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The saltwater fishing areas of Cuba have taken on Nirvana-like qualities in the minds of many American anglers who dream of fishing there for bonefish, tarpon and permit. Gardens of the Queen Archipelago. Isla de la Juventud. Archipelago de los Canarreos. Cayo Largo. La Salina. Champing at the bit does not do justice to the excitement some anglers feel at the prospect of finally being able to visit Cuba.
Transfer of power in Cuba from Fidel to his brother, Raul, has fueled speculation that the US travel embargo is finally going to be lifted, if not by the Bush administration, then by the new one that will be sworn in next January. An end of the embargo, of course, would open the flood gates and allow American anglers to start flowing into Cuba by the hundreds, maybe the thousands.
At the risk of being a kill-joy here, someone needs to point out that it is not only far from certain that Cuba will open any time soon, but there are also some less than stellar things about the fishing in Cuba and the social milieu in which it occurs. Almost all of the coverage of Cuba to date has been of the rave variety. With the curtain possibly about to be raised on a new era, it is probably time to issue some warnings about those less than stellar aspects of Cuban fishing. Some of them are going to irk American anglers, and now is the time to deal with them.
First, though, a word about the prospects of an early opening of Cuba. At this writing, the US Treasury Department (which implements the US State Department’s sanctions program against Cuba) will not talk to us, or anyone else, about what might happen in the future. The department is continuing to charge American citizens with violations of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, though the number of charges is way down these days, consisting mostly of actions against Americans who buy Cuban cigars over the internet (see box on next page for details). That does not mean it’s ok (wink-wink) for Americans to go to Cuba. It’s not. You risk being detected and charged upwards of $7,000 in penalties, especially if you go to Cuba through Canada or the Bahamas, where OFAC has access to airline passenger manifests.
The major argument that Cuba is about to open assumes that a Democrat is going to be elected president and that he (or she) will have a friendly Congress to deal with. I am not about to comment on the upcoming election, except to point out that the die is not yet cast. And, even if it were, optimists need to remember what happened when Jimmy Carter tried to open Cuba back in 1980. The then CIA Bureau Chief in that part of the world says in a fascinating book entitled After Fidel the stumbling block was Fidel’s obsession with Puerto Rico. He viewed it as the last bastion of colonialism in the Caribbean and steadfastly refused to quit supporting a program of urban bombing there.
It’s unlikely that Raul Castro shares this monomania about Puerto Rico, being more of a pragmatist. But Cuban-American relations seem to have a way of going bad, as if there were a core of rancor about something that has never been made public. At this point, the biggest problem may turn out to be the strong political crosswinds created by Hugo Chavez in Cuba. It’s no secret he is pouring money into Cuba, reducing the nation’s need for American tourist dollars and drawing Cuba into a widening anti-American coalition. The bottom line is, I am an agnostic on the subject of the Cuban trade sanctions coming to an end. I will believe it when it happens.
As for the less than stellar aspects of the fishing in Cuba, most of those stem from the country’s cramped economic environment and its long isolation from the US, the most important country in the world as regards angling tourism. At this writing, all of the important sportfishing areas in Cuba, except La Salina in the Bay of Pigs area, are controlled by a single Italian company called Avalon. They have done a remarkable job, given the bureaucratic and financial constraints, assembling a navy-sized flotilla of flats boats, motherships and floating barges. In all, Avalon has 39 guides on the payroll, 38 flats fishing skiffs, two bigger skiffs to host spinfishermen, a newly rebuilt floating hotel, four motherships, two transfer boats and three diving boats. The company employs more than 180 people and plans to open three new destinations in the next three years.
The overwhelming majority of the fishing trips Avalon arranges proceed like clockwork, with timely airport pick-ups, hotel paperwork in scrupulous order and problem-free transfers. On all of my trips to Cuba, I have been impressed with the food, the staff and the equipment provided, not to mention the fishing itself, which is among the best in the world.
The American angler who goes to Cuba for the first time is going to be astounded at some of the transportation infrastructure, however. The plane that takes anglers from Havana to Isla de la Juventud, for example, is ancient; and so are many of the cabs. On the other hand, the bus that takes anglers from Havana to Jucaro to catch the ferry to Queens Garden Archipelago is modern and comfortable. That’s not to say the seven-hour ride is anything but interminable and boring, though.
La Salina, the important fishery in the Bay of Pigs area, is limited by the fact that outboard motors are not allowed. Anglers have to be poled from the dock, which causes an important loss of fishing time. Also, the same small area gets fished over and over, while miles of better fishing is left untouched. The problem with this fishery is compounded by the fact that a long daily commute from the hotel to the dock is involved.
These minor things aside, the larger problem with Cuban sport- fishing is the quality of the guiding. It is uneven at best. The superstar status of a handful of Cuban guides masks the fact that many others have no real feel for what they are doing. Some return day after day to the same spot. Few show much initiative in finding new spots or figuring out new approaches.
