My last international fly-fishing trip before ‘lockdown’ was to Cayo Cruz in Cuba, a flats fishing destination with a rising reputation for the quality of its permit and bonefishing. It did not disappoint! On our first morning the guide suggested that we wade for bonefish and the following four hours produced 16 bonefish to 8lb in weight, all fabulously fit and hard running fish. Each day was an adventure but Day 5 holds special memories…

Cayo Cruz Day 5

The taxi departed Cayo Coco under black and angry skies as two Italian anglers and I buckled up for our daily 80km journey along the causeway which snaked eastwards to the waiting skiffs. Sunshine and a hot breeze greeted our arrival at Cayo Cruz but it was hard to ignore the dark, brooding clouds which gave chase, throwing rainbows as they came. I couldn’t help wondering what would be found at the end of a Cuban rainbow?

The endless Cuban flats

My excellent guide, Nelson,  pointed the skiff in the direction of Area 6, where mainly blue skies awaited. To begin with we were treated to ten minutes of strong sunshine followed by a few minutes of cloud as we poled a massive area of aquamarine flats in search of permit but conditions were soon reversed and the detection of approaching stingrays which might have a permit in tow became nigh impossible in such low light. We relocated to an area of small, mangrove cloaked islands where Nelson hoped to encounter permit or bones feeding in the margins. A few small bones fell to a self-tied ‘Squimp fly’ before some large lemon sharks gate crashed the party. 

A bonefish of around 4lb made a determined run for open water only to jam on the brakes and head back to the skiff at high speed, with two large, dark and ominous shapes in hot pursuit. The bonefish sought refuge at the side of the skiff while the sharks, which looked a good 2.4m in length, began to circle. Nelson splashed the water with the pole to scare the sharks but instead this drove them into a frenzy and they attacked the pole each time it entered the water. Their aggression was both spectacular and a little un-nerving. This was not the time to fall overboard. Eventually, the sharks tired of chewing plastic and moved on. One rather relieved bonefish was soon returning to the safety of the mangroves.

Lots of bonefish to keep you busy

Suddenly, Nelson spotted a double figure bonefish weaving in and out of the young mangroves populating the margins. Nelson poled silently to put us in position to intercept the fish once it emerged from the vegetation. I stood poised, fly in hand ready to cast when someone turned the lights out.  A howling wind emerged from nowhere accompanied by brooding skies and we could do nothing but huddle down for the next fifteen minutes as rain of biblical proportions lashed the boat.

This was the first of several storms to strike as the day went on. Between deluges we poled the flats but permit remained elusive. As skies darkened once more, Nelson decided to wade an area of flats with sand whiter than freshly fallen snow. We soon found ourselves surrounded by some spectacularly large bones, many in double figures but they all moved at pace with the diminishing tide. The casts were difficult as the fish seemed to be constantly moving away from us and reluctant to interrupt their passage. Only a bonefish of around 9lb took time to stop and chase the fly but my strike was over enthusiastic and the 20lb leader snapped.

The flats are littered with bones!

A trigger fish of 5lb was much more relaxed in its approach and Nelson’s retrieve of slow, short strips followed by a stop worked its magic once more courtesy of a ‘tan Gotcha’.

Lunch was consumed in the midst of a tropical downpour before the sun made a welcome return and we ventured onto the permit flats just as the tide was beginning to flood. The view from the front of the boat was incredible. White sand flats stretched to infinity with no land visible on any horizon. Suddenly the most beautiful butterfly appeared by the boat, its vibrant orange wings fluttering in the warm air. The butterfly stayed for a few moments before gracefully departing on the gathering breeze. Sadly our daughter Romy past away in 2016 and whenever a butterfly comes to call my wife and I say that it is Romy coming to say hello. Nelson snapped me from my thoughts with the announcement that a sting ray was approaching, with permit in tow.

I composed myself for what lay ahead but the permit spooked before I could make the cast. “Spooky because of the full moon” confirmed Nelson.

We finished the day on a flat which I was now beginning to recognise. Nelson obviously placed great faith in this location. The sun was now low and spotting rays became more difficult by the moment. I removed my cap as it did nothing to shield the sun. With ten minutes of the fishing day remaining Nelson shouted “Permit, 11 o’clock, 15 meters”. The sun shone directly in my face as I peered into the blinding light but I was able to distinguish a bulge in the water where the permit swam. I figured that the permit was two feet behind the ray and that the ray measured three feet in length and made a cast six feet in advance of the bulge. “Perfect” called Nelson. I fixed my gaze a few metres beyond the rod tip and commenced the prescribed retrieve of long, slow strips. I felt nothing on the first strip. The second strip was just underway when I felt the fly contact some weed before pulling free. I then felt a definite pluck but the permit had not hooked itself. At the start of the third strip I saw the water bulge in front of the rod tip as the permit rose to claim the fly. I struck instantly and remembered to let the fish run. And what a run it was! 

The holy grail of saltwater fly fishing...the Permit!

The reel holds 300m of backing but the permit ran so strongly that more than 200m of line were gone in an instant. Nelson became concerned and readied the boat to follow. With around 50m of backing still in place the run came to a halt. A battle of attrition followed, where every meter of line regained was soon reclaimed by the permit. Eventually fly line was re-united with the reel as the fish neared the boat but the sight of the skiff seemed to induce another thundering run. This happened on three occasions. The fish was tiring but I did not dare hope that it was mine and a nagging fear that the hook could give way at any moment was ever present.

The runs became shorter and the fish sat 15m from the bow, holding station in the current. Its sides flashed brilliant silver in the turquoise water. Nelson silently entered the water and grasped the leader. The fish kicked in protest and moved three meters distant. Nelson seemed satisfied that the permit was ‘ready’ and drew the fish closer before expertly grasping its tail. I felt both immense relief and elation. Nelson held a beautiful permit high for a photograph, the size 6 Olive Flexo-Crab prominent in the left hand scissors. Never have I seen a guide so happy!

As the skiff skipped across gold tipped waves towards the marina I felt a wave of emotions wash over me, extreme joy at the capture of such a special fish and sadness that the butterfly had flown away.

Nelson claims our prize!
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