WhereWiseMenFish in Cuba

Saltwater Fly-Fishing at Las Salinas & Cayo Paredon – April 2012

by Justin Maxwell Stuart - April 2012

Destination: Cuba

Holiday: Cayo Cruz

For the last decade almost all saltwater fishing in Cuba has been focused along the south coast, the fabulous Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), Cayo Largo (arguably where it all started) and Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth). This is not to say that fishing has not been conducted elsewhere or indeed that there is not considerable potential outside of these areas but rather there simply have not been any focused operations dedicated to the demands of fly-fishermen.

Cuba - Blue Skies, translucent waters and exceptional saltwater fly-fishing await

In 2010 that situation was changed by Fabrizio Barbazza, the original architect of saltwater fishing in Cuba and the owner of the fishing at Cayo Largo, before he was outbid by Avalon when the lease came up for renewal. The first destination to go on the map was Cayo Santa Maria, an area that during the peak of the season can be overrun with huge Tarpon; however for the 2012 season this has been followed by Cayo Paredon in the Jardines de le Rey (Gardens of the King) as well as Las Salinas in the Zapata National Park, on the South coast a short 2 1/2 hrs drive from Havana. Keen to ascertain the claims and potential of these new locations, a WhereWiseMenFish exploratory trip was embarked upon in the first week of April 2012 to ‘break the salt’.

Before getting to grips with the actual fishing it is worth understanding a few of the challenges and pitfalls of operating in Cuba, a country declared as an “enemy of America” and one which is firmly under communist governance. Although many of the clear-cut principles of communism are still in place this distinction has unquestionably been blurred with foreign owned companies being allowed to operate in parallel to the state run system. Both tourist dollars and supplementary funds from Cuban families, primarily living in the US, are a key component in augmenting the incredibly meagre individual monthly state salary. Where Cuba differs dramatically from similar states is that there is remarkably little corruption. Socialist principles remain strong and the state does not tolerate the sort of under-the-table bribes which are typically used to oil otherwise rusty doors in less principled countries! (A foreign owned company operating in Cuba, bringing in a much-needed annual revenue of $300 million was closed overnight for a breach of this nature).

The marina pier at Cayo Paredon – Its rustic and decrypt character representative of modern-day Cuba

Running any business in Cuba is beset by bureaucratic minefields, restrictions and a multitude of contradictory practices that make operating and managing a high quality fishing operation in Cuba quite different from neighbouring saltwater fishing lodges in the Bahamas. All these issues are worth noting, not as an apology for reduced standards but as a simple reminder to anglers that things are different in Cuba…think of the early days of fishing on the Kola Peninsula and it will give a good indication as to why pioneers of that region, such as Christer Sjoberg from Loop, have been attracted to the uncharted Cuban waters. Over the opening 2012 season undoubtedly issues will come to the surface, however on our pre-season exploratory trip any inconsistencies were compensated for by some seriously exciting fishing. Good management should set up these new locations to be amongst the latest and hottest saltwater fishing destinations.

Las Salinas was our first point of call. Opened to sport-fishing in 2004 this protected National Park offered great Bonefishing at a bucket price. There were of course catches; the primary one being that outboard engines were prohibited, meaning the fishing area was restricted to how far guides could push-pole anglers using old heavy boats. As a consequence the available fishing area was severely limited. Fabrizio has cut past existing red tape and secured exclusive revised regulations for 2012. This allows the use of outboards on his boats as well as permission to fish a vastly increased zone of similar or better flats fishing potential. To realise these opportunities anglers will have the use of a fleet of ‘made to order’ ultra-light low-draft skiffs powered by 15hp engines allowing much improved access. Unique to this location is a single guide to angler ratio allowing opportunities for anglers travelling solo as well as those simply wishing to maximise their fishing time. Close proximity to Havana and the opportunity to fish for shorter 3 day trips make for an attractive opportunity for those looking for a ‘quick’ break whilst combining it with a family holiday or similar.

