Tarpon migrate past the Isla de Juventud, the largest island outside the Cuban main island, in April, May and June. We headed out there in mid-May and tried our luck with the “Silver King.”
Travel to Cuba currently still involves some restrictions; this trip was booked through an online service and usage of Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers (https://cubanfishingcenters.com) as the local outfitter, under the auspices of the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. If you have any travel related questions please inquire by calling Fishwest Fly Shop.
The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (www.bonefishtarpontrust.org/conservation/research/tarpon-life-cycle) does a fabulous job of educating the public about conservation of tarpon, including research into the behavior and migration of this species, and safe fishing practices. Why and when tarpon migrate is still not understood. Juvenile fish (up to about 30 – 40 lbs) thrive in protected mangrove swamps until about age two, when they expand their range to more open water. Tarpon reach reproductive maturity at about ten to twelve years of age. Based on BTT tagging studies, some tarpon migrate around 100 miles, while others over a thousand miles. They can live as long as eighty years.
The area around Isla de Juventud offers mangrove swamps, flats, sea grass expanses, reefs, and deep water for juvenile to migrating adult tarpon, along with bonefish, permit, snapper, snook, and barracuda. While “jumping” a big one was our goal, the diversity of species provided some welcome flexibility in fishing options when conditions where challenging.
Our group stayed aboard the Avalon Fleet I, which had comfortable cabins, an air conditioned lounge, and an open air deck for meals and drinks. The boat moved three times during the week to allow fishing of different areas. Skiffs departed daily from the boat, with usually two anglers per guide.
Challenging indeed was the weather, featuring daily downpours, thunderstorms, and lightning. The best rain jackets and rain pants could not stand up to driven rain coming in around hoods and cuffs, but upon returning to the Avalon Fleet, cold and wet, the crew welcomed us with hot chocolate laced with rum. Aside from being soaked to the skin, the gray, leaden skies made sight fishing very challenging. We were often forced to just blind cast for tarpon in channels where they were likely to pass, but this did result in a few good juveniles for some of the anglers in the group.
Typical gear for hunting juveniles and adults in these waters included 10 to 12 wt rods, preferably with a sink tip, full intermediate, or at least intermediate tip line. Some anglers tied traditional tarpon leaders with shock tippet, while others just used straight 80 lb fluorocarbon. Big black and red tarpon flies seemed to work best, although I had some luck with big black and red and black and green dorado flies. Beware the strength of your hooks; many of the commercial tarpon flies I had purchased beforehand broke or bent on fish.
Targeting “baby tarpon” and bonefish in the mangroves was very productive on this trip. The shallower water away from the wind and waves made it easier to spot tailing fish, although keeping the fish away from the mangrove roots and stumps was not so easy. “Baby tarpon” are juveniles ranging from a smallish five or 6 pounds to a biggish twenty pounds that can put a definite bend in an eight or ten weight rod. Leaders were simply straight 30 or 50 lb fluorocarbon. Most tarpon flies, such as a traditional cockroach pattern, seemed to work on baby tarpon. The bonefish here are rather large, in the several pound range. All of my commercial tapered bonefish leaders snapped on these fish, so we cut off the last three feet of the leader and just tied on 30 lb fluorocarbon. The fish were not picky about the shrimp patterns used.
When weather permitted we searched the beachy flats areas for bonefish and permit. We spent hours working spooky schools of bones being herded by barracuda and sharks. Some of the flats are wadeable, but many have bottoms that are too soft for wading. My boat partner and I were the only ones lucky enough to not only spot permit, but to cast to them. Needless to say, they proved evasive, but two huge permit astonishingly followed my tarpon fly all the way to the boat.
The Silver King eluded almost all of us on this trip, but for me, the bigger adventure was Cuba. Just visiting Cuba was an epiphany for me. I’m old enough to remember the Bay of Pigs invasion well, and while growing up, for me Cuba was the scary, bad guy. The people there, though, are absolutely amazing. While seriously oppressed by the Communist government, they are working incredibly hard to make a better life for themselves and their families. Poverty is obvious here, and the standard of living very modest. Do consider tipping very generously. A few more dollars can make a huge difference to a family. Fishing guides have little or no access to gear or fishing supplies; consider giving them necessities like fluorocarbon, flies, pliers, and the like, but only in addition to a cash tip.
No matter what you have heard, traveling to Cuba is pretty easy. There are many flights from the US to choose from, the accommodations in Havana range from modest to luxurious, and the restaurant food can be as good as a New York City restaurant. Food aboard the boat offered the best of Cuba – fresh fruits and all the snapper, lobster, and conch one could want. There was always an alternative to seafood, usually chicken. Seasoning of Cuban food tends to be pretty bland to American tastes, so bring a bottle of your favorite hot sauce for the table.
Because of some uncertainty regarding domestic flight schedules, most anglers stay a night on both ends in Havana and have an opportunity to experience that historic and vibrant city. Yes, there are amazing old cars driving around as available to tourists as taxis. Yes, you do need to bring toilet paper, as public restrooms have neither tissue nor seats. Taxi drivers, hotel staff, guides, and even people on the street do speak passable English.
Domestic flights in Cuba are often delayed to weather or mechanical problems, but just getting through security can take much longer than in the USA. The rules are definitely opaque, although it is clear that absolutely no fishing gear is allowed in carry-ons, including leaders. Still, my carefully packed backpack was subject to intense scrutiny at the X ray machine. Every single item was extracted from the pack, examined, and X rayed multiple times. My belongings were spread over multiple bins and mixed with items belonging to other people. The agents confiscated my eyebrow tweezers and challenged my car key fob, which I refused to check. In the confusion I did lose several small items. Others in my group were called aside to remove shaving cream and other aerosals from their checked luggage. However, there was no problem taking liquids or water bottles through the checkpoint. All of us were disconcerted by a nurse, clad in a traditional white uniform and cap, who took our temperatures and wrote down our passport numbers. That adorable but snotty nosed kids ran about us, coughing and sneezing, seemed not to matter to her.
Almost all of us were ready to commit to another trip to Cuba next year, if not the same place, then perhaps another of the six different Cuban venues Avalon offers. Next time I will plan to stay another day or so in Havana to better absorb the richness of the history and the Cuban people – and I will tie my own flies beforehand.
Thanks for reading – written by Renee Fitts
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