I cannot say that I will ever not be caught completely unsurprised by the quirks that Cuba can throw at anglers. With 9 years of Cuban travel under my belt I am accustomed to the varying levels of deviation from what might be anticipated from any given itinerary. To the average and inquisitive tourist Cuba delivers a wonderful and hopefully enlightening experience to a country that has to a significant degree been forgotten by the ravages of modernisation. Therein of course lies its current appeal albeit at the expense of the smoothly oiled logistics that you might expect at some alternate locations.
This may sound like a pre-apology for what transpired over my most recent hosted WWMF week. Although there was indeed some deviation from the plan the overall result was pretty much the opposite. Our week was on board the Perola yacht in the Isle of Youth fishing area. The Perola is unique to the Avalon fleet of boats in that it is an elegant, fit for purpose, motor yacht. Built in the 1950’s and fully refurbished in the 1990’s it not just looks the part from the outside but mahogany cabins and interior fittings immerse you in the sort of Havana old town experience that the elegant, if dated, hotels of the Parque Central or National in Havana exude.
One of the concerns that has been voiced to me in the past is that a live-aboard yacht does not deliver the Cuban experience that anglers hope to see alongside the fishing. Whilst that may be true for some locations the opposite must be true of the Perola. Under the Captaincy and stewardship of Manuel, and for the most part his long-standing crew, they operate the yacht with a level of casual efficiency that for anyone who has spent some time in Cuba will testify, is an exception to the norm. Manuel, of Italian / Spanish decent is an outstanding host and really opens the doors on everything you could ever want to know of find out about Cuba. The fabulous Cuban crew are as open as they are hard-working.
The fishing schedule whilst staying on the Perola is exactly as you would expect from a mobile live aboard yacht. Over the week we weighed anchor at least 6 times moving around the entire area. Although this did not stop the guides covering some significant distances to get to where they thought the fishing would be best on any given session it did ensure that we covered the widest area possible. Each morning we set out after breakfast promptly at 8 and then were back for 1 o clock for lunch and an enjoyable siesta out of the midday heat. After a bracing cup of excellent coffee we were off again at 4, returning around 7.30-8 in the evening. In instances when the fishing was really good by little more than the light of the moon!
So what of the week. It was consistently quite windy. The impact when focusing on Tarpon is more pronounced that had we been primarily targeting Bonefish. On windy days you can find secluded Bonefish flats, either in the immediate lee of an island or within the mangrove lagoons. Targeting the larger migratory tarpon on the flats requires you to fish the more exposed areas and even in good light conditions a strong wind can very significantly reduce the chances of seeing as well as restricting the opportunities to present a fly in front of them.
By way of an example whilst fishing one of the flats my partner Kristjan was presented with a very short notice opportunity at two good-sized Tarpon. The reduced visibility from the wind-riffled water meant that a short lightening-fast cast was required. One of the fish turned and had a go at the fly but missed it. Inciting a frenzy of sorts the other Tarpon made a lunge for it. By this stage little more than the tip of the fly line, if that, was protruding from the end rod tip. The Tarpon’s cavernous mouth engulfed the fly as it turned revealing its full size less than 1 metre from the side of the boat showering us in water. Almost incredibly the fly seemed to just wash out of its mouth without finding anything to purchase on. It had been a monster! Manolo our guide mentioned that after 15 years or so of guiding not many things made his heart beat fast…this one did which he put conservatively at 140+lbs.
We fished over a full moon period and there is certainly a train of thought that says the Tarpon will feed more heavily at night and this might account for lower levels of Tarpon activity on the flats. Whether this was true or whether reduced visibility simply did not reveal as many fish as sometimes I would not like to speculate.
Where we did encounter the Tarpon in very good numbers was along the southern reef that runs more or less along the length of Cuba stretching past Cayo Largo and the Jardines de la Reina. Conditions when we fished these areas, on 4 of the 6 evenings seemed to be best in the evening as the sun was setting. In one of these sessions Kristjan and myself landed 2 Tarpon up to 80lbs and jumped 4 more in the space of little over 90 mins, two of which broke the tippet! The later part of this frenetic session was under little more than the light of the full moon! As is always the case, when the action comes, it comes fast and furious!
Even if spinning/plugging may not be everybody’s idea of fishing heaven I have always been an advocate of having a rod on standby whenever saltwater fishing. There will always be occasions when the fly will not cut the mustard. We would leave the flats as fly only domain, not for any hard and fast rule but hurling a large popper around will keep the fish well out of fly range. In the deep interlinking channels and lagoons it is a different story. One person can use a popper very effectively from the back of the boat whilst the other continues to fly-fish from the front. Not only can this deliver some very exciting action on what otherwise might be a quiet day but the popper can also bring fish up from the depths which then will have a go at a fly.
Large Barracuda, large Tarpon and large Jack Crevalle all added to the daily tally of activity on our skiff. Although there was significant discussion as to the best means ‘to pop’ our medium sized, blue and white popper it was Kristjan’s relaxed and idle manner that seemed to have the fish falling over themselves to have a go and in some cases subsequently becoming part of the menu that evening!
Alongside running a very good team Manuel is a very accomplished skin-diving spear-fisherman. The fruits of his labours were presented to us over lunches and dinners and constituted some of the most delicious fresh fish we had tasted and without question the best food I have had in Cuba. Cubero Snapper was the absolute speciality and whether simply cooked or eaten as ceviche it was excellent. On pretty much everyday lobster was on the menu. For those who do not head to the, menu equivalent of the bottom of the wine-list whenever they eat out, this is an undeniable treat.
No trip to Cuba is complete without its ‘deviations’ from the schedule and although our trip ran incredibly smoothly it is worth emphasising that itineraries should be treated as guidance to the structure a trip and not much beyond that. Most flights from Europe to Havana or indeed from Canada in our case will get in around 9.30 pm. Do not expect to be at your hotel much before 11pm. The first crunch point that is fairly typical of Cuban schedules is that you can expect to be on parade waiting for a pickup at any stage between 3-5am the next morning. Rather than mentally battle at this affront against I have taken the view that it is easy to think of it as remaining in keeping with European timings! 3am + 5hrs difference becomes a leisurely 8am. Your body will probably not agree with this but being mentally forewarned is forearmed!
Despite a very short stay in our hotel on the plus side everything else went very smoothly and we were eating breakfast and had set sail for the fishing grounds by about 7.45 and set off with our skiff and guide by 9am. Our post-lunch midday siesta in AC comfort made the whole thing very manageable.
On our departure for reasons best known to the Cuban authorities the scheduled departure plane from the Isle of Youth back to Havana was not available until the late afternoon so in its place we went via ferry. Nothing was particularly untoward about the trip other than it was not what was scheduled but that is really my point…you take things as they come in Cuba.
Windy conditions and a few unexpected travel arrangements aside the Perola definitely now sits at the top of my list of Cuban destinations. Whilst we were not blessed with the same numbers of Tarpon on this specific trip as I have seen before on most days we had multiple opportunities, only falling short on our very last day. Of the Tarpon that we did encounter a good quantity were around the 80lb mark. That is a big big fish! Whilst of course Tarpon can be significantly larger, watching a fish of that size turn at and demolish your fly, and then launch itself skywards under your is a phenomenal experience that I categorically would wish on everyone!!
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