Cuban Time Warp

Sometimes, a once in a lifetime opportunity comes your way and you just have to jump on it. When I received an email from Albemarle Angler about some upcoming hosted trips, it was sheerly by chance that I clicked the link to read more about one. At this point, I don’t even remember what the trip was, because I very quickly got distracted by something that was way cooler. A legal week long trip to Cuba for bonefish, permit, and tarpon. To a virgin fishery. Before Americans are generally allowed to go Cuba. I called up Scott (he’s guided me a couple times before for smallmouth bass on the Shenandoah) to ask a couple questions. It didn’t take much before I was booked. Only 9 months on the calendar until it was trip time.

The preparation phase of this trip was probably the worst. I had done one day of fishing for tarpon on the flats, but other than that, never before done any sort of tropical fly fishing. I was no stranger to the flats targeting redfish, but this was a different beast. Other than pictures, I had never even seen a bonefish or permit before this trip. I had no idea what to expect, what flies to tie, or how much gear I really needed to buy (OK, buying the gear was fun). Luckily, Scott and crew were always a phone call away to make sure I came all set up, well stocked, and well prepared. Note: as good as they are, they can’t force you to remember to pack that rain jacket. Brrrr.

20160220_125946Finally, it came time to get on the plane to Cuba. Well, to Canada first, since we still don’t have commercial flights. My excitement really started building as we’re approaching the Cayo Cruz airport. You could see incredible expanses of flats everywhere. Wetting a line was only a day away, but felt like it was still an eternity.To be honest, I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it on the trip. I got a lovely diagnosis of the flu four days before I was supposed to leave. Luckily, that tamiflu stuff is a beast.

We landed, hopped in a couple taxis, and made the two hour drive to the lodge. It quickly became quite obvious that we were not in a place we were used to. There were very few cars – although there were far more new cars than I was expecting mixed in with the classics. Sugar cane fields were absolutely everywhere. And the main mode of transportation for people was donkey carts.  Upon arrival to the lodge, we were warmly greeted by the staff and were quickly fed some mojitos. After dinner, we did introductions, met the guides, and planned out the following day. The fishing area is broken out into 6 zones. Generally, they only have one boat operating in each zone, although they’re big enough that you could never run into each other if you share a zone.

OK, well this one wasn't my first, but close enough!

OK, well this one wasn’t my first, but close enough!

The marina was about a 30 km drive from the lodge, which took a little over an hour due to the terrible roads. We got to the marina early the first day to rig up our rods, then hopped in our boats and went off. This is where my forgotten rain jacket would’ve come in handy. The boat spray and the downpour we had in the first hour made for a chilly morning. The first day, I fished with Carson, the owner of Albemarle Angler and co-host of the trip, and our guide Nelson. Carson knew I had never caught a bonefish before and wanted to get some footage of my first. We waded a massive lagoon (it took us over 6 hours to fish half of it), so I had Nelson and Carson’s eyes helping me look for my first bone. It took a while, but we finally found a school of about 10 bonefish swimming right at me. I dropped my Gotcha into the fray and had one bite, but I couldn’t connect. I kept stripping, got another strike, but couldn’t connect again. A quick recast and I got tight. The bonefish took off screaming, but my Hatch Finatic 7 Plus was no match for slowing it down. Before long, my first ever bonefish was in hand.

After the rush of my first, Carson started fishing on his own as well. It was tough conditions with a cold front having come through and lots of clouds. That didn’t stop the fish, nor stop us from catching them. Carson and I combined for 22 bonefish to the hand by the end of the day – 13 for him and 9 for me. I got one barracuda, which was a blast, and had a lemon shark eat about 10 feet from me, but he broke me off 10 seconds later.

As the week progressed, conditions got better and better. On my second day, I finally got a shot at a permit. I dropped the fly in front of the fish, and heard the guide yell “Strip! Strip! Strip! SET THE HOOK!” A long pull with my left hand and…. I pulled up two feet of slack and watched the permit spook away. Whoops.

There was something about me and my boat that seemed to attract permit. I had by far the most shots at permit, delivering the fly to around 20 fish. I only got two fish to eat – that first one, and the very last one I saw – but couldn’t come tight to either. One of the other guys had a bonefish steal the fly out of a permit’s mouth. But, that was the closest anyone got to catching one that week. It was tough conditions all week for permit and not prime time, but we still go in our shots.

