Friday, April 20, 2018

Cuba... Garden of the Queens, April 7-14, 2018

We just returned last Sunday from a fantastic trip aboard the Tortuga in the Garden of the Queens (Jardines de la Reina), the extensive archipelago 60 miles off the south side of Cuba. I'm going to start posting reports on our trip today, but please note these initial posts will have lots of photos, but limited text. I want to get the photos posted so everyone on the trip can see them sooner rather than later.

Time allowing, I'll circle back and fill in some of the info gaps (flies, tackle, etc). Many of the anglers on this trip promised to come forth with some of their own reports too (are you guys listening!). Suffice it to say, we had a fantastic time and can't wait to get back to Cuba!

Let's begin with our arrival in Cuba...

After months of preparation involving gear, tackle and sifting through the essential details including approved itineraries, conservation fees, visas, etc., our Jet Blue flight touched down in Camaguey just before 1:00 PM on April 5th. Customs turned out to be a tedious, if not threatening, process. At one point, our passports were taken into a backroom and we were left to watch the door behind which they had disappeared.

We waited anxiously until a very courteous agent cheerfully cleared us and placed the passports into our itchy palms. We remained patient and continued  leaping through all the necessary hoops. We filled out additional forms, showed health insurance verifications and even went through another metal detector upon exiting customs.  We eventually arrived outside and into a hot sunny afternoon.

Here, were saw a touching sight. Many of the passengers on our flight were being passionately welcomed by (and we assumed reunited with) their families. Our imaginations filled in the details.

We soon found a taxi and instructed the driver to head for the Hotel Colonial. After a few wrong turns and two stops for directions, we pulled our bags across the cobblestone street and walked into the hotel's breezy entrance way. We quickly realized we had made an excellent choice. The staff greeted us warmly and showed us our well-appointed rooms which opened onto a beautiful patio garden. We would enjoy great a/c, en suite bathrooms and plenty of room.

View from our hotel

 Doug Jeffries commented,
"The hotel we stayed at was really nice.  The staff (Juan Carlos and that lady who was the concierge) really went all out to help us in any way they could.  The concierge even walked Jim down to a store she thought might have batteries for his shaver.  They deserve a kudo.  Recommend we use them again.  The restaurants they recommended, advice about changing money and buying rum, etc. were great too."

Anna Riggs hams it up for me at a sculpture we found down a side street.

There I also found this little dance troupe...
...and John Riggs couldn't resist a photobomb!

At the hotel, we changed Euro's and Canadian Dollars into Cuban CUC's and headed down a narrow side street to a small paladar for lunch. After an excellent meal, we split into smaller groups to do some sightseeing, buy cigars and source the obligatory local rum.

Later we reconvened for dinner. We walked a few blocks to Lucky's... another small paladar suggested by our hotel's concierge. It didn't look like much from the outside. Skeptically, we climbed the narrow stairs to find a lovely restaurant that turned out some excellent meals as well as lethal mojitos! After carefully negotiating the stairs once again on the way out, we strolled to our hotel's bar for a little entertainment, then it was off for some much needed sleep. We were a tired bunch!

On this first night, we were a group of nine. Two more trip members would arrive from Havana after midnight and three more would arrive from the states by air tomorrow. Then, we would made the three hour drive to Port Juarco by bus. At the dock of this small fishing village, we boarded a V-hull cruiser that took us the remaining 50 miles to the Jardines de la Reina.

Our bus was very comfortable
This is why the bus ride took 3 hours!
...and then when we were really ready to be done traveling, we saw the Tortuga

...just in time for dinner!


Next, Let the games begin!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Great info on Cuba from Doug Jeffries

To All Cuba 2018 Trip Members-
Here is some info from an e-mail train between Doug Jeffries and an experienced angler who has been to Cuba multiple times. I post this e-mail as is. Take from it what you can.

Hey Scott,
On a whim I asked on Kiene's board if anyone had been on the Tortuga recently.  I ended up trading some emails with a guy who has been twice, the most recent was last year.  He really went all out and sent some really good detail info.  I'm attaching his responses here.  He said we could share it with our group.


