• Joe Walker

Cuba Libre

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Cuba; my favorite holiday …and fishing… destination. This was my fourth visit to the Jardine Del Rey region, or 'the Cayos' as most people familiar with that part of the Island call it.

Cuba's political and commercial isolation from its close neighbour , the US, has kept its natural resources largely unexploited, and the seas around this substantial island teem with life as a result.

My chosen base was Cayo Guillermo yet again, the smallest island in the lightly developed Cayos archipelago. Cayo Guillermo offers huge opportunities for bait, lure and fly-fishing, across a range of environments, from deep-water rock marks, to world class flats and mangrove swamps. For the adaptable lure and fly angler, the place is a must. But you do have to be adaptable if you want to get the most out of it and keep fishing.

The first 10 days straight of my trip this time were (for someone primarily a saltwater fly fisherman) prohibitively windy. Really windy! In fact I was beginning to believe the fly gear was going to have been a waste of luggage allowance as the halfway point of my trip came and went with no sign of abatement. But I'm no purist, I simply love to fish, and previous experience in such conditions there had taught me that there was superb sport to be had float-fishing prawns and live-bait, which would secure the attention of snapper, needlefish, boxfish, jacks, barracuda and even the hallowed permit. So, there was much to keep me entertained on the hotel's lengthy pier whilst the belligerent wind scoured the waves. But my eye was always ultimately on the opportunities afforded by getting afloat on the flats.

Before I left Blighty, I'd arranged to share a guided boat out on the flats for two days with Rob Edmunds, a versatile and skilled angler who I’d struck up a conversation with online, and who just happened to be holidaying there at the same time as me. So it was that we were both glued to the forecast. We had jointly booked a guide I'd not fished with before, named Abel - it proved to be an excellent choice. When the call finally came from Abel that we had the green light, we were sceptical that the following day would show any improvement as a hot, tropical gale was still shredding the palm trees, albeit in scorching sun and cloying humidity. But on faith, we prepared and as Abel had promised we awoke early to an odd absence of noise (having had the wind cuffing our ears for days on end), just a soft susurration and melodious bird song; a big relief!

Driving past the fringes of the flats and mangrove inlets further stoked our expectations, as the light breeze barely caressed a ripple out of the surface and conditions looked nigh-on perfect. The night before though, Abel had alluded to the potential of cloud (the sight-fisherman's worst enemy) and had asked if both Rob and I had 'spinning gear', which we had both affirmed, so we had a fist-full of rods when we arrived at the Cayo Paradon 'Centro de Pesca', to be greeted by Jose (an old porter/deckhand, lacking in teeth and with skin like rumpled leather, but smiling and helpful as always and accompanied by his young assistant)...oh and a zillion evidently famished mosquitos!

After setting up the full array of kit we might need during the day, we boarded the skiff with Abel and shot off across the lagoons to the outer flats. After a back-side hammering 20 minutes we abruptly halted and Abel stood up excitedly, pointing out two large permit and a huge Jack Crevalle but before we could barely react, they were also joined by an intimidatingly large shark, which caused the former to make a hasty exit across the pristine sands and corals. An encouraging start nonetheless! We continued on a little further before Abel cut the engine entirely and with consummate skill began poling us silently across the glassy sea, in stifling heat.

Rob and I took it in turns to stand, barefoot and sweating, on the prow, scanning the stunning azure vista for movement. Inevitably, we crossed paths with bonefish, often fast moving shoals of decent fish, and we had a good few patient pursuits across the flats before getting close enough to present our flies.

It then sort of became 'one of those mornings'.

Both Rob and I connected with multiple fish, and were thwarted at every turn by dodgy hook-holds, knots in backing, fly-lines getting caught etc and we both gnashed our teeth and palmed our faces in despair at somehow losing fish after fish through nothing more than good old bad luck.

Eventually though, Rob managed to drive home a good hook-hold and a substantial bone took off towards the Bahamas, with every intention of defecting from its home country! After three searing runs (the clutch on his Union Jack Abel Super 8 razzing loudly), Rob finally managed to start the arm aching retrieval of an awful lot of backing and after 7 or 8 minutes of to-ing and fro-ing, the fly-line clicked in through the rod tip.

