It’s just past 7 a.m., and the driver of the bus I’m on lays on the horn to pass a slow-moving horse-drawn carriage in the pothole-ridden right lane.
We had pulled out of Havana at 3:45 a.m., when it was just starting to quiet after a long night of music, dancing and rum. The sounds of the street had crept through my open window all night — laughter and singing and the revving of old Detroit engines. The air was heavy with the unmistakable briny smell of the ocean.
Now the sun is just starting to poke through the tall sugar cane and scattered palms, casting a brilliant warm light across what I presume to be central Cuba. More than 45 percent of the cultivated land in Cuba is sugar cane, and there’s certainly no shortage of it on this drive to Júcaro, a small southern port town of about 1,500 where we will be boarding Avalon II, the vessel that will be our home for the next six nights.
As the landscape continues to slide past, I note the cleanliness and the absence of trash along the road, and I recall what the beautiful Cuban woman who sat next to me on my flight to Havana told me. Glowing with a bright, authentic smile, she said, “I am very proud of my country.” She’s not alone.
The bus journey comes to an end, and mutton snapper, barracuda, permit, tarpon, bonefish and even the possibility of a cubera snapper circle through my mind. We board the 125-foot Avalon II in Júcaro and begin motoring about 60 nautical miles to Jardines de la Reina. The Gardens of the Queen (so named by Christopher Columbus) was set aside by the Cuban government in 1996 as a protected marine archipelago, an area nearly 160 kilometers long made up of more than 600 cays. It is a remarkably rich swath of reefs, flats and mangroves.
It is January, and the temperature is just right. Eighty degrees is considered relatively cool, compared with the norm the rest of the year, but it feels ideal to me. There’s a bit of a chop but no discernible swell. The journey is smooth. We’re told that we’ll have time to fish for a couple of hours before dark; we set up our rods in a burst of excitement.
Wasting no time
With our mother ship swinging safely on her mooring, we move without hesitation for the water. Within minutes, our guide Keko (pronounced KAY-co) has John Huber and me loaded into a flats skiff and planing through a mangrove cut. “I think we try for bones,” Keko says over the noise of the outboard as the warm, late-afternoon air reeking of mangroves rushes over my face. Keko is easy to warm up to. He has a radiating smile. He points to his beer belly. “I have mucha gasolina.”
Keko soon has us on a mangrove flat casting to schooling bonefish. The tide is receding, and the fish are skittish. Keko instructs John to cast through a tight, narrow gap in the mangroves to fish in no more than 18 inches of water over eelgrass and marl. Huber immediately hooks up, and it’s game time.
We trade off on bones, breaking up the school like a covey of chukar partridge into groups of two and three until it’s almost too dark to see. Having successfully whetted our appetites, we return to Avalon II.
Travel, domestic or otherwise, is an illusion for many Cubans. Most do not own a car. And even if they do, the distance from Júcaro to Havana (a seven-hour drive), coupled with the cost of accommodations and eating out, makes the trip to the capital too expensive.
Many of the Cuban guides on our trip have never been to Havana. And not one of them owns a fly rod, including Juan Carlo, the Cuban national fly-casting champion. But they have spent their entire lives exploring these waters. The sons of local fishermen, these capable men have been roaming and fishing the waters from Júcaro to beyond Jardines since childhood. They know the tidal language of this massive archipelago, with its 600-plus cays and miles and miles of permit and bonefish flats, as well as they know their native tongue.
It’s 4:30 a.m., and there is a knock on my cabin door. “Tarpon?” Keko issues the invitation with a big grin, as though he’s inviting me to participate in a secret. It’s still pitch black, yet things are moving as Keko knocks on the cabin doors farther aft.
It takes Huber, manager of the Picabo Angler fly shop and outfitter in Idaho, less than a minute to rise from his bunk and get ready. Just minutes after Keko’s reveille, a group of bleary-eyed anglers has amassed on deck, readying tarpon rods as they wait for the guides to pull up alongside in their flats boats.
This is our first morning in Cuba without wind. It’s about 5:30 a.m., and we’re ripping through a mangrove cut under predawn starlight. Our destination is tarpon water on the windward side of a cay, a 15-minute run from our floating base. Bioluminescence lights the skiff’s wake, the phosphorescence streaming aft like shooting stars. The three of us are quiet. Neither Huber, our guide Titi (Keko’s youngest brother) nor I speak.
