Thursday, April 26, 2018

Belize: What is a Dedicated Permit Trip Like?

I am often asked the following question... usually by quite experienced anglers, "If I want to catch a permit, where should I go and how should I go about it?"

Good question! There are many choices: Mexico in Ascension Bay, Espiritu Santo Bay or Chetumal Bay, Belize in the south or in Northern Belize at Ambergris Cay, or in the Bahamas at Crooked or Inagua Islands...or Cuba if you're really adventuresome. But the truth is, if you want to catch a permit, you first of all need to dedicate yourself to the process. Permit fishing is not a sidelight species as they are rarely found where bonefish and tarpon are found. Permit are rarely caught serendipitously. As one of my permit fanatic friends says "the juice has to be worth the squeeze... but you gotta squeeze the juice!"

So if the best way to catch a permit is absolutely to commit, what can you expect from a dedicated permit trip if you do "go for it". Let's explore this question by looking at one of the best permit trips in the world and see if the obligatory frustration and dedication required dissuades you in any way. If one of the best permit trips in the world requires too much commitment from you, then should probably include the pursuit of other species into your trip itinerary. Maybe only plan to give permit a try for only one or two days.

Rising Tide

I think one of the best "dedicated" permit trips is aboard the Rising Tide in Belize. This live aboard yacht explores some of the finest permit flats on the globe which begin about 15 miles SE of Belize City and extend south from there for about 25 miles. The only practical way to access these outstanding flats is via a mothership... and we suggest the Rising Tide. But what makes this area so special?

-First of all, the resident population of permit allows for more shots at tailing fish than almost anywhere we know. 

-Secondly, seldom do anglers fishing this area from the Rising Tide encounter another angler. That is because they are far enough away from the lodges and therefore these flats receive little pressure. 

It should be noted that these waters ARE permit waters; there are very few opportunities for bones or tarpon although some areas at times have schools of tarpon. There are “variety” Rising Tide agendas which fish other areas, but this particular trip should be considered a dedicated permit trip. As such, heading into this area should only be pursued by those experienced salt water fly fishers who understand how frustrating and exciting permit fishing can be.

This is an area that some of the most successful permit fisherman come back to time and time again. If you've chalked up double digit numbers of permit, you've no doubt not only heard of this area, but also probably fished southern Belize. For dedicated permit trips, consider building around a full or new moon because even though the tides in Belize only move inches of water (not feet) a few inches of water can make a difference on the shallow flats fished on this itinerary,.  

Here then is a trip report by Art Hinckley and two of his angling friends who have, for many years, taken two trips on the Rising Tide every year. Art has released over 120 permit. Art keeps a daily dairy of their trips. The attached report from his most recent trip in September will give anglers who understand permit fishing a sense of the flow of the fishing. On this trip, they released 11 permit. They do two trips a year, usually for 8 – 10 days and all they do is fish permit. Art and Dennis have taken over 170 permit between them – Chuck is new at permit and now has six from his two trips. For them, releasing 11 permit is a fairly average trip. Their record trip is 23 fish. 

Journal by Art Hinckley

Arrival day - We landed at noon and headed out to Robinson in the pangas about 1:45. We didn't see much there so Dean took The Rising Tide to Bluefield. Chuck got a couple shots, but that was it.

Day 1 - Beautiful weather at Bluefield with 10-15 SE wind. I was with Noel and got around 15 shots with no luck. I did have a small one eat my fly without hooking up. Very frustrating after not getting any on the last trip either.  In the last 17 days of fishing I've only gotten 1 permit. Dennis was with Dean and got one 7 lbs from the boat right before lunch. Chuck and Eddie didn't get one and neither Dennis or Chuck got very many shots so we moved to Sand Fly late afternoon. 

Day 2 - Beautiful weather at Sand Fly with 5-10 E wind. I got one 16 lbs with Dean while wading early morning and got a couple more good shots with no luck. Neither Dennis with Eddie or Chuck with Noel got very many shots, but Dennis had one eat his fly without hooking up.  Late afternoon we moved to Blue Grounds. 

Day 3 - Beautiful weather at Blue Grounds with 5-15 E wind changing to NW and then to NE late afternoon. I got one 10 lbs early morning while wading with Eddie and then didn't get another decent shot until about 5 pm. Dennis with Noel only got a couple good shots. Chuck with Dean got around 15 good shots with no luck. 

