Cuba's Cayo Cornucopia
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Foreword: I wrote this late last Autumn, long before we could have ever even imagined the reality of the global Covid pandemic. Posting advice about travel to foreign shores to fish seems untimely and even perhaps a little pointless right now…but eventually we will enjoy a greater freedom of movement when the risks truly have passed. So I’m posting this now anyway…because everyone loves to day-dream, and plan…and you may as well have as much information as I can give you now, so you’ve got plenty of time to prepare! Stay safe.
When you sit in a bus or taxi, driving alongside the azure waters of the coast of Cuba, there’s something distinctly odd about it, and it’s uniquely Cuban.
It’s not the miles of empty, unspoiled beaches between sparse resorts, the lack of traffic (save for the occasional barge-sized 1950’s American Chevy), nor the incredible range of colours in the water itself; from the sapphire-blue depths of the deeps to the crystalline white of pristine flats, punched through with the cobalt hue of the fascinating ‘blue holes’.
In fact it takes a while, gazing out of the window, to twig what it is. Or rather, what it isn’t.
It’s the lack of boats on a horizon which, in all other parts of the Caribbean, would be teeming with activity. For the first time visitor, unfamiliar with Cuba’s political history, that’s something of a surprise, but it’s essentially the lingering legacy of the Communist era and the animosity that still exists between Cuba and the US. Despite the recent thaw, it serves as a reminder that this is still a country whose population movements are strictly controlled by an authoritarian (though reforming) regime; in essence, access to boats are heavily restricted to all but those whose employment demands it. Even then, every boat has to ‘clock out’ daily under a rigid permit system.
Few boats...shed loads of fish!
And the unintended consequence of so few boats plying the waters of Cuba for so many decades? Well, for the visiting angler, the fishing is utterly epic!
I’ve been travelling to Cuba for the past 10 years, drawn by an irresistible combination of its ludicrous value for money, the wonderful warmth of its people, but most of all by its world class fishing opportunities. Sure, 60% of my visits have been family holidays, but as my long-suffering wife and kids will testify, over three quarters of my extended luggage allowance is strictly given over to a plethora of gear, specifically picked to give me the widest possible range of opportunities to chuck flies, lures and bait at anything that swims, whatever the conditions!
The shore fishing is truly excellent, but to successfully go ‘DIY’ requires a degree of accrued local knowledge to tap into it effectively. To get instant access to the best of what Cuba offers, you need to step onto a skiff and get yourself afloat!
Releasing a 'DIY' bonefish
Fortunately the lack of boats does not curtail your options for recreational fishing and in my experience it’s not too difficult to find guides and boats to take you to where the action is. The good news is that, so far, the majority of these operations are still essentially government owned and the prices are heavily regulated. They’re basic, but a fraction of the price you might pay a short hop away in Bermuda or the Florida Keys. There are a few foreign operators beginning to appear on the scene offering luxury alternatives, and to some extent you get what you pay for (if you’ve got deep pockets!), but the fishing is a constant, and the guides and boats available to the average tourist budget are more than capable of giving you a truly memorable experience.
Cayo Paredon's 'Centro de Pesca'...rudimentary, but I love it!
Finding a guide requires a little ferreting about before you go. Cuba is still really only just waking up to the internet, and most people there certainly can’t afford a pc, so it’s not a case of googling guides before you go and expecting to drop onto a flash website to book one. Instead, try dipping into some of the big fishing forums or Facebook pages. There are many people on those platforms like myself who regularly fish in Cuba, and are more than happy to pass on the details of guides you can contact.
Many of the guides do have an email address (like Gmail or Hotmail), but as their access to email is often limited, don’t panic if you don’t get a fast response. Once you’ve got tacit agreement on the dates, wait until you arrive at your resort and give them a ring from the hotel. Almost all of them speak pretty good English, and they will then be able to confirm your plans, the weather, target species and tactics. All useful stuff before you set out.
The other thing to bear in mind is that whilst most Cuban guides are great (and I’ve certainly never had a problem), reliability isn’t always 100%. Problems with transport or the boats can occur and things aren’t always easy to fix quickly in Cuba. Just once in a blue-moon it’s also possible that you might get ‘out bid’ by someone offering a big tip. That sounds pretty un-ethical, but fortunately there are very few guides to whom that might apply. When you consider that fishing guides earn less than a guy digging holes in a road in Cuba, and are heavily reliant on tips, then you can understand the temptation. Most of the money you pay as the actual fee goes to the government; the guides are on a fixed salary and receive very little.
