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.