Toward the end of the week, we had a glass-calm morning. The guide said we were starting out looking for tarpon. With the calm weather, we had a good chance at finding some of the resident tarpon rolling. We saw the first roller only a couple minutes after getting to the flat. We pulled up, the guide pointed a fish out, and I dropped in the fly. A fish ate, but I only stung his lip. Next cast, another eat, but I set too soon and pulled it out of his mouth. Nothing on my third cast. Fourth cast brought a mangrove snapper to hand. My fifth cast turned out another eat. I yanked on the line and got solid contact. The guide starts telling me to set the hook again. The tarpon started running directly at me and past the boat. As I’m trying to keep from getting slack, let alone another attempt at a hook set, I get jumped. I turned over the bow to my boatmate after that, but we couldn’t get another shot. Carson ended up landing one the next day.

Barracuda stichedOf all the fish I caught the whole trip, my favorite by far was barracuda. I caught two on the trip, with the second being a pretty hefty specimen. These fish will take 100 yards of backing in about 10 seconds. Apparently, most jump, although I only had my second one jump. He was a feisty one. Once hooked, he started jumping and tailwalking as if he was a sailfish. With each jump, he’d easily clear 40 feet of water before going back to swimming rather than flying.

IMG_2714There were quite a few unique things about the Cuban fishing. First, these bonefish are stupid. You can completely miss your cast, even dropping it 5 feet behind the fish, and it’ll come back and destroy your fly. You can get a bad hookset, pop the fly out, and it’ll pick up the fly again. Even with a couple cold fronts coming through and less than ideal conditions, bonefish were always fairly plentiful. Over the week, I caught about 30, despite focusing on permit several days. The flats are quite unique as well. There are more than a few areas where the flats go on as far as you can see. Some are easily over a square mile. While I have no comparison since this is my first trip, I was told some individual flats are bigger than all of Ascension Bay. Lastly, no matter what flat you’re on, you always have a chance at seeing a permit. In fact, there wasn’t a day where either I or my boatmate didn’t see a permit. Because of that, more often than not, I wound up throwing my 10 weight Helios 2 just in case we ran into a permit. But, that didn’t stop the bonefish from putting up one heck of a fight. Many would take us well into our backing. While the fish weren’t necessarily too long compared to other destinations, they were far fatter. The average fish was 4-5 pounds, with quite a few hitting the 10 pound mark.

So far, the Cuban fishery has been amazing. Hopefully, it will stay that way. Luckily, the Cubans are very proud of their environmental resources and actively try to protect it. However, as things begin opening up with the US, who knows what will happen. Surely, it will get way more expensive. If you want to go, make some moves quick. Albemarle Angler is hosting another trip to Cuba in December 2016. I highly recommend getting in before things start to change!

Sugar Hollow Farm with Albemarle Angler

Moormans River

The scenic Moormans River on Sugar Hollow Farm

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to get out on the water with Cole from Albemarle Angler to target some rainbow trout. We fished a private stretch of the Moormans River that’s on Sugar Hollow Farm just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Albemarle Angler has access rights to about 3/4 of a mile of this river, and they stock it each year with a hefty number of trout. Unfortunately, there’s really no wild or holdover fish in this river since it’s a tailwater fed with water from the top of a dam, and it just gets too warm during the summer to support the trout. This does make for a hefty smallmouth population, though!

My trout experience is pretty limited in rivers. Growing up on Cape Cod, the only trout you really caught were in lakes, with the extraordinarily rare catch of a sea-run brown trout. Since I focus so much of my time on warmwater or saltwater species, I haven’t had tons of time to learn proper ways to read a river or practice delivering a fly to a trout. I usually only get out for trout once or twice per year, and never in the winter. I was very excited to start picking up new techniques to add to my arsenal.

Rainbow TroutWe suited up and got in the river. It was pretty stained from the previous day’s rain, but wasn’t too muddy. Cole tied on a Kreelex for me, and told me how to fish the first hole. A few casts in, I get my first strike. After a hard fight and some acrobatic jumps, we have about a 14″ rainbow in the net. A few casts later, I was hooked up again with another beautiful, hard fighting rainbow trout.