Day 4 - Started out partly cloudy with 10-15 W wind then turned calm mid morning and ended with 10 E wind in the afternoon. I caught two with Noel, 7 lbs early morning while wading and one a little smaller mid morning from the boat. I only got 4 more shots the rest of the day for a total of 6 shots. Chuck also got two with Eddie both from the boat about the same size as my two and only had 3 shots all day. Dennis with Dean had 5 shots with no luck. Late afternoon we moved back to Sand Fly. 

Day 5 - Started cloudy with 15 W wind. No permit anywhere so we came back in for a couple hours. Late morning the wind died down and it became sunny. The wind changed to E 10-15 in the afternoon. I never got a shot all day with Dean. Chuck got 2 shots with Noel and had 3 eat his fly out of the same school, but didn't hook up. Afterward he realized the first permit had crushed the hook sideways against his fly. Dennis got 3 shots with Eddie and caught two, 20 and 10 lbs both from the boat. After he leadered the 20 lb permit, the rod broke as they were netting it and it got away so it wasn't weighed, but Eddie estimated it to be 20 lbs. They went back to The Rising Tide to get another rod, went back out and almost immediately caught the next one. Late afternoon we moved back to Robinson. 

Day 6 - Started cloudy with 10 W wind. Became calm and sunny midday and then 10 E wind in the afternoon. I was with Eddie and didn't get a shot until 3:30 and ended up with 3 shots. Chuck was with Dean and got 3 shots also. Dennis was with Noel and got 1 shot. No one had any luck. 

Day 7 - Started cloudy with 10-15 W wind. Became calm and sunny midday and 10-15 E wind late afternoon. I was with Noel and didn't get a shot until late afternoon and ended up with 5 shots. Chuck with Eddie only got 1 shot. Dennis was with Dean and got 5 shots and two hookups out of the same school, but both came off after a short time. 

Day 8 - Started cloudy with a 10-15 W wind. Became calm and sunny midday and 10-15 E wind late afternoon. I was with Dean. We stayed at Robinson all day and never got a shot. I never could imagine I would get no shots two times in a row fishing with Dean in nice weather. Pretty sure that will never happen again. Chuck with Noel and Dennis with Eddie both went to Sand Fly and fished their way back. Chuck got 5 shots and got one 6 lbs from the boat at Sand Fly. Dennis got 2 shots and got one 6 lbs from the boat at Bluefield. Moved The Rising Tide back to Belize City after we were done fishing. 

Departure Day - Our flight wasn't until 12:45 so Chuck and I went out with Eddie and Noel for a couple hours at Robinson. It started out cloudy with 15 E wind and the weather got worse as the morning went on. Neither of us saw anything. 

The guides were all great as usual and Radiance did a great job in the kitchen and on the boat. Eddie ended up with 6, Noel 3 and Dean 2. That's three trips in a row the Eddie has topped the guides with the most permit. Dennis and I each got 4 and Chuck got 3. Overall the fishing was extremely slow so we were happy to catch 11. We think the west wind in the morning, which is unusual, was keeping most the permit off the flats for the day. 

New permit totals for the group:  Art 121, Dennis 64, and Chuck 6.

So if this works for you, by all means let me know and we'll find you some appropriate dates. If a "dedicated permit" trip looks like a little too much and you would still like to do the Rising Tide in Belize... just not a dedicated permit trip, then let's talk. Lots of other itineraries available which include bonefish, tarpon, snook and yes, maybe even a few shots a permit!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Grand Slam Grad School: Cuba

What follows is an entertaining and very instructional story written by Jeff Rodenberg. I can't say how much I admire Jeff's willingness to take constructional criticism. It takes guts and a willingness to swallow a bit of ego to watch a BIG permit eat your fly and then listen to the reasons why you didn't get hooked up. I can't wait for Jeff to get another opportunity. I know he'll nail it next time. (I'll be posting his second story from Cuba in a couple days and you'll see, he really learned from the day he describes below.)

Jeff and Coki at the end of this day

Star-date Thursday, 12 April 2018:
Phi Slamma Jamma Grad-school!
by Jeff Rodenberg
Once again, please allow me the courtesy of setting the stage.... About every 3-4 years, I get to do a saltwater trip. I get the opportunity to bask in the magnificence that is Doug, Doc, Scott and many others, so am inevitably the guy with just about the least experience. I love it! What a chance to learn! In between those times, I fish the sweet-water of the upper Midwest for muskies, or smallmouth, or carp...
So consider this my friends, on an average day, you will find me with guides Eric or Brad, lobbing hamster-sized, wind resistant hairy things on Lake St. Clair or a river in NC Wisconsin, with a heavy sink-tip line. Now this has done some wonderful things for my bachelor’s degree in casting ability. In order to accomplish any sort of cast in that situation, and be able to continue blind casting such a rig for any length of time, you damn well better develop a very relaxed casting stroke...let the rod do the work...and quite frankly, a bit of an open casting loop. When the fly plops down, the louder the better, you then stand there and admire it for a bit to allow the line and fly to get a little depth. Then you strip the puppy back. Lather, rinse, repeat...hour after hour...watching paint dry...until as if by magic this huge toothy green submarine appears nose behind the fly, not giving a damn about the boat. If you are really lucky, you have the nerve and composure to strip that fly to within a foot or two of the rod tip, then maneuver it around for a vicious, visually spectacular boatside strike that leaves you holding on for dear life. Truly intoxicating...

