Traveling to Cuba is much easier than most people realize. Getting to the string of uninhabited islands knows as the Jardines de la Reina, however, is not.
Spanish for “Gardens of the Queen” this chain of isles have not changed much since Christopher Columbus named them more than 500 years ago.
The archipelago is made up of more than 600 cays and islands and the undisturbed flats run on for miles and miles, resembling the Florida Keys in both size and fishing action. The big difference between the two being the amount of people there.
The Jardines represent one of the largest marine-protected reserves in the Caribbean and tourism is tightly regulated. The Keys, on the other hand, sees nearly 3 million visitors each year. Only 1,500 people are allowed to visit the Jardines annually — 500 fishermen and 1,000 divers.
And, I was lucky enough to be one of those people for seven full days.
Getting to the Jardines is not exactly easy. The islands, after all, are 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba. And to get there you must first travel to Havana, which is usually done through Cancun, Mexico, or another city outside of the United States. Some travelers take advantage of a loophole that allows American missionaries to fly direct from Miami to Havana. To make that happen, you need a document signed by a church dignitary, which you can get, even if you’re an atheist who only wants to fish. It just takes the right connections and a checkbook.
I took the first option and flew through Cancun where I met the rest of my group. Jim Klug, who owns and operates Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures, put the trip together. Jim has been to Cuba several times and appeased all of our worries about traveling to this communist nation. From Cancun we boarded an Air Cubana flight to Havana where we’d spend the night at the super-swank Hotel Parque Central.
If you envision Havana as a poor, destitute city, think again. Havana is alive with hip-shaking music, late-night parties, incredible artwork, cobblestone streets, colorful colonial buildings, museums, and it’s chock full of tourists. There is definitely poverty present on nearly every street corner, but the city has an eclectic feel and gorgeous architecture. But everything could use a good pressure wash.
After a late night at the Café de la Musica, we boarded a bus at 4 a.m. to take us to Jucaro, a small town on the southern central portion of Cuba. The bus ride took five-plus hours, rolling through Cuba’s inland farm towns on small, sometimes unpaved roads. The bus had air-conditioning and comfortable seats but that’s about all I can tell you. We “played through” the night before and went right from the party to the bus. Our group slept the entire way to Jucaro which turned out to be a blessing that I wouldn’t realize until it was time to take the bus back to Havana.
Once in Jucaro, we boarded a gutted motor yacht that was converted into a ferry to run us through the crystal-blue waters, finally ending at the Tortuga, a houseboat that would serve as home base for our crew over the next six nights. The boat ride took an additional five or six hours.
The total travel time to get to the Jardines de la Reina from U.S. soil took more than 48 hours — and we were less than 150 miles from Florida — but world’s away from civilization.
Your Own Playground
The Tortuga houseboat operation is owned and operated by Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers. For some 20 years, this Italian-owned company has held the exclusive rights to fish in the Jardines, which are protected as a national refuge. Avalon is the only operation in the entire archipelago. I don’t know how they did it, but they hold the keys to one of the most incredible fisheries left on Earth.
The first time we pulled up to the Tortuga was like discovering an oasis in a vast watery desert. The Tortuga itself is an updated 110-foot steel vessel that once housed workers in the Gulf of Mexico’s oil industry. It’s two stories high, with seven staterooms, large decks both fore and aft and a massive dining room and kitchen. Each stateroom has its own head with shower and cold-blowing A/C. These were unbelievable accommodations considering how far removed we were. We even had wi-fi.
The staff feeds you a never-ending supply of fresh seafood and lobster each day and the abundant supply of ice-cold Cristal beers and Havana Club mojitos kept us up well past curfew most every night. But we didn’t come all this way to eat and drink… We came to catch fish.
A Flats Feast
We arrived just after lunchtime and decided to make the most of the daylight left and head out on the flats. I jumped on one of the skiffs with the guide, Titi, and fellow angler Bjorn Stromsness. Bjorn is an expert fly-fisherman and runs a blog called BonefishOnTheBrain.com. I’m more of a novice fly guy and had both fly gear and several Penn spinning outfits to fish with.
We wound our way through the mangroves as we left the Tortuga and got into some open waters. Titi spotted some good-looking flats and within about 15 minutes we found our first school of tailing bonefish. Bjorn got the skunk off the boat, landing a nice bonefish on the fly. We then followed it up with a mix of species including one really nice horse-eye jack before the sun started to sink below the waterline and it was time to head back.
The following morning, we headed out early to the area known as Boca Grande, a large opening where several channels filter out into the deeper water. The tarpon ride through in waves, following the tide changes. To get these poons to eat, the guides stake the boat out in the tarpon’s direct path and thus begins the waiting game and plenty of blind-casting.
It took us more than an hour before the tide changed and the sleek silver kings showed up, marauding down the tideline like a pack of overgrown dogs. Groups of two to four fish made their way right past the bow, and you had to be quick on the trigger to get bit.
Using a 12-weight, I had my shots but these tackle-destroying game fish have a way of alluding you. Well, they alluded me anyway. It was a veritable shit storm. Whatever could possibly go wrong did. I broke two off on fly and had one fish destroy a bucktail jig leaving the hook in the shape of a corkscrew. But I did get to see how it’s done.
Everything went right for my fishing partner, John Hudgens, a trout guide and Yellow Dog rep who’s caught all manner of fish on fly. Watching John hook that fish taught me more about fighting tarpon on fly than I’ve learned in all my years living in Florida. He set the hook like a hockey player taking a slap shot, yanking on the line with extreme pressure to get a solid strip set and holding it tight as the fish raced off in the opposite direction.
Then, it was a total game of misdirection. As the fish jumped up, John put the tip down. When the fish went left, he pulled the rod to the right to keep the line tight. It wasn’t a monster, but he landed it. It was the first Cuban tarpon, or sabalo, that I’d ever seen. And I wanted one of my own.
