Jardines de la Reina

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Like I’ve said, all the guides are extremely competitive. Just as we make little bets about who will catch the first fish, the biggest fish, etc., I’m pretty sure the guides make similar bets amongst themselves about us. Did Coki win some bet for helping me land my first tarpon? I don’t know for certain but it wouldn’t surprise me.

I’ve also mentioned how passionate Coki is about the fishing. If you screw up, he’ll let you know. He can’t help it. He figures it’s his job to get you to the fish and then it’s your job to catch the damn things. And he’s right, of course.

Yesterday was an extremely frustrating day. Cam and I had paired up with Coki as our guide. So far everybody on the boat except for Cam has caught a tarpon. So just as Coki poured all his efforts the other day into getting me my first tarpon, he assured Cam in the morning that he was going to catch a tarpon.

But we were having one of those off days when no matter what you do or where you go, the fish just are not there. Cam and I fished all morning long and didn’t even see a fish. I’d stand up on the nose of the boat for half an hour or forty-five minutes, my line slack at my feet, and when I got tired, I’d switch places with Cam and he’d do the same. Hardly a cast was made.

The afternoon wasn’t any better. Plus it was even hotter than usual out on the water, with not even a hint of a breeze, and by four or five we both sort of felt like we’d had enough and were ready to head back to Avalon I. But Coki was not ready to give up. He insisted that he knew a “secret spot,” somewhere the other guides didn’t know about and for sure we would catch some bonefish and then he would take us to another great spot and for sure Cam would get his tarpon.

Well, what could we do? We headed for Coki’s secret spot. With the sun just blazing down on top of us, we headed east through the mangroves until we got to a section of shallows covered in turtle grass. It would be difficult to spot fish in the turtle grass but the area certainly did look ripe for bonefish.

Cam got up on the nose of the skiff and stood there under the blistering sun as Coki poled through the shallows. For half an hour he poled the boat and we didn’t see a single fish. Then finally he spotted a small school about a hundred feet in front of us. The only problem was that the bones were in water that was no more than a foot deep and the tide was going out. But Coki was not to be denied. He poled and he poled, grunting and sweating, sometimes getting the skiff stuck in the muddy bottom and we would rock the boat from side to side until we were free and moving again. Finally, the boat would go no further. It was too shallow. The bones were still there but it would take some tremendous casting by Cam to reach them. He tried, and tried, and tried some more but he could never quite get the fly far enough. And eventually the school swam away.

Meanwhile, the tide had continued to go out. We were now so stuck in the shallow water that Coki had to get out of the boat in his bare feet and, sinking midway to his thighs, try to push us out. But it was no go. So Cam go out as well and with him on one side of the boat and Coki on the other, the two of them tromped through the muddy bottom pushing the boat while I stood as far on the nose of the skiff as possible to get the stern out of the mud. It was tremendously difficult work. And we had to go much further than anyone had imagined. In all, Coki and Cam pushed the skiff over the shallow muddy bottom for fifteen or twenty minutes until we were finally in deep enough water to get back in the boat. At which point Cam said he didn’t care about any more fishing for the day, he was going for a swim. He stripped down to his boxers and dove into the water, floating on his back like a turtle in the cool, clear water. We were done for the day.

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The Avalon's chef, Eduardo, with the grilled red snapper I'd caught just a few hours earlier. Photo by David Lansing.

I mentioned yesterday how, while fishing for tarpon, I ended up catching a 15 pound red snapper. We threw it in the hold on top of the ice cooling down our beers and brought it back to the Avalon and gave it to the cook, Eduardo, who looks like he’s not old enough to shave yet alone be a great cook. You know, when we fished from the Halcon I always thought our cook on that boat, Pichi, was a fine cook but Eduardo puts him to shame. So far on this trip we’ve had the best meals we’ve ever had anywhere in Cuba. Lobster every night, sometimes cooked simply with a little garlic butter, sometimes in a curry sauce, and always there is some whole grilled fish, and we have had excellent soups and sashimi and a marvelous roasted lentil dish in a spicy red sauce.

Anyway, when we got back to the Avalon the other night all the other boys were topside drinking their gin and tonics and talking about the day’s fishing. I came up the stairs carrying the large red snapper by one hand, holding it up for them to see. “Look what I brought us back for dinner,” I said. Everyone got their cameras out to take some shots of me holding the snapper and then I gave it to Suliet to take down to the galley to Eduardo.

A couple of hours later, Suliet announced that dinner was ready and we headed for the large teak table where we take our meals and then Eduardo came out carrying a silver platter with my grilled red snapper on it. I can’t tell you how pleased I was. I cut into it and took the first filet and then passed it around. Suliet poured us all a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Fletch made a toast to the great day of fishing we had and then everyone dove in to the red snapper. It was, without a doubt, the finest fish I’d ever tasted in my life. Perhaps because I’d caught it myself just a few hours earlier, perhaps because Eduardo really does know his way around seafood. Anyway, it was a most memorable meal following a most memorable day of fishing.

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A great day for tarpon

Fletch with the first of his three tarpon. Photo by David Lansing.

