Is Cuba the flats-angling paradise we all imagine it to be?
- By: Chris Santella
- Photography by: Jim Klug
Thanks to an agreement between an Italian company (Avalon) and the Cuban government, anglers have fished Cuba’s Los Jardines de la Reina (The Gardens of the Queen) for the past 18 years. Tales of Los Jardines’ unblemished and underexploited waters make the archipelago a sought-after flats destination . . . especially in spring, when migrating adult tarpon pass through and anglers get their shots at 100-plus-pound beasts.
This past April, I joined a group of writers in Los Jardines and Isla de la Juventud (Island of the Youth), presumably to write about the trip and rekindle American interest in Cuba as a fly-fishing destination. There may be a special appeal if you’re of the opinion that the embargo barring Americans from casual travel to Cuba may be nearing conclusion. My own interest in attending—beyond many friends’ entreaties, “You’ve got to go before it opens up to Americans and becomes like Disneyland!”—was an opportunity to cast to, jump and land my first adult tarpon. I’d fished for baby tarpon in Mexico’s Yucatan, and my interest had piqued. Watching a 20-pound fish leap three feet into the air, scales gleaming, was exciting. I couldn’t imagine the thrill of fighting a fish three, four, maybe even eight times that size in Cuba. Naturally, I signed on.
Like most Caribbean flats destinations, Los Jardines’ fishery highlights bonefish, permit, tarpon (baby and adult) and snook, with jacks and barracuda available distractions. During my early-April visit, the adult tarpon had just begun arriving as they made their way north toward spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, and the guides were in the throes of sabalomania. Though we poled around some flats on the ocean side of Los Jardines and found a few juvenile fish in the 15- to 25-pound range, most of the tarpon efforts were focused in Boca Grande, a wide channel about a 40-minute run to the west of La Tortuga. I learned on the trip to Boca (which we took three out of our six angling days) that Dolphin skiffs are not the ideal craft for long open-water runs—especially across the boca itself. Toward the end of our week, I was sizing up the diving guests and crew members for their potential as kidney donors, as I was fairly certain mine were about to give out thanks to the constant battering of the waves against the bow.
Upon reaching the west side of Boca Grande, our guides staked up the Dolphins at 200-yard intervals. To the right was a white sand flat, roughly three feet deep; to the left, a deeper channel. With one angler standing on the casting deck, one seated in the middle (alternating between minding the casting angler’s line and drinking Crystal lager), and the guide on the poling platform, we scanned the waters to the south and waited for fish. Sometimes the wait was 40 minutes, sometimes two hours; on one occasion we waited until lunchtime, and the fish never showed. But on the occasions they did it was game on. Every time. Though it was not a game I played well.
A good friend who regularly chases tarpon in Key West and Homosassa, Florida, had told me how finicky, spooky and indifferent the fish can be. “You might see 100 fish in a day’s fishing out of Homosassa, but they won’t eat,” he warned. This was on my mind the first morning on Boca Grande when our guide, Leonardo Arche, cried, “They’re coming!” Seventy-five yards in front of the boat, a dozen silhouettes appeared. By their size and shape, there was no question they were tarpon. I was on deck, and after a few false-casts I dropped a chartreuse 3/0 Toad a few yards in front and to the left of the tarpon, now 25 yards away. One strip, and two fish peeled away from the school. A second strip, and a basketball-size mouth closed over the fly. “Set!” Arche yelled, and I pulled back hard on the line. The fish—somewhere between 75 and 85 pounds, we estimated—catapulted into the air. Watching in wonder as the sun sparkled against the tarpon’s scales, I neglected to drop the rod tip and provide a bit of slack before the fish crashed back in the water, a tarpon angler’s cataclysm. This set the tone for my tarpon experience. At Jardines, fish would approach the boat in waves, sometimes five tarpon, sometimes a dozen, a few times upward of 20. If the fly landed anywhere in their field of vision, the fish were almost unfailingly game to take . . . and this angler was equally steadfast in his inability to close the deal.
