Come to the Gardens

Who is that masked man?

Who is that masked man?

IMG_1174 (1)IMG_3869diveCome to the Gardens
A waning crescent moon hangs in a deep black sky sprinkled with stars. It’s quiet, very quiet, except for the rumble of distant thunder and the soft sounds of juvenile tarpon rising to breathe, rippling the mirrored surface of the mangrove lagoon. As if signaled by the faint light in the east, a school of jack crevalle erupts in a feeding frenzy. Then as quickly as it began, their fury ceases.
It’s a world away from the mad musical chaos of last night’s carnival in Havana, Cuba.
Yesterday’s six hour bus ride from Cuba’s capital followed by a three hour boat shuttle delivered our diverse group of anglers to tiny cay, 60 miles off Cuba’s southern shore. The Tortuga, our plush floating home lies anchored in a garden, an aquatic garden….”Jadines de la Reina”….”The Gardens of the Queen.”
Described by journalist, marine biologist and anglers from the world over as the most natural marine eco-system in the Caribbean, this diving and angling paradise awakes softly with the rising sun, much like a child emerging from peaceful slumber.
Soon, a dozen fly fishermen will stir with the new light. Rising to the aroma of island grown expresso coffee, they all seek the same goal – leaping tarpon, elusive permit, and tailing bonefish…. The flats slam.
Diehard fishermen will endure a brutal mid-August sun in Dolphin skiffs, gliding over crystal clear shallows while others spend the morning on the water and the balance of the day under it. Whether above or below, the sight of sharks, turtles, tarpon and Goliath grouper with little fear of humans await.
Christopher Columbus claimed this water wonder in 1492. The astounding beauty of its coral reefs, islands and aquatic life, visible from topside inspired the intrepid explorer to name it in honor of his beloved backer, Queen Isabella of Spain.
After what can only be described as a tropical lumberjack breakfast – guava, pineapple, ham omelets and more wonderful Cuban coffee, we prepare our lunch from a buffet table. Each angler builds a mid-day meal from an assortment of fruits, salad, lobster, pork, chicken and beef ropa veija (old clothes) from the lunch buffet. We will dine on one of the beautiful beaches in the shade of island palms.
Avalon fishing Charters – the exclusive licensee for the Gardens – provides mothership operations for fly fishing and diving. For almost two decades, Avalon’s zone management and catch and release practices have been praised by anglers and marine eco- experts.
Avalon guides are assigned specific zones within the boundaries of the preserve which are rotated daily. This unique management plan prevents slamming the hot spots.
Dr. David Vaughan director of Mote Marine’s coral growing and reef restoration projects visited the Gardens this past spring with other scientist studying the preserve’s flora and fauna. “
“The base corals are in great shape and the reef includes all the predator species.”
“I finished one dive,” he said emotionally. “Spit out my regulator and shouted….this is the way it’s supposed to be.”
Environmental Defense Fund’s Dan Whittle measures the Garden’s health by the number of predators. “This area has eight to ten times the sharks we see at other Caribbean destinations.”

Speeding off on a Yamaha powered skiff, our guide Tony heads for our assigned zone. Spreading out over the innumerable islands, coves, creeks, and ocean passes comprising this grand aquatic preserve, each captain will pick his spots free of competition.
Alek Rich, my angling partner and new friend has requested tarpon. The young man from Texas has yet to boat one on fly. Although tarpon season is mid-winter here, I dove among hundreds of juvenile fish hiding along the reef yesterday.
Tony poles us through a tidal pass squeezing between lush green mangroves and directs Alex’s cast along the deeper side. Using a steeple cast perfected on mountain streams, he lays a pinfish deceiver perfectly and the explosion is instant.
The thirty pound tarpon leaps away from the security of his root filled home and sprints for the open bay. Five jumps later Alex has his fish and the slam pursuit is on.
Next are bonefish which, as our week unfolds, will prove to be the bail out fish of the Garden. Bonefish in muds, in mangroves and atop open flats were seemingly available at will. Any time fishing slowed, we caught bones.
Alex’s first bone of the day would prove challenging. Casting to a group of tailing, fining fish frolicking in a small lagoon dotted with new mangrove growth, his first presentation is gobbled. Problem is the fly line is across a small sprout. Miraculously, the six pound fish bolts off and the line clears only to completely encircle another single rooted plant. With great poling and patients from the seasoned angler, the fish is cleared and boated….phase two of the slam completed.
Permit as always would prove difficult. Palometa is permit in Spanish…. it’s feminine. Permit on fly, like the pursuit of a beautiful woman requires time and work with a great deal of desire thrown in. On this particular day Alex suffered from a bit of buck fever on his permit presentations, something any saltwater fly fishermen understands.
On our arrival back at Tortuga, we were met by Milkis and Tania offering Mojitoes and ice cold towels, perfect after the hot August sun. On the back deck of the comfortable barge we debrief, brag, and recount the highlights of the day.
Chris and son Mike of Boulder Colorado stuck with bonefish most of the morning before breaking off for an afternoon dive. They released more than thirty.
Many firsts would occur during the week, like Vlad from Finland’s first flats slam. Alex and Mike’s first tarpon on fly and Reba’s solo sojourn into the Zen of silence – she was fishing alone, isolated by language.
Gardens of the Queen is reverently referred to as the most natural reef and island ecosystem in the Caribbean…. Sublime comes to mind. Here, man’s influence has been minimal. When poled individually, our group’s most common response to the Gardens after “great fishing” was, “there is no trash here”….Above or below the waterline.

