Saturday, April 27, 2019

Cuba: Islas de la Juventud, April, 2019: Days Three and Four

By day 3, we had hit our stride. Despite the high winds, everyone had had at least some success with tarpon, we knew the capabilities of the guides and we were all now well-rested and certainly well-fed... and now the winds began to drop. I spent Day 3 with "Big Fish" Jim Woollett. No matter where I go with Jim, he catches a big fish. If it's the Bahamas, he catches a 10 lb. bone, if in Cuba it's a hundred pound tarpon or a Grand Slam.  Some guys are just like that. I should hate him for that, but Jim's so much fun to fish with I'll give him a pass. In any case, Jim and I had a great day together. We fished with guide Lindy and pursued permit early (we had a few shots, but no cigar), then focused on tarpon.

Jim and I ended the day at the reef. Just meters inside this coral fringe, Jim hooked a monster that jetted through the hull-wreaking rocks into the blue. Jim played the tarpon for a long time as we all watched dazzling jump after jump. There was no way to get to the fish through the shallow reef so all Jim could do was crank his drag and hold on. "Big Fish" fought the fish with his rod bent to the butt until a final sunset gold leap unbuttoned the monster. A few deep breaths were taken as Jim reeled in 300 yards of backing and fly line while Lindy retrieved the anchor. It was time for a beer! 

Later in the week, Jim did catch his monster almost in the same spot. Jim was with head guide Manolo then and he was able to find hole in the reef that allowed them to pursue this even bigger fish. Here is the photographic evidence. "Big Fish" gets to keep his moniker for at least one more year! (more on this tarpon soon).

The following day, I fished with Art Carlson. The day dawned clear and calm, with only a few large thunderheads low on the horizon. Initially, the light was good and the seas dead calm. Art and I took off with Yosbel and after a slow start, we headed up a narrow channel that opened up into a magnificent dead calm lake. We saw a few big tarpon rolling, but with the calm conditions, the tarpon disappeared before we could get a cast off. As we quietly stalked the rolling tarpon, the thunderheads climbed higher into the sky and spread out to engulf the skyline. Soon thunder was constantly rumbling and lightening was piercing the clouds. Art seemed unconcerned. I on the other hand, became more and more nervous as the thunder got louder and closer. I knew all hell would break loose soon. Then it hit me...

Art Carlson and our guide Lindy
In the classic comedy Caddyshack, Carl, played by Bill Murray, caddies for the Bishop as a massive storm descends on the golf course. As each hole goes by, the rain intensifies as the Bishop hits amazing shot after amazing shot. Despite the storm, the Bishop is having the round of his life.

When it is suggested the Bishop quit due to all the rain, lightening and thunder, 

Carl idiotically says "I'd keep playing. I don't think the heavy stuff will come down for a while."

The Bishop replies, "You're right. Anyway, the good Lord would never disrupt the best game of my life."

Soon the Bishop misses a long putt and yells "OH RAT FARTS!!!!!"
Just then the Bishop holds up his golf club beseeching the heavens for screwing up his round and is immediately struck dead by lightning. Bill Murray drops the Bishop's golf bag and slinks away leaving him there prone on the green.

As I sat watching Art's chiseled visage seemingly impervious the the lightening crackling around him, the resemblance of the two men, one fictional one very real, seemed uncanny and little spooky. Both the movie character and my partner are robust older gentlemen determined as hell "to see this play out". I just didn't want the end 
result in the movie to be the same today.  Besides, I was seated 5 feet from Art!

Soon Yosebel and I caught each other's eye... we knew what we needed to do. We yanked Art off the casting deck and raced back to the mothership with the storm licking at our heels. We beat it as did all the other members of our team. The rain came down in sheets and the lightening and thunder crashed menacingly all about.

At lunch Art said with a bit of a smile as if there was no risk, "Have you really ever heard of anyone every being struck by lightening in a boat."
Almost simultaneously, about 5 of us said "YES!"!
Such is Art! I want to be just like him when I reach my 8th decade. Full throttle damn the torpedoes!

Art and Lindy with another nice bone

The rest of our day was spectacular. The storms moved on, the seas flattened and eventually the sun came out. Right after lunch, Art caught some big tailing bonefish that weaved enticingly in and out of single mangrove shoots. Beautiful to watch and exciting to cast to!