We took a bottle of rum with us, on our first trip.  The best place to buy it is at the airport in Camaguey.  They sell Havana Club 7 on the boat, and the prices are good, you do not really save much buying it in Camaguey, and then having to cart it around. That's what I would buy the guides a bottle of when you get to the boat.  They will mix you drinks at the bar, and put them on your tab and the prices are great compared to what we are used to in the states.  If you want a really good bottle then grab one at the airport.  The Havana Club 15 private reserve is incredible.

I made the mistake of buying a box of cigars in a back alley on my first trip, I paid what Tony can get you a real box for.  The back alley boxes are all rejects. 

The bugs were not bad on our first trip, but holy shit on the second one.  Take extra to be safe.  And take it on the boat.

There were a few spinners around but the reef sharks were by far most of what we saw.  I have just never seen large sharks so ready to eat.  I probably wouldn't want more than one of the big boys.

On Thu, Mar 8, 2018 at 1:02 PM, Doug's response
Wow, now that's an answer to my questions!  What a fantastic reply and intel.  Super helpful. The bug question is one that for sure I would have thought someone would have included.  Another guy in our group said he talked with someone who also said bring bug spray.
Regarding the sharks, did you see spinners?  Or just the typical reef species - black tips, lemons, small hammerheads?

Doug ~

Your in for quite a trip.  I have been there twice now.  Absolutely awesome.  Can't wait to get back.

The tarpon fishing was different than anything I have experienced.  I live in FL and do quite a bit of tarpon fishing.  I've never seen tarpon eat like they do in Cuba.  We fished a variety of Puglisi bait patterns.  Mostly size 2/0, and 3/0.  A lot of the 3/0 stuff I was trimming in the field.  They wanted the color, but slimmer.  I have a few versions of the Puglisi bait fish I tie for here in FL, that worked well, that are close to the light yellow pattern below.  We hooked so many fish on my first trip, I thought we were gonna run out of the black and purple.  It was dark in the am, lighter flies in the pm.  Fishing was slower on the second trip, but we still fed a few fish a day. 



I have also attached a couple of pictures of flies that worked well.  The purple fly is one that I tie, the brown and green fly, the guide had and it worked well.  We did not get our luggage on the second trip last year and had to rely on help from others and it was kinda a disaster.  Yellow and white, tan and brown, black and purple toads, were also popular.  I saw pilchards, and white bait, all over on the boat ride to the house boat.   

The bone fishing was just stupid.  Its like they haven't seen a meal in weeks.  Mainly shrimp style flies.  NO black hooks.  And the other main piece of advice is have several flies with no weight on them at all.  No weight, with a weed guard.  Many of the huge schools of bones we found were in inches of water, and the weighted flies were instantly hung up in the grass.  I would be clear with your guide, you do not want to fish the mud holes, you want them to find schools/tails in the grass, or schools on the sand.  They will stick you in a mud hole, for hours if you do not make them do something else.  Also when the tide changes and the fish disappear, make them go find other fish to catch.  

I could not get a permit to eat an Avalon crab for any reason.  I would fish a crab fly:

We caught a few snapper on the bait fish above, mostly in the 2/0.  They were not picky.  The guides will be happy to help you find and fish for them, and will kill and eat everyone you catch.

Take a few Cuda flies, and wire and a few swivels.  We had a Cuda rod set up at all times and man were they fun.

I will say the most under rated, not talked about species to catch in Cuba are the sharks.  I went back on my second trip ready to do some damage on the sharks.  When we lost our bags, I had not shark flies and no wire.  On my first trip, we had one shark fly and when the light fell out in the clouds we put the shark fly on and threw it to a 150lber and that shark ate it like a dry fly off the surface.  It was unbelievable, one of the coolest eats I have ever seen.  If your interested in that take a de-hooker with you.  I'm eager for a third trip, to focus on catching a huge share with are in good supply.

I took this fly and a 4/0 version and put larger hooks on them.  There is a red and white one you can find on the web as well.  

In two trips I did not see a single snook.  The locals kill everyone they see and eat it.  There is supposed to be a decent amount of snook near the main land, which you will not have access to.  If you did come across one, I'd assume he'd eat a bait fish pattern like everything else did.