I'd been videoing on my go-pro, so prepped for the fish's arrival and as the unseen bonefish finally showed itself, all three of us let out a collective murmur of approval - it was a lump; not quite double figures, but a good 7lb+...a truly handsome brute. Rob was indeed a relieved man as the net went under the fish.

One happy chap (not the bonefish obviously!)

And back she goes, none the worse for the ordeal

Not long after, the cloud that Abel had predicted duly arrived and the sea shrouded its contents from our gaze; 580G Costa shades or not, sight fishing was over for the day, so Abel then revealed his very considerable lure fishing expertise and opened up a whole new world of flats fishing to me that I never knew existed!

He consulted with us over a change of game-plan, inspected rods and reels and peered into our lure boxes, whereupon he made noises of great approval before delving into my pack and reverentially lifting one lure aloft with an expression verging on awe! It was a Yo Zuri Crystal Shrimp in a colour pattern called 'Tiger' and my goodness me, was he impressed. He'd never seen one before but I'd actually bought it a couple of years ago for a Cuba visit and found it extremely effective for smallish Cubera snapper and Schoolmasters off the hotel pier at low water. It's a 90mm, slow sinking prawn imitation with a subtle wiggle on a medium retrieve - not that pronounced in terms of action. Naturally I tied it on (taking the gamble of leaving the wire trace off in favour of a 40lb fluorocarbon bite leader).

The 'killer shreemp' - 'Tiger', the bottom one, was the deadly pattern

Our aim was to fish two basic ambush predator territories; the very fringes of the mangroves - and by that I mean literally putting the lures hard up against, and even under, the branches - and the 'blue holes'.

The latter was something I'd really not paid attention to much when flyfishing the flats, but once you started to concentrate on them, they became fascinating. They seem to be like limestone sink-holes; suddenly the acres of waist deep, white-bottomed water will be punctured by an almost perfectly circular cobalt-blue hole, steeply (almost vertically) sided and ranging in size from a few metres across to perhaps 60-80 metres on the larger ones.

"Many snapper in the holes, and big jacks and grouper too" Abel assured us. "Use the popper to call the feesh." he instructed, so Rob punched out a cast and worked a Tsunami popper across the surface with a slow but regular 'tac-tac-tac' action as tutored by Abel.

The resulting noise seemed to have an immediate effect, as Rob’s surface lure was smashed into by an unseen assailant, but the big fish shook free. "Cast the shreemp, cast the shreemp!" Abel enthusiastically urged, so on the relatively light rod I whipped out a cast, clicked over the bail-arm and sent the lure wibbling down into the blue.

I probably got no more than 6 turns in before the rod locked up under sudden tension and I had a scrap on my hands with a mutton snapper of a good few pound having found the Crystal Shrimp irresistible. A beautiful fish was released boat-side and I cast again.

What followed was something of a purple patch to say the least. Without a word of exaggeration, I proceeded to pull out well over a dozen fish, one fish on every single cast, reel clutch singing and Abel chuckling and shouting "So what you think of Cuba feeshing now then, eh?". Like I ever doubted it... but this was amazing! The prawn lure absolutely decimated. The fish were all around between 3-6lb – not giants, but they fought like demons on the light gear, all aggression and fangs…whilst I was all whoops and grins! I was certainly grateful for the fish-grips I'd bought the previous year which saved me from the potential of injury caused by lethal teeth and trebles on the lure. Meanwhile Rob was also having fun, but the 'Shreemp' as Abel pronounced it, was outgunning any other lure 5:1.

Eventually that hole was exhausted and we moved on to more with similar success before finally I locked into a fish way, way bigger than I could control. This was potentially a 20lb-er and I was utterly out-gunned. The rod lurched around unstoppably and the clutch groaned like I’d hooked a glacier. Line peeled out, singing, and scythed through the water on a direct trajectory towards the dark coral outcrops and all I could do was hang on. With tragic inevitability, the unseen assailant reached its refuge and I parted company with my beloved Shreemp.

But the afternoon was far from over. Not least because I had another in the box (albeit in a hot-pink colour which, whilst effective, was not quite as deadly as the 'tiger' pattern).

We moved and began to nudge hard up against the edge of the mangroves under thickening clouds. Here the water was calmer still, oily in the leeward side of the little islands that pepper the flats and lagoon entrances.

