Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre

I was fortunate to get a second chance to fly fish Cuba in Cayo Largo with Stillwater Travel this July. Since I work at Stillwater Fly Shop, I have seen all the photos and heard the stories about how great fishing Cuba has been over the past few years. I was scheduled to go last year, but my son got the RSV virus 2 days before the trip, so I couldn't. This year, I finally got to experience Cuba for myself, and the stories were true.

The trip started when Travis from Stillwater Travel gave me the gear list and told me what to pack regarding clothes and gear. He was generous enough to lend me a large Patagonia Black Hole roller to use, but he needed one thing from me…Pack a full-sized motorcycle tire in my bag for one of the guides. This seemed like an odd request, but Travis and the Stillwater Travel team have donated thousands of dollars a year to the guides in Cuba by bringing them needed items, so I crammed it in the bag and packed around it.

Brett, our owner, picked me up from my home at 3:30 a.m. we headed to the airport for our 5:00 a.m. flight to Seattle. Once we arrived in Seattle, I was informed that we had been upgraded to First Class to Miami. I had never flown First Class, so after a cup of coffee in a spacious seat and a real breakfast, I proceeded to drink champagne. I don't know if I'll get this chance again, so live it up. Apparently, Brett and I enjoyed the champagne as it ran out, and our descent into Miami began. Being in First Class, we were among the first to exit the plane and were instantly greeted by 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity in Miami. We proceeded to baggage claim, dropped off our gear at the hotel, and headed out for dinner and a cold beer.

We met with a few other Stillwater Travel hotel guests, who joined us on the trip and headed for incredible Mexican food at Bakkan. After carne asada and margaritas, we found ourselves on a rooftop overlooking the Miami skyline with a Mojito. We got checked in the following day and were ready for our flight to Havana. This is when the Cuban experience began. Most of the passengers were Cuban, and they all were bringing tons of items back for friends and family. To say the overhead bins were full is an understatement. This plane was as full as could be. After a quick 45-minute flight, we landed in Cuba and passed customs without issues. I was worried about being an American and getting through customs. Would they think I was a spy or pull me into an interrogation room? I had zero hiccups or issues passing through customs. In fact, it may have been the easiest customs experience I have ever experienced while traveling abroad. I headed to baggage claim, grabbed my bag with my tire still in there, and headed to the parking lot, where we were greeted by our driver and a big pink 50s Cadillac. We headed for Havana and our luxurious Air B&B.

Our Air B&B had AC, which I desperately needed at this point. Havana was even hotter than Miami, so I was melting fast as we weaved through the streets of Havana. I did not know what to expect in Havana. The city desperately needed maintenance, but the Cuban people were as lovely as possible. I had only one mission in Havana: to find a barber as I needed a haircut. After talking to some locals, they told us where to find one. With beers in hand, Brett and I descended a staircase into a basement, where we found the spot. My Spanish was rusty, and my barber did not really speak English, but we decided on a haircut called the "Cuban Special." With music blasting and buzzer in hand, Ilian worked on my hair. Thirty minutes later, he had me looking like a soccer star, complete with an S (for Stillwater) buzzed into the side of my head.

With my new fresh cut, it was time for Lobster Risotto on the roof of Del Frente Restaurant and some Cuban nightlife. Because we had stayed out way past my bedtime the night before, the nightlife this evening consisted of bar hopping in the local Havana area. One of the best aspects of Havana is its safety. We wandered the maze of streets deep into the night, and at no point did we ever have any worry that something could happen. Due to the heat, it seemed like half the city was still up and doing its best to stay cool.

The next morning came quickly as we loaded a bus headed for the Bay of Pigs, where we would get on our liveaboard boat, which would become our dwelling for the next week. As we left Havana on what seemed to be the only highway in the country, traffic disappeared, and we were soon surrounded by green rolling hills. When we arrived at the port, the Avalon crew greeted us and took our luggage on the boat in minutes, and instantly we were setting sail. A five-hour cruise would have us where we would anchor for the night in Cayo Largo. The seas were calm while we passed through the channel, but I still got seasick. While the twelve guests mingled at cocktail hour, I found a quiet spot to curl up and avoid losing my lunch. Once we arrived in Cayo Largo, the boat settled down, and I joined the group for dinner. Fresh snapper, lobster, rice, beans, and fruit make up many meals. For being on a boat 50 miles off the coast of Cuba, the chef did a great job of providing tasty Cuban food.

The following day would be the first day of fishing, and I already felt like I had been on the adventure of a lifetime. I met my fishing partner, Brett, the owner of Stillwater Fly Shop, and our guide for the day, Amauri. We buzzed from the mother ship on our 16-foot Dolphin skiff to our first flat. This was my first flats fishing trip. I was given a quick rundown of how the program works. Our first flat was a bust, so we motored to our next flat, and I immediately hooked a five-pound bonefish. This is the average size of Bone in Cayo Largo, and they get much larger. At this point, I couldn't see a fish in the water to save my life, but I could cast to wear Amauri instructed.

