Travel Dispatch from Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

Travel Dispatch from Jardines de la Reina, Cuba


For the last several years, we at Big Sky Anglers have been fortunate enough to host a group of anglers in the Jardines de la Reina — the Gardens of the Queen — for a week of fishing in mid-April. Located about 50 miles off the coast of mainland Cuba, the Jardines are a vast, untouched Archipelago with amazing, unpressured saltwater flyfishing opportunities galore. Each year, our hosted week of fishing lands right in the middle of the region’s migratory tarpon season. Our group of anglers spend the week fishing with guides in modern flats skiffs, returning each day to their mobile home for the week: the JA3 — a 160-foot liveaboard motor yacht. These trips are run by Avalon, an Italian company with decades of experience running fishing, diving, and snorkeling expeditions throughout the country. They do a fantastic job of handling all logistics and always make sure all of our days in Jardines are “smooth-sailing”.


Our very-own Travel and Outfitting Manager, Patrick Johnson, recently sat down with two of BSA’s co-owners, Joe Moore and Jonathan Heames, fresh off their return from the Jardines to discuss this year’s trip — touching on everything from visiting Havana to custom fly selections, and stories of vast chains of cruising migratory tarpon:

Patrick: Tell me about your trips down to Jardines these last few years — how many times have you two been down?

Jonathan: This was trip number four for me.


Joe: This year was number 5 for me — since we first visited the country a handful of years ago, we’ve really been hooked, and have tried to dive head-first into everything the Jardines has to offer from a fishing standpoint. We’ve made it our mission to return each year and better understand and learn about the people, the culture, the environment, and the awesome fishing.

Patrick: And how about getting to the Jardines? Where and how do these trips kick off?

Joe: These days it’s super easy to get down there with regular flights from Miami to Havana. Typically we’ll fly in a day early and spend the day and night before doing all the things you’ve seen in the photos — going into Old Havana, riding in old Chevys and Fords, drinking rum, smoking cigars, and eating some truly great food.


Jonathan: Man, I could do a whole talk about Havana — it’s an interesting way to start a fishing trip and get a brief glimpse of this other world. You have this beautiful, formerly opulent colonial city with all of its historical layers dating back to the 15-hundreds, intermixed with the monuments to the “Revolution” and the current government and urban decay. Throw in some incredible traditions in music, art, and food, and you have an amazingly vibrant, interesting place to see. It’s like a big onion with its many layers — a super interesting place to visit before you scoot off to fish in solitude and nature for a week.

Patrick: Awesome — and what about someone who wants a more direct route to the fishing?

Joe: There’s a great option for someone who wants to bypass Havana — this year a portion of the group and myself flew straight into Camaguey which is significantly closer to where we embark on the liveaboard. You can bypass a 7-hour bus ride and make it more of an easy in-and-out fishing trip. It’s a short bus ride to port with maybe a little pit-stop along the way for some supplies.

[redacted discussion about cigars and rum]

Patrick: Tell us a little about the JA3 — the liveaboard yacht and the group’s home for the week?

Joe: It’s a really friendly atmosphere. The staff is amazing, super accommodating, and plenty of staff that speak great English. The vibe on the boat is pretty happy-go-lucky. We’ve been coming down for a few years now, and we always manage to bring fun people. At this point they’re usually super happy to see us back every year!


Jonathan: The boat itself is great too. Plenty of space for our group of 16 people to hang, relax, eat, and even a designated gear space to rig-up and store rods. Aside from the common spaces, every cabin has ensuite bathrooms and air conditioning. It’s a great place to unwind after a day of fishing, and you can even cast off the back of the boat with a mojito in hand if you haven’t had enough!

Patrick: Awesome! What are you catching off the back deck?

Jonathan: Usually little snappers and jacks, and sometimes barracuda. Last year Eric Neufeld landed a 30 or 40 pound Tarpon off the back!

Patrick: Amazing… So, speaking of Tarpon, there are a lot of fishing trips someone can take to Cuba these days — why Jardines de la Reina?

Joe: It’s all about the Tarpon! Where you might be sharing a boat with divers and snorkelers on other trips to the region, we’ve locked down this entire vessel for the week just for our group, we’re fishing an area with an incredible diversity of healthy marine life, and we’re doing it over the course of a week that, historically, is smack-dab in the middle of migratory tarpon season. 


Jonathan: There’s lots of great options for fishing all around Cuba, whether you’re interested in bonefish, permit, or tarpon, but what's special about Jardines is its remoteness: its remoteness has protected it from commercial fishing for many years now. It's a marine park, but it's this marine park that is almost unreachable by fishing vessels, and so it really is this amazing ecological place that's pretty special. Just to be there feels like privilege. You’re seeing a part of Cuba that most Cubans— almost all Cubans—never get to see. We’re truly alone while we’re out there, and we have access to great bonefishing with plenty of shots at permit and tons of other fish, but what’s really the cherry on top is the Tarpon. The migratory tarpon we see in this area are abundant, and they are willing and eager eaters, and we’re the only ones fishing to them!

