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Fish on: Cuban fishing adventure

Courtesy PHOTO A 25-pound tarpon landed by our columnist in Cuban waters.
Courtesy PHOTO A 25-pound tarpon landed by our columnist in Cuban waters.

It’s hard to believe that my long-awaited fishing adventure to Cuba is over.

Mike McConnell and I left on June 17 and were back home eight days later with stories to tell.

We went to Cuba because it was reputed to be a fabulous fishing haven. There’s little “pressure” on the shallow water fish since no one can fish the flats except those whom the government allows. Our hope was that the fly fishing gods would shine on us and our two companions and we’d all make “slams,” that is, landing a tarpon, a permit and a bonefish on a fly all on the same day. But, even with the best of planning, location, weather, guides and facilities to stay in, it doesn’t always happen!

After arriving at Havana Airport via charter from Ft. Lauderdale, we went into the city to spend a night in a wonderful hotel in Havana. At 3 a.m. we boarded an air-conditioned bus (a rarity) with a bunch of divers from Ohio riding to the port where our home-away-from-home houseboat was berthed, awaiting our arrival. After an interesting trip through the country we were at dockside and aboard the Avalon Fleet II that was to take us about 50 miles off the Cuban mainland to the outer islands where the best flats are.

The setup is similar to the barrier beaches protecting Long Island from the full ocean’s force, but farther away. As soon as we got aboard, the Fleet II started its three engines and we left Puerto Jucaro and sailed four hours to our first overnight destination. Once there we disgorged the 19 divers to their anchored floating hotel reducing the fishing crew to the Shelter Islanders and another American, two Scots, two Germans and an Argentine. As it turned out, they all were first-rate anglers and one of the most gregarious bunch I’ve ever fished with.

After a quick, late lunch on board we were raring to go fish in the allotted two hours we had that afternoon. I drew the long straw and headed out, alone with my eagle-eyed guide, Coakie, with three fly rods in hand, one for each of the target species. Since time was short we headed to a beautiful, tranquil flat with absolutely clear water and in no time I was hooked up with the first of the 12 bonefish I would catch that afternoon.

The action was non-stop and schools of five to 20 bones would appear out of nowhere, and I was able to hookup easily. The fish averaged about 3-to-5 pounds and when hooked, take off in a blistering run that has your line burning off the reel along with 50 or so yards of backing.

They make several more runs, circle the boat a bit and eventually run out of steam and are carefully lifted out of the water, unhooked and released. They are 100 percent muscle, so the long runs are hard to hold as they have no “give” and frequently end up on your lap as you try to release them.

Back at our houseboat, I found that we all had gotten a few bonefish, so we swapped lies and drank beer or other liquid libations to celebrate.

The next morning we swapped the boats up a bit and a few of us found tarpon, but only two permit were seen by our nine anglers. In the afternoon I landed a nice baby tarpon of about 10 pounds and lost two others. That was about the way it went for me and the others over the next several days. While the bonefish stayed available and obliging, we didn’t see the large schools of tarpon we had expected and when we did see small pods of them, they had lockjaw.

The permit, which are known as the “phantoms of the flats,” were just that and hard to find. I actually had the week’s only hookup on a permit one day that would have completed my “slam” since I’d already boated a 25 pound tarpon and waded to catch a bunch of bonefish up to six pounds. Some of the guys never saw a permit all week and most didn’t catch any tarpon either. The two that Mike got and my two were about half of all caught that week.

However, not all was gloom and doom on the flats since Mike and I each caught barracudas of over 10 pounds each, which have as nasty a set of choppers as anything that swims. I also landed a 15-pound crevalle jack that tested me and my equipment to the limit.

It was a great trip in spite of the slow fishing and, in hindsight, I think we may have finally figured out the problem. It turned out that our fishing trip coincided exactly with the unusual phenomenon of the June’s full moon occurring on the same day as the summer solstice.

I’m not sure if this coincidence mattered or not but that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.