Just around the corner from that bonefish flat... not 200 yards away, Art jumped at least a dozen big tarpon and boated half of those. We spent the rest of the afternoon there... It was simply great day!

Next: The last two days.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

A Word from Avalon Concerning New Cuba Travel Restrictions

A word from our outfitting partner in Cuba...

Dear Angling Destinations,

Here at Avalon we place the utmost priority on the welfare of our clients and we seek to do everything in our power to ensure that you are properly informed and cared for. With recent comments from national security adviser, John Bolton, coming out this week regarding Cuba and increased restrictions, we feel that this is a good time to reach out to make sure that you, as our valued clients and friends, are up to speed on what has transpired. The main substance of the speech on April 17th was to enact Title III of the Helms Burton Act, which has received waivers from every single president in the last couple of decades. By removing this waiver, it has opened up the possibility of Cuban exiles to file suit against foreign companies profiting from land seized by the Cuban government after the revolution. Rest assured, we are not one of these unfortunate foreign entities, and we have taken steps in the 27 years of Avalon's history to make sure we are doing business completely legally and without connection to compromised territories. 

Furthermore, in relation to talks of further tightening travel restrictions for US travelers to Cuba, there is absolutely nothing concrete whatsoever enacted at this moment. We may see some adjustments made by the OFAC on some of the travel categories, but just like the 2016 Trump speech, we found that very minor amendments were made months later and travel with Avalon to Cuba remained completely legal. Remember, we are engaged in the largest conservation initiative in the Caribbean, and by traveling with us you are contributing to this conservation program and making it a reality. Without your continued involvement, our guides would not be out patrolling the marine parks and our fish would remain unprotected, leaving them susceptible to exploitation. Our sustainable conservation model relies on your continued support and we will always do everything in our power to make sure that your trips with us to Cuba are enriching, fun, memorable and completely legal.

We will be working tirelessly to stay informed and improve the quality of our operations and conservation programs. During this interim, please maintain confidence and demand facts over political chatter. Once we hear of any updates we will certainly reach out to keep you abreast of the ongoing situation. For now, we are as excited as ever! It's tarpon season and we have had an incredible bounty of wonderful reports coming in from all of our locations in Cuba. In an effort to share some more of the good stuff with you, we want to extend the following offers for the coming months and years.

Thank you!!
The Avalon Staff

Cuba: Islas de la Juventud, April, 2019: Days One and Two

Day 1:
Our hostess, Eysa, cheerfully promised coffee would be on at 6:30 am. It was. A beautiful (and miles more than ample) breakfast of fresh fruit, pastries, eggs, and bacon followed at 7:30. Then it was off to grab gear, glob on some sunscreen and grab drinks for the day.

Eysa setting the table for breakfast
The gang rigged and ready.

We were in the immaculate Dolphin skiffs soon there after. It was quite clear we were surrounded by very competent people from the Avalon 1's captain, to our chef and staff all the way through our amazing cadre of guides. 


Steve Peskoe and I took off on with head guide Manolo who was simply superb all day. Initially, we left the mothership running under a light rain with calm winds... perfect tarpon conditions. As soon as the rain stopped, the winds began and a cold front soon zipped in like a party buzz killer. These strong cooling winds didn't leave us for two days. Cold fronts are the bane of tarpon fishing, but still we managed to find and catch tarpon each day. In fact, I boated two tarpon on my first two casts. I should have quit right there while I was batting 1000!

Steve managed to jump and land a few fish even under our deteriorating conditions. Manolo pressed hard until the sun slid beneath the horizon's cloud cover. Within 15 minutes, we were back at the Avalon 1 listening to our compatriots stories mostly of success and the competence of the guides. A great day, despite the coolish weather, was had by all. 

As the evening wore on everyone settled in including the staff. The atmosphere became very jovial and relaxed. Not only could this group fish, but they knew how to have a good time... the guides and staff immediately picked up on this. When this occurs... an atmosphere of fish hard, confidence in the guides, blame yourself for any failures and don't make it all about you... success is virtually guaranteed. I knew this would be a good week!!