There is a benign explanation for the guiding deficiencies in Cuba, according to Avalon’s Filippo Inver- nizzi. He says truly great guides are created by overcrowded, limited fisheries. Fish that have been cast to countless times are smarter, he says, so guides have to be smarter, too. In Cuba, the fishery is so robust and un-pressured guides are able to put clients over fish with little effort. Few feel the need, or have the drive, to innovate. That is not to say Avalon skimps on training, Invernizzi says, noting the company continually trains new guides and re-trains older ones.
The two reports that follow capture some of the pros and cons of fishing in Cuba from the point of view of two American anglers. Their publication marks a departure from our usual coverage, which to date has consisted almost entirely of on-site reports by me and an occasional trip report from a non-US subscriber. Both of the reports that follow are from recent American clients of Avalon, who sent their reports by surface mail with no names or return addresses attached. I, truthfully, don’t know who they are.
Some of the complaints in the reports, frankly, strike me as off the mark and a bit unfair. But American anglers who travel have different expectations than anglers from other parts of the world. Hence these reports need to be taken seriously, by Avalon and by would-be visitors. Moreover, the basic premise of our Trip Report Program is that everyone’s report deserves a chance to be aired and then challenged by other reports. We hope other anglers who have fished in Cuba will weigh in with their reactions to these reports.
Trip date: February 9-16, 2008.
Location: Archipelago de los Canarreos near Isla de la Juventud.
Personal Guide: Manuel
Condition of Equipment: Excellent
Quality of Lodging: Excellent
Quality of Food: Fair
Personal Guide Ratings
Knowledge of Water: Excellent
General Fishing Knowledge: Good
Ability to Communicate: Good
Overall Personality: Excellent
Overall Service: Excellent
Alaskan Airlines was superb, particularly the new non-stop flight from Seattle to Cancun (4.5 hours). Mexicana Click Airlines from Cancun to Havana was nice. Unfortunately, the Cubana Air connection from Havana to Gerona on the Isla de la Juventud was beyond description. It was a converted Russian military cargo aircraft that appeared to be 30 to 40 years old, and it had the dents hammered out of it to prove it. Not only that, but there were only about four windows for 60 passengers. Also, there was no air conditioning. It all combined to make for a very hairy and intense flight. Thank goodness the turbulence was not bad!
Description Of Fishing
Description Of Catch Made
Unbelievable number of tarpon despite this trip being characterized as a bonefish trip and despite it being characterized as a low-season trip for tarpon. It was absolutely spectacular for both baby tarpon (20 to 50 pounds) and giant tarpon (50 to 150 pounds). On all days except one when we were confined to the mainland because of bad weather, I hooked giant tarpon. Most days, in fact, I jumped between six and 10 giant tarpon. As far as baby tarpon were concerned, they averaged much larger than any I had ever experienced before. On days we targeted baby tarpon, it was not uncommon to see 50 to 100 fish, with the vast majority of those at least attempting to eat the fly.
A 5-weight for bonefish and snook. A variety of 7-weights for baby tarpon, permit, snook, etc. and a 12-weight for big tarpon.
The most productive flies for giant tarpon were bunny patterns, primarily a Black Death pattern and a Green Death variety. As for baby tarpon, they would frequently take both giant tarpon flies and traditional baby tarpon flies.
Problems On The Trip
My digital camera somehow left my bag between Cancun and Havana. Also, my largest bag to Havana did not arrive on time (same bag that my camera got lifted from). Instead, it arrived 24 hours later. Not being able to take any photos of my spectacular trip was a big problem. Also, riding on that airplane from hell between Havana and Gerona was a problem. I never thought I was claustrophobic until this trip. I would have paid anything for a window seat, but with only four windows available and with 60 passengers aboard there was no chance. Finally, it was evident that there are very inexperienced guides at this location. In my opinion, there are only two guides here worth fishing with if times are difficult. They are very well known and respected namely, Koki and the guide I fished with all week, Manuel. The other guides tend to have a difficult time adapting to difficult conditions, almost certainly, because they have little experience. While a blind man could find fish in this area during the high season, during the low season and during bad weather, many guides other than Koki and Manuel would be significantly challenged. Fellow subscribers may want to take this into consideration in booking their trips.
Highlights Of The Trip
Very big, giant-ass tarpon! I landed three fish over 100 pounds!
Do You Recommend This Trip?
Yes! Best trip I have ever had, bar none. It was the most well organized trip in the most interesting country I have ever visited. I have been with many different lodges all across the world for a variety of species, but this trip was my favorite by far. It was absolutely spectacular!