There are two ways to go when you don’t get something you want: Either it becomes an obsession or you just let go of it and stop worrying about it. That’s the way I was about catching a tarpon. For three years I had tried to catch a fish that Saltwater Sportsman magazine calls “one of the most storied gamefish in the world” and for three years I came up buckus. It’s not that I didn’t see any tarpon; I did, a hundred or more. It’s not that I couldn’t hook one on a fly; I did, by the dozens. I just couldn’t get one to the boat. Known for their ability to throw hooks because their bony mouths are like porcelain, there’s a real trick to bringing in a fish that can easily run 50 pounds or larger. When they come out of the water, thrashing their heads from side to side, you have to do a technique known as a “bow to the silver king,” which involves leaning toward the fish and putting your pole tip towards the water. This creates a slack in the line that helps keep the fish from throwing the hook.

Says Saltwater Sportsman, “In spite of these challenging traits, catching a large tarpon remains a highlight in the angling career of many people.”

And the more you hook but don’t bring to the boat, the more an obsession it becomes. The last time we were in the Jardines, two years ago, I truly was an obsessed fisherman. And so were the guides. Everyone else on the boat had caught at least one tarpon (Greg, who had never even caught a bonefish before that trip, had caught five or six). Except for me. So as the time began to run out on our trip, all the guides made it a point to take me to the best tarpon places and do everything they could to help me bring one in. One afternoon I hooked and lost six tarpon in a row. Each time the fish threw the hook or broke the line, I’d stomp my feet and scream blasphemies towards the heavens. It was terribly frustrating.

And then this year I just decided I didn’t give a damn. I was not going to spend the entire week chasing this elusive fish. In fact, I made it clear to the guides that I didn’t care if we ever even went fishing for tarpon. I was perfectly content to chase bonefish or snappers or whatever we came across. But you know, these guides take their responsibilities very, very seriously. It’s like they feel they lose a little face if their clients can bring in a tarpon or two. So it was apparent to me all week long that the guides were  more interested in me catching a tarpon than I was. Maybe they had a bet on it—the first guide to help Mr. David bring a tarpon to the boat. Who knows.

Yesterday afternoon was probably the most perfect day of fishing I’ve ever had in the Jardines, and that’s saying a lot. I was teamed up with Fletch with Coki as our guide. Now much has been made of Keko’s ability to find fish in the Jardines but Coki is probably just as good if not better at knowing not only where to find bonefish and tarpon and even permit, but also in knowing where the big ones are. The only problem with Coki is that he has no patience for bad fishing. One morning he’d taken Fletch to a spot where a very large permit—which none of us has ever caught—was right in front of him. Coki said it was the biggest permit he had ever seen (and he’s helped his clients catch 98 of them). He told Fletch exactly what to do—where to put the fly, how to strip it, how to set the hook. And then he told him to cast. And Fletch screwed it up somehow and lost the permit.

In Spanish, Coki called him an idiot. But he couldn’t let it end there. All day long he kept bringing it up—how big this fish was, how Fletch should have caught it. At one point, at a loss for words, he simply held up his thumb and forefinger as if it were a gun, pretended to shoot Fletch, and then turned the faux-gun to his temple and shot himself. That’s how bad Coki felt about not getting that permit.

So when it was determined that Fletch and I were going out with Coki, I had a little chat with him. I told him that I would do my best out on the water but he was not to yell at me. “Do you understand, Coki? No yelling.”

Coki acted like I was crazy. He shrugged it all off. Of course there would be no yelling. “It is only fishing, my friend,” he said. “Just fishing. You understand?”

I understood perfectly. I just hoped he did as well.

True to his word, Coki was very patient with us. But he also got us into some spectacular fishing. And then very late in the afternoon, he pointed the skiff due east and we bumped over the water to a long, low stretch of islands and mangroves that we had never seen before. As the sun was getting low in the sky, we fished for bones and brought in one after another. Then, at twilight, Coki moved the skiff even farther down the island and killed the engine about twenty feet off an inlet leading into the mangroves.

Coki and me with my first tarpon--ever. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

“Big tarpon here,” he said. It was tricky fishing. You had to drop the fly in a little pool surrounded on three sides by mangroves and your margin of error was only three or four feet. If the wind carried the fly or you didn’t release it just right, you’d end up getting hooked up in the branches of the trees. But Fletch was casting extraordinarily well and time after time he was able to drop the fly right where Coki directed. Within minutes he’d hooked a large tarpon and lost it. But rather than reeling in and starting over, Coki told him to just lift the fly straight out of the water and drop it down in the same spot. Which Fletch did. And he immediately hooked another tarpon. This one he was able to get to the boat. Our first tarpon of the trip.

Then Coki told me to get up there. So I cast and hooked what we thought was a very large, very powerful bonefish. I fought it for almost ten minutes, sweat pouring off my head. When we got it to the boat, we saw that it was a good size red snapper. Maybe 15 pounds. A beautiful fish and one that we would keep for dinner.

