and weight depend on the depth of the specific flat, as well as bottom structure—coral, sand, or turtle grass. Be sure to pack a varied box, with both weighted and lighter flies for deep and shallow water.
Other species. In addition to the big three—tarpon, permit, and bonefish—jacks, barracuda, snapper, nurse and lemon sharks, and many other gamefish inhabit the Jardines. Keep a 10- or 11-weight, with a wire-leader ’cuda setup, rigged and ready at all times. Charlie’s Needle Airhead (#2/0 and #5/0) is a killer ’cuda pattern. You see barracuda up to 40+ pounds daily. They are voracious eaters, requiring super-fast retrieves. Snapper and jack crevalle are fierce fighters, too. They can’t resist a chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnow in most instances.
Cayo Largo del sur
After a week of backcountry solitude in the Jardines, arriving at the all-inclusive, 296-unit Hotel Sol Club Cayo Largo resort was like stepping into Cancun central—albeit on a much smaller scale. Avalon is the sole diving and fly-fishing operator on the island. And although there are some fly fishers around, they’re a minority amid beach, bar, and buffet goers from Canada, South America, and Europe. The island is best known for its pristine, white sand beaches.
Cayo Largo is Cuba’s grand slam capital and sits approximately 110 miles south of Havana City. The fishery—dissected into six zones of various permit, bonefish, and tarpon flats—is part of a marine preserve located in the south-central region of the Cuban Archipelago. It has 17 miles of white sand beaches, surrounded by coral reef systems linking the adjacent island chains and keys.
Cayo Largo’s fishing season runs from November through August in order to avoid hurricane season (September and October). The early season, from November to January, is excellent for big bones (in numbers). This is also prime time for tarpon and permit. Peak fishing season is from February to June, when all species are present: tarpon, bones, permit, barracuda, snapper, and jacks. Permit shots are frequent all season.
Avalon bills its peak season as the best time for grand and super grand slams (the “big three” plus snook). We arrived on a Saturday in early June and fished the following morning. With several bones and a permit in the boat by noon, my companion and photographer extraordinaire John Sherman was well on his way to a trifecta +1. This is super grand slam country, and Avalon manages it as such.
The lodge management ranks guides by seasonal grand slam scores, which, by all definitions, are high. According to Avalon, 2009 seasonal totals at Cayo Largo equaled 13 super grand slams and 64 grand slams. Anglers at Avalon had already caught 21 supers and 51 grands before the end of the 2010 prime season.
So yes, Cayo Largo is the super grand slam crown jewel of the operation, and Avalon’s program hinges on permit—the linchpin in its four-fish gambit. What does that mean for you? Don’t expect to fish snook or baby tarpon in the mangroves—unless you’ve first boated a permit. Avalon, according to our guides, frowns upon doing it any other way
We were more than happy to fish for permit. And Cayo Largo’s permit fishery is a fine attribute. Most of Avalon’s six zones include productive permit flats. The flats we fished were combinations of both sand and turtle grass bottoms (soft, limited wading), anywhere from 3 to 6 feet deep, depending on tides. The best permit tides during our spring time slot occurred from 9 A.M. to 2 P.M.—incoming to high.
Permit appear as singles, doubles, quads, as well as larger schools of 6 to 12+ fish. Here they average anywhere from 6 to 20+ pounds. Your guide crisscrosses large flats—some up to 25 miles long—searching for small “muds”—stirred-up depressions in the flat bottom made by feeding stingrays. You’ll be scoping uninterrupted turtle grass flats, when, sure enough, you find a bottom depression, usually about a meter in circumference, that looks like someone dumped a couple of quarts of milk into it. Finding these mudding rays, more often than not, turns up permit—usually single or pairs, positioned tight to the stingray and feeding in its wake.
In these scenarios, guides position the boat for 60- to 80-foot, 11 o’clock casts just ahead of the milky water, or on top of a cruising stingray. Typically, these are not blind casts. You see the permit tailing or swimming. And, as you strip the fly from the micro-mud, permit follow and (sometimes) eat.
The two permit caught on our trip came after excellent first casts. When casts were botched, first, second, third, and fourth attempts rarely produced a sniff. With permit, the first cast is critical.
