Lit by the dawn sun, flocks of shimmering red flamingos huddle on sandbars dotting mangrove lined lagoons. Some defy gravity balanced on one spindly leg while others take flight in the early morning sky, their gangly silhouettes somewhat prehistoric in shape and size. I think to myself, this is a good thing.
“Jardines de la Rey,” (Gardens of the King) Cuba is 344 square kilometers of protected flats, deserted white sand beaches and mangrove estuaries fed by tidal tributaries. Claimed by Christopher Columbus for King Ferdinand, it’s one of two royal garden preserves in Cuba.
Within the borders of this marine park swim all the big three…tarpon, permit and bonefish in numbers sufficient to make any shallow water angler’s day or week.
And we are here seeking a week of Cayo Cruz secluded fly fishing, promised by Avalon fishing center – an Italian owned company – employing hundreds of Cubans in twelve angling destinations across the island.
Our group of six Americans will interact with these captains, cooks and staff to help prepare them for what is believed to be the coming Anglo invasion from the north. We will bring the Avalon skiff guides up to date on the latest equipment and techniques, and demonstrate our unique, American style of fishing – all in support of the Cuban people.
Another phase of our mission is to emphasize “best use” of natural resources like the Gardens preserve. Environmental protectionism is critical to Cuba’s financial future.
Avalon Fishing Center recently obtained the rights to operate in the park located on Cuba’s north shore some six hundred miles east of Havana. The charter company’s almost two decade record of strict catch and release practice and zone management in the highly protected archipelagos, “The Gardens of the Queen” has been praised by fishermen, naturalist and marine biologist from the world over.
Zone management is a concept pioneered by Avalon Fishing Center. Captains of the Cayo Cruz land based skiff fleet rotate seven 50 square kilometer zones within the boundaries of this preserve.
Zone assignments are set by management, to prevent excess fishing pressure in any one area. The result are happy fish, approachable permit, lazy cruising tarpon and milling tailing bonefish. The ocean flats are loaded with good size mutton snapper, barracuda and jack crevalle.
After an invitation to the Friday night pig roast at Club Natico in Marina Hemingway outside of Havana, our group of six Americans from Florida, New York, and Connecticut, set out early the next morning for a short hop to Cayo Coco, the closest airport located on a sister Cay.
From there, an early morning bus ride to Cayo Cruz showed off Cuba’s natural beauty, the low hills of the coast, the newly lit sky filled with white capped pigeons and the flighty crested caracaras birds beginning their day.
We passed working ranches tended by mounted vaqueros herding Herford and Braham to new pastures. Then, the ranches gave way to miles of sugar cane covered plains.
In the countryside horse drawn wagons, many sporting undercarriages made from old American autos haul people and produce from pueblos scattered in the small round hills to the larger towns centered around sugar mills and renamed for South American countries. Our hotel, Casoa de Ramano – built in 1929 – sits in the small quaint village of Brazil.
The peace of Cuba’s countryside settles over our group. It’s Saturday in this isolated village, siesta time in the heat of a late June day. Tonight the townspeople and those from the surrounding area will gather in the square for music and dancing. A small town Saturday night.
Our morning bus ride across the causeway to the skiffs was a combined pre-fish strategy session and pep talk. Flies are exchanged, leader length and size are popular topics. And, thanks to the staff we are well fed and well stocked with customized lunches and drinks…. ready to fish.
As with many highly anticipated trips our first day on the water was less than disappointing. Heavy low clouds and twenty knot plus winds drove the tarpon out of the shallows and the bonefish and permit were impossible to see. Only the richness of the habitat buoyed our spirits on the silent ride home.
Day two the sun came out, the wind persisted and the bones appeared. Rafeal led us on a white sand ocean beach wade where for three hours we took shot after shot at cruising groups of five and six pound fish with the occasional ten or twelve pound monster riding the tide of the swash channel, staying just out of reach. Between photo ops I landed three and Sean and Dave released another seven. .
Now the bus ride became a beer and brag fest with everyone pleased with the fishing and the secluded paradise. We thrilled at the absence of boats, planes or any sounds other than birds, the surf and the whispered accented commands of the guide as he spots fish and maneuvers the skiff for your shot. “
“Eleven o’clock ….twenty meters.” You quickly do the math and adjust accordingly.
Evenings at the lodge are filled with dinner banter, rough edged chides accompany a rich banquet of lobster and ropa veija – translated into something like shredded old clothes. Fresh salad and fruit and a flan dessert stops the conversation temporarily. A fine local trio of young guitarist entertains us, music is everywhere in Cuba. Everyone is surprised when the boys break into a rendition of Hotel California in English. This old Eagle’s hit is mysteriously well known across the island.
Next morning finds Richard and Sean at the zone map with our El Hefe, Boris as he points out where fish have been spotted and caught. Avalon is meticulous in recording each day’s action, regardless of species. This system proves invaluable in tracking the health of the area and is instrumental in guide training.
Boris informed us another group of anglers on the liveaboard (another option) have recorded two flats slams so our people need to get motivated if we were to win the week.
Sean is anxious to take advantage of the great reef fishing and diving a half mile offshore. Although the reef is an option in good weather, the wind and the surf were too rough for skiffs.
In three days of fishing and photos I landed three very nice bonefish and lost a dozen more, had multitude permit shots in some pretty windy conditions. I saw more muttons on the flats in one afternoon, than in a dozen years of guiding in Key West. Tarpon were scarce, probably due to the high winds.
Cayo Cruz, Cuba is a diamond in the rough, one being polished by the Avalon group. But, if you desire to see the real Cuba and experience great shallow water and reef fishing, it’s a destination for you.
Author of “97 Miles South…Key West to Cuba”