Destination Fishing With The Spey Ghillie
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After 2 years of careful planning and a few sleepless nights in anticipation of what lay ahead, it was finally time to head off on the first leg of our Salt Water Fly-fishing trip to the Queens Gardens (Jardines De La Reina) in Cuba.
The Northern contingent of David McKay, Dougie Ross and myself boarded our Fly-Be flight at 7am on Thursday 21st Feb. The worry of any unexpected delay ended as soon as the undercarriage was up and in no time, we were in Gatwick for the expected rendezvous with the Edinburgh crew of Davie Bonnington. Paul Garner, Roddy Crosbie and James Gardiner. My good friend & Welsh International angler Phil Thomas gave the party a more cosmopolitan flavor being the only non-scot in the team.
A large fry-up was order of the day, washed down by pint of Ice-Cold Guinness. We then headed for the departure lounge, via the duty free area for obvious reasons. The Virgin flight was fully booked and although we had pre-booked our seats we were spread like a No6 shot at 40 yards. I was drawn the short straw and ended up sitting next to the female equivalent of Victor Meldrew! Fortunately we were issued with ear protectors, headphones and a variety of movies and music so the increased volume dial and a good supply of Gin & Tonic countered her constant moaning! Note to self – next time premium economy!
Reception at the Parque Central Hotel in Havana.
We arrived in Havana slightly ahead of schedule but alas that time was soon consumed in the immigration queue. We stood in line for an hour and a half before finally being greeted by the cheerful Avalon staff. How such a straightforward procedure can take quite so long is quite baffling, especially when you consider that leaving the country is so straightforward! The journey to the Iberostar Parque Central hotel took around 20 minutes and gave us a brief insight of the City. Our taxi driver was very entertaining throughout and gave us some valuable advice with regard to our stay in Havana.
A view from the rooftop of the Parque Central Hotel.
Hotel check-in was painless and after freshening up and exchanging some currency, we headed for Ernest Hemmingway’s bar, which was only a 2-minute walk from the hotel. There we had a lovely seafood meal and sampled a few local drinks whilst enjoying the live salsa music. The next day was spent chilling in Havana. We took an open-top bus tour of the city, which was very worthwhile and interesting, especially the timely drop offs at prominent open-air cafes. Havana is certainly in need of some major investment, however in general, the people appear very happy and I found them most respectful. Due to an early start the following morning we had a relatively quiet night before leaving the hotel at 04:00 on Saturday. On reflection, the early night was a very wise move as the journey took just over 6 hours until we finally arrived at Jucaro port. Having said that, we did stop for 3 comfort breaks en route, which enabled us to check out the subtle geographical differences on mixing a Pina Colada!
A Dakari with Ernest himself!
Lunchtime in Hemmingways.
The magnificent sight of the Avalon Fleet 1 made the bus journey insignificant and actually took my breath away as she lay majestically in her berth. It was due to the size of our party that we were allocated the Mother Ship. It was very much a stylishly designed yacht, both intimate and very comfortable. It appeared that each space had been created to provide us with maximum comfort and safety. Although it can comfortably cater for up to 12 anglers, we felt that our team of 8 was just about right, allowing everyone the privacy of their own room. We also had 5 guides and 4 crew members on board, who had their own quarters and enjoyed their own privacy during the trip.
The Luxurious Avalon Fleet 1 from a distance and below in the setting sun.
Our host Sue-Li greeted us with her radiant smile and handed us a cool, refreshing scented face towel before introducing us to the crew and showing us to our rooms. No shoes were to be worn on board and indeed the only time we ever wore anything on our feet was on the rare occasion that we were wading the flats. The 5-hour boat journey to Jardines De La Reina flew past as we just relaxed and took in the surroundings. We had a mid-afternoon meal, which was only a taster of the gastronomic delights to come.
A light lunch en route to Jardenes De La Reina.
Following lunch, our guides assembled our Orvis rods & reels and set them up with the appropriate leaders and flies. From a guides point of view, no matter what the fishing occasion, I would always recommend that whether you are a seasoned professional or a complete novice, you leave the guide to set the rod up as he see’s fit. The guides/ghillies are experts in their field and therefore know their water and target species better than anyone.
The yacht’s design gave a perfect balance between its substantial exploration capabilities and unique, noble style. What was very clear from the outset was that our party would be treated to a comfortable, exciting and exclusive voyage throughout Jardines de la Reina. Our 8 deluxe cabins, with 7 private bathrooms were equipped with air conditioning and heat controls, electric sockets, (220 volts and 110 volts), as well as lots of storage space. The panoramic windows ensured we were able to enjoy the breathtaking view on the Caribbean beaches. There was a spacious and comfortable combination lounge, including dining table and bar area, all fitted with DVD player and IPod dock. We however much preferred to eat and socialise on the outer-middle deck and left the cooler combination lounge for the guides and crew. The hot tub was situated on the upper deck and was a very popular as a cooling off area following lunch.
