September 19, 2014
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.
'Cudas, Jacks, Snappers, and Sharks
What a shock it was on our first day last year to see a school of large jack crevalle bearing down on us on the bonefish flats. Somehow I got a #2 Merkin out quickly and a huge 24-pound fish inhaled it on the run. What a battle on an 8-weight rod! There are also schools of horse-eye jacks patrolling the flats. Running from 6 to 20 pounds, they take the fly well and are strong fighters on a fly rod.
Mutton snapper also patrol the flats, especially at high tide. Tough to approach, they charge the fly and eat aggressively if you make a good presentation. I caught several nice muttons from five to ten pounds on McCrabs, Merkins, and Deceivers.
'Cudas — the speedsters of the flats — lurk around the edges of the bonefish flats, so it pays to have a needlefish 'cuda fly rigged on a 10-weight rod. Last year we caught several up to five feet long and ranging from 15 to 25 pounds. They are easy to catch if you get a cast to them before they spot you, and they are great fighters.
Sharks are the exciting challenge of the Jardines flats, and some permit flats are loaded with them, especially at high tides. Flats sharks are large, from six to eight feet long, and when they spot the fly, they streak across the flat in pursuit, pushing a bow wake like an Alfa Class submarine. Then they explode on the fly, throwing water wildly.
We landed none, but we sure had fun playing them. Although we used three feet of wire tippet, the leader would abrade and pop when it scraped across their backs. Next time, we'll use more wire and 12-weight rods.
Combining Diving with Fishing
The Jardines has some of the best diving in the world. The Tortuga is equipped with new German dive compressors and Mares dive equipment. Three experienced divemasters accompany you on dives, feeding fish and even instructing how to catch sharks. The boat supplies the diving equipment, and the instructors teach novice divers. The barrier reef that runs the length of the Jardines has spectacular spur and groove coral formations along the top of the "wall." You swim through underwater canyons as tarpon schools swim by lazily.
Then you swim with the sharks along the reef as the divemaster feeds them from a bag of fish carcasses and skins: Imagine feeding sharks, big groupers, snappers, and 400-pound jewfish from your hand. At one time we had over 50 silky sharks cruising through us, so close you could reach out and touch them.
The divemaster showed me how to catch a 5-foot shark by twisting its tail, then turning it over and stroking its stomach to calm it, almost putting it to sleep. When I turned the shark upright, it would regain its equilibrium and shoot from my hands. Wild! And, like the rest of this trip to the Jardines, truly unforgettable.
Tackle and Equipment
You need at least two outfits, maybe three: an 8-weight or 9-weight for bonefish; a strong 10-weight for permit, big 'cudas, and big jacks; and a 12/13-weight tarpon rod for beating the tarpon and sharks. My favorite rods for bonefish are the G. Loomis GLX rods and Sage's new XP 890. Loomis has its standard 9-footers and its powerful three-piece 81/2-foot GLX MEGA series.
Bonefish. For big bonefish, you need a reel with a good drag and 200 yards of 20-pound backing. The Tibor Everglades reel and Abel's new Super 8 are bulletproof. For less money, consider the new Loomis GL 8-9-10 and the Bauer M-4. Both have large-arbor spools, cork disc drags, and easily removable spools.
For lines, nothing casts or shoots as well the Scientific Anglers weight-forward, braided-core Mastery Bonefish Taper. Bring a spare in case one gets ripped up on coral or shell-encrusted mangrove roots. Cortland 20-pound saltwater Micron is the best backing I've found. Use loop-to-loop connections from backing to fly line for 100-percent knot strength.
A stiff, knotted leader with a heavy butt section works wonders when you are throwing big, heavy bonefish flies or punching long casts into a hard wind. I've settled on 12-pound Ande Premium as the best tippet material. It has great knot strength, good abrasion resistance, and it's clear. The fluorocarbon material, for me, has been disappointing. It is nearly as visible underwater as standard monofilament and has little stretch and lousy knot strength.
Carry both weighted (with bead-chain eyes) bonefish flies and unweighted flies for fishing shallower water. Flies (#2 and #4), should include: Pearlescent Gotcha, Brown Crazy Charlie, Crazy Georges, Chico Fernandez Bonefish Special, Snapping Shrimp, and assorted Clouser Minnows. Crab patterns are deadly on big bones: #2-#4 Merkins and #4 Anderson McCrabs.
Permit, 'cudas, jacks, and tarpon. A good choice is a 10-weight or one of the new 10/11-weight rods. I use either a Loomis 9-foot, 10-weight GLX or the new 81/2-foot GLX 10/11 Mega. Both cast well, are light, yet have tremendous butt power for playing big fish.
Abel's new Super Series reel is ideal for these 10- and 11-weight lines. The Super 10 is a wide-arbor reel with enough capacity for a 10-weight line and 170 yards of 30-pound backing. My favorite reel for my 10-weight rods is Abel's standard #3. It holds a weight-forward 10-weight floating or a weight-forward 11-weight sinking line and 225 yards of 30-pound saltwater Micron backing. Lately, I have used the lighter Abel Super 8 frame with a standard #3 Abel spool. Tibor's Riptide is another exceptional light large-arbor reel that holds a weight-forward 10-weight floating line and 225 yards of 30-pound saltwater Micron backing.
