WWMF Hosted Week- Cuba

Isle of Youth & Jardines De La Reina

by Justin Maxwell Stuart - May 2015

Destination: Cuba

Holiday: Jardines De La Reina

Tarpon Fever

Expectations are the hardest thing to control on any trip, whether it be to a tried and tested favourite location or somewhere completely new. Amazing ‘lodge libraries’ of pictures with huge fish from past trips, inflated tales of success or previous ‘selective’ memories can play a wonderful role in clouding or rather distorting the mind from reality. On the 2014 WhereWiseMenFish trip to the Isle of Youth my partner and myself had both landed two Tarpon of around 80lbs each within two hours of fishing on Day 1, in addition to loosing lost two more of a similar size. This was always going to set a difficult standard to replicate.

This year at Hotel Rancho on the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud) I was re-joined by Kristjian as well as the very able Marina Gibson. Marina is more than capable of showing the boys how to do it when fishing home waters, whether it be tackling English Pike, Test Trout or Scottish Salmon. That said, freshwater abilities to one side, saltwater fly-fishing, especially for Tarpon is a mile apart. The relaxed, ‘in your own time’, sedately approach is replaced by a requirement to not only cast a reasonable line with a high degree of accuracy but as importantly under intense time pressure. In short regardless of perceived proficiency it is a steep learning curve. Marina had very sensibly taken a few lessons prior to the trip to help perfect her double-haul. Once mastered this skill is of huge assistance when casting heavier 10 or 12 weight rods with big flies against a wind.

A beautifully calm Cuban evening gliding back to Jucaro port on the Isle of Youth

For our initial four days on the Isle of Youth we faced relatively persistent strong winds and the resulting Tarpon opportunities were as a consequence more fleeting. With shorter windows of opportunity (from not seeing being able to see the fish as far out) casts have to be quicker and more precise. That certainly did not stop Marina connecting with a number of Bones, Snapper and Tarpon, although when hooked the Tarpon were as Houdini like as ever, throwing hooks with defiant ease, a result of their incredible acrobatics and armoured mouths.

Marina & Guide Landy with her first Bonefish & Snapper

Unfortunately for Marina she had to fly back early for a ‘crucial’ social engagement. Sadly for her the day of her departure coincided with infinitely more favourable conditions. The old maxim of spending maximum time on the water applies as much in Cuba as it does on any salmon river! Our guides took Kristjan and myself to one of the rivers on the most Northern part of the Isle of Youth. It required a substantial run from the port to reach it and is only really viable on a calmish day. (If fishing from a yacht such as Perola then this is not an issue) The journey however was worth it for on arrival we found the entire system teeming with Tarpon.

Within 20 minutes of fishing Kristjan was attached to an 80-85lb Tarpon that was to keep him very occupied for the next two hours! On my side over the course of that morning I hooked 15 or so Tarpon, mainly juvenile fish in the 2-10lb range however 2 of them were 60-80lbs. Both of those fish launched themselves out of the water to take the fly within a few feet of the skiff, big enough and close enough even to get my guide Landy’s heart racing! With mangroves on either side of the river channel keeping a tight reign on the fish is extremely important and in both instances, after several frenetic runs and jumps they detached themselves.

Guide holding Kristjian’s Biggest Tarpon to date –somewhere around 80lbs from the Isle of Youth

At lunch I met back up with Kristjan who was looking elated after successfully landing his biggest fish on a fly rod, even if he was suitably drained after such a lengthy battle. Restored and recuperated we went back to work in one of the deep holes and this time it was my turn to hook a monster. Casting directly at a large boil within 10ft of the boat there was an almighty explosion as the fish saw the fly, turned back on itself and engulfed it. 90-100lbs of fury for 15 seconds and then nothing, my 90lb leader cut by its razor like gill plates.

Tarpon purists may consider fishing into the dark water of a saline river system less appealing than fishing the saltwater flats. However when the river is at times, literally, rolling with Tarpon, I defy anyone to say that it is anything but enjoyable. Tarpon augment the oxygen they can extract with their gills by gulping additional air from the surface. Quite apart from allowing them to survive in very brackish water it provides the perfect visual cue as to their location. Land your fly on the boil within 1-2 seconds of it happening and you may have a 50% chance of hooking a fish. Within 5-6 seconds and your chances are down do 10-20%. It may not be sighted flats fishing but accuracy and speed are every bit as important.

The final day was again beautifully calm and although I had to head back to Havana to make the early connection down to the Jardines de la Reina Kristjian went on to land another three good-sized Tarpon. Looking back on the week, compared to the same time last year, although initially it was my impression that the Tarpon were not around in such strong numbers, with reflection we had our fair share of good and not so good days on both weeks. Subtle changes in day-to-day conditions seem to be the predominant factor in the opportunities you will have.

For Week 2 WWMF had booked Avalon II, the latest and largest boat in the Avalon fleet in operation on the Jardines de la Reina (JDR). The Jardines de la Reina is the largest expanse of high quality flats fishing around Cuba covering approximately 100 miles of mixed mangrove islands, flats and channels. Along the entire southern edge is a reef beyond which the seabed drops away to 1-2,000M. The journey out to the JDR takes about 5 hours in one of the yachts or 3 hours via the high-speed transfer boat that mainly serves the Tortuga, the floating hotel and base camp in the centre of the JDR.

The Pet!! The dive instructor with one of the ‘tame’ saltwater crocodiles – Avalon II at anchor in the Jardines de la Reina

The distance from mainland Cuba and the fact that the entire area is a marine reserve, protected from commercial fishing are two of the factors that have contributed to making the area a veritable haven for fly-fishers. The JDR is divided up into three fishing zones. The central zone fished from Tortuga and the northern and southern ends, usually fished from one of the yachts, whether it be Avalon II, Reina or Halcon. We were fishing the southern zone which is normally considered the best area to intercept the migratory Tarpon…although being migratory, exactly when and where the Tarpon may be at any given time is far from an exact science.