A view from the upper deck on Avalon Fleet 1.
Quite a background!
En route, Sue-Li explained that the Jardines De La Reina was so named by Christopher Columbus and is a pristine chain of islands, very similar in nature to the Florida Keys in the USA. The island system runs more than one hundred miles back to the northwest, from Cuba's Southeastern coast. Most of the area we were allocated to fish was 60-80 miles offshore and was designated as a Cuban Marine Park in 1996; now is the largest Park of it’s kind in the entire Caribbean area. There is no human inhabitation of any kind on any of the islands in the Marine Park under Avalon's stewardship. It was indeed a huge expanse of saltwater wilderness; perhaps the last place like this left in the world today and our hope was that with Cuba's continued protection it should remain that way.
The sun goes down in Jardenes De La Reina.
With 3 huge fishing areas to choose from, we had been allocated zone B. This area had been particular recommended by Matias Gimenez of Avalon (www.cubanfishingcenters.com) as the most suitable for our main target species – the bonefish. Fly-fishing in Cuba is completely different from other destinations in the Caribbean, in that only in recent years has this vast flats fishery been developed as a sporting destination. Due to the fact that fishing pressure is so light in these zones, the fish rarely encounter sport fishermen and are often relatively easy to catch. In addition to the bonefish, there are also a wide variety of other fish available to the game angler, including baby Tarpon, Giant Trevally, Permit, Snook, Mutton Snapper, Barracuda, and a variety of Jacks. We managed to tick every box apart from the illusive Permit, which remains at the very top of our wish list and a great excuse to return!
From left to right, Zones A,B & C in Jardines De La Reina.
Our Cuban guides, Pedro, Leonardo, Keko, Julios Cesar & Alexei were all very capable and in addition to being expert guides, they were also very proficient fly anglers. 6 out of our party of 8 were very experienced International Anglers, and we found the Cuban technique a little different from our normal International Loch Style downwind casting. Very tight loops were required as the majority of the fishing was either directly into or across the breeze. Fortunately, we were kitted out with the Orvis Helios range of rods and by the end of day 1, we had mastered the art. During the remainder of the week, we had lots of fun, including a few accuracy competitions with our guides, whom I feel, have been converted to the crisp action & power of the Helios.
Below, a bonefish with a sea-grass background.
From their elevated poling positions, the guides were able to spot the fish well before us and were able to direct our casts with pinpoint accuracy. As the week went on, our relationships developed and due to the variety of personalities, the guides were choosing the anglers as much as we were choosing them. Although Spanish is the guides’ native language, they were all able to converse basic instructions in English. In fact, the majority were able to communicate with relative ease, especially so after a large Speyside malt. Their enthusiasm was infectious and although there was no restriction on fishing hours, we felt purely as a mater of mutual respect that we allow them at least 2 hours to rest and cool down at lunchtime. We fished two 4-hour sessions every day beginning at 8am and finishing at 6pm. Just in time to be greeted by our daily cocktail. Being a guide myself, I firmly believe that you get the best out of people if you treat them with all due respect. I feel this was very much appreciated by our Cuban guides.
A couple of double shooters. Roddy Crosbie & David McKay above and James Gardiner & Phil Thomas below.
Throughout our stay, there was never any limitation on fuel used or distances run. Our Skiffs must have averaged well over 20 miles each on a daily basis and all without the slightest complaint. The Skiffs were all kept in pristine condition and are always in regular contact with one another. If by chance any member of our party happened to be struggling in their designated area, the guides were soon on the radio to determine better fishing locations. Quite often at the beginning of our sessions, the guides/skiffs headed off in pairs however, this was purely down to a friendly spirit and keen sense of sharing the experience.