I’m on my flight home to Phoenix but would like to share my impressions of the Jardines de La Reina in Cuba with you. After reading exuberant reports from The Angling Report and Wild on the Fly about the flats fishing in Cuba, I couldn’t resist taking a bite from the forbidden fruit 90 miles off shore. In 2000, you wrote about fishing with Fabrizio Barabazza, who managed the fishing then on Cayo Largo. (Editor Note: Avalon now controls this destination.) You described the schools of bonefish, permit and behemoth tarpon and the 50 Grand Slams that were recorded there that year. You even talked about the fabled Super Grand Slam which either adds a snook to this trifecta or the good looking cook at the lodge. Last year, you returned to the Isle of Youth and wore your arm out catching tarpon. Your week on the live-aboard Perola was the best fishing ever apparently. Clearly, I had to get to Cuba before it gets screwed up like every other place I’ve been too late to get to.
To fuel the fires of my expectations, I got a copy of Ray Tanami’s 2004 article, Viva Cuba Libre, in Wild on the Fly. He starts off with Jean Marc, a French cardiologist, casting to and catching the first permit he has ever seen, then asking what the big deal was. He got a double slam the next day. That week at Casa Batida eight slams were recorded. The next week Tanami went to the Jardines De La Reina, where he claimed that two Englishmen both had a double Grand Slam. Seems in 2003, 10 Grand Slams were put on the books of the Tortuga, the live-aboard barge in Jardines.
Last year, at the Palometta Club in Ascension Bay, Mexico, I finally caught my first permit after frustrating years of trying. If all I have to do is get to Cuba to reach the Holy Grail of fly fishing and get my Grand (or Super) Slam, I’m off.
I made all my arrangements through Avalon, including my plane reservations to and from Cancun. The plan was to spend the first day in Havana, soaking up the culture, then the next five days in Paradise catching trophy bones, permit and tarpon.
Avalon’s agent, Manuela, met me in Cancun with a Cuban visa and plane reservations. Despite my anxiety, the flight to Havana was great. Mexicana flies a new Fokker 100 to Cuba. The seats still smelled of leather and the engines are hung by the tail so all I could hear was a reassuring hum. The flight took a peaceful 40 minutes. Customs was an odd formality. I had to go through a metal detector getting off the plane, even though I had been screened getting on the plane. I guess they take gun control seriously in Cuba. The immigration agent sits inside an office with a locked door. The agent took half my visa, gave me a suspicious stare and buzzed the door open. My unstamped passport in hand, I met with Hector and got a cab to the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana.
By the time I got to the hotel it was almost 1 am. The only thing I remember about the drive was a billboard with President Bush under a large, red terrorista sign. Instead of the restored ‘56 Chevies I expected to see, most of the cabs were Hyuandis. My cab was a Lada, driven by a self-proclaimed MIG fighter pilot. He claimed that after he underwent Top Gun training in Russia, the Soviets left and Cuba had to ground its jets. He then flew crop-dusters until gas got too expensive for those planes. He was finally demoted to driving cabs. The 25 pesos I paid for the ride to the hotel was about half what a doctor is paid monthly by the government, so he is still doing well, I guess.
At the hotel I was told that the bus for the Jardines De La Reina would pick me up at 5 am. No relaxing day in Havana soaking up the culture and unwinding. This was a screw-up. After three hours of tossing, I got my wake-up call but couldn’t get the shower to work. Unhappily, I dragged my stuff to the lobby for the 5 am pick-up. The bar was still open. Three guys were consoling themselves. A hooker in a sequined mini-skirt sat down opposite me. I felt terrible.
The bus arrived two hours late and I hate buses. It was three hours over bumpy pavement before our first pit stop. Another painful four hours later we got off at Jucaro. That’s where we boarded the ferry for the four-hour boat ride across 48 miles of open ocean to get to the Gardens of the Queen. When I finally stepped on the Tortuga after 11 hours of traveling, I had a cerveza and crashed.
Tortuga is a floating hotel anchored in the mangroves. It’s a metal scow that was dragged from the mainland and refitted. Each room has four bunks, a bath and both 110- and 220-volt service. It is air-conditioned and has a comfortable dining room downstairs. Ominously, there was only one permit picture on the wall.
The next morning it became more obvious that this was not going to be my dream trip. Of the 10 clients on the Tortuga, only three were fishermen. The other seven were SCUBA divers. Apparently the diving in Cuba is terrific. I’m not so sure about the fishing. The two other anglers were both repeat clients. Roy was a retiree from the US who was happy with anything caught. Johnathan was an urbane gun broker from London who was returning for the 12th time. He usually stayed for one to two weeks, he said. Obviously, he knew the flats, so I asked him what my odds were of catching a Grand Slam.
Johnathan? I asked. How many permit have you caught here?
His answer was disappointing.