We were fishing in mid-April, which is the start of the local tarpon season and our guides definitely wanted to chase the big “sabalo” this region is known for. The guides really light up when the tarpon show. It’s like Christmas for them.
Each day we saw tarpon, big, bad and full of piss. I jumped several, but never got one to the boat. But it didn’t really matter. We found so much other action that I didn’t have time to pout.
Bonefish and Permit Too
Each daybreak kicked off a new adventure. We’d target tarpon in the morning, then move on to the flats for shots at bonefish, jacks, cubera snapper, barracuda and the ever-elusive permit.
The highlight for me came on day two. I’d never caught a bonefish on fly. If I was ever going to accomplish this goal, it would happen here.
I whiffed about five fish on the first day and let the frustration get to me, pounding my feet on the deck like a five-year-old. The trick is to stay calm and get a good cast. That’s not my strong suit. I get excited, my heart jumping out of my chest and my cast often turning into an ugly, much-too-fast motion resembling a guy with an axe going after a tree.
The guides helped me, assuring me that’d I catch one every time I missed a tailer or spooked the school. Finally it all came together. We found a trio of big boners in super-skinny water. The guide and I slid out of the boat into the shin-deep gin-clear waters. Slowly sneaking up on the fish, the guide pointed to a tailer about 30 feet away.
“Now,” he whispered. I made the cast and sent the shrimp fly just left of the fish. As soon as that pattern hit the water the fish attacked, shooting at the fly like a jet fighter. I strip-set the hook and came tight. Amazing how fast these fish are. It lit out over the flat, screaming line off the reel. I was on, I just couldn’t screw it up.
I took my time, listening to the guide. “Lift the rod,” he said as the fish zipped by a coral. “Now reel, reel, reel!”
As the fish got close I reached out and snatched it up. Holding that bonefish was one of the most memorable experiences in my fishing career. We placed a tag in the fish for a study the guides are working on with a local university. It was only four pounds or so, but it meant the world to me.
Every day in Cuba brought something new. One afternoon we saw a hornet’s nest of birds in the blue water, made our way over in the Dolphin skiff and caught jack after jack on topwater plugs and flies.
We found massive barracuda roaming the flats that were a blast on stick baits. I fought several 30-pounders that I swear had never seen a surface plug. They’d whack that thing like a torpedo.
I fished Gulp! soft plastics and caught all types of fish off the bottom that I’d never even heard of. I saw cities and landscapes that never seemed possible. Every fish, every town, every ’57 Chevy, every restaurant we ate at… It was all so unique, yet accessible, friendly and open.
The biggest misconception about Cuba that I could see is that many of us have an image of a dark, sinister country where Americans are locked out and disliked. Nothing is further from the truth. The locals want you there, and they’re friendly and hilarious. They need our tourism dollars, and it’s worth every penny to see this untapped land.
My only advice would be to get there before the doors open up and we end up ruining this amazing country.
To book a trip contact Jim Klug at 888-777-5060 or visit www.yellowdogflyfishing.com.
Tips for Fishing Cuba
• Bring Your Own
You won’t find any tackle shops of note in Cuba, so bring everything you could possibly need. I brought my own Gulp! soft plastic jigs, hooks, lead-heads, Penn Sargus spinning reels, a 9-weight fly rod and reel, a 12-weight fly rod and reel, lures, topwater plugs, line, leader, tippet, pliers, gloves, sunglasses, sunblock, hats, AFTCO sun mask and soft-sided tackle bags. I didn’t bring much clothing so I took advantage of the laundry service. You’ll also want to bring whatever prescriptions you might need, as well as toiletries..
• Hire the Best
You don’t want anything left to chance so it’s best to work with an experienced travel group such asAvalon Fishing Center or Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures. They will put together all of your paperwork and visas in one package, and you’ll always have someone to call if there’s any question or concern.
• No Plastic
No one takes credit cards. You won’t find any ATMs either , so bring enough cash to get you by.
• Bring Euros
You can exchange American dollars for CUCs (the Cuban currency), but you get a better exchange rate with Euros or Canadian currency.
• Tip Often
The government pays everyone a very small pittance, so most people rely on tips to get by. Even small tips go a long way. Fishing guides get between $150 to $250 for a three to five-day trip, but your tour organizer can tell you exactly what to tip. Tip bartenders, luggage porters, cab drivers, etc. A few coins or a dollar is usually enough.
• Be Smart, Not Scared
Technically it is illegal for Americans to engage in commerce in Cuba. So, if you come home with a bunch of souvenirs that say “Cuba” all over them, you might have some explaining to do. I breezed right through customs without a problem, and my Cuban magnets are now happily holding up to-do notes on the fridge.
• No Stamp on Passport
Don’t worry about this one. The Cuban customs people know not to stamp an American passport. However, they won’t let you in the country without a visa so make sure you have one.
• Island Time
Flights are almost always late or delayed and pushy people are generally hated. Chill out, have a mojito and make sure to give yourself plenty of time to catch your connecting flight on your return to Cancun (I’d say three to four hours) to head home.
• Coming Home
If you go through Mexico to get to Cuba, you will have two Mexican arrival stamps on your passport when you come home. If your passport is chock full of stamps, don’t worry about it. If your passport is brand new, just play it cool. If the U.S. agent asks you why you have two stamps, you could say you were out on a boat fishing and when you got back to port and checked in they stamped your passport again. Whatever you do, I highly recommend you don’t tell them you were in Cuba. There’s a chance you could be charged. But, from my research, no one has been formally prosecuted for visiting Cuba since Obama took office.
Here is a very informative video about the Jardines that aired on 60 Minutes in June.