So what of the cost? The Cuban Convertible Peso is the currency used by tourists. The exchange rate is set to follow that of the US Dollar, so it’s taken a bit of a hit since the Brexit referendum, but to get out on the boat for a day, expect to pay about £220 for the boat. Obviously if there’s two of you, then that cost is halved, and is therefore ridiculously cheap compared to having a guide and boat elsewhere in that part of the world. In fact, if you’re going on your own but don’t mind sharing, again its well worth posting your proposed dates and destination on the forums or relevant social media groups to see if you can ‘buddy-up’ with someone for the day.
A good guide is worth every Peso - your fish-finder, coach and comic relief too sometimes!
On top of the basic fee is the guide’s all important tip. These guys will work hard for you, especially if you engage with them. Their knowledge, eyes and fish-finding skills are essential to your success. Pick up a lunch for them from the hotel, get them a coffee when they pick you up (most of the time they will collect you from the hotel and take you to the base where the boats depart) or a rewarding cold beer at the end of the day, and it will be greatly appreciated. As with Cuban people in general – be friendly and they will return that ten-fold. If the guide works hard and gives you a good days fishing, 30-40 pesos (£25/30) is a good tip and again, if two of you are sharing, it’s not a king’s ransom.
Oh…and Cuba is a cash economy! Don’t get to the end of the day and offer them your credit card or you may find yourself marooned on a rapidly shrinking sand bar somewhere!
For the most part, the boats themselves are ‘panga’ style skiffs. Flat bottomed, fast, and built for inshore waters and exploring the extensive flats and mangrove channels that fringe the coast. They will comfortably (for a given value of comfort!) accommodate two anglers and your guide, and are particularly well suited to flyfishing and lure fishing. These boats also have a poling platform on the back, giving the guide a raised vantage point for punting the skiff quietly across shallow flats to stalk wary species like Bonefish and Permit.
Flats boats get you to the fish - fast
Whilst these boats form the majority, it is also possible to hire more conventional speedboats to take you out fishing from local marinas. Generally, you’re really hiring someone to skipper the boat for you, and not really a guide as such, although they will know where to take you, and will be amply well suited to bait and lure fishing, as well as inshore and backwater trolling. This option is cheaper than the guided flats boats, and can often be rented for just a few hours – great if you’re on a budget, or have half a day to kill.
It’s also possible to go out on a limited number of big game boats. Obviously the cost is higher, and the odds of hitting sailfish are considerably lower than the number of inshore species, but if that’s your target, then Cuba can produce some prolific bill-fishing.
Adaptability is the key to getting the best out of Cuba. Fortunately, these days rods for pretty much any eventuality can be found in travel-friendly multi-piece formats, saving the need for cumbersome rod tubes. I take a range of rods; two saltwater fly rods (8wt and 9 or 10wt), and three lure rods, ranging from a Shimano Exage UK bass spinning rod, through to a Fox Permit Trek, and a Snowbee Deep Blue Inshore Tarpon rod. They’re all a few years old now, but are versatile, and cover a range of ‘classes’. Some friends of mine also like to troll a little offshore and they take multi-section boat rods in the 20-30lb class.
Tackle will be tested...
If you’ve not fished the tropics before, it’s easy to underestimate the raw savagery and sheer power of the species you’re likely to encounter. Go out with just your bass rod and you will quickly find yourself hopelessly under-gunned on all but the smaller fish. Some of these fish grow big, and pound for pound will fight three times harder than any UK fish of equivalent size too, so make sure you match your gear carefully to your intended quarry.
Reels take a hammering. The salt, heat and humidity make for a powerfully corrosive combination, and your clutch will be sorely tested. Rear clutches on fixed spools are a no-no. If you're flyfishing, the reel has got to be saltwater-proof and have a good, sealed drag. Good reels aren't cheap, but they're worth every penny in this environment. For lure or bait fishing, scale up your reels. A tough fixed spool is ideal - go for something bomb-proof like a Penn Spinfisher 5500 - 7500.
Tough reels with tough clutches - essential
Good braid is another essential item. Don’t mess about – go straight for a decent breaking strain (50lb for mid weight gear), and load the reel to its capacity. Nothing could be more soul destroying than being snapped off by a 30lb Cubera Snapper because you were only expecting a fish a quarter of that size…and yes that happens a fair bit!
Let your guide check your gear, knots, flies or lure choices. If they criticise your braid-to-mono knot, let them re-tie it for you…these guys know what they’re talking about, so their advice is ignored at your peril.
Listen to what your guide recommends
Wire for hook traces is a must. Barracuda, Red Snapper, Cubera Snapper, Mutton Snapper, Lemon Shark…all these toothy critters will make short work of most mono traces. Last year I lost a huge Barracuda at the side of the boat which bit through a 100lb steel trace wire! 6 inches of wire at the business end of your trace may not hold up against everything, but it will make all the difference.