Author Jeff Rodenberg
Efficient casting is all well and good. But whether you are talking bluegills on the pond, muskies on St Clair, or sabalo in Cuba, there is a bit more to it and to avoid confusion, I simplify things in my mind to three basics...
1.) Get the pointy thing in front of a fish
2.) Tease the kitty 
3.) Fight it right...
At Saltwater grad-school a couple weeks ago in Cuba, I was given a very good and clear lesson that #2, teasing the kitty, is a different animal in the salt than my normal life.
With that as a background, after several days of moderate success on tarpon, I was pretty confident on basics 1 and 3. At dinner on Wednesday night, it was decided that on the next to the last day, I was ready for the big leagues. I would do a day with our trip-host Scott, and the most experienced and “passionate” of the guide crew we had, Senor Coki. And we would start with permit.... As I puffed on an apres-dinner Cuban Romeo Y Julieta Crema on the aft deck of the Tortuga, talking to Fred about his admittance to the 12-step program that all permit-heads eventually end up in, Scott scaled the stairs warning, “Bring you’re A-game tomorrow Jeff!”
We got in the skiff the next morning, and I was actually pretty comfortable, relaxed. I did purposely skip breakfast so I would have the lean and hungry demeanor of someone who not just wanted to hunt, but needed to hunt. We didn’t go far from the Tortuga when Coki shut down the engine and took his place on the poling platform. I urged Scott to take the deck and show me how this should be done.
And he did just that. That magnificent bastard made about 3 casts to the first permit we saw that day, hooked up, and landed a beaut like he’d been doing it all his life (which, well, he has!). This was amazing to me! I actually witnessed someone landing one of these things! It can be done and here was proof!

Thanks for the chance Jeff!
Now it was my turn...and I will admit the heat was getting turned up a bit. I mean, within an hour of the start of the day, there was already a permit boated. Now I needed to “bring it”...
And I will have to admit that it didn’t take Coki long to find another permit to cast at. I launched the Avalon crab, and somehow managed to get the pointy thing in front of the fish in such a manner that the fish was more than just a little interested. But here is where things went haywire...that sweetwater sloppy cast, and devil-may-care attitude in maintaining line control, took over. Every time Coki yelled “strip”, there was enough slack in the line that the fly didn’t move, and by the time I caught up with the fly, Coki would yell “stop” and the fly would move because the rod tip was above the water with the line getting caught by a small gust of wind. That permit wanted that fly more than you can imagine. And courtesy of losing any semblance of composure, of not paying enough attention to the right way to tease the permit kitty, I...just...kept...taking it away from him...DUH!!!

If your vocabulary includes recognition of Spanish curse words, you probably heard Coki’s reaction back here it the States...and I apologize . I caused it! He and Scott both wanted it so bad for me, and clearly knew that if I had just done it right...
We motored to another flat, I went to sit in the kindergarten corner and reflect on my misbehavior, while Scott got a couple more shots. Then it was back on deck for Jeff, and well, so as not to belabor this, the “time-out” didn’t work and I repeated my previous sins. I can’t help but laugh (if I don’t laugh I’ll cry, and that’s just not manly...) thinking about Coki leaping down off the platform, snatching the rod out of my hand, stripping out another 20 feet of line and pounding a perfectly straight line cast; “that’s how you do it!! You have to have control!! You have to be able to strip when I say strip!!! And stop when I say stop!!!”. 
Scott even joined the party...”what’s this mamby-pamby back-cast thing!?" 
(Christ...somebody just called my casting “mamby-pamby” – that got my attention insofar as I don’t understand Spanish swear-words...)
Scott continued; “Man, you got to put a little oomph in it!!! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t cast in a relaxed fashion, but punch it man!! Fish like you mean it!!”. 
“Now show me you can do it!!” Scott ordered. I complied... ”much better, now remember that...”
I looked up at Coki...”Sorry dudes; you may not ever want me in your boat again, but I gotta tell you, I sure as hell would fish with you any chance I get...”. I think he and Scott might have even cracked a smile...
And then it was lunch, and after lunch, with the right  permit-tide ebbing, it was decided that we’d subsequently be going after tarpon. Step #2 in a Slam.

