The Author with a 70 + lbs Tarpon
The Author with an early fish and the guide Bemba.
Fly Fishing Cuba>>
Recently the fly fishing club I am a part of had a fisherman by the name of Brad Bauer present a very nice presentation on a fly fishing trip he recently took to Cuba. It was very well put together and I was extremely intrigued by the trip. So I asked if he would write an article to share through my website on his great adventure, here’s what he has to say.
By. Brad Bauer
I was recently blessed with an opportunity to fly fish the flats of Cuba - specifically, the flats around Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen). We primarily targeted Tarpon, but we had lots of opportunities to catch bonefish and some shots at the elusive Permit as well.
Before I tell you how great the fishing was in Cuba (and it was), I really should lay the foundation for keeping your expectations in check should you ever decide to fly fish there. If you’ve never fly fished the saltwater flats before, there are a few things you need to know. 1) Wind and sun play a crucial role in your success no matter the location. 2) If you can’t see the fish, you can’t cast to the fish. 3) Practice casting! Just about every book or article ever written about saltwater fly fishing will give you this same advice.
With all of that being said, Cuba is no different than any other saltwater destination. If the wind doesn’t blow you off the water, the sun is bright so you can see fish, and if you can manage to cast a fly in front of your target, your success may go up. I say ‘may’ because you still have to get the target to eat and then a solid hook set. All of which is easier said than done!
Cuba has been a fly fishing travel destination for years – but largely for Europeans and Canadians. However, in December 2014 when the U.S. and Cuba announced they would be normalizing relations, the number of Americans making requests for travel there went up exponentially. One of those calls was mine.
I contacted Jim Klug of Yellow Dog Fly Fishing because I wanted to see Cuba before it is overrun by Americans. He assured me that it will be years before the infrastructure of the fly fishing community in Cuba will be able to handle the masses and there was no need to hurry. However, the idea had already entered my head – and I didn’t want to wait. I booked myself on a hosted trip with 13 other Americans in a hurry to see what all the fuss was about on the flats in Cuba. Some of us were not disappointed.
I won’t go into all of the gory travel details about how our group had to get to Havana and then on to Jardines de la Reina because getting there is an ever evolving process. We were fortunate enough to book our fishing days with two days and nights in Havana which is worth the trip - especially if you like Cuban food, cigars, rum and salsa music! But I know, what you want to hear about is the fishery and the fishing.
Because of the extended travel necessary to reach Jardines de La Reina, a typical week is 5 full days and two half days of fishing. Our group arrived at the Tortuga house boat that would be our home for the week around 1pm. As you can imagine, we dumped our gear, rigged up and were flying out to the flats as fast as we could. I was first up, and within minutes of stripping out line and getting ready, our first group of Tarpon were happily cruising up onto a flat.
We had threee doubles out of the same school of fish.
Bemba, our guide, pointed them out and I placed the fly close enough to get the attention of an eager, silver king. BOOM! He crushed that fly, turned and the fight was on. The jumps were spectacular and even though this was a mere 15 pound Tarpon, I was on the scoreboard. It wasn’t long after the sky darkened up around us; we could tell the fun was over. Heavy winds and rain blew us off the water, but we knew we would be back tomorrow
The second day started the same as the first – happy Tarpon up on the flats ready to eat our offering. My gracious fishing partner suggested I jump up on the bow for the first shot, and he didn’t have to twist my arm. The results were the same; one cast and we were hooked up! Only this time, it was a bigger 30 pound Tarpon. The Tarpon in Cuba were plentiful and seemed to be starving. Time and time again over the next few days we encountered fish rolling happily up on the flats. At times, we estimated pods of fish in the hundreds down to one’s and two’s cruising around the flats. The most spectacular of our fishing days was out at the famous Boca Grande pass and it was amazing, start to finish, all happening in about an hour and a half. Well known to the serious Tarpon anglers of the world, this pass serves as a highway system for these fish to cruise from flat to flat.
Bemba anchored us by tying off on his push pole as we ate our lunch and waited for a group of Tarpon to present themselves. As it turned out, I was in the ready position on the bow of the boat when he caught a glimpse of a large school of fish rolling up near the mangroves. He immediately began pushing the boat hard for an eleven o’clock casting position. These fish are so big and easy to see when conditions (good sun and light wind) are right. Conditions at this particular time of the day were perfect and I hooked up almost immediately! As I did, Bemba never took his eyes off of that group of fish. He excitedly asked me to step down from the bow while I fought the Tarpon. Shaun Lawson, my fishing partner, jumped up and started casting to the school. No way! He hooked up and we were now each fighting a hard pulling, acrobatic Tarpon. Awesome by any standard! But it gets better, and probably more unbelievable. We did that two more times! We had three doubles out of the same school of fish, and these weren’t babies. All six Tarpon were in the 30-50 pound range.
That hour or so was pure chaos and pure bliss. Bemba never stepped down from the poling platform, so Shaun and I had to land each of those Tarpon on our own. There was only one casualty – a broken 12 weight rod went down in the fray! Oops and oh well – totally worth it and hats off to that particular rod manufacturer from Texas - they replaced it within a week of my return.
We took a break from chasing Tarpon one afternoon and found a long, slick flat on the leeward side of a mangrove island to hunt some bonefish. We found them. What we experienced became the second greatest hour or so of my fishing life. We began pulling off bonefish doubles – back to back to back – multiple times. They were all in the 3 pound range - small, but incredibly feisty.
Bemba slowly poled straight down this flat while he took long, slow drags off his cigarette. The three of us giggled like giddy little children the whole time. All told, we brought 16 bonefish to the boat during that hour. Shaun, I, and the deck of the boat were covered in bonefish crap – it was fantastic!
I eluded earlier that not all of the anglers on this trip had the same positive experiences which I have shared. At different times over the week, we heard grumblings from unhappy members of the group. From my unofficial poll, it seemed like the main focus of their disappointment was the fact they couldn’t see the fish until they were too close to the boat. Unfortunately, the closer a Tarpon or any other saltwater species of fly quarry for that matter gets to the boat; the lower your percentage of hook ups you are going to get. Some additional frustration came from their guides “not being able to speak good English.” Hello! We are in Cuba! What do you expect?
Overall, I think a majority of the group would tell you it truly was the trip of a lifetime. I know it was for me! There are still obstacles with traveling to Cuba, but each day there seems to be new developments and looser restrictions. So, polish up on your Spanish, practice casting in the wind and start saving your pennies because sooner or later you too may have an opportunity to experience the Cuban flats. I hope to return to the Gardens of the Queen someday with one or maybe all of my boys, but for now I will just have to settle for images of the jumping silver kings that fill my head every night as I drift off to sleep!
All six Tarpon were in the 30 to 50 pound range.