FISH CUBA NOW! Support The Cuban People….Bailing Out With Bonefish

IMG_3825Bailout – maritime in origin, it’s the act of removing water from a sinking vessel….usually with a small bucket.

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Bailing Out With Bonefish
Every fly fisherman knows frustration when not able to find, feed or land their target species. But, to fishing guides – being compensated for their expertise – wind, clouds, murky water or a lack of interest are merely excuses.
Key West’s annual tarpon migration attracts a flood of anglers anxious to test their skills on one of the world’s top gamefish. At the height of the season, these silver sided, air breathing monsters flow down the beaches in schools often a mile long. Although an awesome sight for anyone with rod in hand, if the wind is wrong, the tarpon develop lockjaw.
On those days a Key’s guide may turn to barracuda as a bail out fish. Although exciting when hooked, jumping, snapping and armed with dangerous incisors, a ten pound cuda is not a hundred pound tarpon.
Capt. Grizz pursues marlin on fly – his territory, Cabo San Lucas Mexico. Twelve weight rods and a “tease them up and toss” technique is his preferred method for stripped, black, blue marlin and sailfish.
“Veteran captains know when it is not going to happen.” He says. “On those days we’ll head inshore for rooster fish or cero mackerel. We’ll downsize the tackle and bend a rod. It can turn the day around.”
Bailing out it’s called and every charter captain and guide has a plan. When the targeted species can’t be found or won’t co-operate, switch.
“Jardines de la Renia”- “Gardens of the Queen” is reverently referred to as the most natural reef and flats ecosystem existing in the Caribbean today. Cuba’s oldest aquatic preserve was a favorite spearfishing site for Fidel Castro, a fact, along with geography – it lies sixty miles off the island’s south coast – that has allowed it to lay virtually untouched by man.
This collection of uninhabited barrier Keys separates the shallow bay of Gulfo de Ana Maria from the rich blue waters of the Caribbean. Beyond the deserted white sand beaches and the pristine coral reefs, the ocean bottom drops to infinity.
My new friend Alek Rich first called it to my attention in the middle of our second day of fly fishing in the Gardens.
“See how he keeps taking us back to bonefish.” He said quietly. “Every time the fishing slows, we go back to catching bones.”

Alek and our Avalon fishing guide Tony are at the same stage of life, early twenties. Although separated by language, these two young men from totally diverse backgrounds and experiences found a bond in the shared love of fishing….the report was instant.
Alek recently graduated from Tulane with a degree in finance and has begun his banking career in Texas.
Tony just completed the two year training program required by all Avalon guides and now poles fly clients from across the globe over the pristine flats of the Gardens.
Both are smart, observant, and anxious to make a mark in their chosen fields.
Awed by the raw beauty of our surroundings, the young man from Texas had been justifiably distracted. Then, this beginning banker’s analytical training emerged as he began to decipher Tony’s pattern.
Sure enough, when I paid attention the method to our guide’s madness took shape.
Bonefish in muds, in the mangroves and atop the grass covered flats seem readily available throughout the day. When the tarpon became mid-day scarce, or the tide stage was unfavorable for permit, Tony had a bonefish spot just around the bend.
“All guides have a limit to how long they will go not catching fish.” I explained to Alek one afternoon. “And, they all have a bailout plan.”
“It’s just bazaar.” Alek countered. “The guides are using one of the most sot after fly targets in the world to break the boredom…..to bailout.”
We were sipping mojitos mixed and delivered to the rear deck of our mothership “Tortuga” by Milkis, Avalon’s beautiful blond bartender. Avalon Fishing Center is the exclusive angling company of the Gardens. Shaded from the brutal mid-August sun, we chatted with others of our group from as far away as Finland about our new discovery.
Chris and son Mike, from Boulder, Colorado added they had stayed with the bones one full morning, releasing over thirty before breaking off for an afternoon dive. “We first caught them in muds.” Mike said. “But when the tide got high we found them in the mangroves, fining and tailing.
Walt from Sarasota, Florida added the fish were well above the size of the vast schools he’s fished in Mexico. “We had them pretty much at will there too.” He offered. “But, they weren’t nearly the size of these.”
Whether this steady stream of bonefish can be counted on year round is an unknown to our group. But, it suffices to say that in August of 2015, sixty miles off the south coast of Cuba, bailing out with bonefish was the plan.