I’ll let Scott tell the tarpon part of the story, he made the most of it, I cheesed a cast. With only a bonefish left to go for Scott’s Slam, we motored to a flat for same. With Scott’s best interests in mind, and in the context of being a good partner, I allowed as to how I now saw it as my responsibility to ensure that Scott got his slam in the correct way. There would be no blind casting into a mud, and if there were, I would photograph this for posterity and send images around the globe on Facebook of Scott Heywood doing just that. To add to the fun, I allowed as to now I had him right where I wanted...all I had to do was step on the line coiled behind him and revel in the reaction as his fly did a dive bomb 25 feet short of his target . Scott didn’t flinch! - in his famously surgically precise way, he put a mantis shrimp on the nose of a properly sight-hunted fish, stripped when Coki said strip, stopped when Coki said stop, and became the third and final individual of our crew of 14 (joining Jim and Fred) in the week’s much admired Phi Slamma Jamma club. Well done sir! Very well done!!

Me? I caught zilch, zero, nada, nothing, and ended the day with a big goose egg. Deservedly so, I got my ass chewed big time because I pissed away what might be my best chance ever at a slam, and the opportunity of giving Coki a double slam in his boat. While there might be some who consider this their worst day ever, I consider it one of my best days ever... Holy schnikies the stuff I learned! Watching that permit repeatedly try to eat my fly, were it not for my ineptitude and incapacity to think in that moment, is a beautiful memory that will forever cause me to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. A tarpon I clearly should have had, and thinking about if that had occurred, Scott and I could have been shoving each other around on the front deck for a shot at the bonefish and a slam. Watching and learning from a couple of chaps so damn skilled at making the most of the opportunities presented -  It seriously gets no better even if my individual performance didn’t hold up.
I really mean this, there are very few people as fortunate as I am when it comes to fly-fishing. I get the opportunity to learn from some of the best of the best, in some of the best, last, great fly-fishing venues on the planet. The Harvard’s and Yales of Saltwater Flat’s Fishing Schools! And that’s exactly what I got on this fateful Thursday off the coast of Cuba – grad school education in basic step 2 of fly-fishing; “tease the kitty!”.
So gang, in progressing toward my Master’s degree in “tease the kitty”, and in the interest of assisting my fellow anglers, I offer a few things I learned for your own next flats adventures
a.) Don’t suffer the indignity of being mamby-pamby in putting the fly out there – be relaxed, but give it enough oomph that it lands with a straight, crispy-light, immediately controllable connection to your line hand.

b.) Just stick your rod tip in the water, be done with it, and leave it there
c.) Taking into consideration the wind and boat-drift, maintain the straight, crispy-light, immediately controllable connection to the fly you established with your cast at all times
d.) Now listen to your guide – when he says strip, then strip. When he says stop, for God’s sake stop!
e.) Realize you will forget a.-d. until you’ve had several opportunities to screw the pooch; at which point just man up, see the humor in your human foibles, and resolve to spend some of your lawn casting practice time on not just distance and accuracy, but line control for teasing the kitty, all for the purpose of doing better the next time. 

In retrospect, it was more than just a banner day, it was nothing other than a resounding success, and one of my best days ever on the flats, as were all days on the Tortuga!...One of my favorite trips ever....

Yellowstone Bans Felt-Soled Boot

Recently, as many have heard, Yellowstone National Park announced a ban on felt-soled wading boots. Whether you're within proximity to YNP or not, you should be aware of the change if you live close to or might be traveling there. 

This announcement will undoubtedly create some confusion and will most likely cause a “perceived" domino effect. Currently, the following states have a ban on felt soled wading boots: Maryland, Alaska, Missouri, Nebraska, Rhode Island and South Dakota. Through our research we cannot find another state currently looking at banning felt. In fact, we believe that those states that were remotely thinking about it, pulled back. 

That said, education on the subject is critical — the fisherman with rubber-soled wading boots who is irresponsibly not cleaning and drying their boots is worse than the fisherman with the felt-soled wading boots who ensures his/her boots are cleaned and dried. Felt is not the boogey man and as we all know, is not the only method for transporting invasive species. 
See the full story from Hatch Magazine here.

Bahamas Government Suspends Flats Fishing Regulations!!