Birdseye view of a Bonefish at Las Salinas on one of the many wadeable hard sandy flats

On our first day we tackled some of the original bonefish flats, cruising the mangrove edges and enjoying good numbers of Bonefish in the 3-4lb range. We also passed a multitude of ‘Muds’ - large areas of milky water stirred up by shoals of Bonefish in the 1-2 lb range. For anyone wanting to maximise their catch tally whilst getting acquainted with Bonefish then they will not be disappointed as it is possible to catch significant numbers of Bones from these areas. To my mind the really exciting Bonefishing was to follow on the second day when we explored some of the outer areas. Vast expanses of hard packed white-sand flats that could be waded barefoot were both visually spectacular and productive in equal measure, similar in many respects to parts of Los Roques, another personal favourite. Deeper water bordering these areas hint at good Permit potential, although limited by time we did not fish those areas. Variety in species can be a key ingredient to a really fun saltwater destination and at Las Salinas we were delighted to have found that, with some excellent Tarpon fishing, both for juvenile fish in the 5-20lb range as well as seeing and hooking bigger fish of 50-60lbs+. Between our 2 boats we jumped 7 Tarpon and landed 4 loosing a very large fish along the way as well as adding a fly-caught Barracuda to the tally.

Accommodation at Las Salinas is straightforward; simple albeit large guest ‘chalets’ with a sitting room and twin bedroom come complete with air-conditioning and ensuite bathrooms. The hotel, Playa Larga, is situated on the tip of the Bay of Pigs and crumbling machine gun pillboxes are placed strategically along the beach hinting at history past. What the hotel lacks in refinements it makes up for with an authentic Cuban atmosphere, augmented by a lively beach bar where the locals made merry on most afternoons to the powerful vibe of 80s tunes.

Old machine gun pillboxes on the beach in front of Playa Larga Hotel – Situated on the tip of the Bay of Pigs

After a short 3 days, fishing we set off to Cayo Coco on the North Coast to fish the adjoining area of flats at Cayo Paredon Grande. The journey was long but our overly educated English speaking taxi driver explained many of the intricacies of living in Cuba and provided a thoughtful insight into life in a country that was once at the absolute centre of the Caribbean but whose beautiful façade has long since peeled and started to crumble. Whilst never directly stated at any stage during our time in Cuba there is no question that tips to Cubans are not only much appreciated but go a long way to improving their daily lot.

Cayo Paredon is unquestionably one of the most striking saltwater locations I have fished. Expansive white sand flats are interspersed by emerald green channels. With Polaroid’s applied the visual spectacle is second to none. Neither is it confined to a few select areas but rather represents the standard panorama. On our first day despite being green to the area and the style of fishing by lunchtime we had landed 3 Tarpon up to about 40lbs and ‘jumped’ the same number again, all from a seductive curving sand bar allowing the opportunity to easily jump from the skiff once a fish had been hooked and play it to the shore.

One of the spectacular and expansive flats at Cayo Paredon - We spotted and cast at 14 large Permit in just one day

When the activity calmed down we moved a short distance to a long and wide firm-bottomed white-sand flat running for 700 metres or more. Within a few minutes we had spotted our first Permit, one of 8 or 9 that we cast at or pursued until they either took flight or out-paced us. None of the Permit would have been under 15lbs and most sat within the 20-25lb range or greater. To see that many Permit, in singles and pairs over a week let alone an afternoon set an impressive benchmark and for those seeking a grand slam then the possibilities are very real. Even in these numbers the Permit lived up to their reputation as being excruciatingly fickle in their feeding habits. Over the 6 days’ fishing my fishing partner Helmut Alleze and I had an unprecedented number of opportunities with over 25 Permit being spotted and cast at. The average size was probably around 20lbs although a number of giants would easily have tipped the scales at 40lbs; huge Permit more commonly associated with deeper water. Despite some very convincing follows and the occasional swallow they proved wary of the point of our hooks!

Bonefish although present did not get the attention that they deserved as they competed for preference amongst Tarpon up to 120lbs, Barracuda, Jacks and the hugely powerful Cubero Snapper; all set amidst some exceptionally attractive surroundings. On our arrival at Paredon a fellow fishermen presented us with a picture of a very substantial Bonefish. We were informed that it was an incredible 18lbs but on this occasion we felt that maybe the thought of a hefty tip had somewhat skewed that particular guide’s visual weigh scale!!! Regardless of claims or counter claims good-sized Bones are definitely present, specifically on the inshore coastline, an almost equal-sized area to that which we were fishing, but one that we bypassed completely in our hunt for quarry deemed ‘bigger and better’.