It was.
Head guide Manolo with a 20lb. tarpon stuck with a black and purple Puglisi

Our schedule was perfect for tarpon. Fish the morning until 1:00 pm, break for a sumptuous lunch on the mothership followed by a siesta, then back in the boats until dark. And when I say dark, I mean dark. We were never pushed to quit early, in fact we were often pushed to make "just one more cast". 

On day Two, John Riggs and I were winding down after a very full day. We had been in tarpon much of the late afternoon on a falling tide and successfully fished a channel that was quickly emptying a large basin. When we pulled up, we knew there had to be tarpon in the swift current. John immediately caught a solid fish of 15-20 lbs., then jumped and landed many more until we had tagged almost every fish in the run. 

Scott Sawtelle and our "cruise director" Gleybi.
John Riggs boating another jumping maniac. 
The reef... where the big tarpon hang.
Wicho moved us to the reef to get some shots at the "big boys" and with the sun setting, John finally called it quits. We were both spent, so we handed the rod to Wicho who promptly got into a big fish. John and I drank beer and cheered as Wicho worked. A perfect way to end a perfect day. After a good struggle, Wicho landed his fish. We fist-bumped our guide then stored the rod. Wicho was thrilled with the opportunity and we were thrilled he was successful. Soon it was back to the boat for cocktails and another fabulous dinner.

Wicho at the bow...

Hooked up...
A thrilled guide and a perfect way to end a day.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Isla de la Juventud, Cuba April 2019

It's hard to repeat a great trip. But most of us were here again... ready to give it a try. We were again headed to the southern shore of Cuba. Last year we were in the Jardines de la Reina. This year, we were headed a bit west to the Islands of Youth (Islas de la Juventud). Could we do it again? ... Could we have a repeat of that sensational trip to the Gardens of the Queens last year.

Only time would tell....
We began in Havana at the Inglaterra Hotel on the main Prado. 

Our charter was on a ATR 42. This craft is a twin-turboprop, short-haul aircraft developed and manufactured in France and Italy by ATR.

We were almost due south of Havana

In 1978, Fidel Castro presided at a state ceremony changing the name of the Isla de Pinos (Islands of Pines) to Isla de la Juventud (Islands of Youth). Castro dream was to turn the island into a grand communist university for students from around the world. Castro brought in students from many communist leaning countries including Angola, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Chile. Today that dream is long gone. Most of the school's buildings are abandoned and the island has reverted back to its agricultural roots.

Castro sans beard... his 1953 mug shot.

Hell on earth... every hole is a cell.

Fidel had a special relationship with this archipelago. Just outside the main town of Nuevo Gerona sprawls the Presidio Modelo, or Model Prison, Cuba’s most dreaded and imposing pre-revolutionary prison. Inside the infirmary, posted on a wall, is a mug shot of its most famous inmate, Fidel Castro.  In 1953, when, as a 27-year-old lawyer, Prisoner 3859 began his rebellious career with an attack on a military barracks in the city of Santiago. Castro had hoped this act would spark an uprising around Cuba, but it failed abysmally. Many of his approximately 160 followers were tortured and executed and most of the rest hunted down. He was given a 15-year sentence and sent with 25 compaƱeros to La Isla. It was here the revolution was planned. Inexplicably, three years later Batista released Castro and the rest, as the say, is history.

Now almost 70 years later, my crew was here to fish.

After descending from our charter from Havana to Nuevo Gerona, we had our passports recorded, our temperatures taken and our bags delivered.
Jim Woollett at 98.6
Outside the main terminal, we met an air-conditioned bus and drove to the dock where we got our first view of our home for the next week. The Avalon 1 sat at anchor. We walked up the gangplank, grabbed a room and soon had a Cuba Libre in our hands. 

Eysa serves a mean cocktail!
Eysa and Gleybi set a beautiful table.
Avalon I cabins are very comfortable.
Great skiff and guides too!

We knew after our great trip last year, it would be tough to match that experience, but everything seemed in place. The Avalon 1 was beautiful, the staff obviously superb and the skiffs, now on trailers in the boatyard, were beautiful with virtually new 4-stroke engines.

Weather permitting, this would be a good week!

John and Anna Riggs make a fly selection on the first morning.

NEXT... Let the Games begin!