He gave instructions like, "11 o'clock, 15 meters" and I could put the fly there quickly so I had a chance to hook fish.

As we moved to the next flat, I was still on the bow and trying my hardest to see fish. I caught a few more Bonefish, and Amauri would play a game of "How many fish did you see in that school?" I would say, "I saw four Bonefish," and he would correct me with, "There were 150 in that school." Then things got serious when he spotted a school of five Permit coming our way. I cast at 10 o clock and started stripping, and on the fourth eat, I hooked my first Permit. Like the rookie I am, I had been pulling the fly out of their mouths each time they tried to take the fly. The fourth time, I waited and let the Permit eat the fly before setting the hook. After landing the fish, which turned out to be about 10 or 11 pounds, we were off to find a Tarpon to complete my Grand Slam. It only took four lashes with the rod into the mangroves to find a small Tarpon, and on my first day of flats fishing, I punched my Grand Slam card.

To say the fishing in Cayo Largo is good is an understatement. We were greeted with a cold towel and an even colder drink as we returned to the boat. The gear is washed, and the fishing stories are told.

Throughout the week, there would be 5 more Grand Slams caught. Cayo Largo has endless flats to scan for fish. I jumped 6 Tarpon the next day and landed 2 along the reef. All were in the 30-50 pound range, and the fight was all I could handle. Our guide told me that the tarpon fishing was off because there had not been enough rain.

There is a phenomenon that they call "red water." Where the rain washes the sargassum seaweed on the beach, and it turns the water red. The red water captures the bait fish, bringing in the Tarpon. One group did manage to find the red water and jumped 30 Tarpon in just a couple hours. I can't imagine how many more Tarpon would be hooked if we had more rain.

If searching for a Permit in the heat becomes too much, you can relax and tangle with the Bonefish, which are everywhere. It's a blast hooking doubles of 5+ pound bonefish while drinking beer and listening to Luke Combs, who, oddly enough, is all the guides' favorite country singer.

They learn their English by listening to country music via YouTube. There you are, 50 miles off the coast of Cuba, cold beer or rod in hand, listening to your guide sing along to country music. They can sing every song word for word. The largest Bonefish of the week was 8 pounds. I was on a boat where my partner landed a 7-pounder, which felt like a football in my hands when I brought him in the boat.

The guides are fantastic, they speak good English and work for you. They will pole into the wind and across the flats to get you the best shot at fish. I have heard about lazy guides at other lodges, but the Cubans want you to catch fish. It was great to hear about their lives and family during the downtime. I had brought a carton of Marlboros to give the guides. Next time, I will get things that are a bit more wholesome.

Kids vitamins, toothbrushes, and sunglasses because these guys have no access to these kinds of goods. The tire was given to the Amauri, who owned the motorcycle, and he was so thankful he had tears in his eyes. Some people don't want to travel to Cuba for political reasons. By traveling there, you can make a difference in people's lives, which is what matters. Politics is politics, but we interacted with the people of Cuba, and all of them were very thankful and happy to see us, excited to have us come back.

All I can say is, wow, I'm ready to return. Many of the guests on the trip have traveled the world fishing, and they all said they were blown away at the entire experience in Cuba. The fishing was far better than they had ever experienced in other areas of the Caribbean. They all were on board for coming back to Cuba with Stillwater Travel. The crew, guides, boat, and fishing were all fantastic, and I was sad when the trip ended.

We crossed the channel back to Cuba, and I did not get sick. The boat anchored right outside the port, and the next morning, we loaded our gear for our return bus ride to Havana airport. We said our goodbyes at the baggage claim in Miami and loaded our planes home. In the end, it was the trip of a lifetime for me. It's a trip for everyone from the Permit purest to the first-timer who just wants to catch an opportunity to catch quality fish on the flats. If you are newer to the flats fishing game,

Cuba is a great training ground because you get shot after shot at fish. Compared to places where you get a few shots, Cuba allows anglers to practice and hone their skill. If you're an experienced angler, Permit abound and offer chances at multiple fish on the right days in the 10-30lb class and Tarpon in the 20-70lb range. The Stillwater Travel team has Cuba dialed in, and there was never a disorganized moment. If you have ever thought about fishing in Cuba, The answer should be yes.

These trips book fast because the Cuban government limits the number of anglers that can fish in the protected sanctuary. Where else can you travel in the Caribbean and never see another boat on the water in an entire week that is not in your part of your liveaboard? It is an extraordinary, unique, untouched ecosystem, and I'm already counting the days until I get back there!!! Bryce Redifer Stillwater Sales Team

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