Bigger & Better'-Hard fighting Jack Crevalle, fearsome Cubero Snapper and the humble but rewarding Bonefish

April is known for more variable weather, however despite a few days when the wind was strongish it merely hampered as opposed to prevented good fishing. May and June are considered the peak months on the North Coast with Tarpon numbers at their peak with hotter weather conditions typically increasing activity amongst all the species of fish. A full moon over our week meant that tides were higher than normal. Although this was cited as a possible issue whenever things were not going 100% according to plan, I would reserve judgement on what might be considered perfect conditions until a full season has passed and the chance to really evaluate all the flats in different heights and months has been conducted.

A Tarpon doing a characteristically spectacular jump soon after being hooked

Our guide, the aptly named ‘Able’, deserves huge credit for maintaining ‘relative’ calm amongst some reasonably tortuous casting attempts but also for huge effort and a high level of skill combined with an ability to easily speak conversational English with ease. If guides of his calibre are replicated across all the boats anglers will have not just a productive time but also a very informative and rewarding one. With any new fishing venture there will always be a bedding-in period whilst new and old guides are trained and retrained respectively. As with any opening season there will be fluctuations in quality; however I am strongly reassured that under the close management of Fabrizzio Barbazza any issues will be ironed out.

Patrolling the White Sand flats for Permit and A Tarpon making a final bid for freedom

As a mentor to any fishing lodge Fabrizio has a reputation of high-calibre. An Italian and former Indy 500 racing driver, Fabrizzio reverted to the more genteel sport of running fishing lodges following a well-documented race crash that left him in a coma. He has lived in Cuba for 13 years and has the resilient determination to counter the worst of Cuban bureaucracy. Under his ownership Cayo Largo was considered not just a very well run operation but also one of the best locations to achieve a Grand Slam. That title may well be under threat from Cayo Paredon! His formative role played a great part in not just establishing from scratch sport-fishing, in Cuba but also setting a high standard based on service and good camaraderie.

Immensely knowledgeable about saltwater fishing an evening Q&A session will reveal many thoughtful insights into all things saltwater oriented; a great many of his tips and observations will come as interesting revelations to even experienced saltwater anglers. Well-structured plans to utilise the best of the fishing areas at Las Salinas, Cayo Paredon and Cayo Santa Maria, with the areas split into guiding zones to ensure against over-fishing, make for a very positive and even more varied array of fishing in Cuba than is currently available.

The accommodation at Hotel Melia Cayo Coco is unquestionably a mile apart from that at Las Salinas. A large all inclusive resort that offers good service, comfortable rooms, extensive facilities and wide ranging choices of top quality dishes from both a very comprehensive buffet as well as dedicated regional restaurants. Cuba in general does not offer anglers the sort of dedicated fishing lodges that are the norm in some other countries. Fishing accommodation options range from the offshore live-aboard yachts to the larger resort hotels of the style of Cayo Largo, Paredon or Santa Maria. Las Salinas and Hotel Rancho on the Isla de la Juventud are the exceptions. Whilst it is true that some anglers will miss the cosy confines of a dedicated fishing lodge (or maybe too cosy on a live-aboard yacht) the range and diversity of fishing on offer certainly goes a long way to mitigate this shortfall.

Helmut Alleze with the first of many Tarpon landed, jumped and cast at over the week at Cayo Paredon

I have always been deeply wary of bold assertions from fishing operations that start with the infamous words “World’s Best…” as even if aspects are true it is so subjective to make it at best presumptuous and typically provocative - although it can have conversational merits during a post-mortem discussion whilst propping up the bar. What I can say with certainty is that the number of medium to large Permit that were present at Cayo Paredon is exceptional (without parallel to my knowledge) and whilst we failed to land one over the course of the week that should not stand as measurement of what is possible - one angler in 2011 managed 3 in a single day! The Tarpon fishing was also very good although just how good will have to wait until May / June, which are considered the prime months for migratory Tarpon. The size of the Tarpon is also without question. We saw and cast at some substantial fish and the biggest fish landed during exploratory trips in 2011 was 160lbs, an absolutely gigantic fish to tame on a fly-rod.

There will be plenty of tales and lessons to learn from the coming weeks so this report should be considered the start of the story and potential, not a simple summary of what to expect. However from what we saw on our exploratory WhereWiseMenFish expedition was enough to instil huge confidence in both Las Salinas and Cayo Paredon and feel that in time they will rightly earn their places amongst Cuba’s hottest saltwater offerings.

Helmut Alleze releasing a Tarpon – Plenty of energy left!!!

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