Patrick: Tell me more about the timing — why mid-April instead of October or November?

Jonathan: Dates are super important. With the Tarpon migration, it’s only 2.5 months long — 3 if you’re lucky. It starts sometime in the middle of March and stretches to the end of May or middle of June. By having April dates we’re buffered on both sides — we’re right in the middle of it, and it’s been pretty reliable for us year in and year out.

Patrick: So for someone who has maybe dabbled in saltwater a bit — in the Keys or Mexico for instance — how does this trip compare?

Jonathan: Again, it’s really about isolation and environment — rarely do you have the ability to go to a place that’s so protected. You literally have a place the size of the Florida Keys that has maybe 24 fishing skiffs in it. 24. That’s all. There could be that many skiffs launching at any boat ramp on any given morning in the Florida Keys. In that sense, the pressure is what creates this unique experience in such a rich eco system. In Florida you historically have the best fishing in terms of size — generally it’s thought of as being the place to catch the biggest bones, biggest tarpon, and large permit, despite being more difficult than many other places. On the other end of the spectrum, you go down to Mexico and you have great populations of fish that are maybe a little less pressured and technical, but are generally smaller in size.


Jardines occupies its own special place in this spectrum of fisheries. It’s still in the same zone where it shares many characteristics with Florida and the Keys, but without the pressure. You have really good tarpon fishing, healthy populations of permit, and plentiful bonefish in the 4-5 pound range. It’s not pigeon-holed into being a super-destination for any one species, but there’s a lot going on. At the end of the day, the tarpon and their bite-iness is the draw for us. They might not be the giants we sometimes see in the Keys, but boy are they fun.


Joe: Right! They Just eat it down there!

Jonathan: In that way it’s a great place for anglers of all levels — you get a lot of practice at feeding, hooking, and fighting tarpon that you might not get elsewhere. Tarpon are not always the hardest fish to feed on the flats, but once you hook a tarpon, what happens after that is blur and chaos and like full-on oceanic anarchy: all hell breaks loose. The first big tarpon that you hook. You don't remember what happened from the moment he ate the fly until you've regained your consciousness. It's just total mayhem. A lot of times in the Keys, you just don’t necessarily get enough reps on feeding fish to get good at hooking them and to get good at getting through that first couple of minutes of the fight and then playing them and learning how to defeat them.


What Cuba really offers is the ability to feed a good number of tarpon, and the ability to get them hooked, lose them, make that mistake. Make it 15 times and then learn to keep them on the line and learn that when they come off the line it's not your fault. You learn how to play them the way you should and get enough reps on that part, so that when you do go to other places you’ll know what you're doing once you've hooked one. After the trip last year we had one angler who just like, “man, this was unbelievable — It was so good! Why would I ever go back to the Keys?!” My comment back to him was like, well, you know, now you can actually go back to the keys and be a player!

Patrick: So this isn’t just a trip for the grizzled saltwater veteran?

Jonathan: Absolutely not. We should also mention the size of these tarpon — they’re not all 120 – 150 pound giants. You do see larger fish in that range, but we’re generally catching 40 to 80-pounders. That’s a pretty manageable size, and it’s a good size to learn on — they’re big enough to be significant and super fun.


But my feeling is that we've had some people that were relative saltwater novices on this trip, and I think it's a wonderful place to learn. It's a place that you can go wade for bonefish, catch a ton, and spook even more — but they don't swim two miles away and go off the flat. When you spook them, they'll come back around and give you another shot and another. It’s a little more forgiving than other places. To go from that experience and then be able to turn right around and go target some tarpon for the latter part of the day is an awesome thing to have.


Joe: It’s a place where you can truly build some confidence. You can get someone to build success over the course of the day, and then from the day to the overall week. If they can spend some of their time bonefishing, or catching jacks or stripping a fly over the reefs and seeing what comes to eat it, you can really get your feet underneath you and maybe you’ll be a little less-likely to melt in that moment when you do hook into that big Tarpon!


Jonathan: it’s a fishery that’s robust enough where you can definitely round your days out a little bit.

Patrick: So when we talk about all these games you play down there, what's the gear set up for Jardines de la Reina — what rod weights are we talking, and are any special flies or things that are specific to Cuba?

Joe: You could take an 8, 9, and 10 weight rod and be pretty set. At the same time, you could bring a 9, 10 and 11 and pretty much be set too.  Either is fine — obviously not everybody's gonna have an 8, 9, 10 and 11, although that's what we roll with.


Jonathan: [laughing] That's the ideal 8,9, 10 and 11!


Joe: [laughs] Right! And lines for all of ‘em!