I'd take a pepper grinder if you like pepper, some mini candy bars for the ships crew, definitely take lots of bug spray, I was gonna try to take a therma cell on my next trip.  Buy the guide staff a bottle of rum.  Watch what they put in your cooler, they charge you for everything.  We had them take the beer and soda out and stock it with just water.  I'd take a yeti 20oz cup, makes the ice and your drink last longer, at night on the boat.  They wash your clothes daily, and do a good job, so no need to over pack.  

I've stayed both up and down stairs on the boat, I preferred the down stairs, for no other reason than not having to deal with everyone on the stairs constantly.  The boat is solid, so either side upstairs is a non issue.  The AC on the boat is awesome, so I'd keep the windows shut, the bugs were really bad on my second trip last year.  

Give me a shout if you'd like to talk about any of this.

Good luck,

And then a few days ago, Doug received this additional info:
Doug says...
I received another email from that guy who has been sending me suggestions about Cuba.  He sends a couple other fly pattern suggestions (although, from what we've read, I don't think these fish are particularly picky abut flies so I wouldn't rush out to buy these unless you haven't already stocked your tarpon box).  He also sends the name and contact info of a guy who has tied flies for Cuba in case anyone is looking to purchase some flies.  Here's his latest:

Doug ~
I was at a fly shop earlier today and finally saw these three flies in person.  All of these would fish very well in Cuba.

The other resource I might have your crew reach out to is Drew Chicone.  I've known him for years as we happen to live in the same city here in FL.  He is a wealth of knowledge, and an excellent fly tier.  He ties flies for many who host trips, and anglers headed to Cuba.  If you follow him on Instagram, you can see packages he has posted for groups headed that way.  His cell phone number is 239-898-1236, and his web address is If any of your group wants to use him to tie them some flies, have them contact him right away, he is usually backed up.  If they use him, let him know the bonefish flies have to be light.  

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Catch and Release: Fish Reflex Test

From Doug Jeffries comes this very interesting article on catch and release. I found the four step flow chart for using reflex tests to determine when a fish is ready to release very interesting.  In addition, the eye position test seems like a very practical way to assess whether a fish is ready to be released. As Doug said, "It reinforces the idea that just because a fish can swim away doesn't mean it's ready to safely release."

Probably a very good idea for all fly fishermen to read this article from

Friday, March 9, 2018

Crooked and Acklins Islands... Our Last Day

Sadly, this was our last day! Tomorrow we would leave the comfort of our cozy lodge and began our journey back to the frozen north. But today, we would push those thoughts away. Today, we would fish! 

Scott Sawtelle and I took off with Kenny Scavella to Acklins Island. We motored from Turtle Sound into yet another day with a strong east wind. Despite the "breeze", the skies were clear and sunny. I was sure today would be a good day.

Anna Riggs and Scott Sawtelle gear up for our last day.

After anchoring the skiff, we decided to go for it and put in a big wading day. The three of us left the boat at 9:30 in the morning and did not back to the skiff until just a bit before 3:00 in the afternoon. During those five and one half hours, we were either stalking fish, catching fish or wading to spots we knew held fish. We never quit wading the entire time... we were a tired bunch when cracked open our lunch at 3:30 and took a big swig of cold water and wolfed down our first bites of sandwich.

Initially, Scott and Kenny took off wading a long peninsula that led into a vast interior flats system. This peninsula was bisected by numerous channels. While they went in on one side, I took the other side of the peninsula and stayed even with them. I could see they were catching fish... as was I. The channels that sliced through the peninsula often spread out to create large shallow white sand flats. These were perfect spots to find fish... and we did! Nothing too big, but energetic and solid 3-4 lb. bones were often spotted. Eventually we all met up again and together waded a huge system interlaced with shallow soft pans peppered with mangroves. We found lots of fish on the edges of these mangroves.

"I was almost back at the skiff, now totally content to end my day, when my head was pulled right by something.  It quickly registered somewhere in my mind that it must have been a tail rooting around the base of a mangrove bush. But the afternoon light was flickering intensely off the chop and if it was a fish, he only tailed once. As I waited for another clue, I questioned if my tired eyes were playing tricks on me.

