Bucket list trip for Cuban flats fishing a dream come true

Stephen Zoukis was part of a Charleston group that traveled to Cuba’s Cayo Largo for a fly fishing expedition and the only one who caught a grand slam in one day. Here he shows off the permit that completed the slam. Photo provided.

There are few fishing locales that can live up to the hype. But a group of Charleston fishermen will attest that the Cuban resort of Cayo Largo, located about 100 miles due south of Havana, is a saltwater fly fisherman’s dream.

Rhett Reidenbach, Ken Holseberg, Stephen Zoukis, Tony Woody, David Stevens and Champ Smith had the recent opportunity to sample the Cuban flats and returned home with tired arms and vivid memories of bountiful bonefish, willing tarpon and challenging permit.

“It was one of those bucket list trips that you hope you can go on again,” Smith said.

Until recently U.S. citizens were not legally permitted to enter Cuba, but those rules were relaxed earlier this year. Everyone who travels to Cuba has to have some type of mission and the Charleston group was able to go through the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.

Smith said they booked the trip through Ian Davis of Yellow Dog Outfitters with Filippo Invernizzi of Avalon Fishing in Cuba. They took a private charter from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Havana, and after a day in Cuba’s capital took a converted Russian transport plane to the island of Cayo Largo. Smith said the resort fishes along a 70-mile stretch divided into six 10-12 mile zones.

“What Filippo did about 30 years ago was set up those zones and turn them into a fishing sanctuary,” Smith said. “There is no killing of fish. No spinning rods are involved. It’s only fly fishing and everything is released.

“They give each zone a resting period of four to five days to a week before it gets touched again. It’s really pristine. It really is cool the way each zone gets to rest and there’s not much fishing pressure. The fishing was extraordinarily good.

“You could catch bonefish until you got tired. Most bones were three to four pounds,” said Smith, who added that the group caught three bonefish over 10 pounds, including one that weighed 13 pounds. “The juvenile tarpon fishing was crazy good, very few refusals. My first two days I caught eight tarpon myself. The tarpon very rarely refused your fly. And the permit fishing was permit fishing. It’s difficult no matter where or how you do it. But it was good.”

Smith said the group saw permit and managed three or four bites but Zoukis was the only one who succeeded and completed a grand slam by catching a permit, tarpon and bonefish in the same day.

Additionally, the group also caught mutton snapper on the fly, lots of jacks, blue runners and jack crevalles. They saw snook but were unable to hook one.

“You fish out of 16-foot Dolphin flats skiffs. Everything is first-class. The guides are all top-notch and they all speak English,” Smith said. “It’s crazy. It’s so pristine. It’s like going to the Florida Keys in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”