Jonathan: In all seriousness though, it is worth mentioning the flies. Over the years we’ve learned from trial and error which flies to bring down. In a lot of ways it’s like going back in time down there — the list of recommended flies that Avalon hands you is tricky when these 2/0 and 3/0 flies they’re asking for aren’t really made in a lot of places anymore because they aren’t fished in places like the Keys any longer, or when you do find them they’re tied on the wrong hooks. That’s why we have a lot of custom-tied patterns that we’ve developed and tweaked with input from our guides down there, so for people heading down there for migratory tarpon – even if it’s with someone else - hit us up! We've got the right flies for it.


Joe: Right — we have them custom-tied and we can build you a box full of ‘em!


Jonathan: You should see Joe down there. He sits down and every day in the boat with his fly box open, stuffed with flies he’s amassed over the winter — he's back there with the guide holding a fly up in the light and squinting like “What do you think of this one?”

Joe: Dude I text photos of flies to them throughout the winter to get their input, and we’re just constantly refining. So yeah, I would buy tarpon flies from us if I was going to Cuba, there's very few places that sell the right ones!

Patrick: To end things, tell me about this year’s trip — what are some defining memories?

Joe: It was windy. This time around it was windy most days but would lay down in the afternoons which was very helpful. But we persevered and had great fishing despite the circumstances.


Jonathan: It wasn’t the 20-25mph winds, it was more manageable at 15-20. It wasn’t the casting that was hard, we think it just prevented more tarpon from moving onto the flats. On the other hand we also had no cloud cover, so that was great — we had amazing sun and the ones that were moving we could see and target. We did see a lot of fish, so it was still really good.


The memory that sticks in my mind was this awesome school of tarpon we fished to. The guides are in contact via radio all day on the water and are pretty far apart and one day all of a sudden we hear them excitedly saying “Big, big mancha coming by! Big Stain coming by!” and this was first thing in the morning — we look over and we see this giant school in the slightly choppy water heading towards all the boats. They must have been a school of 100 tarpon just greyhounding that you could see from five or six hundred yards away. These fish were hauling ass and you could see them go by each guide skiff off in the distance and Boom! You’d see a fish in the air “did they lose it?! Ahh they lost him!” — basically every skiff from our group that was in the area got a shot at the school. Some boats even picked up and shot all the way around and came back a couple times for multiple shots.


Joe: Yeah, by the third pass those fish were on to us!


Jonathan: [laughs] Yeah! But it was something sweet to see — just that behavior of this rolling school moving down the beach. To be able to see that with your friends and see the other boats and anglers move in and get hooked up but be far enough away that you’re not up in each other’s grill!


Joe: That was a pretty cool moment — when your guide is like “700 meters, get ready” –


Jonathan: [laughing] I can’t cast that far!


Joe: One of the coolest moments for me was our last night in the Jardines on the eastern side of the archipelago — it was getting late but we had great lighting. Jonathan and were in one boat, others from the group in another. We motored up to where they were fishing and they were hooked up when we arrived. We proceeded to have pretty darn good tarpon fishing between our two skiffs for the next hour: We doubled up, and almost tripled-up! I have a great photo of Jonathan’s fish jumping in the foreground with our friend’s fish jumping in the background. All of a sudden I was hooked up too while Jonathan was ready to throw in again. All the while the other boat hooked into yet another one — It was pure chaos for that little window. “Oceanic anarchy” as Jonathan put it. It was awesome. It’s moments like that that make you realize how special the Jardines are. It is one of the most amazing places in the world


Jonathan: There’s a lot of fun to be had out there.


Joe: I mean, sometimes there's all eight boats with 500 yards between them and there's huge schools around everywhere — you can literally look up and the whole group is all down at the Cabeza de Este and we're just hanging out here comes the big mancha, this big stain.

Jonathan: You might not understand anything about Spanish coming out of here, but after a week in Jardines you’ll know what Mancha Grande means! (big stain, referring to discolored water from the silhouettes of tarpon schools)


Every year has some visuals that stick in your head. This year in particular I was trying to target single fish out of the entire school instead of just getting it out there and “flock-shooting” There was one day where I found “the one” — the big fish that wanted to play. It was a large female and couldn't move her on my first cast, but eventually she came into beautiful light. She wasn’t too far, and I put it right where I wanted. I could see my fly in the water and just was like, I'm going to pull it right across her face for sure. I thought I was going to get this one right. And man, the fly just sat right in front of her face and she opened to eat it and hit it ever-so-softly and the fly just rolled off her mouth right as she closed her jaw and kept swimming. That was probably a 100 pound fish — it was the big one I wanted this trip. But you have those moments! In my mind I can see her giant eyeball still. I’m still watching my fly rotate right off of her lip to this day. There are lots of cool moments like that — it's so visual. Tarpon fishing is a very visual game.


Patrick: Wow. I want to go now! Thanks for sharing, you guys — What a trip!


Jonathan: Thank you Pato!


Joe: Great to sit down and relieve an awesome trip — thanks Patrick! And tell whoever would like to join us next time to give us a call!


Patrick: Aye aye!


We are currently booking for our annual Jardines de la Reina trips for 2025 and 2026 — if you’d like to learn more or have any questions, feel free to contact us today.

Contact us

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Hosted trips