The trout Albemarle Angler put in the river aren’t your standard stocked trout. They feed on natural river-based food, rather than hatchery food. The fish still readily take a fly, but their natural diet makes them a bit more wily, and much closer to a wild trout than your typical stocker.

Rainbow Trout

Another nice rainbow trout released

I was impressed with how well Cole knew the waters. Despite the stained water, he could tell me exactly where every feature of the river was. He knew where the ledges were, where I could walk out on a sandbar, and where to avoid so I didn’t snag. All I could see was muddy water. This knowledge paid off, though, and he kept me on fish all day. He knew when to switch up the fly, and just how to present it to maximize your chances at a strike.

Ready to book with Albemarle Angler? Be sure to leave a review if you try them out! They can be reached at via email or by phone at (434) 977-6882. Rates for a full day floats are $350 including lunch, and wading trips start at $225 for a half day. Albemarle Angler targets smallmouth bass from mid-March through mid-October, and trout (brook, brown, rainbow, and tiger trout!) from mid-September to mid-June depending on water flows. They fish the Shenandoah and James Rivers for smallmouths, and various rivers, streams, and creeks (including some private water) for trout. Albemarle Angler is also a full service fly shop located at 1129 Emmet St, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903. As if all that isn’t enough, they also coordinate fly fishing trips across the globe.

Another Shenandoah Float Trip with Albemarle Angler

Earlier in June, I went on a float trip with Albemarle Angler. Despite the tough conditions, I had a fantastic time, and caught some great fish. Last time, the conditions weren’t right for topwater, so I booked another trip with hopes we’d have some better luck. After all, there’s no better fishing than topwater. I had such a great time with Scott on the last trip, I called Albemarle Anglerback up and scheduled another trip with him.

Luckily, we were met with much better conditions this time. It was a bit overcast with a light sprinkle every now and again, the water was fairly clear, and the flow was on the lower side. There was a new challenge for Scott this time though – I brought my girlfriend, Susanna, along with us. Susanna had been fly fishing only a couple times before with about a year spanning the last time she even picked up a fly rod. Scott was up to the task, though.

Scott sat Susanna in the front of the boat and pushed us off. Scott had tied on a streamer for me, and a small popper on Susanna’s line to make casting a little easier. Scott reminded Susanna of the basics of her cast and made sure she was able to get the line out. With both of us getting flies in the water, the trip was on.

A few minutes downstream, I’m working my streamer along some cover, just itching to feel that bump on the end of the line. Suddenly, I hear Scott say “Here it comes… OK, SET IT!” Confused, I looked at my fly and didn’t see anything. That’s when I turned my head to see Susanna’s rod doubled over, with about a 18″+ smallmouth attached to the other end. Scott walked her through the fight, and she managed to keep the line tight. Not only was this the first fish of the day, this was Susanna’s first fish that wasn’t a sunfish. The fish made a last ditch effort at the side of the boat as Scott went to net it, and evaded the mesh. Susanna brought it the fish back to the boatside, and Scott made another attempt at putting it in the net. Unfortunately, the fish had just a little bit of fight left in him, and managed to toss the hook as Scott swooped in. The smallmouth swam free, narrowly evading the horrors of a brief photo shoot.

With the excitement already starting, and Susanna preparing for her next cast, I had two thoughts in my head: how proud I was of my girlfriend for getting into such a giant bass, and “Oh crap, my girlfriend may have just hooked the biggest fish of the trip.”

20130803_103055Not too much later, Susanna hooks into a rock bass and a sunfish while Scott had me continuing to try some streamers. At that point, Scott decided topwater was where it was at today, and switched me over to a gurgler. Soon after, I was on my first smallmouth. It didn’t have the size of Susanna’s, but was still as fun fight. We continued to see great action on smallmouths for most of the morning. Quite the difference a great guide can make – Susanna went from hardly being able to cast to consistently catching smallmouths in a matter of a couple hours.

In the midst of all the smallmouth action, Scott floated us past some slow water with lots of cover that just screamed largemouth bass habitat. The Shenandoah has some BIG largemouth hiding in it, and I figured I’d try to pull one out of it.

