"He's coming, he's coming! At your 11 o'clock … at your 12 o'clock. Cast now!" My normally taciturn guide turned suddenly animated as he spotted the dark shadow of a bonefish cruising toward us in the clear, shallow water.
I cast the fly as close as I could and slowly but steadily brought the line in by hand. I saw the fish turn toward my fly; suddenly I felt a sharp tug on the line and saw the fish racing off like a torpedo, my reel whizzing as it peeled off line.
This is fly-fishing in Cuba — a spot long off-limits to American anglers, but one that's on many a fisherman's radar. On my recent trip I was after the hard-fighting bonefish, but Cuba also boasts healthy populations of tarpon, permit and other game fish. Guide companies say that because of the relatively few fishermen who have visited the island in recent decades compared with popular destinations like the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, the fish in Cuba are more willing to take a fly lure and aren't as easily spooked.
Fishing in the flats in and around Cayo Romano. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
According to Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation at the Florida-based Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, there's good reason for U.S. anglers to be excited about fishing in Cuba.
"The two biggest attractions to fishing in Cuba are the novelty of it and the healthy habitat," Adams said. "The habitat quality is as good as you'll find it anywhere. It makes the flats fishing experience very good and helps keep fish populations high."
Fishing in Cuba hasn't exactly been a closely guarded secret: Canadians and Europeans have been going for years, and Ernest Hemingway famously documented his deep-sea fishing exploits off the Cuban coast. But as U.S.-Cuba relations continue to evolve, it opens the door to the large population of American anglers hoping to get an early crack at fly-fishing there.
A statue of author Ernest Hemingway in the Cuban Keys, where he famously documented his deep-sea fishing exploits while in Cuba. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
Adams said that this will bring with it certain challenges. Up until now, Cuba has enforced restrictions on commercial fishing in certain protected areas. "One of the big questions is whether they maintain restrictions as they get more interest from American anglers looking to fish," he said.
There are several international outfits that currently organize fly-fishing trips to various locations around Cuba, including the Italian-based company Avalon and Canadian-based Holy Waters (who provided the guide for my trip).
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While some of the more remote spots, such as Cayo Largo off Cuba's southern coast, might offer more pristine fishing sites, I chose to stay in Cayo Coco off the northern coast and make the half-hour drive to Cayo Romano each day, as it was an easy drive across a causeway to explore mainland Cuba after I was done fishing.
I spent three days fishing the flats in and around Cayo Romano in a protected reserve. The fishing conditions were indeed pristine and secluded. Wading and boating in and around outcroppings of mangroves, I only saw two other fishing boats the entire trip.
While it's just a few miles from Cayo Coco, home to numerous sprawling all-inclusive resorts, including Accor's new 568-room Pullman Cayo Coco, Cayo Romano and the nearby fishing spot Cayo Cruz are still almost completely undeveloped.
But new hotels are already on the way. From my fishing spot out on the flats I could see dump trucks shuttling back and forth along the main road, bringing in loads of dirt to start laying ground for new roads.