ANTICIPATION. I hope everyone who is reading this, keen anglers or passionate travellers alike is suitably afflicted to some degree. It of course all starts with
Some are able to mask the surge of excitement until they board the plane or even arrive at the destination, for others it is a tormentous drift over prolonged days, weeks and months until the day arrives. With one week to go prior to our departure to Cuba to fish at the Isle of Youth as a group anticipation was at fever pitch. The Isle of Youth is known for both the quality of the Bonefishing but also for producing excellent Tarpon fishing throughout the season. However our trip was in May, the prime month for Tarpon when, all going well, numbers of the migratory Tarpon would be at their absolute peak.
Two of the team in our group, Elvar & Kristjan were from Iceland. After many dark cold months they were unquestionably restless to the point where sleep was simply a distraction. For my part I was doing my best to co-ordinate kit requests, whizzing repeatedly backwards and forwards between my home and Farlows in Pall Mall to pick up overlooked items. The stringent and ongoing sanctions in place against Cuba mean that access to fishing gear is all but impossible. Cuba is one destination where it pays to go as fully equipped as possible.
My good friend Thorsten Struben with whom I was sharing a skiff had been producing like a dervish. A spectacular array of Tarpon, Bonefish & Permit flies awaited to ensure we were prepared for every eventuality, as well as stockpiling an armoury of the latest Loop saltwater rods. Between the two of us we had 13 rods and reels of all weights and varieties, enough lines to stretch from one end of Cuba to the other and flies to feed all conceivable saltwater species of every appetite or persuasion we hoped to encounter. This superabundance of equipment was not to meet any personal fishing gear fetish but to ensure that all of our team of seven on the trip had everything that they would need.
I am not sure if ‘Murphy’ has visited Cuba but if not ‘Murphy’s law’ appears to be alive and well! Despite boarding in different countries both Thorsten’s bag and mine did not make it past Charles de Gaulle baggage handling services in Paris. We were not united with our cases for 3 and 5 days respectively despite the very best efforts of the staff to track them down and get them delivered to the Isle of Youth (IDJ). What had been intended as a group pool of equipment for all turned into a beg and borrow for which everyone has my sincere thanks.
A word of warning. Cuba does not operate under western schedules. It does not even operate under Caribbean timings. The distinct mix of socialist governance combined with the rough embrace of the more capitalist aspects of tourism do not always sync! Although the IDJ is a mere 25 min hop in a domestic flight schedules can change somewhat erratically. Although we were informed the plane was in for repair I suspect there were probably any number of other reason that could have caused the cancellation. Simply put, itineraries go out the window and it is best to bear this in mind and come mentally prepared or at least have a good book!
Bags checked in and ready to go as we waited in the domestic departure lounge our midday flight was unexpectedly delayed by 5 hours. It was an easy decision to head back into Havana. Our journey seemed to mimic the state of the Cuban economy. Bouncing along in fits and starts our dilapidated Soviet influence era taxi would float in and out of life. With resigned patience our driver would glide us to a halt, whether it be mid highway, junction or cross roads, open the engine hood, tinker with ‘something’ to inspire life back into the engine and then will us on for another 3 or 4 minutes. This cycle was repeated for 30 odd minutes until we finally made it to the well-known ‘Havana Socialist Club’. ‘Muchos’ lobster, rum cocktails and cigars followed by a stroll past the ‘Havana Craft and Souvenir Market’ by the dockside. A taxi journey back in two splendidly refurbished Studebakers reinforced not just the feel of Cuba but also characterised the deeper communist agenda that trapped these iconic cars in a nostalgic time-warp born out of economic necessity.
Travel issues aside, fishing gear poached, loaned and scrounged, all our skiffs set off for the task in hand, roughly on schedule early the next morning. Smooth water conditions encouraged our guide, Manolo, to head off to a distant and relatively deep-water lagoon. Engines cut we glided in. Looking down you could see what appeared to be a strong undercurrent of glistening minnows. These of course were the reason why lagoons attract both juvenile and indeed much bigger Tarpon.
