Last year when I returned form Belize I mentioned that there was a plaque on the wall at the Belize River Lodge that said that “If fishing was easy it would be called catching”. This phrase now has a new meaning to me following my recent trip to Cuba. During my trip to Belize I caught two large tarpon in very difficult circumstances. The water was murky with no visibility and the only chance of catching tarpon was either by blind casting in the hope of a hook up or waiting for a tarpon to roll within casting distance. I opted for the latter and was extremely lucky to catch the fish having spent hours on the front of the boat. In April this year Garth Wellman and I travelled to Angola where Garth caught a magnificent 200lb tarpon on his third cast but following the trip he commented that he had caught the fish but that he had not fished for tarpon. I agreed with this sentiment but on my recent trip to Cuba I fished for tarpon.
I fished to rolling tarpon and sighted fish in the open water; I fished to packs of fish hunting over the flats and in the lagoons; I fished to cruising fish in a foot of clear water in amongst the mangroves and I fished to large tarpon in deep channels, drop-offs and cuts. I must have hooked about 100 fish and landed about 40.
But let me start at the beginning. On 20 May, I left Johannesburg for Paris and on to Havana. You can either fly via Madrid or Paris but I chose Air France merely because the connections were better. I would have preferred Iberia Airlines so as to practice my Spanish but I did not have the opportunity to learn any before I left. (So I did not know any to practice in any event.) I arrived in Havana in the evening of 21 May with the prospect of two full days in the city. I stayed at The Parque Central hotel, which is in La Habana Vieja– the old city. This part of Havana has the most history; has most of the historical buildings and the most character. I walked through the whole area and absorbed the life and atmosphere. I had a few beers – bucaneros- in the local taverns as well as at Hemmingway ´s where I drank a toast to him.
I really enjoyed my time in Havana but it was with a degree of anticipation that I waited for my bus at 5am on Saturday morning. We were to travel down the centre of Cuba for 6 hours to the small port of Jucaro from where we would take a 3hr boat ride to the Queens Garden (Jardines de la Reina). The
Queens Garden is a group of islands covering an area of about 2000sq ks and is fully protected except for the Avalon fishing operations (which are all catch and release) and some commercial lobster fishing concessions. The trip down was an experience on its own and one could see the peasant farmers ploughing lands using oxen drawn ploughs; the locals queuing for transport (Old Russian trucks) and for sponsored food at the government shops. I think that I have a fair impression of life in Cuba which I find quite intriguing and I will closely watch how the country develops in future.
On the bus was a group of Finns with whom I thought I would be spending my time. I made mates with a few of them but I think that they preferred to stick together. On arrival at Jucaro where we were met by the lovely Suli and a group of guides. Suli was the only one who could speak English and when she had identified me, she said that the Finns were going off on their own boat and that I was on my own at the hotel. The hotel is a luxury yacht (La Tortuga) anchored in the middle of the Queens Garden. It sleeps 14 visitors and is truly first class accommodation. I was a bit concerned at being on my own but Suli then introduced me to the chef Bodi; my guide, Keko and a number of the other staff and said that their sole job for the week was to look after me. She would be my companion. I could not have wished for someone nicer and Suli really made the week I spent there a very happy time. She involved all the crew and staff in my activities and by the time I left I had made a lot of friends and had all of them joining me for mojitos and dinner. I had all of them trying to learn English. And now onto the fishing. I had 6 full days of fishing at Jardines de la Reina. Keko was an exceptional guide and after the first afternoon, Suli arranged for a learner guide to accompany us each day. This was a perfectly satisfactory arrangement as the learner was able to learn from Keko but also provided company for him. The guides can communicate fishing stuff perfectly well but as soon as the conversation goes in another direction they will say “si si” to everything but clearly not understand. The learner’s job was also to do some line management, handle the fish and take photos. The fishing in Jardinas is mostly sight fishing and I have some vivid recollections of rolling tarpon in the most perfect settings; casting to them; seeing the flash as they take the fly and then being part of an aerial display and tussle. Many fish are jumped and come off as they shake their heads vigorously.