Fletch got back on the nose of skiff and almost immediately caught his second tarpon. This one was even bigger than the first. At this point there was almost no daylight left and we knew we had at least a 30 minute ride ahead of us to get back to the Avalon I. I thought we were finished. But Coki insisted I get back up there. In semi-darkness, I cast where Coki instructed and on my second or third throw, hooked a tarpon. He lunged out of the water four or five feet into the air and I pushed the pole away from, giving the line slack. Three, four, five times the tarpon came out of the water, shaking his head like a mad dog, desperately trying to throw the hook. Each time I pushed the pole down. And eventually got him to the boat. My first tarpon. Ever.

At this point, Fletch was so excited about the tarpon honey hole we’d found that he begged Coki to let him make just one more cast before we headed back. Coki said, Okay. One cast. And wouldn’t you know it that on the last cast of what had already been a spectacular day, Fletch caught his third tarpon of the afternoon. Unbelievable.

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Fending off a jutia

A Cuban jutia looking for a free meal. Photos by Nick Fletcher.

Yesterday afternoon as Keko was polling our skiff through some mangroves he spotted a jutia sitting on a branch a few feet above the water watching us. A jutia is a fairly large rodent that is a hell of a lot cuter than a rat. They used to exist all over Cuba but then people who weren’t getting enough protein in their diet started catching them and cooking them in pots with wilds nuts and honey. You have to cook a jutia for a day or so to make it edible and there’s not a lot of meat on it when you’re done, but I guess if you’re hungry enough, you’ll do it.

Anyway, Keko pointed out the jutia and I asked him to pole closer to the mangrove so I could get a good photo of it. He poled right up to the little guy who was only a few feet from us, staring intently at us at eye level. That’s when the bugger made a leap for the boat and landed against Keko’s leg. Which, shall we say, did not exactly thrill Keko. I’ve never heard a Cuban fishing guide scream like a little girl until that jutia brushed up against Keko’s leg.

Keko used the end of his long fiberglass pole to swat at the jutia, knocking it into the water. The jutia began dogpaddling away from the skiff. But although he seemed to be a pretty efficient swimmer, he wasn’t moving very quickly and Keko jabbed at him a couple of times, pushing him farther away from the boat. Every time he’d connect, the jutia would squeak and bark in displeasure. I was starting to feel sort of sorry for it, though I was glad that Keko had knocked it out of the boat.

After awhile, the jutia made it to another mangrove and climbed up on to a limb. He stood there staring at us. As if to say, Mess with me again and I’ll bite your nose off. We moved on.

Later in the day we stopped at a little island where the guides sometimes bring fishermen for lunch. Keko said the animals on the island—mostly iguanas and jutias—would come around when they saw people, hoping to get some scraps from the leftover sandwiches and apples and such. Sure enough, it wasn’t two minutes after we pulled the boat on to the sandy beach that first an iguana and then a jutia came right up to us, looking for a handout. Nick, our wild animal nut, got the jutia to stand on his leg staring right into the camera while he dangled a crust of bread a foot above the ground. He snapped a couple of pics, the jutia grabbed the crust, and sat there cautiously looking at us out of the corner of his eye while nibbling on his free meal. Then the iguanas started to show up. And another jutia. And then some large birds landed nearby and a big crab waddled up. At this point I was kind of getting the creeps. Like all the wild animals on the island were going to come over looking for a handout and when we ran out of food, there’d be a riot. We’d have to fight off the iguanas and jutias and god knows what else. I think Keko was having the same thought because he broke off a handful of bread crusts and tossed them down the beach. As the animals went scampering after the food, he said, “Come on! Hurry! Let’s go now!”

We ran down the beach to the skiff, got in and shoved off. The iguanas and jutias glared at us. We glared back.

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Crocodile rock. Photo by Nick Fletcher.

A couple of months ago Fletch sent me an e-mail with a photo attached of Nick, down in Mexico, grinning with a big boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. Nick had found the snake in the jungle surrounding the Fletcher’s home in Custodio, north of Puerto Vallarta. Nick is one of those guys that isn’t bothered by things that crawl or bite or sting. His first thought on coming across the five-foot-long boa was to pick it up. Mine would have been to back up slowly and then run.

Yesterday the wind was up in the morning so the boys went diving again. Like I said, I don’t dive. I sleep late, have a nice quiet breakfast, and chat with the guides or read a book. It’s a very enjoyable way to spend the morning. And then the boys all come piling back to the Avalon, full of adrenaline and talking excitedly.

When Fletch came topside, a towel wrapped around his waist, I put down my book and asked them if they’d seen anything interesting on their dive.

“Sort of,” said Fletch, laughing. “We came across a crocodile and Nick went right up to it to take a photo.”

I thought he was joking at first until Nick came up with his underwater camera and showed me the croc. It was good-size. I asked him how close he’d gotten. He said about five or six feet away.

Good lord, I said. You must be crazy. What made you think the croc wouldn’t come after you? I asked him.

He shrugged. “I thought we were okay,” he said. “He looked like an old croc.”

Right. So if the croc is old, he won’t go after you. I don’t know. I think I’d rather wrap a boa constrictor around my neck than swim up to a crocodile. But evidently Nick doesn’t mind doing both.

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