As someone who makes his living guiding on small, cold rivers in Idaho, I am impressed with Titi’s ability to navigate this tidal cut. The passage reminds me of a river, except for perilous diente de perro (dog’s tooth coral), along with reefs, small mangrove clusters and other obstacles that could, at our speed of about 25 knots, eject us from our cozy seats.
By 8 a.m. Huber and I have had a few unsuccessful shots at small rolling tarpon. We’re good with that, given that earlier in the trip both of us had landed and jumped baby tarpon in the 20- to 30-pound range; that takes off the edge. Happy to have just had the experience of the morning’s outing, we decide to get a quick breakfast of Cuban coffee and papaya slices at the mother ship and spend the day searching for permit on the rising tide, followed by bones as the tide ebbs. Despite having jumped no tarpon, the morning felt like a jolt of good espresso.
Bounty of riches
“A fishery can only be as good as the fisherman, but in Cuba there never seems to be a lack of some type of target to cast at,” Huber says. He’s right. While hunting permit — casting 80 feet or so and stripping back in to restack our line on the casting deck — we might hook a mutton snapper, a barracuda or even a small horse-eyed jack. And as we work that fish to the boat, we sometimes spy a permit slipping across the flats. And for just a moment we feel a little indignant at the idea that the fish on the line may have gotten in the way of a good shot at a permit. Such is the bounty of riches in the Jardines. It blows me away.
From the healthy, intact corals and host of game fish to the top-of-the-food-chain sharks, it’s clear that the lack of development in Cuba has been a fortunate accident. And it boggles my mind that nobody but our group of 12 in six skiffs is fishing this archipelago this week. There are no human tracks on the cays, no skiff fishermen drifting or throwing nets. Entry into the marine preserve is closely monitored.
Our trip this year happens to coincide with the easing of some aspects of a 50-plus-year U.S. embargo on Cuba. During the trip we learn that U.S. diplomats are in the country discussing potential change. I am not entirely sure how I feel about the changes that may lie ahead. It’s a little disconcerting to imagine 10-story hotels on these pristine beaches, yet economic progress for the Cuban people is long overdue.
Though not outspoken, the guides are seemingly untroubled by our respective governments’ differing positions; there is no sense that they hold any grudge against visiting Americans. Proud as they clearly are of their country, the Cubans we meet seem intent on differentiating governments from citizens.
Back on the flats
“Strip, strip, strip. Wait. Wait. Strip,” Titi says from the poling platform, his face hidden beneath his 7-year-old buff and sunglasses. “Cast again. Eleven o’clock. Twenty meters. Cast to the color white. Quick. Wait. Wait. Strip. Strip. Strip. Wait. Strip,” he says with more enthusiasm. We’re staring at a school of 100-plus bonefish. “Up!” he directs, just as my line tightens and a nice bone rips off into my backing.
Titi poles the skiff off the school, and for the next hour or so, John and I take turns picking off 3- and 4-pound bonefish. I get my fill early and take to the beach with my camera, watching as bonefish after bonefish is caught on this beautiful sand and coral flat. There are no hotels or restaurants or shacks on the beach — or other humans, for that matter. The only signs of life are the tracks of the large, rat-like jutias alongside those of crabs and lizards, and odd bits of plastic bottles that have washed ashore during storms. It calms me to know that I’m the only person on this cay; at the same time, I’m under no illusion about how harsh and unforgiving this saltwater wilderness is.
It’s about 8:30 p.m., on our final night aboard Avalon II. I am on the top deck with John, talking and drinking a Bucanero beer. On the deck below us, a guide named Bemba (also a brother of Keko and Titi) adjusts the antennas on an old handheld radio, trying to pick up a signal to listen to the news. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and smoking.
Bemba has an incredibly calm demeanor. The week has revealed that the other guides, including his brothers, regard him as numero uno. On this trip, Bemba has led an angler to two grand slams (permit, bonefish and tarpon). None of that, however, really matters to me at the moment. From above, I can’t tell whether he has found a static-free channel or not. There is a lovely, timeless quality to the scene — Bemba lost in the moment, content, at peace, at home.
We found bones in tight mangrove flats over turtle grass and marl, on pure white sand flats and on others that are a mixture of coral and sand. We saw a good number of permit on flats that stretched 2 to 3 miles, and we motored a few miles offshore to an open ocean flat and discovered permit there, as well. We caught tarpon, mutton snapper, barracuda and a powerful 30-pound cubera snapper that my friend Nick took on a fly near a reef while searching for barracuda. The variety of game fish at Jardines is remarkable. Our guides are rightfully proud of these waters. Fortunate accident or not, this place is a jewel that I hope remains intact and protected even as Cuba changes.