For permit, 'cudas, and jacks, I like Scientific Anglers Mastery floating Tarpon Taper. Like the Bonefish Taper, this line has a braided monofilament core, which casts better in hot weather, and resists tangles in the boat when you are clearing your line.
For tarpon I use the clear, braided-core, Mastery sinking Tarpon Taper. There isn't a fly line made that will cast and shoot better. It sinks slowly, ideal for getting down into deeper channels as well as fishing a fly close to the surface.
For permit and jacks, a standard leader is fine. I use an 11- to 12-foot leader with a stiff Mason hard nylon butt and midsection to get the big Merkins and McCrabs to turn over. When fishing around coral heads, I use Mason's 12-pound, 16-pound, or 20-pound tippets. Otherwise, I use the smaller-diameter 15-pound Ande Premium.
For small tarpon, I use a shorter leader — from eight to ten feet long — and 20-pound Mason for the class tippet. Then I tie in a two- to three-foot section of 60-pound Ande for a shock tippet. Using a longer shock tippet allows me to change flies several times before having to tie on a new tippet.
For 'cudas, I use at least 12 inches of coffee-colored, single-strand wire (30 to 40 pound). I tie the fly on with a Haywire Twist and attach the wire to my 20-pound Mason's class tippet with an Albright knot. The rest of the leader is about six feet long.
The best flies for big permit are Del Brown's Merkin (#1/0 and #2) and Anderson's McCrab (#2). For jacks, a variety of flies work well, from Merkins to tarpon Deceivers. Topwater commotion-creating poppers and divers (#2-#2/0) are deadly on jacks. 'Cudas take needlefish imitations, especially Marshall Cutchin's imitation tied with pearlescent Flashabou Mylar tubing and a green head. Two #2/0 hooks are used, connected with wire.
For tarpon, I use white-and-grizzly Deceivers (#2/0) tied on the extremely strong Gamakatsu SC15 #2/0 Wide Gap hooks. Brighter flies (yellow, orange, and grizzly) work well, especially in the early mornings and when you need a fly the fish can see from longer distances.
For sharks, the best choice is a tarpon rod — the Loomis 81/2-foot, 12/13-weight MEGA with an Abel 3 or 4N and 200 yards of 30-pound backing, and Jim Vincent's RIO Quick Shooter weight-forward floating line. For terminal tackle, the only obvious choice is wire, and plenty of it — single-strand 40- to 50-pound wire, if you don't care about world records. I use from five to six feet of wire and a heavy butt section above it.
Cutchin's Braided-Mylar Needlefish also works on sharks, but big orange, red, and yellow flies are better. I tie them on #3/0 to #5/0 hooks, and for excitement I add a soft sailfish foam popper head. Anything that pops or makes surface commotion drives sharks crazy.
For anyone other than a U.S. citizen, getting to Cuba is easy: Just book a flight into Havana or a charter flight into one of the eastern Cuban cities like Ciego de Avila. For U.S. citizens, however, it is tougher. Along with the U.S. embargo on Cuba, our government has cut political ties with the Cuban government. We have no U.S. embassy in Cuba, and for most Americans travel to Cuba is illegal.
The law governing U.S. travel to Cuba states that anyone subject to U.S. jurisdiction must have a license from the U.S. Treasury to engage in any transactions related to travel to, from, and within Cuba. Only three groups qualify: government officials, journalists, and those with extreme needs to visit family members in Cuba. Other groups, including athletes, students, and religious organizations, can receive special licenses from the U.S. government. Americans traveling illegally to Cuba can be charged under the Trading With the Enemy Act. Penalties range up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Prosecuting American tourists has not been a high priority for the U.S. government.
According to media reports, in 1998 over 140,000 Americans visited Cuba, 35,000 of them illegally. The penalties for unauthorized travel to Cuba are listed by the U.S. State Department on its web site (www.state.gov). Detailed information can also be had by visiting the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control internet site: www.treas.gov/ofac.
If you pay the Italians for a fully hosted trip, you need not spend any money in Cuba. Cubans like American visitors; most of them have relatives in the U.S. and they realize that tourism is their future.
Since none of the U.S. fishing and hunting travel agencies can book trips to Cuba, you are on your own. The best bet is to contact the Italians directly at the Avalon Fishing and Diving Center in Milan. The easiest way is to e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They will help you book a "fully hosted" trip, arrange air connections, book hotels in Havana, and arrange transportation across Cuba.
Since you cannot fly directly from the U.S. to Cuba unless you are a journalist or fall under one of the other licensed categories of people who may go, you must fly to Cuba from Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas. The Italians can help you with these airline reservations.
George Anderson owns and operates The Yellowstone Angler in Livingston, Montana.