Scale up your hooks too; there’s little room for size 4’s here unless you’re specifically targeting Mojarra’s for live-bait, or pursuing wily bonefish (or the just-plain-weird boxfish!). A 6/0 looks pretty big in the mouth of most UK species, but even a 10/0 will look lost in the vicious, dagger-toothed jaws of a large Cubera Snapper or Barracuda. Basically, if you’re new to it, be bold – double the strength of your initial thoughts and then consider going half as much again!
There's always a bigger fish! A tasty Mojarra was an irresistible snack mid-retrieve.
I mentioned Mojarra – you may see the locals fishing for these bright silver, bream-like fish. They congregate around piers and jetties and can be caught on pieces of prawn, legered or float fished (tip- a couple of peso’s to your friendly waiter will often secure you a fist-full of frozen prawns from the kitchen! Secure the bait with bait elastic). In their own right, on really light gear, they can be great fun, fighting just as hard as anything else. If you can barter with a local (perhaps swap him some hooks, which are not easy to get in Cuba) try and get some Calandraca – a large, leather-tough marine worm, very much like a lugworm and a highly prized bait. It can be cut into small pieces and Mojarra will go utterly crazy for it. And, crucially, it’s very tough so will last the constant onslaught.
One of the reasons the locals target Mojarra, aside from the fact they taste good, is that they are the prime bait (alive or dead) for BIG snapper, fished at night on tough gear. They can be fished live under balloon floats left to drift in the current, or dead, floated or legered off the rocks or causeways.
Leaving bait fishing to one side now, flies and lures are the staple attraction of fishing in Cuba for most visitors.
Bonefish on the fly - one of angling's top thrills
For Flies, I always travel with a selection of my own tan & orange shrimp and crab pattern flies in sizes 4 and 2 for Bonefish, Permit and triggerfish. The patterns evolved over several years and are absolutely irresistible! As well as the bonefish patterns, I also take some tropical baitfish patterns like ‘Peanut Butters’ for snapper and small tarpon (in 2/0’s). Popper or Gurgler flies are also highly effective surface-disturbance patterns that make for incredibly exciting takes. That selection has been honed to just a few patterns over the years, based upon my combined trial and error and pointers from the guides.
My Cuban selection - Top: EP Crustaceous Crabs, Bottom-Left: my CG Shrimp, and bottom-right: The Paredon Priest (better shot below...this fly will take Bonefish and Permit all day long - the guides love it!).
Lures are similarly influenced. Sardine colours work universally well as they directly imitate a major prey species for the predators, although silver and ‘red-head’ colours work too.
Take a selection of poppers and ‘walk-the-dog’ action surface lures. Halco Rooster 135 poppers, and 15cm Rapala x-rap Sub-walk lures are proven patterns, as well as some fast sinking deep-divers like the Duel Hardcore Heavy Sinking Minnow, though I would recommend seriously beefing-up the trebles. Quite often, the hooks that come on the lures are just not up to it, and get bent-out or snapped!
Something that proved to be a killer pattern for Snapper in the ‘blue holes’ out on the flats was the Yo Zuri 90mm Crystal Shrimp, in the colour ‘Tiger’. It’s a light, slow sinking prawn lure, so it’s suited to a lighter rod for casting (which means you may have your hands full!) but it proved to be absolutely irresistible. Find the fish and they will go crazy for this lure!
Finally a little known, rather odd looking lure from Shimano called the Waxwing 118 (again in ‘Sardine’) proved just too tempting for anything with teeth, and its heavy weight and slim design make it a great lure for distance casting on the heavier rods. The Lure comes with a double-hook at the back. It's worth replacing that with a heavy-duty saltwater treble; it'll improve your hook-ups.
Odd but effective - the Shimano Waxwing
Trolling is a simple affair but a fun diversion and highly successful if you fancy it.
You need a robust rod and reel and plenty of line. Rig up a large lime-green & yellow muppet (a couple of 1oz drilled bullets can slid into the head for open water, unweighted for the back-waters around the mangroves) on a 75lb-100lb wire trace, ending on an 8 or 10/0 Cox & Rawle Meathook or similar. Then, twist in a length of fairly stiff but flexible electricians or garden wire.
Pretty? No. Effective? Oh yes.
This gives you a heavy, bite-proof rig and some twistable wire than can be used to wind through and around a deadbait (ideally a sardine) to fix it neatly in place and stop it being torn off whilst being trolled at speed. Set the same up again with a flouro pink muppet so you can ring the changes with the colour. Barracuda and Spanish Mackerel in particular will find this setup impossible to resist! It’s even possible to use this off the back of a Hoby-Cat if you fancy going under sail and the breeze is enough to get you moving briskly along.
One of the tricks with trolling is to let your lure run a long way out behind the boat before you click over the bale-arm or engage to spool and start pulling it. If it’s skipping along the surface, it’s not far enough out – give it another 20 years and keep going until the lure is consistently below the surface and the rod is permanently bent over under the drag. And talking of drag…set your clutch; enough so the lure tows ok and with a bit to spare, but don’t clamp it right down…you could lose fish or even break your rod!
