BEFORE CASTRO, before the Spanish crown, and longer still before the indigenous tribes of the Taino and Ciboney spread out across the Greater Antilles, the Gardens have stood at the edge of sight and reach, and watched as the world passed slowly by. Kingdoms, rebellions, and Cold Wars came and went, and, in the end, were only blips on the radar to an unchanging and ancient landscape that has been around since Tyrannosaurus rex walked the earth.
Approximately 70 to 135 million years ago, there were large tectonic events between the Caribbean and North American plates at their meeting point along the southeastern coast of an early Cretaceous-period Cuba. These violent episodes of geologic force triggered a great shift of the landscapes within the Greater Antilles, and the earthen mass of Cuba was pitched upward and downward, initiating the rise of mountains in the east and the reduction of lands in the south. These events formed the eastern mountains that would eventually conceal Castro’s rebels from the pursuit of Batista’s military forces, and the creation of the very flats, coral-lined marls, and islands that Castro coveted most.
Over the centuries, the keys of Jardines de la Reina have seen many tribes and communities attempt to prosper among their lush yet formidable landscapes. Whole communities of Cuban fishermen and trappers once tried to live off the bounty of its lobsters, sponges, and hides of local rodents known as hutia, sometime in the early 20th century, but their ways of life have been reduced to mostly legends and oral family histories. Their stories and homesteads have been slowly etched away by the corrosiveness of salt and time.
Its immensity and intricate arrangement are why much of the southern portion of the chain is nicknamed El Laberinto de las Doce Leguas, or “the Labyrinth of the Twelve Leagues.” It is a perfect place for a ship, plane, or an entire village to simply disappear. In the end, human life here was simply never meant to be.
Today, the waters of the Gulf of Ana Maria and the Caribbean Sea course through the scattered islands of JDR like a great sieve, leaving an abundance of life and death in their wake. Old mangroves die, new ones sprout, and large schools of baitfish survive the day hidden amongst the great root beds and channels only to find themselves a target of predation as tidal changes give way. The deep waters on both sides of the island chain push and pull in an endless game of tug-of-war, and deposit nutrients and fish into the fertile mangrove swamps and flats within. Each island is a small-scale ecosystem within the greater bionetwork of this sprawling archipelago.
The expansiveness of Jardines de la Reina begs to be explored. Staring out at the expanse from the top deck of Avalon III, one begins to contemplate the scale and magnitude of it all, but it’s not until you hit the ground that the smaller intricacies and the watery underworld below begin to reveal themselves in an abundance of red cushion starfish, Gorgonia ventalina, and the varying minutiae of life amid the living seafloor. It’s a diver’s paradise and a content angler’s undoing.
In such a sprawling panorama, the real beauty is in the sheer size and exclusivity of it all. The whole chain is roughly the size of the Florida Keys, but you could pick just about any island, no matter the size or location, and likely find incredible fishing and diving in its surrounding waters. Not to mention, it’s all yours.
The whole archipelago is logistically broken up into three sections: A, B, and C. Each section is granted to a single live-aboard operation, and every day guides and anglers pair up and hit the water to explore to their hearts’ content. When one section might encompass an area as big as the entire upper Florida Keys, conditions can definitely play a major role in your ability to explore all that is available.
During our time in JDR, we experienced abnormally windy conditions, even for March, but the inherent design of JDR’s island networks meant an abundance of available flats and leeward sides to fish no matter the tide or gust. Rough water, however, also meant that our daily search radius was scaled back and allowed us to merely scratch only the surface of the land and waters available. While this still left us a very large area with plenty of room to spread out, I could sense Rigo’s growing frustration at our handicap. His angst was never more obvious than on our third day after we had caught a half dozen bonefish and a nice tarpon before lunch. It was written all over his face: grand slam.
We fished awhile longer and boated a few more fish before Rigo causally said, “ Okay. Maybe we try permit now.”
“Sí. You never know. . . .”
AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT, on this particular day, the winds dissipated in the afternoon, and after a quick radio to another nearby guide boat, we paired up and set a course for an area the guides referred to as Chocolat.
Something was immediately different as we started the trip from our rendezvous point. We were no longer motoring within the main island network, but instead Rigo turned the bow to uncharted waters and toward an area that—to a gringo like me—could easily be mistaken for open ocean. As the 70-horsepower engine droned, the horizon spilled slowly forward, and before long, a withdrawn set of islands began to take shape in the distance.