The fishing itself was rather difficult to describe. Let’s just say that over the past 30 years I have been fortunate to catch a variety of different species in many countries throughout the world, yet I have never encountered a fish that fights pound for pound anything like a bonefish! I suppose another way of putting it would be that I have never enjoyed myself quite so much whilst fully dressed! The baby tarpon fight is very different in that the runs are equally as powerful but much shorter in distance and they spend a great deal of the fight in the air, which makes for excellent photographic opportunities. My good friend James Gardiner caught a 25lb Tarpon 10 minutes into his first morning and could not describe the experience without an ear to ear grin. I actually hooked 3 Tarpon during the week but didn’t get the prize photo, minus the middle finger! By the end of the week, although we had all connected with fish, Davie Bonnington and David McKay joined me as Tarpon virgins with Paul Garner catching arguably the best fish. Paul’s fish was caught deep in the mangroves with what can only be described as the perfect cast. On setting the hook, the Tarpon launched clear of the water twice before a massive third jump resulted in it hung up in a bush! We finally managed to pull enough branches away to allow the 20lb fish to reach relative open water amid great hilarity. A scene we shall both remember for the remainder of our lives.
Paul Garner & guide Keko share a magical moment. The one that didn't get away!
My fishing highlight of the week was landing an 8kg Jack Crevalle. It was my turn for the single-man skiff and I chose my guide/friend/companion, Pedro to accompany me. We headed out to an area named ‘chocolate’, which took around 20 minutes, flat out on a 70hp skiff. As we began to pole down through the shallow water, Perdo excitedly whispered JC 9 0’Clock. I looked around and saw 2 Crevalle chasing fry in around 4’ of water. My bonefish fly landed in the right area and Pedro exclaimed strip, strip,strip! We both watched as the Trevally followed my fly in the crystal clear water and I struck as the fly disappeared from view and the Helios 8wgt bent into action. Pedro smiled in the knowledge that if I was lucky enough to eventually land this fish that there would be quite a battle before hand. Fortunately for the, the Trevally made one run towards the mangrove and decided that was a bad idea. Instead, it turned towards open water and Pedro quickly started the engine and followed as the line screamed from my reel. My guess was that its first run was 400 yards and after we eventually got some backing back on the reel, it was content in circling the skiff from around 30 yards. Even with the power of the Helios, the fight lasted around 40 minutes and was made even more exciting when a shark decided to take a closer look. Fortunately Pedro frightened it off with his pole before grabbing the gaff! I gulped and even though he intimated that they were very good eating, he realised that I wasn’t completely comfortable about killing the fish. Instead, he grabbed the leader pulled my prize towards the boat, tailing it like the expert he was amid great cheers. Until the fish was lifted from the water, I had no idea of its shape or size. It had looked pretty streamline during the fight and I was actually very surprised to see the rounded profile. After a few photos and a sigh of relief, the fish was safely returned and I went on to catch another 25 Bonefish, ranging from 3-8lbs. This was by far my best day in terms of numbers but I have to say that the conditions were absolutely perfect and most of the other guys also had their best day.
My first Jack Crevalle. A very happy Chappie!
We had of course come for the fishing and were not in any way disappointed. On average, we caught something in the region of 5-10 bonefish a day per person along with a variety of other species. Had we concentrated on Tarpon, I’m sure we would have caught many more however bonefish had been our target species and we had decided to concentrate predominantly on them. The shallow water of zone B had been selected for that very reason. Later in the year, the larger Tarpon arrive in abundance but tend to prefer the slightly deeper water on zone A. The permit were pretty scarce but to be fair, the weather was not conducive to catching them. Following James Gardiners dream start of a Tarpon and Bonefish in his first hour in Jandenes De La Reina, his guide Keko took him in search of the Grand Slam and although he did eventually have a cast at a Permit, and a good one at that, it showed no interest in his Avalon Fly. In Keko’s words - Fish Not Hungry!
Above, James Gardiner with his first fish of the trip and below Dougie Ross with another Tarpon.
In conclusion, as far as the Avalon Fleet I was concerned, she really was heaven on earth. The food throughout the trip was quite simple amazing with fresh fish, fruit and lobster served daily. We were also treated with fine wines, local liquors and a variety of cocktails in addition to our own duty free drinks, which we were encouraged to bring along. Our host Sue-Lee ensured that from the outset our every need was catered for. Her inter-personal skills and appreciation of the English language were very professional and impressive. In fact every one us individually commented on how her input alone had made our trip even more pleasurable than we could have ever anticipated. The professionalism of the entire Avalon staff shone through during the trip and they could have done absolutely nothing more to ensure we got the very most out of it.
Phil Thomas with a slightly different species. Those Welshmen are made of pretty tough stuff!
Our Cuba team for 2013 with host Sue-Li smiling as always. A happy Bunch!
I can give no greater accolade to the entire Avalon experience than the fact that we will be back and sooner rather than later. I can wholeheartedly recommend the trip to Jardenes De La Reina with complete confidence and fully intend returning on a regular basis. If you would like any further details on the trip then please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
You will have a trip of a lifetime!