Preceding a saltwater fishing trip, there is nothing like some fairly ferocious winter weather to help maximise the enjoyment of the holiday. This was certainly true of the March 2018 WhereWiseMenFish trip to the Jardines de la Reina (JDR). There was a palpable sense of relief and escape amongst our team of six, arriving at Gatwick airport, to not only escape the previous ‘Beast from the East’, which had turned transport and lives in Britain and Europe upside down, but also the threat of its successor….inbound and menacing.
Our destination, Cuba, had not been without its share of issues the previous year. Hurricane Irma, in September 2017, had hit the Northern coast of Cuba hard. Certainly hard enough for a ‘well-meaning’ individual to accuse me of gross negligence at having the audacity to consider going ahead with the planned trip, despite my receiving firm reassurances to the contrary. I can only thank the individual for his concern however I am superbly pleased not to have heeded the advice on this occasion. Damage had indeed been done to infrastructure on the Northern coast however the Cubans have weathered worse and have been swift to repair any key areas damaged. Tourism is now the Cuban economic lifeline, long since diverged from the Sugar Cane which helped put the Cuban economy on the map.
Contrary to previous years where the route has been via Havana, we took a more direct route, flying to Santa Clara in Central Cuba. Following a fun evening at a local hotel, on the evening of arrival, we embarked on a relatively easy 3hr drive to Jucaro Port on the opposite coastline. This is the embarkation point for anglers on their way to the JDR, and it is where we boarded the yacht Perola. Although this route misses out on the sights and sounds of Havana it made for a far quicker journey, without the need for a pre-dawn departure and subsequent long bus journey.
I have extolled the virtues of the Perola yacht before and I can say little more other than the charm and atmosphere remained as vibrant as on previous trips. The Perola carries a sense of history with its deep mahogany interiors, robust polished brass fittings and general look and feel. It has a fantastic open top deck for eating, drinking, relaxing in hammocks and generally watching the sun rise and set. Where it loses out, is in not providing all the guests with individual births, although with time in the cabins limited to sleeping only, this did not seem to be an undue burden. Although we were a party of 6, the Perola can sleep 7 with 2 twin rooms and 3 singles. Sailing time to the JDR is a sedately 6-7 hrs, slower than some of the more modern Avalon fleet. That said, after a day’s international travelling, having time to relax, set up kit, ask the guides to do all the saltwater knots that one should know but they do better, analyse, choose and have one’s flies rejected, is all part of the gentle unwinding process, no matter how keen you are.
We were fishing over the 3rd week in March. Although the JDR is known for its fantastic fishing variety, I cannot think of Cuba as anything other than one of the best places to try and catch Tarpon. This was one of the earlier Tarpon weeks with the numbers of migratory Tarpon building over April, May and June. As with any migratory species, whether they would be around in good numbers was on everyone’s mind, but maybe mine more so than anyone else, as the host and organiser!
Our first of the six days fishing established the presence of the Tarpon beyond any doubt. As a team, it would be fair to say that we did not make the most proficient or experienced Tarpon fisher’s to have embraced Cuban waters. On that first day however, each of the 3 skiffs returned with tale after tale of exhilarating action. Huge Tarpon, mature Tarpon, impossible to hook Tarpon, but most of all aggressive Tarpon. For those more attune to a noble Trout or indeed the stealthy but speedy Bonefish this is a very different game. When Tarpon are hungry and aggressive they will chase down a fly like a cheetah on a tread mill! If they do not hook up on first attempt they will often chase and chase the fly until you have run out of line to strip, and then keep on going, out of the water if necessary! When they are swimming as a shoal, and we saw some incredible packs of 100-200 Tarpon, if one misses, very often another fish will be on the fly like a rat up a drainpipe. Our tally by the end of Day One was only one Tarpon landed, however it was none the less spectacular for the amount of action, jumped fish and lost opportunities had by all.