My dear boy, I’ve never caught a permit here, was his reply. The only permit that I’ve seen caught here was by a friend who blew his cast by at least 20 feet. As he was retrieving his Clouser, the fish turned, chased the fly down and hooked himself.
This was not very encouraging. My assigned guide for the week was Titi. He and the other guides all use 15-foot Dolphin Super Skiffs with 60 hp Yamaha outboards. The boats are fast, quiet and comfortable. They even have a padded back brace on the casting platform to lean against.
I have no idea how guides in Cuba get their privileged positions, but Titi’s attitude conveyed the impression I was working for him rather than the other way around. Perhaps that was because he feels that he is at the top of the Cuban food chain. Considering that his weekly tips are 200 to 300 Pesos and that a government surgeon earns only 50 Pesos a month, he was probably right. Maybe we just didn’t get started right. I don’t speak Spanish, and his English was no better than my Spanish. Even worse, I had followed the advice of George Anderson in an Avalon memo to new Cuban anglers. He claimed that bringing your guide sunglasses and cheap watches would make them think of you as a God. (His italics). I’m such a shallow person that I actually wanted someone to think of me as a God. Instead, the way Titi looked at the cheap sunglasses I brought him made me feel like the pompous ass that I am. Cubans may be poor, but they are proud and fiercely patriotic. They’ll take our money, but they don’t really like us.
Titi had learned to cast and could haul a 12-weight line smoothly. The rest of his guiding skills were suspect. Often, he would get excited about impossible upwind casts to spooked fish. Or, he would position the boat so that he was in the way of the backcast. Most disappointing of all, we went to the same flats four out of five days. Most of the time, the other two skiffs were there as well. This struck me as odd because the archipelago where we were fishing stretched over 130 miles east to west. The flats were magnificent. They were pristine and productive. And somehow Avalon had worked out a deal with the Feds to fish all this water on an exclusive basis. So, why come back to the same flats every day?
My spirits sank the first time Titi stopped on a flat. He wanted me to blind cast into a mud! Another boat was already there, and that guide was stoking his client. We caught bones, but I wanted to sightcast. More important, I wanted to sightcast to permit and tarpon.
To sum up, we caught bones every day, all of them singles or schoolies that I could see on the flats (This was after Titi realized I didn’t like mudding). The last morning I boated and released a 9½-pound bonefish. All the rest were three-, four- or five-pound fish. During a week of hard fishing I had only two casts to the single permit we saw. The crab was refused. My luck with tarpon was even worse. The only fish I saw were juveniles in the mangroves. The casts were impossible. The other anglers each caught one however. One was estimated at 30 pounds, the other at 12 pounds.
One night we went nightfishing. Racing past the walls of mangroves without any lights was like a Disney E-Ticket ride. Somehow we didn’t hit anything. We cast sardines with big spinning rods into the black. Seconds after splashdown something would be dragging the bait into the mangrove roots. Most of the fish were snappers and jacks, but my guide tried to pimp me by insisting that a big fish I lost must have been a tarpon. One pleasant thing about the trip was relaxing on the stern sundeck of La Tortuga and nursing a mojito after fishing. I remember one conversation between Johnathan and his equally upper-class friends. Caroline was describing their trip to Lake Victoria last summer.
Unfortunately my sister-in-law fell overboard, she said. We turned around but missed her outstretched arm. Then she disappeared. We think the crocs got her.
Johnathan’s only comment was, Pity. That exchange sounded like a Monty Python skit to me.
Getting back to Havana involved another ball-breaking, 11-hour ferry boat and bus ride. I couldn’t even unwind when we finally arrived by taking a walk to the Malecon. Within a few steps of the hotel I got propositioned by a good-looking hooker, a guy selling Pesos and somebody who wanted to show me a good time. It was too intimidating for me. Anyway, Havana is scary-dark at night. Most of the side streets are pitch-black. All in all, it was a long run for a short slide. I spent about $6,000 to catch bones. I’ve spent less for better fishing at flats that are easier to get to. I doubt I’ll be going back.
(Postscript: In fairness to the folks at Avalon, they say this subscriber’s complaints about his itinerary are unfounded, as he knew from the beginning what the entire schedule was. As for the other complaints, they simply say they are not fair and accurate, and they urge interested anglers to get in touch with the company to receive many positive reviews, including rave reviews from clients who were on the same trip as this subscriber. As regards the quality of the guiding, Invernizzi had this to say: I admit our guides might not be the same as in other countries, but we always try to make things right by allowing clients to fish more hours than other places. Also, we offer as much personalized attention as possible. Clients are free to do whatever they want so long as they adhere to safely rules. Great guides are a product of depleted, over-used fisheries, and most of them are in First World countries. We have had many hundreds of clients fish with us and almost all of them are pleased with the overall experience we provide. Sometimes, you simply can’t please a client, and that is what happened here.)