Fish Cuba Now! A call to action.

400dpiLogo“Support the Cuban People” program allows legal travel to the recently opened island’s aquatic wonders. By providing educational support for our captains and staff, we are helping usher in a new era of angling in Cuba.
“This is exactly what the president’s new policy of engaging Cuba is all about,” said Dr. Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C. “Mr. Thompson’s program is providing and empowering the Cuban society in a non-governmental way by providing resources and expertise that can benefit the local Cuban economy.”

Nov. 14th-17th fishing and diving – Cayo Levisa
Nov. 17th

John presents Rafeal with a spinner for his young son.

John presents Rafeal with a spinner for his young son.

30 Plus boat fleet arrives at Marina Hemingway from Key West.
Nov. 20th – Maria la Gorda, one of the top five dive sites in the world.
Nov.23rd-28th Wahoo tournament Marina Hemingway.
Dec. 1st-5th Tarpon and snook river fishing, Las Salenas Bonefish
Jan.31st, 2016 – Isle de la Juventud – Cuba’s largest out island on the “Backside of Paradise.”
3 day and week-long land based fishing trips starting at only $2200.
Feb.21st-28th – Cayo Santa Maria – Garden of the King.
“It’s clear this is a big bone & permit destination, we had a collective 25 plus shots at permit and saw at least half a dozen 8 pound plus bonefish….” Dave Baum Garden of the King – 2015

Fly direct and save.

Join me for what will be an unforgettable travel experiences and angling adventures.
Capt Phil Thompson
Fish Cuba Now does not charge a fee to travel under our Support the Cuban People umbrella. We ask only that you bring as much medicine and vitamins as you can.
9 2

Free At Last! Let’s Sail to Cuba

9 2hi Phil,

I’ve been in touch with folks at Commerce and Treasury, and yes:

if the people on a boat are going to Cuba under one of the 12 categories approved for a OFAC general license (such as participation in a recognized sporting competition, like the Hemingway tournament), then no BIS license from Commerce is needed and the boat can stay in Cuba for up to 14 days. Also, the Treasury requirement for an OFAC passenger carrier certification license has also been eliminated for such boats.

So, all the boat needs is the CG-3300 permit to enter Cuban territorial waters.

Great progress !


Dr. Jeffery Boutwell serves on the board of The Latin American Working Group in Washington D.C.


Fish Cuba Now! Cayo Santa Maria

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023“This is exactly what the president’s new policy of engaging Cuba is all about,” said Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C. Boutwell was also in Cuba for the tournament and met Thompson there. “Mr. Thompson’s program is providing and empowering the Cuban society in a non-governmental way by providing resources and expertise that can benefit the local Cuban economy.” – See more at:

Cayo Santa Maria is located in the “Garden of the King” preserve on Cuba’s north shore. It’s known for tarpon (see Gaff magazine July 2013) and big bonefish.
This is a fly or spin location.

Saturday, Nov 14th
• Flight arrival in Havana
• Greeted at airport, transfer to hotel (not included).
• Night at 4-Star Hotel (included in package)
• 9:00 am Meet in Hotel lobby for transfer to Villa Las Brujas
• Free afternoon
• Night at Villa Las Brujas
Monday- Saturday,
• 7.30 am wake-up call, breakfast
• Fishing full day with packed lunch
• Return in the afternoon
• Nights at Villa Las Brujas
• Wake-up /breakfast
• Ground Transfer to Habana International Airport

Low season rate $3,ooo. plus tips.
Fly direct and save.