Not willing to wait any longer, I made a cast to the base of the mangrove. I made one short strip and a tail flipped up. I smiled. It reminded me of when I ask my dog "Are you hungry?" and his head turns and his ears perk up. I rang the dinner bell again with only the slightest nudge of my fly. The tail quickly scooted towards the meal. I stripped, he was on... I said, I think out loud, "Now that was cool!" This fish turned out to be my biggest fish of the day at 6-7 lbs.

Whew! What a great way to end a trip. After landing the fish, I reeled up and waded to the boat. That would be it... I'm done. It was quite simply, a great day... and a great trip!" 

and a nod towards Cuba with a bonefish size Avalon Crab

Doug Ellis enjoys another great dinner!

All too soon the day was over. We broke down rods, packed gear and collected tips. It was a wonderful trip! Thanks to our hosts at the lodge, Angela and Allie, our sensational guides, Kenny, Clinton, Elvis, Michael and O'Neill. We had a wonderful time and will miss you all! And of course, thanks to my friends Anna and John Riggs, Doug Ellis, Scott Sawtelle, Mike Schwartz, Steve Peskoe and Doug Jeffries. You made this a wonderful trip!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Crooked and Acklins Islands... Second to Last Day 2/15/18

On our next to last day, I fished with my old bud Doug Jeffries. Doug had not yet fished with Elvis, so we jumped in the pickup for the short drive to the ferry dock on the Acklins side of The Going Through. There we met Elvis Collie. It was once again a very breezy day, but the real concern was the thick cloud cover. Ever hopeful, we pushed off bouncing our way south in the chop. Eventually, we arrived at the  southernmost tip of the Going Through.

John Riggs and Scott Sawtelle take off with O'Neill
Meanwhile, Elvis and Doug get ready

A morning off for Elvis!

Elvis anchored the boat 50 yards offshore and Doug and I grabbed water and rods before we jumped out of the skiff.
We handed Elvis a rod and said "Have fun! You aren't guiding this morning."
We told him we are taking off in different directions and we would meet back here in a couple hours. I think Elvis was bit shocked, but soon he took off to fish. 

Doug and I began by wading opposite sides of a finger that cut into the interior of a huge flats system. Under these cloudy conditions, we saw nothing for quite awhile. Eventually, Doug and I were quite far apart, but I could see he had reached a similar conclusion. We needed to get shallow and find a light sandy bottom to have any chance of finding fish under these cloudy conditions. I veered off to the east while Doug went north. We both followed little tidal bleeds. Soon we were pretty much out of sight of each other.

Nice photo Doug!
I followed a very skinny channel until I reached a hard-as-concrete pan that covered the size of two football fields. That’s when I saw my first tail. Over the next two hours, I was in heaven. Even though I had very little sun, I caught fish after fish... mostly spotted while tailing. I often picked them up from very far away.  When the sun did come out for a few seconds, I could clearly see fish flipping over flat, exfoliated pieces of the pan that sparsely littered the hard flat. I flipped over a few myself and discovered there were tiny crabs hidden underneath. This was no doubt what these bones were up to! I had never seen this amazing behavior before. At times, I let tailing fish go right by me so I could watch them nose-flip these saucers to devour the morsels underneath.

Tailing photos by Doug Jeffries

When I stopped watching and actually fished, the bones were eager to eat! It was an amazing scene to see them rocket off the pan once hooked. The water was only 6-8 inches deep so they tossed up a huge wake as they struggled to get a better purchase with their tails that were only 3/4’s of the way in the water. This was an incredible few hours of fishing and I was happy to see when I got back to the boat, Doug had had a similar experience. 

Doug, Elvis and I ate a brief lunch, then motored to a white sand flat that had been so productive for us last year. Unfortunately, the tide was too low so we had to fish the edges of the flat's feeder channels. We did pick up a few fish and it was quite beautiful, but also a bit of a disappointment! It's tough to repeat a great experience, but we always try... don't we!

NEXT: Our Last Day!