The Abaco Fly Fishing Association, in a statement yesterday, said the entire Bahamas was now “feeling the pinch” due to the significant loss of tourism revenue in the Family Islands.
It blamed the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) (Flats Fishing) Regulations 2017, introduced by the former Christie administration, for causing a major decline in anglers visiting the Bahamas to bonefish. Lodge bookings, it added, had fallen by between 20 per cent to 40 per cent.
“The Out Islands of the southern Bahamas have been especially hard hit,” the Association said. “Bonefishing lodges on Andros and Long Island, as well as the US-based Bahamas booking agents, report declines in bookings of 20 to 40 per cent or more, which means guides and staff are not working as many hours this year and our taxi drivers are losing business. “Without the influx of operating capital by the foreign anglers being spread throughout the communities, houses are being left unfinished, medical care is put off, and plans are put on hold because of lack of income. The job of caring for one’s family and raising children has gotten harder because of the flats fishing regulations, as noted by one lodge owner on Andros.
“This is most alarming because the anglers are still flats fishing; they are just doing it in other places. Cuba, Belize, Mexico, Central America, Christmas Island and the Seychelles are the recipients of those tourist dollars now.”
The Association said the Minnis administration has now suspended enforcement of the regulations until their impact can be reviewed, as angler licenses have been extremely difficult to obtain and pay for.
The regulations require anglers over the age of 12, and those who wish to fish in the flats, to apply for a personal angler’s license and pay a set fee. Non-Bahamians will have to pay $15 for a daily license; $20 for a weekly license; $30 for a monthly license; and $60 for an annual license.
The regulations also require a foreign vessel wishing to fish in the Bahamian flats to obtain the usual sports fishing permit, with each person on the vessel also holding a personal license. The regulations ban commercial fishing in the flats, and anglers are only allowed to catch and release when catching bonefish, permit, snook, cobia and tarpon. A Conservation Fund for the management and protection of the flats and fisheries resources in the Bahamas is to be established.
The suspension was immediately slammed by PLP chairman Fred Mitchell as “an act of madness”, adding that the Opposition was “confounded” that the Government had “stripped away protection” for the fishing grounds and Bahamians.
Accusing the Government of “looking out for foreigners and not for Bahamians”, Mr Mitchell added: “The PLP put in place regulations which protected fly fishing for Bahamians, and maximum protection against pilferage by strangers coming into this country to pillage our fish stocks.
“All the patient work done by the Fisheries Department under the PLP has been scrapped, and now there is open season in our fishing flats.”
Describing the situation as “shameful”, Mr Mitchell said Renward Wells, minister of agriculture and marine resources, had failed to “stand up” for conservation and Bahamian bonefish guides while foregoing the revenue that will now be lost from licenses.
“The PLP pledges as soon as it returns to office to return the provisions and rules to protect Bahamian fishing stocks and the fly fishing sector for Bahamians,” he added.
When the proposed regulations for the industry were first unveiled, they created considerable controversy and effectively divided the 400 local guides and the lodge owners.
The latter were more opposed to the proposals, while there was concern that the regulations, as initially drafted, gave the impression that the Bahamas was being too protectionist, restrictive and anti-foreign, tying up access by foreign anglers in bureaucracy and red tape, not to mention increased costs.
“A flats fishing license with funds supporting conservation, education and enforcement is supported by 100 per cent of visiting anglers, guides and lodge owners. But the roll-out of the licensing process has been confusing and extremely difficult for anglers and lodge owners,” the Association said.
“With only a few days prior notice, licensing was put into effect in January 2017. Officials on Out Islands were scrambling to obtain the documents from central government to initiate licensing sales. Anglers were to buy the licenses at the Administrator’s Office. Administrators were busy, so they gave the licensing materials to the fisheries offices to sell, leaving anglers wandering around trying to find the proper offices in which to buy the license.
“To complicate matters for the angling visitors, who would naturally surmise that a fishing license would be sold by the Department of Marine Resources, after a few weeks, fishery offices were told to stop selling licenses and only administrators were authorised to do so.”
The Association added: “There is a license application available for download on the Government’s website. But there is no way to actually buy the license online. The application must be filled out, printed, signed by the angler and then presented to the island administrator’s office for issuance when they arrive at their fishing destination.

“The website also advises that the turnaround time is one day, and that opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, except public holidays. Most tourists travel Saturday to Saturday.“The Government must stop the bleeding of our tourism dollars to other countries and bring our flats fishing tourists back to the Bahamas by enacting sensible flats fishing regulations that welcome visitors. Prime Minister Minnis should return the flats fishing tourism portfolio to the Ministry of Tourism, who did a much better job of welcoming angling tourists to our islands before the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association’s ideas led to the decline of angling tourism.”