Fish Cuba Now! Support the Cuban People – Zapata Enviromental School

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img_4637Ruskin fisherman works to preserve Cuba’s environment
Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2016 6:00am

Ruskin’s Phil Thompson is helping to start a program in Cuba focused on teaching skills needed to protect nature and earn a living through eco-tourism to children living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park
TAMPA — Phil Thompson has cast enough fishing line in Cuba that it has become a second home for the Ruskin native and resident.

“Oh man, I love Cuba,” said Thompson, 64, who has been participating in fishing tournaments there since 1993. “I love its people. I love its culture. I love its beautiful nature.”
So Thompson feels a responsibility to help protect the island’s pristine nature reserves, some of which are being threatened by an onslaught of tourist anglers.
Thompson has spent the past year recruiting a collection of Americans — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway — to help teach kids living around the island’s Zapata Swamp National Park how to protect the ecosystems and earn a living via ecotourism.
“Zapata is one of Cuba’s most beautiful sanctuaries,” Thompson said. “The kids there are its future stewards.”
Titled “The Guiding Youth Project,” the after-school and weekend program is still in its planning phase. But sponsors hope it eventually will include classroom facilities and will recruit Cuban citizens to teach the children about all aspects of environmental sustainability.
Under U.S. law, Americans still can’t visit Cuba for tourism reasons. A trip must fall under one of 12 categories, including education, humanitarian, scientific research and athletic competition. Fishing tournaments in Cuba fall under the last category.
But recreational fishing there is considered a tourist activity.
It now seems doubtful that the United States’ Cuba tourism ban will be lifted under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Trump has promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders that move toward normalizing relations with the island nation.
Still, even without Americans, the Cuban tourism industry is surging and Thompson said these visitors are beginning to realize that the island’s nature reserves are as beautiful as its popular beaches.
He is concerned that overfishing and new waterside hotels to house tourists could damage the nation’s ecosystem. But Thompson also believes there can be a balance between business and environmental protection.
Rather than building giant resorts, he said, small bed-and-breakfasts and inns that cater to ecotourists can have a positive impact on the economy without hurting the environment.
Last year, he started his own “Support the Cuban People Fishing Program” that teaches Cuban anglers proper catch-and-release techniques and how to run small charter boat operations that focus on quality outings instead of the quantity of fish reeled in.
It was while holding such classes that Thompson met Felipe Alonso, a fishing guide in the Zapata Park on Cuba’s southern coast.
Alonso instructs at-risk children how to work in his field. As adults, he hopes, they will feel compelled to protect Cuban nature sanctuaries against overdevelopment, even if tourism dollars prove a big temptation.
Thompson agreed to help the Cuban fishing guide expand his program, enlisting Patrick Hemingway — grandson of the American author beloved in Cuba — and Jeffrey Boutwell, board member with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not that anyone wants to keep Zapata restrictive or for the privileged,” Boutwell said, “But it has to be managed in an environmentally sound way and in a way that allows only a certain amount of traffic. That takes knowledge.”
Thompson also recruited Jay Shelton and Kris Irwin, professors from the University of Georgia who are already involved with their institution’s satellite campus in Costa Rica, where university students learn about environmental sustainability on a 155-acre campus that doubles as a nature preserve.
Shelton and Irwin are applying for grants to purchase computers, scientific equipment and classroom supplies for the Cuban program. And schools and community centers in that area have expressed interest in hosting the program until land can be acquired on which to build facilities.
“We will make this happen,” Thompson said. “I guarantee it.”

Florida Key’s Worm Hatch

010“If there is better tarpon fishing in the world, you’d have to show it to me.” – Key West fishing guide on the annual Keys worm hatch.

When discussing the Florida Key’s worm hatch, people become wary, suspicious. Even with close friends cred wavers. Stories recounting the phenomena fall short and, when accurate adjectives are found, they’re doubted, disbelieved.

The doubters aren’t short on ammo. Take the namesake worm for instance. The lowly Palolo’s size alone would preclude any serious thought of tarpon food. What does a hundred-fifty pound prehistoric creature see in a small red worm? Certainly not sufficient sustenance to gather by the thousands and feast like there’s no tomorrow.

Maybe it’s the taste that drives the frenzy. Perhaps, to the tarpon the worm is candy. The answer might lie in the nutritional value of the small meal. Some scientist propose the worm has an aphrodisiac effect on the fish who are at the start of their own spawning cycle. Or could it be the worms give the fish a narcotic buzz – gets them higher than a hippie in a helicopter.