The calmer weather at the end of the previous week had once again given way to more windy conditions. The perceived wisdom is that the largest Tarpon are usually caught on the windier days on account of the visual protection and camouflage provided by the broken water between the angler and skiff and the Tarpon. This works both ways as it makes the Tarpon much harder to spot at a reasonable distance. Less time to cast also tests ones ability to deliver a good cast where it is needed when it is needed. Being able to throw the entire line, down to the backing, downwind will not help you when the fish are swimming fast in the opposite direction! Equally a fly cast at close range gives limited room to entice the fish to take before either you run out of strippable line or it sees the skiff and turns away. A veritable conundrum as to what to wish for!!!

May should offer the peak of the migratory Tarpon fishing at the JDR although you should be in the thick of things from April to the end of June. For this reason my partner for the week, Simon & I certainly focused on the Tarpon, possibly at the expense of Bones and Permit during the week. As often as not we were to be found holding station at either ‘Tarpon Point’ or ‘Tarpon Highway’, stood by to intercept both single Tarpon and schools of up to fifty or more. The direction of the migrating Tarpon was almost always a constant and we would normally be able to position ourselves upwind of them with the opportunity for that nice downwind cast that would flatter our casting ability and give reasonable room for manoeuvre, adjustment or a recast.

The problem with the plan was that the overly strong winds meant the level of advance warning we were hoping for was in fact fleeting. A good proportion of viable shots were made at very close range to the boat. When we did get a quick cast off more often than not the fish (plural) would turn on the fly and demolish it. With a short line it can be harder to get a proper hook up and by the time the rod had been reloaded for another cast the fish were disappearing fast upwind. Cursing and flailing (C&F) follows in no specific order!!

Some got away but plenty made it to the camera - Simon’s biggest fly caught fish

Targeting one of the apex fish in the food chain, one that can weigh in excess of 100lbs is not easy and neither should it be easy. When it all goes according to plan with the right conditions; good visibility, nice wind, ever-hungry fish, it can and does seem easy. In reality for a good proportion of the time, especially if you join the collection of us lesser mortals who do not spend their life doing this, then do not expect instant and immediate gratification. You have to work at this and always remember that for all the beautiful pictures you will see on this report and indeed others, there is always going to be lots of C&F along the way!!!

The JDR is well established as offering some of the best-mixed species fishing in Cuba. Alongside a consistent flow of Tarpon ‘events’, whether they ended successfully or not there is always very good sport to be had from the other species, even if this was Tarpon time. Despite some dismissive remarks from Simon regarding Barracuda they always kept me entertained in quiet periods. Huge ones are ever present and they can give anyone a serious ride when hooked on a fly, although very much at the expense of the fly being used! Top tip...if you only have one of your absolute favourite Tarpon flies left, do not expend it on a Barracuda. Even if the leader survives its teeth the fly probably will not! For those armed with spinning rods some fabulous sport awaits both in the channels and along the reef. Courtesy of those who did we had the option of dining on freshly caught and very tasty Snapper pretty much every night.

A perfectly camouflaged Bonefish, recently released amongst the turtle grass

On our final days fishing Simon and I put the Tarpon rods to one side and headed off in pursuit of Bones and Permit. The Bones were obliging and and we both caught some good fish up to about 6lbs before tackling the Permit question! In my mind the question is whether to go out of your way to fish for them. They are challenging to say the least and if you over-focus on them it may result in a rather lean week in terms of what you end up catching. I am an opportunistic Permit angler rather than a dedicated one however Simon had an itch that needed scratching.

That afternoon, as we fished our way back to the mid-point of the JDR (for the return journey to Jucaro port that evening) we probably had the opportunity to cast at over ten Permit (more if you include a couple of shoals of 4-5 fish). This by any standards is a pretty exceptional showing of fish, even if only one of those actually picked up the fly, the ever-effective Avalon Permit Fly, albeit momentarily before spitting it out again.

Hunting Barracuda and juvenile Tarpon amidst the hurricane damaged mangroves

Cuba is an absolutely fascinating country, both from a fishing angle and from the perspective of its current social-economic position. Tourism is thriving although for the most part it is focused around the one-stop shop beach resorts, armed with complimentary drinks and evening stage shows. When you venture beyond the confines of the all inclusive holiday packages you will uncover a completely different side to the country, one that has been totally cut off from the sort of western infrastructure that easily permeates into even the most remote Bahamian island.

As a local Cuban it is simply not possible to branch out and establish a private guiding business. You need a reason and a license just to have a bicycle in Cuba…importing a flats fishing skiff is in another league of complexity requiring an unparalleled amount of bureaucracy. This I am sorry to say is bad news for those wishing to tag on a couple of days fishing whilst staying at a Cuban resort. For the most part it is impossible. What this means for a dedicated angler is that you have the opportunity to fish some of the most diverse and best protected fishing waters in the Caribbean.

Hanging out at Lobster Hotel on the Jardines de la Reina

Cubans are a wonderfully friendly people. Despite having watched their capital city and the country generally, crumble from its position as a Caribbean super-power to a creaking façade of its former beauty and glory they hold no discernible grudges to their position or the reasons as to how it happened. Resurrecting anything to serve the demands of western clientele is a phenomenal challenge. Charge into Cuba expecting delivery of service at a standard comparable to European or US standards and it is likely that you will be disappointed. Embrace Cuba with a reasonable understanding of its background and the pleasures of its people, the culture and the fishing will follow in abundance.

Havana - Some of it is exquisitely beautiful on the exterior but look behind the façade and you will see a different story

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