Permit can be tough. Choosing the best permit flies for Cayo Largo, however, is not. We caught both our Cayo Largo permit (as well as Jardines permit) on Ginevri’s pattern. It’s a slugger, and Avalon has the statistics to back it up. (More than 134 permit caught since April 2009.)
Bonefishing at Cayo Largo is similar to the Jardines: You find cruisers and tailers, as well as mudding schools. There are massive muds, which we preferred not to fish, and you have shots at large singles, doubles, and triples tailing in shallow water. You fish soft-bottom flats from the boat, but also pack flats sneakers, as good, hard-bottom wading opportunities exist in most zones. At low tide, many of the large permit flats are great for spotting tailers. During non-permit tides, you also encounter stingray targets that unearth large bones—from 5 to 8 pounds.
Tarpon and snook. Okay, you’ve landed the coveted permit, and you’ve got a bonefish or two in the bag. You’re stoked. Your guide is stoked (thinking about ratcheting up his score and stature). And your fishing buddy . . . maybe not too stoked, considering he’s sidelined for the afternoon, while you chase the dream. Your goal is a super grand slam, and whoever gets a permit first continues on that path the rest of the day.
Cayo Largo snook mostly belong to the mangroves and, according to our guides, are in relatively short supply. This is due to a lack of freshwater sources in and around the island chain, which snook use to spawn and boost their numbers. When you need a snook in a pinch, your guide has back-pocket mangrove options, which house fish in the 4- to 6-pound range. Cayo Largo also has beach fishing for larger snook (8 pounds and up) but winds and tides are factors, and sadly we were unable to experience this.
Snook are great gamefish at any size, and are handsome with their black lateral lines and yellow-brown complexions. And they chow aggressively when coaxed with good casts. Add underhand casts—for soft deliveries up and under the mangroves—to your arsenal. The take and fight is similar to trophy largemouth back home. I like Sage’s 7’11” Largemouth rod, with its matching 330-grain bass-taper line for Cayo Largo snook. But any stiff, 7- or 8-weight lined with a RIO Clouser, for instance, works.
Baby tarpon inhabit many of the same mangroves where we fished snook. They averaged 5 to 30 pounds and schooled in prolific numbers. Unlike the dogged, head-shaking fight of a snook, baby tarpon jump like gymnasts, and are among the most exciting fish to take on light fly tackle (6- to 8-weight rods). Because the schools are thick, after you jump one or two tarpon, the others tend to spook and eat less frequently. Persistence pays. We used many of the same fly patterns that drew strikes in the Jardines, including Puglisi Mangrove Baitfish, Floating Minnows, Gurglers, Seaducers, Green Zimas, Charlie’s Airheads, Glades Minnows, and Laid Up Tarpon Flies (#1/0 to #2/0).
Cayo Largo also has shots at bigger ’poons. Most of these fish involve blind-casting into channels and deeper holes, which abound in the area. You will also see jacks up to 12+ pounds, snapper, lemon sharks, and large (up to 40 pounds) barracuda. Keep a 10- or 11-weight, wire-leader ’cuda setup ready for action.
A Model for Flats Health
Although many facets of Cuban life operate like relics of a distant past—as far as American standards go—this is not the case with its fisheries. Cuba’s national marine preserves, managed to limit human impact, have struck a harmonious balance between recreation and conservation. In fact, Cuba’s fisheries management model, compared to many of its Caribbean and American counterparts, is well ahead of the curve.
Peering into the crystal ball, it’s difficult to speculate how a post-embargo Cuba could play out on the flats. Cuba would no doubt see an influx of foreign capital, large-scale development, big business enterprise, and more bodies, most of which will do wonders for its economic health. (Average salary in Cuba is approximately $30 USD per month.)
How Cuba prepares for a potential surge in U.S. anglers and potential new outfitters is, for the time being, a moot point. But for the present, Cuba’s fly-fishing future is bright—as long as its fisheries remain intact, free from the ills of over development, and one day open to a fresh wave of eco-minded global citizens.
Geoff Mueller is a former managing editor at Fly Fisherman, and a flats-fishing fanatic.