Whatever the draw, on calm nights in late spring or early summer – with the right combination of tide and moon – the tarpon gather then rise to slurp the floating worms.

One guide attempting to deliver the scene said. “It’s like you threw two handfuls of M-80s in the water. Bucket size explosions, everywhere. Most times we fish the sound.”

Each spring massive numbers of tarpon pass through the Keys, returning from their winter haunts to summer and spawn in estuaries along Florida’s east and west coasts.

When one of the mile long schools speed north through the Yucatan channel, riding the three knot current, the only objective is to cross mid ocean. With no food and an abundance of predatory Hammerheads and Tigers, the tarpon move fast, gulping air constantly, their light blue Caribbean color shining. When seen at sea, the columns of rolling fish flash with the brilliance of a million mirrors.

Once back in the USA, the fish take on a greener hue, another chameleon of nature.  Water temperatures to the north determine how long the travelers remain. During the season, which can be weeks or months, the fish filter out into the winding channels of the backcountry and patrol the beaches of the Key’s Atlantic side.

The fish sell themselves. In Key West they travel against the tide, up and down the harbor, cruising Mallory Square like silver signboards. Come catch us they tease. Tourist watch amazed, then lay their money down. Bets are, this international crowd of anglers will spend more dollars catching this leaping trophy than any other non-edible fish on the planet.

As good as Key’s migratory tarpon fishing is, the climax comes with the worm hatch. Night fishing reigns supreme. As word spreads of the hatch, the sea off the Keys harbors and channels are dotted with running lights and flashes from high beam spots. Shouts and splashes ring out from the darkness….the hatch is on.

Captain Travis Rolan, long time Key’s fishing guide notices a change in the daytime feeding habits of the fish as an indication of the hatch, which he claims can occur as early as late April. “Previously successful fly patterns suddenly don’t work.” He says. “When I see this behavior it tells me they have changed their focus. They have worms on the brain.”

Another sign of the hatch Rolan looks for is the absence of large fish in the backcountry, on the Florida Bay side of the Key’s island chain. “The juveniles will still be there. The large adults have left, headed to the Atlantic. They know what’s coming.”

 Asked about the best hatch fishing excursion Rolan grins, “Jumped 22 on fly one evening, in about three hours.” Veterans of the hatch don’t spend a lot of time fighting fish. After a couple of jumps they break them off and go after another. “You don’t want to spend an hour married to one tarpon. Once the initial flurry of acrobatics is over, it’s time to hook another.”

“I take the voodoo out of the hatch equation.” States Captain Steve Lamp. Owner of Dream Catcher Charters. “I have it marked on my calendar.” Lamp is a fifth generation Floridian and has fished the Keys since childhood. Lamp too, sees the hatch coming by the tarpon’s behavior and the gathering of fish on the Atlantic.

 “We’ve developed a special tube lure just for the hatch.” He says. “We use a small hook that seldom sinks into the hard boney mouth of the fish. We measure success by how many we put in the air, not to the boat.”

 According to Dr. Dave Vaughan, leading scientist at Mote Marine’s Keys research center, the spawning habits of the worm are filled with wonders. “The male worms have oversized heads and eyes which are distinct from the females. The females release a segment of their bodies filled with eggs before sunset. This released segment is bioluminescent but it takes 45 minutes for the male worm’s eyes to adjust to the lowering light and spot the glowing target floating above them. The male then charges up and fertilizes the eggs.

Ask why the tarpon go wild over such a small morsel, Dr. Vaughan believes in the narcotic theory. “I think it’s like the tarpon are doing shots.”

Dr. Vaughan research reveals the hatch is ongoing from March through July with peak periods reaching a crescendo around the first part of June.

When fishing the hatch an imitator style jig or plug is most effective, next to a red fly. When asked about the intensity of the bite, I relate the following: “Just after sunset one evening, I made a long cast directed at an approaching school of worming fish. I jumped off a tarpon, another wacked the plug and missed and I hooked a third fish, all in one cast.”

So even if the exact day or week cannot be pinpointed for your bucket list tarpon excursion, that’s just another reason to spend more time in the Keys. Or, check with Capt. Steve Rogers co-host of the popular show, “In the Blue” who says. “I can tell when the worm hatch is on. There’s no Humus or Coconut milk left on the store shelves. The fly-guys have cleaned them out. ”