For most species I’ve pursued, getting the fish to eat is 90 percent of the battle. With tarpon, it seems, making the cast and getting the take are only the beginning. Once the fish grabs a fly, time seems to accelerate at an exponential pace, as does the potential for things to go wrong. The line that you’ve stripped in around your feet speeds back through the rod guides, providing ample opportunity to tangle around a zinger, your shirt button, your reel, the fighting butt of the rod or your toes. I parted ways with fish in each of those ways. Other times I failed to put enough pressure on the line and the hook didn’t set securely in the tarpon’s tough jaw (two fish lost this way). Another time I put too much pressure on the fish and either popped the leader or watched the rod disintegrate (two more fish lost this way). The general consensus: If you can avoid the miscues outlined above and survive the first 30 seconds of pandemonium, you have a pretty good chance of landing your tarpon. If you’re fishing in Jardines when the tarpon are running, you’re going to get enough shots to make the frequently cited “anglers land one of 10 hooked” statistic work for you. Unless you’re me.
Between waves of fish, there was lots of time to consider my failings as a tarpon angler. None of my technical shortcomings were that difficult to overcome and some of these deficiencies, I figured, might subside over time as I gained muscle memory. The problem that would be more difficult to transcend was also more difficult to confront—a lack of grace under pressure. I was left thinking this: If I couldn’t respond effectively to a damned fish, how would I respond if someone snatched one of my girls at a county fair, or if my brakes went out coming around Mount Hood towing a boat trailer?
To distract myself from such morose topics, I tried to engage our guides with my very broken Spanish. A number of socio-political themes consistently emerged, and it was at these times I was glad that our language barrier prohibited more nuanced discussion:
■ Being a fly-fishing guide is a very good job in Cuba.
■ Though Fidel and Raul will probably die soon, another family member or someone from the inner circle will take over.
■ Little will change in Cuba for a long time, whoever is in power.
■ Cuban people bear no ill will to Americans, despite all propaganda to the contrary.
■ Many Cuban men maintain several girlfriends in addition to their wives and children, and are happy to discuss said girlfriends’ amorous proclivities.
The “Other” Fishes
If tarpon were the focus of our angling exploits, bonefish were a much appreciated diversion. On the days we crossed Boca Grande, we’d stop and fish an oceanside flat or two en route as we waited for the tide to shift. These same flats provided a consolation prize on the way back after a morning of losing tarpon. Each time we hit a bonefish flat we were into schools of fish within 10 minutes of lifting the motor. One of my angling companions, Charlie Levine, was new to fly-fishing and bonefish, and he had one-hour stretches where he landed 10 fish. Accuracy-challenged casts were not deal-breakers; the fish would scatter momentarily and reunite seconds later, ready to eat Gotchas, Crazy Charlies and just about any other smallish tan fly presented. I recall only a few occasions when our boat spooked a school out of reach. More often, the schools were pushed along by marauding barracuda or jacks, or we grew restless and moved on to find a fresh school or to visit the tarpon. The bones were bigger than I anticipated, averaging around three pounds, with my largest to hand about five. Several fish pushing the 10-pound mark were landed by other anglers on the trip.
I’d always heard that jacks were extremely fast, though I’d never had first-hand experience. It’s true—they are a blue flash across the flats, like a shooting star. During one bonefish session, a pack screamed by. Our guide Leonardo yelled, “Get the spinning rod!” I opted for the 12-weight. When the pack zipped by again, I flipped a big popper 30 feet out. One twitch, and three jacks were vying for it. The biggest in the group (about 15 pounds) won and seconds later it was 100 yards off the flat—pure, simple, visceral fun, with little chance for failure.
It flashed through my mind that perhaps we’d be better served by bailing on the boca and the tarpon and instead focusing on the jacks. True, they didn’t jump. But they pulled hard and took flies on top, and once they were on, they were on. Jacks seemed the whitefish of the flats—an afterthought (and even poor substitute) for the tarpon as far as the cognoscenti were concerned, but a vigorous tug that’s more attainable (and more or less the same experience) for the uninitiated.
On to Island of the Youth
Island of the Youth rests roughly 90 miles south of Havana. Once Island of Pines, its name was changed after the revolution when young comrades from the mainland and beyond were brought there for indoctrination in the ways of socialism. The island’s most significant settlement is Nueva Gerona (population 25,000, give or take), and that’s where we were based for the second leg of our trip. There’s ferry service from Havana, but flying is a bit faster … though I’d rank it as the least comfortable flight of my life, even though it was less than 40 minutes. The butterscotch candy we each received upon boarding came, I would soon learn, in lieu of water, air conditioning or any laminar airflow whatsoever. The Cyrillic script on the plane’s bulkhead spoke to its Russian homeland. Had I not sweated through my shirt and stuck to my seat in the 100-plus degree heat, I would’ve looked out the window to see the plane’s badly bald tires. Though passengers did not receive a second butterscotch, each of us were provided with a complimentary copy of Granma International, the official broadsheet of Cuba. It included a daily reflection from Fidel.
