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!

2 Days of Islamorada Tarpon Fly Fishing with Randy Stallings

Over Memorial Day, I did two days of tarpon fishing on the fly with Captain Randy Stallings. My trip got off to a pretty rough start. Storms rolled through the east coast, and I was faced with severe delays. After several hours of sitting at the airport and wondering if my flight was even going to take off, I finally heard those magic words: “We’re now boarding the flight to Miami.” We touched down a little after 1 AM, and by the time I grabbed my rental car, drove to Islamorada, and checked in to my hotel, I was getting to sleep a little after 3 AM.

Islamorada Flays

After a brief nap, I met Captain Randy at 7 AM at the docks. He was all loaded up and ready to go, so I hopped aboard his 18′ Hell’s Bay flats skiff, and we headed out to the fishing grounds. Although I’ve read as much as I could find about tarpon fishing, this was my first time out of the flats, so I had no idea what to actually expect. It was an absolutely beautiful day. Calm seas, clear water, and blue skies. A short trip to the flats and Randy cuts the motor and breaks out the flats pole. I immediately look straight down off the side of the boat and see two giant tarpon just cruising right past us. I’m blown away by the size and stealth of these fish. Randy tells me those 80-100 lb fish I just saw are about normal size. My adrenaline starts pumping, and I can’t wait to get in on the action.

Randy grabbed a rod, and gives me a quick demo on using the stripping basket and the proper retrieve. He hands me over the rod, and I toss out the line to get it laid out nicely in the stripping basket. We’re ready to go. Randy starts scanning the water from his platform and calls out “We’ve got a line coming in, about 1 o’clock!” I get ready to cast, wait for Randy’s go ahead, and start double hauling. I lay down my third false cast, and shoot the line at the fish. My fly laid down about thirty feet wide and ten feet short. Woah. Let’s chalk that up to high adrenaline throwing me off. I quickly pick back up and toss a mildly better second cast. A bit long this time, but at least a little on target. I strip in the fly, but don’t get so much of a mention. I didn’t really have a third shot at this line of tarpon. Randy spots a second line and gets us in position. I managed a bit more accuracy this time, but still overshot and spooked the line. I could already feel the lack of sleep starting to hit me, and slinging around a 12 weight was no easy task when all I wanted to do was take a nap.

The fish were running pretty good, but my casting just wasn’t up to par. About the 7th or 8th line of fish in, I finally laid down a perfect cast. I start stripping in and a tarpon breaks for my fly. He followed it about 10 feet before quickly spinning back around and joining back up with his school. No luck that time. Off to find the next fish.

Thinking of the boat as a clock face becomes incredibly more challenging as you get more tired. I can’t tell you how many times Randy would call out “3 O’Clock” and I’d look left, prompting a “Your other 3 O’Clock!” The day continued on, and while I did get a few follows, most of my casts were just poorly placed. I’d either lead the fish too much, throw way too short, or throw over the fish and spook the school. Randy did his best to work around my challenges. He got me as close as he could to the fish and even switched me over to a 10-wt rod with a clear line to help keep the fish from getting spooked if (when) I overshot the line. Even still, I could hear the frustration in Randy’s voice as I cast off target time and time again. I understand that it can be frustrating as a guide to work your butt off to get your client in perfect position over and over, only to have them completely miss so many shots, but I still would’ve hoped for a little more patience. After all, the client is the customer.

The day was wearing on, and I had yet to stick a silver king. I’m beginning to think I’m going to come up empty handed. Randy calls out that a line is coming straight at us from 12 o’clock. “Just toss it straight ahead!” That’s my wheelhouse right there. Straight line, no worrying about getting down the right distance to lead the fish – just straight down the pike and retrieve. I lay out the cast and start stripping in the fly. I see one heading right for my line. My heart begins racing and I loose track of where the fly is in the water! I’m still watching the fish, then I hear Randy call out “Holy sh*t he ate it!” At the same time, I felt my line go tight on my retrieve and I strip strike the fish like my life depends on it. IT SET! The fish was stuck, and luckily for me, didn’t go skyward and throw the hook immediately.

The battle is on. The reel is screaming as the fish pulls off line at will. Within seconds, I’m into the backing. The prehistoric beast starts dancing on the surface. Randy happily reminds me to bow to the fish as he jumps. I remember on jump number two. We’re still hooked up. He already has about 100 yards of backing out. Every maybe thirty seconds, I get an opportunity to reel in some line, but for every ten feet I get back, he takes out 50 more. Another jump, another bow, and the fish is still hooked. This is the biggest fish I’ve ever caught or even hooked on a fly rod, and the battle was unlike anything I’ve experienced.

We’re close to five minutes into the battle and the fish leaps skyward one more time. I bow, but then the dreaded feeling comes over me. A sudden slack in the line. I reel quickly in hopes the fish was just running at me, but I soon come to the realization it’s gone. I bring in the line with an ear-to-ear grin despite losing my first tarpon. It was an incredible experience. I finally get the line reeled up and go to inspect the fly, only to realize it isn’t there. The loop we used to tie on the fly was severed. Our only guess is it somehow got caught up in the eye of the hook and the sharp metal cut it free. As it was pretty late, we took a few more shots – no follows – before calling it a day. I grabbed a quick dinner at one of the local restaurants and headed back to my hotel to catch up on sleep.

We headed back out on day 2. I felt well rested (finally!) and was looking forward to getting another shot at one of these monsters. It was fairly clear again, but an onshore wind picked up. Luckily, my casting ability came back now that I wasn’t about to nap on the boat. The first shot I had was perfect, but no interest. That morning, a missed shot was the rarity rather than the norm. I had several great follows that we were sure were going to take the fly, but we could just never coax the fish to inhale. The wind started blowing even harder, casting became more and more challenging, and one by one, the other boats started leaving the flats. A little after noon, and casting became almost impossible with the wind. Randy offered to end the day early and call it a half day. I appreciated Randy offering that rather than keeping me out there to “run up the tab,” particularly because we both knew it was extremely unlikely to get another shot at the fish.

I enjoyed going out with Randy. He was easy to talk with, and REALLY knew his tarpon fishing and how to give someone the best possible chance to hook up. If you’re experienced on the flats, I wouldn’t hesitate to give Randy a call. I have no question you’ll put up some great numbers with him. If you’re a flats fishing newbie, though, you might be wise to save Randy for your second or third trip.

Ready to book with Captain Randy Stallings? Captain Randy can be reached by email at or by phone at (305) 587-0307 or (305) 453-9854. Rates start at $400 for a 4-hour half day trip.