Monday, April 23, 2018

Fred's Grand Slam by Doug Jeffries

At the conclusion of our trip to Cuba's Jardines de la Reina, there were so many good stories I told everyone that wanted to to write up their favorites to please do so. If they did, I would post them. So here is the first story on Fred Abramowitz's Grand Slam as told by Doug Jeffries (photos by Doug too!)...

Pressure is most often defined as a force exerted on an object by something else in contact with that object.  A secondary definition is the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something.  Fred certainly did not need any additional pressure but Coki and I did our best to apply all three of those tools to help him catch a grand slam one evening.  The story goes like this…
This day Fred (and Jay I think) fished with the irascible, sometimes volatile Coki.  Those of us fortunate enough to fish with Coki quickly learned three things about him.  First, there is no half-way with Coki.  He never steps onto his skiff with the intention of simply going through the motions and he expects the same level of intensity from his clients – and the fish and the clouds and the sun and the wind for that matter.  The fact he has very little influence on those things doesn’t stop him from trying.  Second, his passion sometimes acts like a belt sander on what some consider normal societal interaction, but underneath it he has a really funny sense of humor.  And third he loves to fish for permit.  One could debate which of those traits came first, but in my opinion good permit guides have all three of those characteristics in spades.  Tell Coki you want to fish for permit and his face lights up.  You can almost feel the energy coming off him.  It’s like when you hold up a left over steak bone and ask your dog if he wants it.
Coki at his desk
So Fred fished with Coki and lo and behold lands a permit.  I wasn’t there so Fred will have to tell that part of the story.  Fred also landed a bonefish but as happy hour rolled around he was still short of boating a tarpon to claim a flats slam.  In Coki’s world that just cannot be so he told Fred he would bring his skiff over just as the sun reached the tops of the mangroves and they’d go finish the slam.  I don’t think Fred had a say in the matter.  I volunteered to tag along as official recorder and photographer.

True to his word, just before the first shadows reached the Tortuga, Coki motored up in his skiff, grabbed Fred’s rod, and off we went.  He steered out the southeastern access and turned north into a small mangrove creek.  Coki changed Fred’s fly, climbed up onto the poling platform and said cast next to the mangrove.  There was a deep hole along the mangrove and Coki said tarpon usually hung out there.  He also let slip that snook sometimes are caught there and that introduced the slight possibility of a super slam.  Remember that definition of pressure we started with?  Fred’s starting to feel a little now, but nothing an ultra-marathoner can’t handle.  He makes a half dozen casts, some landing where Coki wants, some not.  The latter becomes fuel for Coki to critique Fred’s casting style – something about sidearm noodle tossing.  No barnacles grow under Coki’s skiff and within a dozen casts he says “Not here, we move.”
Barely waiting for Fred to wind in his line, Coki is off the platform, latches down his push pole, and fires up the outboard.  We chatter across a narrow channel and swing north again into another mangrove creek.  This one is much narrower with some twists and turns and overhanging mangroves. Not easy casting but doable.  The sun was now just dropping below the horizon and the creek was in shadow.  As Coki retrieved his push pole a tarpon rolled far up the creek.  There’s fish here, the pressure builds a little more.  Just as Coki positions the skiff for Fred to make a cast, right next to the boat a 50 – 60lb tarpon rolls.  Hooking a fish that size in a narrow mangrove creek is a recipe for a great story with little chance of success.  It might have been at this point I introduced the baseball metaphor and told Fred is was the bottom of the ninth, game tied, two outs, bases loaded.  I figured Fred performs better under pressure so adding a little would work to his advantage.

In narrow mangrove creeks like this, tarpon move up and down.  They’ll often come down to investigate the commotion of the skiff entering the creek and that’s the fisherman’s first chance.  Sometimes it’s the only chance.  Fred made a few casts and had a fish try to eat his fly.  The fish missed it and Coki said “Cast again.  More line.”  I said “Strike one.”
Fred cast again and once again the tarpon grabbed his fly.  This time the tarpon stayed connected and did its usual leaping and contorting about into the mangrove branches.  Coki and I provided superb coaching which Fred chose to completely ignore and the fish got off.  “Strike two” I smirked.  The bugs started to bite, bad, and fortunately Fred had some bug spray in his bag or the night might have been over right then.