Garden of the Queen,Cuba….and what a garden!



The first order of business when planning your trip to newly opened Cuba is finding out which General License category you will travel under. A General license requires no pre-approval or paperwork.
There are 12 classifications of General Licenses under the new rules ordered by the President and can be found on the O.F.A.C. website. Most involve organized groups with set agendas, but two are of particular interest to Americans who desire to see Cuba on their own terms.
“Support for the Cuban People” is my favorite.

So, visit the O.F.A.C site and pick your mission. And if your mission is a mission, (religious travel is allowed) tell emigration what the lady who just returned from the island with her Bible told me. “Cuba is hungry for Jesus.”
Once you’ve selected a General License category, you’ll need to find a flight that fits your schedule. In Florida, ABC Charters flies out of Tampa and Miami not only direct to Havana, but Santa Clara, Holguin, Santiago and Cienfuegos as well. Flight schedules are on their website.. Other airports including O’Hare and Dallas-Ft.Worth have been licensed for flights to Cuba, so expect them to ramp up service soon. I use Gran Caribe Travel in Tampa who also obtains my Cuban visa and can arrange car rentals on the island.

Casa Particular – Cuban version of a bed and breakfast owned by private entrepreneurs….your money goes directly to the people. 5 star rated for safety and service.
So. You googled “Casa Particular” and found what looked to be a nice room off the Malecon in Havana. You booked two nights and left the rest of your week on the island open. You’d read some crazy travel tip advising a “book as you go” schedule for rooms. Worry not. No matter your travel schedule, Cuba’s Coconut Telegraph (thanks Jimmy) connects Casa Particular owners across the island.
Casa Particular owners, when told of your next destination will call ahead and find you a room.
At this time, travel by boat is going to take some paperwork. The State Department and Department of Commerce are issuing licenses on a seemingly limited basis. Key West to Marina Hemingway is a well use path, but look to the newly expanded 1100 slip marina in Veradaro…a Miami type resort with much better beaches. Either way it’s a day sail or a 3 hour run on your average fishing boat. But don’t let the short distance fool you. It can turn in an instant…. becoming one of the roughest stretches of the sea.

Best Tarpon Fishing in Cuba?


Welcome Christian Oro who has just secured the rights for “The Garden of the King” on Cuba’s north coast.

Even though I haven’t fished there, I wrote about it from the view of Dr. Gerald Millistein who fished the area in 1951…see Gaff Magazine July 2013. Latest reports the Tarpon are thick as fleas.

We’ll be heading there in October 2015 with our Support the Cuban People program.
Join us

Tampa Tribune story on “Support the Cuban People”

Our capitalist crew gathers at Marina Hemingway

Our capitalist crew gathers at Marina Hemingway

Havana fishing event brings anglers, worlds togetherBy Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Published: July 4, 2015 | Updated: July 4, 2015 at 08:37 AM
Phil Thompson showed up to repeat his 2013 victory when he entered a recent fishing contest in Cuba, so third place left him wanting more.

But the 63-year-old Ruskin native reeled in much more than a third-place trophy during his recent trip to Cuba for the 65th Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament in Havana.

For one thing, he set a tournament record for the most marlin caught and released in a day with five.

But more importantly, Thompson and a group of a half-dozen American anglers shared their knowledge of American fly fishing techniques and equipment with Cubans who either hope to get into the charter fishing industry or are already in it.

The one-week course, called “Support the Cuban People Fishing Program,” brought together two groups from countries isolated by politics for more than five decades. They met June 12 in the Cuban fishing hub of Cayo Cruz, on the northern shore of the province of Camaguey.

“We became like family,” Thompson said.

One of the Americans gave a new Cuban friend the shoes off his feet. They also gave away fishing rods, one to a man who wants to teach his son to fish but can’t afford a rod, and another to a bartender who has a captain’s license and a dream of leading fishing charters.

“Hopefully, by the time we get back, the bartender will be on his way to becoming a guide,” said Thompson, who splits time between Key West and Tampa. “That will elevate his pride and income.”

Thompson is among those who believe restrictions on travel between the United States and Cuba will be lifted soon. Currently, tourism trips to Cuba are illegal under U.S. law.