Shenandoah LargemouthI laid out a nice, long cast with the green gurgler. I gave it a quick strip to make some commotion, and waited for a few seconds. I gave it another rip, and the fly made the perfect splashing action. Another pause. I watched a mouth devour the foam and fur, and set the hook. “Just an average largemouth,” I thought… until the fish made a run. I realized I had a nice one on the end of the line. The bass gave me a few shoulder leans and tried running for the cover. My Orvis Helios 2 had the backbone to turn him, but I started getting a little worried if my 3X tippet would withstand the stretching. I let him have a little line back before coercing him to the boat. Scott netted him up, and I admired the nice 20″ – 22″ largemouth sitting in the next. This fish wasn’t only long, he was fat. Scott snapped a few pictures of me and the quarry, and we let the fish swim back off into his home. I’m sure the fish let out a huge sigh of relief, but it unquestionably wasn’t as big as my sigh of relief. “At least this fish was bigger than Susanna’s,” I said to myself.

We kept on fishing, with the bite starting to slow a little as the sun started coming out. Even still, we continued getting nice reactions from the average size (12″-16″) smallmouths and some giant sunfish. We stopped on a beach for a great lunch. Scott brought along some fantastic sandwiches from a deli near Charlottesville. After scarfing them down, we continued our day.

The afternoon bite was a bit slower than the morning, although we had pockets of frenzied activity. I was still hoping for a trophy smallmouth of my own. The 16″ fish sure are fun – heck so are the 12″ fish – but bigger is definitely better. Hopefully the big fish would cooperate like his younger cousins had been. The fish were so eager to bite, I even had one fish come at my fly three separate times after I pulled the fly out of its mouth the first two times. All this pointed to a good shot at a big guy.

Big Shenandoah SmallmouthBy late afternoon, we were drifting past a bank with a nice grass patch along the edge. Scott had me casting up to it to try to coerce a fish to bite. No luck. Scott had a feeling about that section though, and rowed us back up stream to do one more float past it. I laid out my cast, popped the gurgler, and just as I was about to pick up and throw again, a flash of bronze engulfed the fly. At first I thought it was another average sized smallie, but the fish quickly set me straight with one heck of a run. The battle continued as the bronzeback put my 7wt to work. A few jumps and several hard runs later, the fish came boatside, and Scott swooped in with the net. This fish wasn’t quite as big as the largemouth, but it fought a heck of a lot harder. It even rivaled the size of the fish Susanna lost at the boat.

We took a few more fish to the boat through the rest of the afternoon, but nothing else that rivaled the size of our earlier fish. Nonetheless, Scott once again proved his ability to put his clients on fish consistently. This time, the topper was proving he can do it with inexperienced fishermen (and fisherwomen!), too.

Ready to book with Albemarle Angler? Be sure to leave a review if you try them out! They can be reached at via email or by phone at (434) 977-6882. Rates for a full day floats are $350 including lunch, and wading trips start at $225 for a half day. Albemarle Angler targets smallmouth bass from mid-March through mid-October, and trout (brook, brown, rainbow, and tiger trout!) from mid-September to mid-June depending on water flows. They fish the Shenandoah and James Rivers for smallmouths, and various rivers, streams, and creeks (including some private water) for trout. Albemarle Angler is also a full service fly shop located at 1129 Emmet St, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903. As if all that isn’t enough, they also coordinate fly fishing trips across the globe.

Float Trip with Albemarle Angler

This summer has been pretty busy, so when I realized I had a spare weekend day to hit the water, all I wanted to do was head out to the Shenandoah Valley and catch some fish. I started calling up some guides, and luckily, despite only having about a week’s notice, Scott from Albemarle Angler was available for a full day trip this past Saturday. As the trout season was dwindling down, Scott suggested we do a smallmouth float – which was fine by me since Smallies are one of my favorite fish to catch, period. We decided on a several mile stretch right out of Shenandoah, VA.

In the days before the trip, I started getting a little nervous. A big storm was supposed to roll through Thursday, and I began suspecting the river would get blown out. Luckily, it tracked just far enough to have a minimal impact on the water levels. Scott called me the day before the trip for finalize details, and he said the water would be high, but fish-able. Disaster averted.

Muddy Water

I met up with Scott at the boat launch and discovered the water had a bit more color than we were expecting. We didn’t think we’d have crystal clear water (and frankly, didn’t really want it), but the water had maybe about a foot of visibility. Yikes. It looked like I was going to have a challenging day ahead of me. We got our rods rigged up – two with floating lines, and one with a sinker – and Scott pushed us off and down the river.