The harrowing puddle jump to Nueva Gerona proved a preamble to one of the trip’s most wonderful moments. Stepping out of the cab at Hotel Rancho El Tesoro, I spied five young men smiling shyly, standing by a small table in the hotel’s open lobby where ingredients for mojitos were set out. Soon the men picked up instruments—two guitars, a hand drum, stand-up bass, maracas—and launched into song. They were smiling, ebullient, thrilled to have someone to play for. And they did play well, the instrumentalists answering the handsome, shuffling lead singer in four-part harmony as they made their way through a few numbers from the Great Cuban Songbook, as well as some original songs.
I’ve picked guitar with a modest level of proficiency for almost 30 years, have played in three or four bands, and have loved music as long as I can remember. (In the spirit of full disclosure: I did see the Grateful Dead 40-plus times before Jerry’s demise.) These days, music provides a welcome respite from reason and analysis. For me, playing is about feeling. With these five young musicians, I connected through that shared feeling. Yes, this musical greeting was a set piece orchestrated for our consumption, yet it was perhaps the most heartfelt interaction of the trip, as these young men seemed to play for the joy of playing. It was made only better by the band inviting me to join in … and graciously enduring my at times atonal contributions on my Backpacker guitar. (I later left the guitar with these lads, as instruments—like everything else—are hard to come by in Cuba.) By the way—if you want to curry favor with musicians in Cuba, ask them to play “Hotel California.” Every band seems to know it.
Reaching the fishing grounds of the Archipelago de los Canarreos from Nueva Gerona required a 20-minute van ride to Avalon’s makeshift marina, and then a minimum 40-minute run in a Dolphin. The wind was blowing a solid 20 knots on our first two days, renewing the onslaught on our collective kidneys. Thanks to the wind (which kept us off the water one day) and the fact that the tarpon had just begun arriving, we spent much of our time blind-casting to likely lies and channels with sink-tips. A number of fish were hooked and landed this way, though it’s not quite like sight-casting to cruisers. However, as a guide friend in Texas once said, “I’ll take any tarpon in the air!”
It was not all this way. On the second to last day in Nueva Gerona, our guide Maikel confided, “I have a secret spot. Many big tarpon!” After poling around an open lagoon and landing a few bonefish, Maikel pointed to a narrow channel back in the mangroves—“They’re here.” Even from 300 yards away, we could see dorsal fins breaking the water, a dozen or so tarpon porpoising … in fact, looking much like porpoises. As we edged into the mangroves, Matt Hansen took the bow. Out of the breeze, the already warm air became sultry, and the bugs that had been almost completely absent intensified. Letting the bugs settle on his brow, Matt cast as we edged closer to the still-happy fish. When we were 60 feet from the pod, a fish blurped and Matt dropped a cast into the widening circles of its riseform. Two strips and his line came tight, and the fish was airborne, once, twice, three times. Maikel slowly poled the boat out of the mangroves in case the fish decided to run, instructing Matt to keep the rod tip down, that this would keep the fish from heading into the mangroves and an inevitable parting. It worked. Fifteen minutes later, I snapped a photo of Matt and his tarpon—around 75 pounds—on the bow. This was Matt’s first adult tarpon to hand.
I was truly happy to see Matt land his fish. Borrowing his camera (a much higher quality model than mine), I had documented the whole process, and I was proud of my shots. Caught up in the general spirit of success that enveloped the boat, I briefly convinced myself that I enjoyed watching Matt catch his fish as much as if I had caught it myself. Of course, I hoped this gesture of karmic goodwill and generosity of spirit would result in the tarpon gods smiling down upon me. They did, in a manner of speaking. Pushing back into the lagoon, several fish blurped before us. On my first cast, a fish slashed at the fly but missed. When a fish rolled behind the boat, I flipped a backcast in its direction. At that moment, two other fish rolled 30 feet in front of me. As I started to lift the line to drop the fly on them, the line came tight, and a fish was in the air. You can imagine how this ended. The tarpon gods had punished me twofold—one indignity for my incompetence, one for my duplicity.