After a few select comments about keeping the line tight and not letting the fish get into the mangroves and a couple loud sighs, Coki maneuvered the skiff farther into the creek where it curved slightly right and then back to the left.  A tarpon rolled far up the creek and Coki said “He’s coming.  Cast, cast.”  With his backcast Fred catches the mangrove above Coki’s head which resulted in some more choice instruction from Coki that we weren’t fucking monkey fishing.  My contribution was “Foul ball.”  After Coki roughly yanked his fly free, Fred successfully negotiated the backcast but caught the mangroves on his forward cast.   At this Coki scampered down from his platform and taking the rod from Fred gave him some rather emphatic casting instructions to keep the rod tip straight up and down and point the rood tip at his target.  “No monkey fishing.”  I felt obligated to help Fred by adding “Take a deep breath, slow down, and don’t screw it up again because it’s almost dark.  And you have two strikes against you.”  
Fred’s next cast was a little short and Coki said “More line.”  The tarpon rolled again, closer this time.  Fred laid his next cast well up into the creek and began short, rapid strips.  A bulge appeared behind the fly, Coki yelled “Set the hook”, Fred kept stripping and suddenly had the tarpon hooked.  Bedlam once again enveloped the skiff, Fred trying to get control of his line and the tarpon, Coki jumping down off his platform yelling “Strip the line, no reel.  Keep it away from the bushes.”  All I could do was laugh.  The fish went right, Coki yelled “Pull left, left.”  The fish came toward the boat Coki yelled “Strip the line, strip the line.”  The fish jumped thrashing some of the overhanging mangroves.  Coki is now standing right next to Fred, willing Fred to horse that tarpon close enough that he could touch the leader.  And then it’s over.  Fred lifts his rod tip, the leader comes within reach and Coki grabs it.  “Yeah” he yells, “That’s your slam.”

I don’t know who was feeling more pressure.  I certainly felt it.  I wanted Fred to get his slam.  I wanted Coki to be able to record another slam on his resume.  Hell, I wanted just to witness the slam.  The funny thing about pressure is that when it’s released, it feels so good.  We high-fived, congratulated each other, and mostly laughed.  Then we motored back to the Tortuga where the rest of the gang was just sitting down to dinner.  We tried to play it out and act like it didn’t happen but in the end couldn’t help it and told the story over and over.  It was one of the most intense half hours of fishing I have ever experienced.  Thanks to Fred and Coki.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cuba- Fly Fishing in the Jardines de la Reina- April 2018

High Flying Tarpon... photo by Doug Jeffries

To my mind, our fishing was simply spectacular!
I couldn't believe the number of permit we found. If we only could do the permit portion of this trip, I would return to the Tortuga any time. When we chose to devote time in the pursuit of this elusive fish, we usually got a shot. Most days, many more than one. We had three permit caught on our trip and each was from 20-30 lbs. Each generated heart stopping moments. Jim Woolett and Fred Abramowitz each had Grand Slams. On each of their Grand Slam days the word of their boated permit crackled on the guide's radio. The words "palameto boated" first Alexey's boat and then a couple days later on Coki's put a big smile on my face. With these words, we knew the quest for a grand Slam was "ON". When they later completed their Grand Slams, we again quickly heard of their success on the radios and we knew "it was on" for a celebration that night.

Fred Abramowitz is a bit excited... photo by Jay Hillerson
Another beautiful permit!

Released by Coki

What better way to celebrate than with Cuban rum...
...and fresh lobster!
In addition to these remarkable days, almost everyone caught or a least jumped tarpon every day. Some of these fish were very big. We pulled many sabalo to the boat that were on the 50-100 lb. range and we had a stunning number of tarpon this size jumped. This average size was a surprise to me. When I heard there were good numbers of baby tarpon in the Jardines, I didn't think a 30-35 lb. "baby." would be the average size. And these tarpon were hot... I mean HOT! When hooked these tarpon usually jumped multiple times. And theses jumps were not lunges, they were vaults high into the sky. I had one fish on my last day which jumped eight times clearing the water's surface by many feet each time. 

Guide Coki releases a typical tarpon

Rolling Tarpon at dawn
C'mon that's a big tarpon! Guide Leo does his best to lift Fred's big one!

And Doug's Merrimam's Georgia Peach Toad produced...

...this nice specimen for our man from Atlanta!

I had a hard time landing this fish and was a sweaty mess by the end. And this tarpon was probably only 60-65 lbs. We saw many fish over 100 lbs. I'm actually thankful I didn't hook up with one of these monsters! At one point the guide told me to cast to a big female leading a group of 12 or so smaller fish that were approaching fast. I disobeyed orders and cast to one of the smaller males trailing the pack. He was nice enough to take my fly and turned out to be a 50 lb. "baby".  So I would rate the tarpon fishing in the Jardines de la Reina as excellent.