The morning was tough. We threw almost everything in our collective fly boxes and couldn’t get so much as a strike. We tried clousers, worms, hellgramites, hogsuckers, small flies, big flies, purple flies, black flies, green flies… and the fish just plain ignored it. Or didn’t see the fly. It was a rough first few hours, but at least I was outside and relaxing. The morning grew older, and I still hadn’t gotten a strike. Trying to find something that would work, Scott found a nice feeder creek, and anchored us up at the confluence. It had everything we could want – clearer water, an eddy, and some dead water too. Scott pointed out exactly where to toss my fly, but my luck still didn’t change.

Largemouth Bass

We spent a good 10 minutes on this spot changing out flies, but I just couldn’t convince the fish I’d give them another day to live if they just bit my fly. Scott was certain this was the spot though. He picked up his rod, rigged up with a Kreelex, and tossed it out as well to double our odds and find what the fish were biting. A couple casts later, and he connects! He quickly hands the rod over to me, and I pull in a BIG sunfish. It wasn’t a smallmouth, but at least we got the skunk off the boat. He tells me to keep fishing that fly now that we got a bite. I make my next cast, and WHAM! Another hit – this one a lot stronger. After a nice battle, Scott netted a great size largemouth bass!

Shenandoah Smallmouth BassWe kept on that spot for another 20 minutes or so. I ended up connecting with our first smallmouth of the trip, and a second one shortly thereafter. We left the confluence shortly after I nailed another big sunfish. Armed with our knowledge of the recipe for success, we moved on for some new water. It wasn’t too long before I felt that tug and set the hook on another smallmouth. This guy struggled, danced, and tried to jump his way off the hook, but he was no match for us. A few photo ops, and he was off to swim another day. I was really hoping he’d tell his buddies to come play.

Scott and I started to feel our stomachs grumble a bit, so we pulled over for lunch – which was included in the cost of the trip. Scott brought the coolers on shore broke out some chips, and opened the cooler. I expected something nice and simple, like a deli sandwich. Next thing I know, Scott is breaking out a portable gas grill! The menu was not ham sandwiches today. We were talking gourmet, freshly grilled burgers topped with cheese, bacon, sauteed onions and sauteed mushrooms on ciabatta! It tasted just as great as it sounds, too. Normally, I wouldn’t even write a sentence about the lunch on a one-day fishing trip, let alone a whole paragraph, but I felt it was important. It can often be difficult to differentiate good guide services from great ones, or great ones from the best – but to me, such a specialized touch makes it tough to parallel. Sorry, Scott, hopefully I didn’t set the bar too high for you for the future!

Shenandoah SmallmouthAfter lunch, we set off for more battles. We kept the Kreelex on the line, and that kept the smallmouths on the line. Scott did great work constantly picking out the eddies and pockets he wanted me to fish. Each time, I would drop a fly in and get a hit. Scott even put up with me occasionally casting into the trees. He’d dutifully row the boat over for me to free up my fly. Of course, I would always pick my opportunity to get the fly caught up when we were in the fastest water and it was toughest for Scott to row. Our fears of a slow day turned into Scott commenting on the great numbers we put up – at least for the conditions. I didn’t really count, but I would guess we had at least 15 smallies to the raft by the end of the float. Add those on to several bruiser sunfish and the largemouth, and it was plenty to keep me entertained! I had a great experience with Scott. He has quite the fishing background having spent a significant time both out west and in the Shenandoah area. I’m already determined to get out with Scott and Albemarle Angler for another float this summer, and am looking forward to giving them a try when the trout start biting again.

View on the ShenandoahShenandoah Redbreast Sunfish

Ready to book with Albemarle Angler? Be sure to leave a review if you try them out! They can be reached at via email or by phone at (434) 977-6882. Rates for a full day floats are $350 including lunch, and wading trips start at $225 for a half day. Albemarle Angler targets smallmouth bass from mid-March through mid-October, and trout (brook, brown, rainbow, and tiger trout!) from mid-September to mid-June depending on water flows. They fish the Shenandoah and James Rivers for smallmouths, and various rivers, streams, and creeks (including some private water) for trout. Albemarle Angler is also a full service fly shop located at 1129 Emmet St, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903. As if all that wasn’t enough, they also coordinate fly fishing trips across the globe.