The following days were a mixture of Bones, chasing the visible but determinedly fickle Permit, Barracuda, Snappers and of course more Tarpon. Barracuda are a fish, which I feel, are often overlooked in the saltwater gamefish scorecard. Being the largest fish I could ever hope to catch in my youth, albeit via lures, they have always fascinated me. Barracuda flies are often simply not up to the job. Finding an interesting article on the subject I commissioned some flies to be made from Shadow Flies. These were the accepted needlefish patterns but rather than a single hook these were made with tandem hooks linked with a heavy steel trace within the mylar body of the fly. Ultra-strong hooks are needed. They need to be of identical quality to that you would use when fishing for any apex saltwater predator. The acceleration and power of a Barracuda when it makes a run is enough to exploit any weakness.
To catch a Barracuda, you need confidence. Confidence that you can turn what can appear as a lethargic, albeit menacing log, into an adrenaline pumped monster. A fly cast close to its head, but at an angle that allows you to strip the fly away from it seemed most effective. When the Barracuda was alerted a very fast strip is needed, recreating the frenzied flies of an escaping needlefish. If at first you do not succeed, try try again. Barracuda will of course get spooked but as often as not they will lurk around, inquisitive as to what is going on and what might be on offer. To cast at the same fish 2-4-8-16 times is not uncommon. When they do ‘turn on’ make sure you are ready. Barracuda when hooked will take off at rod-wrenching speed. The line you have just whipped in at frenzied speed, quite likely to be looped or tangled by your feet will disappear in a rod ring breaking ball! If it is a good-sized Barracuda, pushing 10-30+lbs, they will leave line burns on your fingers as easily as an idle 6yr old with a marker pen!
There is so much adventure and excitement to be had when saltwater fishing and the JDR has variety in buckets. From soaring birdlife to submerged saltwater crocodiles. On one of our lunch breaks, pulled in beside a small but deep mangrove channel, on looking directly beneath us was a simply enormous Grouper. When I say enormous I do so without ‘tongue in cheek fisherman’s tale’. This fish was well over a meter long and would have weighed in at over 100lbs. It remained there all whilst we had lunch, sticking its head out from under the overhang, pretty much oblivious to our affairs above. I subsequently donned a mask, dived down and faced up to it at an arm’s length distance, all the time it simply stared impassively back at me. I imagine that lie belongs to that fish as much as a car in your driveway! I will be looking for it on my next trip!
What was unfortunate and unexpected was a cold front which blew in from the North…no doubt the “Beast from the East 2”. In terms of the weather over the week, it could not have been better for the first four days, but a good breeze was brewing! Fish are of course far cannier than we sometimes give them credit for. The Tarpon especially seemed to have sensed what we could only see on a long-range weather forecast. Over days 2-6 the Tarpon became increasingly harder to entice to the fly. We did not see them in the same ultra-abundant numbers as Day 1, but for those looking, each skiff had multiple opportunities each day. Conversely and frustratingly, as our casts and skills improved over the week, their inclination to take a fly, even though visible in good numbers, decreased. Sadly, one cannot do anything about the fishing conditions or the weather, and our group suffered the inconvenience with broad shoulders, open perspectives and alternate quarry.
The food we enjoyed on the Perola was outstanding. One delicious fish dish after another with Lobsters a plenty, as well as a good mix of other dishes. Although our fantastic Cuban host, Ivan, was less impressed than I was, when I delivered him a pair of snorkel found conch to prepare, along with various snappers and assorted delicacies, all were served up to the highest standard. Ceviche, Sashimi, curried, steamed, fried…you name it.
On our final day the wind really blew and the journey back to port that evening required an earlier departure than normal, leaving around 2pm. The Perola, like all the boats in use in use around inshore Cuba, has a flat bottom to enable it to access the shallow waters surrounding the JDR. This does not give it the wave slicing performance of a naval frigate in the North Sea, however despite an interesting return journey, it did not prevent healthy appetites for Cuban food and indeed rum on our final evening! A great trip and my thanks to both all of the participants, as well as the crew of the Perola, and guides in equal measure.
Jardines de la Reina – La Reina Yacht - 25 May – 1 June 2019
WhereWiseMenFish will be hosting a return trip to the Jardines de la Reina over the week above in 2019. This would be considered a prime Tarpon week! For full details please email: [email protected]
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