With the sun high in the sky, I began to lose my bearings. I had no notion of east or west, or even from what direction we came. The only thing I was aware of was our remoteness. I began to understand why human life in the Gardens never took hold.
Rigo navigated the labyrinth with unyielding certainty, but the rusted remnants and hulls of past seaworthy vessels littered the landscapes and painted the true picture of its isolation. Some days, you might see a lobster or fishing boat passing through from the ocean, and some days, you see nothing at all.
As we motored on, a solitary flat emerged abruptly from the deep blue in front of us. Soon, the sound of the engine gave way to a windswept silence that overtook our little skiff. As our wake carried us over the sheer edges of the flat, I asked Rigo, “¿Hay palometa aqui?”
He hopped up onto the poling platform and with a grunt said, “We see.”
Suddenly aware of the task at hand, I dug into the cork, took a deep breath, and began to scan the area for signs of life.
As we poled along, schools of yellowtail snapper and pintanos parted, and vibrant colors emerged from the coralclad ground below. I turn to ask Rigo a question and see him squinting in the sunny distance.
“What? You see something?”
“Hold on . . .”
I turn in the direction of his gaze and scan eagerly for a sign of movement.
He whispers, “Permit tailing. Two o’clock . . . ninety feet.”
His hushed tone is unnerving as I frantically comb the watery surface. Then the subtle motions of a dark tail waving slowly back and forth materializes just a few inches out of the water along a rising coral head.
We pole slowly forward to close the distance, and I begin my cast. As line spills out of the guides, I watch the fly sailing parallel to the water and I let it run through my fingers. It lands with a soft thud just a few feet in front of the fish. I strip the fly, and the permit turns toward it. With a flick of its tail, it lunges forward.
Motoring home that afternoon, I cracked a beer and watched the sun grow heavy as we crisscrossed through the watery maze. After minutes of silence, I asked Rigo, “What happened back there?
“I thought I had that fish.”
Rigo smiles, exhales smoke from his unfiltered cigarette, and says, “That’s funny.” He laughs for a moment, and then he begins to sing.
The words are lost over the engine and wind, but I don’t need to hear them. I already know the tune; the story I had to figure out for myself.
I don’t think it’s about a girl after all.
Seth Fields operates the Gray’s website and is the owner of The Hatch Outfitters fly shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He’s already planning a return trip to Cuba, and has a new fly that he says is guaranteed to make permit eat.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Travel to Jardines de la Reina is conducted through the historic town of Camaguëy and the Ignacio Agramonte International Airport. There are flights from both Fort Lauderdale and the Miami airport. Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers’ travel schedule for this trip means an overnight stay before the regroup and bus ride to Júcaro Port. I highly suggest staying in Cuba at the Hotel Santa María; Avalon will handle arrangements. The city is vibrant, safe, and has plenty to see.
ATMs and credit cards are virtually nonexistent in Cuba. Make sure to bring everything you will need for expenses and tips in cash. If you wish to convert money to Cuban convertible pesos (CUC$) you can do so at the airport, but it is not necessary, as most places accept USD at a 15 percent upcharge.
GEAR: With such an array of species, waters, and fishing situations, it’s best to be prepared. After all, if you don’t bring it with you, it doesn’t exist in Cuba. The guides have little by way of flies or gear.
For rods, one 12-weight, two 10-weights, and two 8-weights is ideal. This lineup allows you to hit bigger tarpon, resident tarpon, permit, and bonefish sufficiently, and have a backup rod ready for whatever else the Gardens throw at you.
Have a floating line for each outfit, but also make sure to take at least one intermediate line for your 10- or 12-weight for tarpon in the channels. You should also take fluorocarbon line in varying weight strengths from 80, 60, 40, 20, and 16, down to 12 pounds.
Flies can make or break a trip to the Gardens. There is a lot of turtle grass, and your bonefish flies should be light yet weedless and ride with the hook point up. Dumbbell eyes are generally too heavy, so look for or tie flies with light bead chain on size 6 to size 4 hooks. Tarpon flies for this area are pretty standard, so make sure to have Tarpon Toads and Cockroaches in various colors. The guides insist on using Avalon Permit Flies for permit. Honestly, there’s no need for much else.