CUBA - JARDINES DEL REY
The webbing of my bag is digging into the flesh on my hand. I know it weighs less than 50 pounds, that magically random weight devised by airlines to limit the crap we bring with us, but it's still damn heavy walking through the airport. I have two addictions – fly fishing and photography. Both of which always seem to have more gear than my pocketbook can afford and more than I want to carry. I relent to logic and my aching back, grab a cart, and throw the Pelican cases and bags onto its forgiving wheels and make my way to baggage check. Today I'm carrying my luggage and my obsessions into a forbidden country that I have wanted to visit for much of my adult life. The promise of pristine protected waters and the most delicious cigars on the planet pull me toward this nirvana, Cuba.
The time-traveling window seat allows the small farms and buildings of the countryside to transport me back to a childhood memory filled with warmth and fondness for times gone by and a yearning for a simpler life. It takes me to the Central Valley of California of my youth when families worked the land with animals to support their families and their communities. My cell phone is OFF, and that feels remarkably good, a forgotten noose that slowly slips looser on my daily digital life. I will keep it off except in the evenings in the lobby where WiFi is available, in order to connect with my family back in Seattle. My nine-year-old daughter is the emoji queen of the family and the fish, sun, and palm trees I receive daily put a smile on my face.
I step off the plane in Camaguey to the familiar smell of tropical air and fertile earth. I have never been here, but both smells are familiar and welcoming. The process is simple and uneventful as I work my way through customs and gather my things. The architecture of the airport is decades old; it's worn and lived in and defiantly the opposite of the Fort Lauderdale I just left. With age comes wisdom, at least I hope that's the case. I grab a luggage cart first and then pile the gear onto it like a tenuous Jenga game. The cart is decades old and worn, and its wobbly wheels make transportation more of a carnival ride. My travel partner is Keith Robbins, a Puget Sound captain and guide, Sage Elite Pro, and one of my closest friends. Our handlers quickly identify the two pasty white gringos leaving the airport. It is comforting to know we are expected and that our taxi was waiting for us. We found the attention to detail remarkable throughout our trip; everything was thoughtfully executed and beautifully designed. Avalon is the host in Cuba and has been operating there for decades. The protected waters that are set aside for recreational fishing and diving is over 42,000 square miles; it's genuinely fantastic to see the map of the country with these designations scattered around its pristine perimeter.
LA CASA DEL HABANO'S
It was a scenic 3-hour cab ride from the airport at Camaguey to the hotel at Cayo Coco. Pedro, our driver, stopped in town for us to pick up road trip essentials; rum and Cuban cigars. Entering La Casa del Habano's my eyes adjust from the intense bright exterior to the low soothing light of the store. Spanish cedar used to line most cigar boxes and humidors lofts into my nose. It's mixed with the sweet fermented tobacco smell of fine Cuban cigars. I'm deliriously happy hearing heavenly horns playing as I open the squeaky door into the humidor to select a few for the road. It's surreal to purchase a Cuban cigar-the thing of hushed whispers back home- for $5 bucks.
The flashbacks to my youth come again, this time sitting in the back of my parent's car driving through the farmlands of California. Small family farms slip past the window as the trail of daily life was slowly carrying on. Pedro's warm welcome and genuinely pleasant personality created a tone of warmth for the Cuban people that carried throughout my visit. Keith and I rolled the windows down, lit Cuban tobacco, and took in the countryside. The fragrance of exposed mud flats and mangroves fills the cab before we get our first flash of Caribbean light sparkling off the water. That deep primordial crevice in my brain swears it's seeing fish moving across the flats, similar to children seeing Santa and his deer flying overhead on Christmas Eve. These premature illusions alert me to the fact that I better get my shit straightened out before I hit the bow tomorrow.
Our resort is located in Cayo Coco which is in Jardines del Rey "Garden of the King", an archipelago on the northern part of the country. Hurricane Irma hit this area with full force in 2017 with a recorded speed of 300Khr. It took out the resort at Cayo Cruz most of which has been rebuilt, including the marina where the boats are located. It's an hour transport between the two locations, so we bookended our days on the water with a beautiful drive to and from the boats.
TRACHINOTUS FALCATUS - THE PERMIT
The first day is the usual shakedown of gear and flies. I have spent hours at the vice mimicking and contorting material both natural and synthetic into the various crab and shrimp patterns. None of which seem ready for prime time and will be sitting 6th man in the fly box for the time being. Yosvany our 28-year-old guide, is very attentive and has a quick smile like most of the Cuban people we meet. During the hours spent looking for fish, we ask him to teach us various inappropriate Spanish words and slang, which we repeat all week like little boys in our floating clubhouse. The saturated colors of the flats are cranked to 100% and bombard my eyes and senses. Coming from a climate of grey clouds and a built-environment that matches its muted colors, this is a welcoming and overwhelming sensation blended with the smell of sea air and sunscreen.
By the second day, Keith and I are starting to understand the game plan and approach. We both have many years of fly fishing under our belts and Keith personally spends 2-3 months a year in the warm waters of the planet flinging flies at ghosts. One species that has eluded him is the prince of the flats, Trachinotus falcatus, the permit. We chose this location in Cuba because of its permit waters.
"Ray 50 meters 10 o'clock and it has company!" Yosvany directs Keith's attention. I'm not sure if it was because we were a day into misguided attempts and refusals, but Keith is as cool as a thin mint out of the freezer. "Permit". This simple word uttered from the guide's lips can double your heart rate, blur your vision, and will add wind to the already steady breeze. The morning light was electric as we saw the sickle tails break the surface behind the stingray gliding toward us. Keith nailed the cast, stripping slowly, and the permit turned, took the fly, and then backing came screaming off the SPECTRUM Max reel and just like that it was happening. The seemingly endless chase and the anchor of weight of this moment all fall from Keith's shoulders. The SALT HD bends deep into the cork as the fish dashes across the flat and eventually, Keith slides the beautiful fish alongside Yosvany. The pursuing photoshoot commences. This permit is one high-priced model after all the trips that have led up to this moment for Keith. As he releases the fish back into its camouflage existence, he officially adds "permit" to his life list.
After our dinner at the resort sitting on the veranda, we recap the day's events with rums and cigars. The celebration is a good one. Keith's smile hasn't left his face since the morning. The week is everything we could have wanted; days spent casting at permit and bonefish sandwiched between sapphire blue skies and golden turquoise blue flats.
I have eight good shots at permit over the week to no avail, meaning I didn't screw up too badly. I can feel the pull on my rod and my heart for my first, my horizon feels flat and empty until I can get back to try again. Conversations over local rums pursue the last few nights about how much our partners would love this resort and all its amenities. The beautiful beaches, the pools, the nightly entertainment and free drinks delivered by pool boys. All of this is a thin veil quickly seen through as we are hunting for any remnant of a great story to get back here next year and include the ladies. It's always bittersweet to say goodbye to new friends and a place you have quickly fallen in love with. I will return hopefully sooner than later so I too can add a "permit" to my life list.
Ed Sozinho is a Seattle based angler, and photographer by trade.
Captain Keith Robbins is a guide in the Puget Sound and a Sage Elite Pro.