Back to Havana
Our first night in Havana, we were standing in Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) in Old Havana, receiving what might have been construed as either a warning or a pep talk from Jim Klug, of Yellowdog FlyFishing Adventures, who was the leader of our trip. “You don’t have to go to Casa de la Musica, but I think it’s part of the Havana experience,” he told us. “But be prepared. There are lots of beautiful women there, but they’re extremely aggressive. They will try to get you to dance. Then they’ll try to get you to go off with them—but understand that they’re working. Whatever you do, don’t accept a drink from anyone, or even leave your drink unattended. A guy who was here last year drank a beer someone offered him, and woke up in a speeding cab between two women. He fought past one woman and rolled out of the moving cab, and showed up at the Parque Central as the bus to Jucaro was ready to pull away. He slept for the bus ride, the boat ride and the first three days on the Tortuga. This was no wild man—he’s an accountant from the Midwest.”
Scores of cars, many of 1950’s vintage, a fulfillment of so many Havana travelogues, were parked pell-mell in front of La Casa, a nightclub in the midst of a residential neighborhood. Among the cars were men peddling what I assumed were drugs, women, cigarettes, rides—whatever was available—though with only a smattering of Spanish at my disposal, I wasn’t certain. They had the aggressive entrepreneurial spirit I associate with pimps. Inside, the scene was much as described, a cauldron of beautiful women in many hues (reflecting generations of Euro/Afro/Indian intermingling), some seated at tables, some parked by passageways, as if in ambush. As we sipped Crystals (the rather characterless lager that along with its malt liquor cousin Bucanero makes up the beer offering of Cuba), we saw women nuzzling up men at the far end of the bar asking them to dance, then offering, “I’m very good at sex.” If rebuffed, their faces showed a mix of bewilderment (you’re turning this down at the cost of a decent bottle of wine?) and determination as they moved down the line to chat up the next fellow.
That evening inspired the first verse of a song:
No es sabalo en la Casa de la Musica
Though the spirits flow like tides across the flats
You can cast your line far out across the dance floor
But all you’ll ever catch is just the crabs
I’m in the minority when I say that I was not especially taken by Havana. In some poor/developing countries, one has a sense of a slow but forward-moving struggle toward stability and a better life for its people; in Havana (and Cuba overall) there’s a sense of slow decay instead of progress. It’s evident in the darkness enveloping a city of several million when approached from its outskirts early on a Friday evening, in the many once grand buildings now slowly crumbling, in the listlessness of large segments of the populous who seemed to be waiting for something—jobs, tourists, a parade? Those who were not waiting were hustling what little there was to be hustled—women, cigars, a recommendation for a good restaurant (restaurateurs are expected to give hustlers a “commission” for any customers they bring in). It cannot be helped that most of our interactions with Cubans began as set pieces, as our group did not exactly blend in with locals. There’s the lady with the big cigar near Cathedral Square that you can pose with for a few Convertible Pesos (more commonly called CUCs); there’s the guy who wants to show you the real Hemingway bar, or introduce you to his cousin; there are throngs of pedi-cab drivers with bikes ingeniously fabricated from discarded rebar jockeying for a fare; there’s the guy shilling his paintings of Che Guevara graffiti; there are stilt-dancers and their brass band accompanists in the squares. They all exist more or less for your consumption, like the silver-painted robot dancers on Bourbon Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. Were the denizens of Havana only interested in our money? No. Some would linger to chat (as much as the language barrier allowed) after their hustle was rebuffed. Like the guides, they seemed to harbor no animosity toward Americanos, nor any fealty to the Castro regime. They have a meager roof over their heads and (just barely) enough to eat, but not much more.
Despite the bright colors, the occasional music (not as prevalent as the Buena Vista Social Club movie would suggest) and the many bars that Hemingway frequented (there’s some variance in each bar’s mojito recipe, usually indicated by the quantity of muddled mint), the sense of resignation I felt hovering over Havana made it mildly depressing.
The most curious Cuban comment during our visit: a used bookseller in the flea market square in Old Havana whose stall displayed at least 30 different books on Che requested that we “Give [her] regards to Bryan Adams.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her he’s Canadian. Or that I never got my tarpon while visiting her country.
Chris Santella is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Portland, Oregon. He writes for Forbes.com, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Travel & Leisure and Delta Sky. He is the author of Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die.
by Chris Santella Photos by Jim Klug