There's an odd topography adjacent to the islands. The water may be only a few feet deep right up to the very edges, but then there's a 'trench' that sits like a moat in the last few feet, and fish of shocking size lie in wait under the branches to lunge out on careless prey. The instruction was to put lures literally in amongst the branches over the trench; high risk and requiring some pretty accurate range-finding. This proved to be Rob's time now. He was in the best casting position up front so managed with great skill to plant the Tsunami popper right into the most fertile territory, and he was able to harvest the rewards! The takes were explosive, the invisible barracuda furious at the deception, and Rob's catch rate began to climb rapidly as I worked channels to the outer edge of the skiff with the pink shrimp.

Rob wears down another 'cuda...

...as the Tsunami popper (Sardine) works it's magic...

...and a disgruntled 'cuda reluctantly poses for the obligatory shot

...before skulking back to his lair

Eventually our time (and an exhilarating afternoon of non-stop action) expired, and despite the dreadful luck in the morning, the afternoon (which without lure gear would, as I've experienced on the flats under leaden skies in the past, have been a tough gig) more than made up for it and Rob & I made the bum-numbing car ride on the un-made roads home with considerable contentment.

Day two presented slightly different challenges. Abel took us, at our insistence, to try and locate the bonefish that had so cruelly eluded us the previous morning.

This was seriously skinny water fishing, the shallowest I'd ever done. We could see the water tremble and shiver as shoals of bones mooched over the almost black sea grass, invisible to Rob and I for the most part. Abel grunted and hissed between his teeth with the physical effort of poling across water so shallow that even the skiff was scraping heavily over the bottom.

There were multiple shoals working the flats here, converging and bifurcating, super-wary and hyper-alert. They stopped for a few seconds, fed intensely and then moved again, changing direction constantly and it was a tense, stealthy and frustrating pursuit. Sadly it wasn't helped by Rob having immense difficulty in seeing the fish when opportunities presented (despite his superb casting skills, flies behind a bonefish aren't effective!) and yours truly having a better eye for the fish but being as useful as a chocolate teapot when it came to putting an accurate cross-breeze 15 yard back-cast in!

And accuracy was the key. Over the dense, super shallow sea-grass flats, the fly needed to land bang in front of the fish's nose to stand any chance of a take. Any more than two strips of the line and the fly fouled, making a quick recast impossible. Put the leader over the fish and they spooked, meaning we had to patiently pursue them all over again. It was not easy.

Again, we both did manage to hook fish, and again we were dumped on by whatever fishing deities were taking interest in our efforts, culminating with me losing three really good fish, two as they ran towards the boat, and the third on it's third run as a freak loop of flyline flipped up and caught the reel handle, the abrupt halt in the screaming flight of the fish snapping the 15lb leader like cotton.

At one point Rob even managed to make a pinpoint perfect cast to a group of feeding fish with no response whatsoever, re-presenting another perfect cast to the same effect before suddenly realising that his fly had mysteriously parted company and he was perfectly presenting diddly-squat to the not surprisingly disinterested fish!

I did finally get it right and hooked and played out a lovely bonefish of 6-7lb, but befitting with the general run of events, it fell off the hook just as it deftly managed to flip out of the net! Technically it counted as the leader was in hand, but I didn't get to hold my catch for the camera.

Putting the Coco-Shrimp into the 'nervous water' caused by feeding 'bones

...and finally getting solid contact with a good fish! Shame it fell off just before I could record the moment! D'oh!

I also had a comedic and dramatic incident when casting into some deeper 'milky water' which indicated feeding bonefish. I struck into a fish which turned out to be a 2-3lb jack, but as I started to retrieve the line, a 7ft shark suddenly burst onto the scene from nowhere to take advantage of an easy meal. The Jack went ballistic, no doubt propelled by rocket fuel quality adrenaline, and the lemon shark went into pursuit mode. Rob was yelling, Abel was yelling, the Jack and the shark were moving at blistering speed in erratic, ever-decreasing circles and I was dancing around on the bow desperately trying to get the jack in and out of the water without falling in and becoming main course, dessert and cheese-platter all rolled into one! It was truly impressive to behold.

