Exploring Cuba’s water world

As soon as I slid over the side of the fiberglass flats fishing skiff into the knee-deep shallows of the Caribbean Sea, I knew I was in a special place. All around were the sights and sounds of abundant wildlife: herons and egrets hunting prey in the thin tide, rosette spoonbills kicking up a ruckus in clusters of ancient red mangroves, brown pelicans plunging into jade and turquoise channels, ospreys circling overhead and squealing against the deep-blue sky. 

A pod of tailing bonefish flashing and splashing 50 feet ahead riveted my attention. These sleek, silvery game fish were tipping downward, their snouts in the grassy marl, grubbing for shrimp and worms and little fish. I stripped off fly line from my reel and began my own stealthy stalk.

On that first trip to Cuba 16 years ago, I found myself off the island’s southern coast, in the middle of the Caribbean’s finest remaining original reef ecosystem, where everything felt pristine. Fly rod in hand, I waded through the limpid waters of Jardines de la Reina—a stunning saltwater Serengeti encompassing 850 square miles of coral reefs, sandy islands, and mangrove forests. 

Natural, quality habitat and conservative management of spawning stocks make this destination ideal for fishing. In 1996 the Cuban government set aside Jardines de la Reina as the country’s first national marine reserve. With minor exceptions, commercial fishing was eliminated. Ecotourism was introduced with a focus on low-impact diving and snorkeling, as well as light-tackle inshore fishing that emphasized live release of valued large spawners. 

The sea life responded immediately. Now, two decades later, green 100-pound turtles and 500-pound groupers—extinct or endangered in most of the Caribbean—are thriving here. Reef, lemon, black-tip, hammerhead, silky, and nurse sharks patrol the coral canyons and drop-offs, mixing with vast schools of sergeant majors, parrotfish, and other brightly colored fish.

Over the years, Cuba has added many other areas to the marine reserve program. Today more than 25 percent of the country’s critical reef systems, coastal bays and beaches, and estuarine wetlands are protected. I’ve explored some of these marine parks and reserves, most recently as the U.S. government was in discussions leading to easing of restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba. Here are several of my favorites:

Jardines de la Reina: After a three-hour trip by yacht, your home for the week is a small floating hotel 60 miles off the central southern coast in the middle of a watery wilderness of endless mangrove-lined channels and flats. For explosive top-water action, try casting for barracuda among the coral heads. The fresh fish and lobster here, which are prepared with an Italian flair, are the best food I’ve eaten in Cuba.

Cayo Largo: Off the southern coast, below Havana, this island is easily accessible by small scheduled commercial airliners. Lodging is a condo-style beach resort swarming with too many tourists for my taste, but you’re driven each morning to a nearby dock and whisked away by flats skiff for your day’s fishing without another soul in sight. Afterwards, you can enjoy a swim right out your door at what I think is Cuba’s most spectacular beach.

Cayo Romano: Fly into a small modern airport called Cayo Cruz, on the central north coast, and drive an hour to an old sugar-plantation town called Brasil, where you’ll stay in a charming, newly restored governor’s mansion from the 1920s. You’ll be driven each morning about one hour across a long coastal causeway, where your guide will meet you to fish vast flats with only one boat per 30 square miles. 

To get the most from your trip with a minimum of hassles, book through a travel organization that knows the best guides with boats and where to stay. Two I recommend are Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures (yellowdogflyfishing.com, 888-777-5060) and Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers (cubanfishingcenters.com, +54 9 261 6721577). —T.R.P.

Regular contributor Thomas R. Pero is publisher of Wild River Press and the author of two books about fly fishing.