At this stage it has to be appreciated that we were still far from tuned in to our environment and entirely uncertain as to what might be expected. Our answer came a few dozen casts later when Thorsten cast to, struck and was rewarded with the first silvery missile of the week. Three minutes later it was off - however it only took a few more casts to connect to a similar sized fish. I have seen and fought large Tarpon in open water but having an 80lb fish cascading around the extremely tight confines of the corner of a lagoon was something quite different. Although its size meant that it did not / could not make full use of the endless Mangrove root entanglements this did not stop it trying. Thorsten may be 6ft 3 and built as one would expect from an army Sergeant Major but the 45 minute battle that ensued and the sweat that flowed told the physical side of the story.
Watching a friend catch a fish that was 800% larger than his previous best is enlightening but it does little to stifle the urge to wrestle the rod away to have a cast of one’s own. Tarpon photographed, effusive congratulations offered, fish released, hook checked and it was my turn. Standing on the prow we made our way to the very corner of the lagoon where what appeared to be large fish continued to roll. A number of searching blind casts into a very confined space rewarded me with a crunching take followed by the sort of eruption that one sees in movies as a ballistic missile breaks the water and engages full thrust. The silo popping fin propelled silver missile like antics of a Tarpon is quite unique in that it allows an angler an almost immediate feel and view of the power and size of what may well be your adversary for a significant period of time. Alongside its aerobatics the Tarpon has another defensive weapon in its armoury. The mouth is like steel plate to a hook and despite my negotiating successive jumps the hook popped loose with little or no warning.
With three large fish having been played and lost in very tight confines we headed back towards the wider body and mouth of the lagoon. It did not take much more than 20 minutes before I was hooked up with a fish of around 100lbs which by the time it had been landed and released accounted for four Tarpon hooked in the 80-100lb range with two landed all prior to midday on Day 1. If Russian missile silos had indeed popped up as quickly as this during the terrifying escalation of events in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis then who knows where we would be today.
From our perspective we welcomed a more relaxing afternoon wrestling Snook and smaller Tarpon from the mangroves under ominous ever-darkening skies. Not without due cause Manolo decided that the threat from lightning strike to our rods was too great to continue Holding a 24ft push pole in the midst of a violent electrical storm is not good for health. Thunderous rain met us on our journey back to the dock which we viewed through eyes tightly squinted. How the guides could navigate 50 metres let alone all the way back home remains a mystery.
Days 2-4 was a fantastic mix of conditions, challenges and fun. Bonefish were conquered and Permit chased albeit without success. The rest of the team, four of whom were entirely new to saltwater fly-fishing became steadily more proficient in the skills needed to set a Tarpon hook as well as the mandatory ‘bow to the king’ each time one went airborne (lowering your rod tip to prevent the fly being jerked from the fish’s mouth). Lobsters were eaten amidst the surreal surroundings of roving monkeys and saltwater snuffling pigs on Cayo Campo -“Monkey Island”. Manolo looked at me with increasing degrees of despair with the occasional complaint that I was spending more time swimming than catching fish – although in fairness Thorsten kept up the hard work at the front of the boat whilst I glided along in parallel 50 yards or so away from the drift of the skiff!
On day 5 a local weather front over the IDJ brought with it increased winds. More sheltered areas tucked amongst the mangroves were fishable and produced a few Tarpon even if the level of frustration from the guides mounted as it proved harder and harder to control the skiff. Despite a tricky morning perseverance and faith that the wind would calm down paid off. A large expanse of flats alongside that ran parallel to a wide channel where on the 2nd day we had jumped no less than eleven Tarpon in an afternoon was alive with fish. Although we had experienced success on the flats throughout the week today was different. In place of singles and pairs pods of Tarpon could be seen marauding in all directions.