I have vivid recollections of us patrolling among the mangroves, observing cruising tarpon and putting “delicate” casts in front of them. Some of these casts would result in an explosion of the water as tarpon leap for freedom among the branches; others would end with the fly entangled in the branches and a very frustrated fisherman and probably more frustrated guide.
I have recollections of tarpon gliding across the flats in clean clear water, seeing them compete for the fly and the ensuing melee.
I also have recollections blind casting into deeper channels and cuts. Although not my best, there would often be a willing taker of the fly. At one stage, I simply refused to put in another “long cast, Jon, 11 o clock”.
We also fished for a number of other species and caught some very nice barracuda, jack cravelle and snapper (the guides were very happy to take these home for supper). Generally speaking the tarpon that I saw and caught at Jardinas were about 30 to 40 lbs although I was told that the Finns lost a few of about 100lbs. We had some really good shots at permit but my impression is that the guides at Jardines (as against the Island of the Youth) prefer to target tarpon as fishing for them is more productive.
After 6 days of solid fishing at Jardines it was time to depart and we had quite an emotional farewell although I was only too pleased to have two days off traveling and in Havana. I must concede that although my body stood up to 12 days of solid fishing, I was physically exhausted at the end of the trip.
And from there it was off to the Island of the Youth (Isla dela Juventud). I really loved my stay on the Island where I again had a very happy time. The island is similar to Robben Island and houses the now derelict but infamous Presidio Modelo prison where President Castro was incarcerated prior to the revolution. We visited the prison and you could feel that the prison had a gruesome past even though it has not been inhabited for 40 years. The prison dining hall was known as the “Hall of 3000 silences” as no noise or talking was permitted
The island is named the Island of the Youth because it is where the Russians built large schools and universities during the Cold War. Students were brought from all over the world where they were taught all about communism amongst other things. The buildings are now all abandoned and derelict.
We flew from Havana on a panel beaten sardine tin but arrived safely and were taken to our hotel, the Hotel Rancho, where we met Andre our host; Yanet our waitress; Dorita our chambermaid and Koki my guide. All wonderful people. There was also another fisherman fishing with me for the week; Marco Fanelli a young Italian funeral undertaker from Turin, a passionate fly fisherman.
I must say that I thought that fishing at the Island of the Youth was much better than the Queens Garden. I caught a number of bigger tarpon with a number of approx 50lbs; a few of approx 70 lbs and two in the region of 85 lbs. This had a lot to do with my guide who was undoubtedly the best guide that I have fished with. Besides being extremely hard working, knowledgeable and friendly, Koki was interested in fishing for the elusive permit and I had some of the best permit fishing of my life. We found and fished for large permit and cast to a school of permit with a number of them in excess of 40 lbs. We saw “tailing” permit in deep water where they just relax with their tails in the air. I had never seen or heard of this before. Although I never managed to connect with a permit, we spent many happy hours fishing for them. I had a few brief moments of glory when in among a good school, my line went tight. After a few brief seconds, we realised that the fly had been taken by a snapper.
Fishing at the Isle of the Youth was a completely different experience. We did not spend as much time hunting for sighted tarpon in the open water but although we spent a lot of time in the lagoons and among the mangroves; we fished more deep channels and cuts with sinking lines. This was very productive and we would often find 5 or 6 fish over 50lbs taking the fly in the same area. On a number of occasions a tarpon would drop the fly only for it to be picked up by another. On one occasion we had 4 bites on one cast. Koki and I even had a double on the last morning. I was onto a good tarpon when we saw that there was another following fish. He picked up a spare rod, put in the cast and to woops of excitement the two of us had jumping tarpon on both sides to the boat. I will fish with Koki any day of the week!