Eventually we had to concede to making a decision - either keep pursuing the uncooperative bones or break off and get some fish under our belts with the lures. We reluctantly opted for the latter. Abel first took us to a truly impressive tidal rip which looked awesomely fishy, but apart from seeing one huge porpoising tarpon in the 150lb+ category, it didn't yield anything...even to 'pink shreemp'.

We then moved on to a succession of holes and mangrove fringes. Rob managed another good sized 'cuda on the surface and I lost brief contact with a BIG fish, which all thought was a decent tarpon. A channel on the edge of the mangroves also disgorged a truly monstrous Cubera Snapper - a 40lb leviathon, which followed my lure right to the boat before taking fright and leaving me staggered at it's sheer size in the gin-clear 12ft deep water.

Abel then took us to some deeper holes and channels. One in particular was the biggest hole we'd seen - almost 100 metres across and extremely deep, with a visible rocky overhang all around it's circumference. Poppers went in on long casts, and the first retrieve resulted in the miraculous appearance, looming out of the blue, of a HUGE shoal of Jack Crevalle. Even Abel gasped as there must have been well over a hundred fish following the lures. One of the smaller fish, perhaps 6-7lb, hit Rob's lure and tore off. The remaining fish came heart-stoppingly close to mine before melting away under the hull and not reappearing.

As Rob subdued his Jack, I concentrated on putting my lure into the shallows and retrieving it over the drop-off, figuring the ledge to be a perfect ambush spot. I wasn't wrong as the dark, striped shapes of two Cubera Snapper materialised and followed the lure but turned away. The water was too deep and the Cubera seemed reluctant to come too far up, so a quick rummage suggested a switch to a Yo Zuri Hardcore heavy sinking minnow (in a sardine pattern, the same basic palette as the successful poppers). It's super-fast sinking and casts like a bullet.

Abel gave it a non-committal "well you can give it a try but don't expect too much" kind of shrug, so I decided to give it a go. I cast it out alongside the ledge, let it drop through the water column for a few seconds, and then started an erratic retrieve to give it life. It certainly worked, as the response was a savage take and subsequent scrap before a handsome Cubera snapper was lifted in, gnashing and biting furiously and requiring some careful handling given its dangerous dental equipment. The next cast was hit whilst the lure was still dropping and Abel had to concede that this was another lure he had to take his hat off to! A bigger Cubera eventually came aboard and was released, disgruntled, back into the sapphire depths.

Cubera Snapper, powerful and vicious!

We moved again, this time to a shallower depression, not so deep as to entirely shroud its contents; we could see rocks, weed and sea-fans. Oddly fish were not visible, but the pink shrimp came to the fore once again and began to hammer Snapper, one after the other.

A deeper mark again next, and a switch back to the Hardcore Minnow. This time I hooked a serious snapper, but was unable to turn the fish before it got into the soft staghorn type corals and the fierce tension on the rod became static as the snapper expertly seemed to disgorge the lure into the coral, leaving it stuck fast.

Fortunately Abel managed to recover the lure and we moved on again to the final mark, another rock-strewn bowl. The deep lure did the business, and I opted to keep a couple of Cubera Snapper and a lovely big Mutton Snapper for dinner at the hotel (two fish to feed 7 adults plus one for the gardener at the hotel, a lovely bloke, making good on a long standing promise that I'd bring him a snapper if I caught one). Abel wanted to have a go and picked up the shrimp rod, but on his second cast a wind-knot in the braid cruelly parted the Shreemp and it landed with a plop and began to sink. So legendary had the shreemp lure become, that Rob reacted with medal-worthy valor and literally flung himself off the bow into the sea in pursuit! Sadly, without a mask, his valiant duck-dives were in vain, and we mourned the passing of Shreemp no.2.

A Mutton Snapper finds the Yo-zuri Hardcore Minnow irresistible

Rob’s heroics pretty much marked the end of the day. Cayo Paradon proved itself, once again, to be both challenging and deeply surprising.

I never stop learning there, and the angler in me is always satisfied. But times are beginning to change, and with the advent of warming relations with the US, inevitable cultural and commercial pressures will come to bear, and whilst I hope Cuba resists too much change, I suspect this wonderful country will feel the impact nonetheless. That could be good news for its people of course, but if you have a desire to experience the best of its fishing, then don’t leave it too long!

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