It may have been due to the increased chop on the water which either screened our presence from the Tarpon or simply made them more aggressive but time and again we would cast at a school whereupon one fish would lunge at the fly followed by a second or even a third if the hook did not hold. I will not forget in a hurry casting at two Tarpon in the 80-100lb range. The first, at a range of about 15 ft, surged after the fly, coming clean out of the water at less than 5ft from my rod tip, cavernous mouth ajar. Somehow the fly seemed to ride out of its mouth, whilst airborne, an a wave of water. The second Tarpon did not waste a second and nailed the free offering as it sat dead in the water, my ability to strip any further line denied by the leader knot.
If by midday on day 1 our hooked to landed fish ratio was 2:1 by the end of day 5 Thorsten and I had degenerated to less worthy but more typical numbers in the 4 or 5:1 range. Did that put a grey pall on our experience? If anything it went to highlight not just what fantastic fishing we had at the Isle of Youth but to confirm without reservation why hitting the prime Tarpon weeks can be so spectacular and indeed why they are so sought after.
On our final day, despite a barrage of optimism, very strong winds meant that as soon as we hit the wider expanse of water outside of the sheltered marina channel we were almost overwhelmed by surging white-capped waves. Formed up in a skiff flotilla we made a brazen attempt to make some headway but even from a reckless derring-do perspective it was very evident that one wrong sequence of waves would result in a long swim home! It has to be said that this was the first time I have ever lost a full day whilst saltwater flats fishing. It is however the nature of the game and as it turned out things could have been worse!
One of the aspects of the Isle of Youth and specifically staying on land at the rustic Hotel Rancho, in comparison to most of the other Cuban fishing locations, is that it allows you to really get a feel for Cuba outside of Havana or the touristy beaches at Varadero and similar. Once fishing rods had despondently been pulled apart up and packed away we headed back to the hotel. Fernando, our local host, quickly arranged a trip to the Presidio Modelo, the astonishing Cuban prison that had once had amongst its occupants Fidel Castro. Modelled on the notorious Joliet prison in Illinois these four imposing circular structures housed around 2,000 inmates each. The two man cells were all open and there was nothing more than a guard railing running around the inner walkway to stop prisoners falling (being pushed) to their deaths.
Guided cultural tour complete, we headed to the nearby beach restaurant for refreshments. The Isle of Youth does not have any tourism to speak of. Outside of visiting anglers, on the main tourists are just the inquisitive sort looking to see the inner side of Cuba. It may not feature highly amongst the list of Cuban guided tours but none the less la Isla de la Juvetud is a great chance to get immersed in a side of Cuba far from the tourist trail. As we reached the bar a lorry load of locals arrived to make the best of the day which, although still very windy, now sported deep blue skies. Delicious fish and lobster dishes followed alongside as much rum as was available. Impromptu swimming sessions included, we paid the bill about four hours later and left much the merrier, aided by some very significant rum shots on the house.
Over the week we were treated to numerous bands playing at the hotel as well as an excellent and very delicious night out at a local restaurant in the nearby town of Nueva Gerona. From an accommodation perspective, for groups of six anglers wishing to have excellent food, single accommodation and a reduced journey time to the fishing area the live-aboard yachts Georgiana or Perola are ideal solutions. The lodging at Hotel Rancho will not appeal to all and the food, despite anglers being served by a dedicated Avalon chef will not match that on the yachts. However if you like to have your feet on dry land, have a bit of fun in the evening and see a different side to Cuba then hotel Rancho is great fun.
The fishing at the Isle of Youth is focused around Tarpon and Bonefish. Permit are around but even the guides admit that it is even more of an achievement to catch one here than elsewhere. The skiffs used all have 70HP engines and we were all very happy with our guides and their abilities. To really tackle the Tarpon, in all conditions and certainly over May when the biggest are around, in an ideal world I would recommend two eleven weight rods with a sinking and intermediate line as well as a 10 weight with a floating line. As it happened we fished with a fast sink and a floating line which sufficed but the more flexibility you have the greater the opportunities that may present themselves.
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