The bonefishing was terrific too, but many of us didn't spend much time doing it. One flat I fished with my buddy Doug Jeffries held fish in the 4-7 lb. range. I had one big bone in the 6 lb. range eaten by a 25 lb. cubera snapper. I had the snapper on for quite awhile but couldn't get a good hookset. Hard to get a hook into a Cubera jaw with six lbs. of bonefish blocking the way. The best way to summarize the fishing is to post some of the stories from the trip. I will quite a few stories in the next few days along with a accompanying photos. I'll also be posting more technical info on the fishing including flies, leaders, tippets etc.
But, Let's start with one of my own favorite moments...

DAY 2:
The weather was perfect. Sure, a slight breezes ruffled the water and a few hazy clouds could prove problematic, but it was still a perfect morning. Doug Jeffries and I were fishing with Coki. We would later learn where Coki's true passion lied.
It should have been a good indication to us (and should be to you the reader), when he said as we were stepping into his skiff, "Do you want to look for permit? The tides right... this afternoon we can look or tarpon."

The guides were always ready to go right on time after breakfast.

Doug and I quickly agreed.
Coki stored our gear, then added, "I know some islands about 12k off the north side of the Jardines. We try that?"
"Sure." We both said quickly.
As we reached the deeper water off the Jardines Archipelago, we picked up a slight chop as we veered north. Doug and I could see no land on the horizon so we sat back and relaxed. About 20 minutes later, we began seeing what I thought were the masts of sailboats.
"Shrimpers." Coki said, noticing I has seen them. "They use those booms to dredge the sandy bottoms of the channels at night. They get big prawns." He showed me the size with his thumb and index finger spread as far as they would go.
Soon we could see seven shrimp boats huddled around a big mothership. No doubt they had been off-loading their catch since before dawn. Pelican and gulls closely circled the mothership. Frigate birds soared high overhead looking to pirate a meal if the opportunity arose. I wondered what was below the water looking for a free meal too. 
Soon, Coki cut the motor. We could now see a few low-lying mangrove cays surrounded by pale amber shallows. Coki jumped up on the poling platform and pushed us over coral rubble flats interspersed with deeper channels peppered with staghorn, brain and other stunning corals. It was pristine and beautiful, but Coki was not happy. 

"We need some wind. The wind stirs up the coral, clouds the water and makes it harder for them to see us." Then he added, "They don't come in so much when it is this calm."
I kinda liked it. I knew long casts were imminent so calm conditions seemed like a good idea. Of course, no cast would be necessary if we couldn't find fish.
We worked a few of the cays with no success. Coki was frustrated. I know the feeling well. When you're showing someone a favorite area and nothing is happening, you end up repeating the mantra. "Man, this is such a good spot usually."
Then Coki said it. "Tail... see it?"
"No," I said as I scanned 150 feet ahead of me.
"There... right inside that second dark spot."
That second spot was 100 meters away... I looked carefully... then again... then I saw it. How the hell did Coki ever initially spot that tail. It was a LONG way off!
"Let me get closer. Keep your eye on the spot. When you cast, hit him right on the head. He'll either eat or be gone."
Coki poled quietly over the crunchy coral rubble and got us within 100 feet.
"OK, cast."
Geez, I thought, that is a long cast AND I also have to hit him on the head. I made a couple false casts and shot all the line I could. 
"Good!" Coki's blood was up now. "Strip once slowly." He hissed.
I did. Suddenly, I was hooked up. But, I knew it was not a permit. I surfed a little yellow snapper to the boat and Doug quickly unhooked it. He tossed the snapper over the gunwale and said, "You're good..." Doug is a special partner and I didn't have to say a word. He had me in shape to cast in a remarkably short time.

"Cast again." Coki whispered.
We were 85-90 feet away now. The fly landed right in front of the fish. The big permit looked and moved right at my fly. We all held our breath.  The permit looked, then slowly moved off to deeper water. I made one last "Hail Mary" cast guestimating his location in the six feet of water he was finning away in. My cast was more of a farewell wave than a calculated cast. I knew it was over.
"What did I do wrong?" I asked
"Nothing, it was perfect... that's permit." Coki said as he stepped off the platform. "Let's motor to another area that should have lots of permit on it by now."
There were. Doug and I traded the bow time after time. We came up empty time after time. Doug made some excellent casts and I had a few good shots... It was the most fun I've ever had not catching a fish...

That's permit. 
But when we left to go tarpon fishing that afternoon, I felt my time with permit would come.
It did.

Next: Fred's Big Day