You’ll need deadbait (ideally sardines) for a trolling trip. If you’re staying at a hotel with a jetty or pier, or there’s one nearby, take a couple of strings of little Sabiki Lures out the night before you plan to go out and you should be able to catch some baitfish easily enough by jigging the lures as you walk up and down. A little tip here – buy a couple of the cheap, thermally insulated soft lunch-bags from Tesco (they’re only a couple of quid), and take some Bacofoil Zip-lock bags with you. They’re chuckaway-cheap, weigh nothing, and will enable you to keep your bait as fresh as possible in the tropical conditions (and avoid making an awful mess in the hotel-room fridge!).
Jigging with Sabiki lures at night for sardines
Other essential bits of kit are good polarized sunglasses, a hat, and lightweight clothes with a solid SPF rating (SPF30-50). Cover up, even in cloudy weather. Any boat owner in the UK knows how easy it is to get fried out on the water in summer if you’re not careful, but a day on a flats boat in the tropics is utterly merciless and can do you some real damage if you underestimate it (don’t think you can use a day on the boat to ‘get a bit of a tan’). I recommend you go factor 50, wear long trousers and sleeves, and wear a UV rated buff on your face. Looking a bit of a pillock in the middle of nowhere is preferable to spending two days recovering in your hotel room!
Don't take chances - cover up. Get this wrong and you could ruin your whole trip.
Gloves will protect your hands from line cuts, blisters and fish spines, and long, tough forceps or fish-grips are a help for handling the likes of Barracuda. Whilst the hellish front teeth of a ‘Cuda draw the headlines, it’s the interlocking rear teeth that can sever fingers in the blink of an eye, so handle with extreme care.
Finally here’s something perhaps you wouldn’t think of for a day out fishing on the boat – insect repellent. If you move inshore amongst the mangroves to chase juvenile tarpon and various other predators amongst the channels, you will seriously need this. Forget your local chemist claiming their regular holiday repellant will do the trick (even if it’s so called ‘tropical strength’), and only wear citronella and ‘I swear by it’ body lotions if you have an insatiable desire for death-by-mosquito. These devils will laugh in the face of all that stuff and proceed to drain you dry in minutes. The only effective counter-measure is 100% DEET (you can get 50% DEET too, but it only lasts half as long, and is definitely not as effective). It’s a nasty concoction, but it’s the ONLY sure fire protection. You can buy it online or often at your nearest outdoor/expedition shop. Seriously – don’t underestimate these mosquitos – get this wrong and you will make your life a misery!
The potential for getting bitten, spiked, severed, burned and drained makes this all sound a bit…well… unappetisingly hazardous, but trust me, if you’re well prepared you’ll enjoy some of the best fishing you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Your guides will offer advice but basically they will do what you want them to; If you want to creep across the flats all day in perfect, sizzling silence, chasing bonefish or permit with a fly rod, this is the place to do it. If you want to target the brutal majesty of huge Tarpon in the deep channels between the Cayos, then yep – go for that. Wrestle with fanged Snapper in the mysterious blue-holes? It’s a must in my opinion. Tell them what species you want to target and ask questions. Personally, I like to tell my guide ‘I just want to catch fish – as many in number and type as we can squeeze into a day. I’ll fish fly, lure – whatever, my friend…just take me to the fish!’ Generally, I find that gets a huge smile and a high-five in response – the Cubans just love to fish too! Variety is the spice of life, and Cuba has it in spades.
Cuba is a beautiful country, and one which I have very much fallen in love with. The vibrant culture, welcoming, genuine people and unique history all play their part, and underpinning it all is the stunning, largely unspoiled diversity of its coasts and marine life, which adds up to a near-paradise for anglers. But a word of caution: The thawing relation with Cuba’s huge neighbour, America, means that tourism numbers are set to double. That means a lot more fishermen seeking out Cuba’s rich waters, and a lot more hotels required to cater for them. Change is happening already. The good news is there’s a lot of Cuba to go round, so there’s plenty of mileage in it yet ….but, don’t put it off too long. Once it’s changed, it’s changed forever.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing better than reflecting on an epic day’s fishing over a glass of vintage Cuban rum, as a warm tropical evening breeze stirs the palms above and caresses your senses with the subtle smell of Cuban cigars and the soothing rhythm of a Rhumba. Go once and tick it off your bucket list. So…what are you waiting for?
Finish an awesome day fishing the flats with a well earned Long Island Iced Tea...why not?
This article covers a pretty wide scope of fishing opportunities in Cuba – but not all of what I’ve come across, and certainly not in every detail…it’s long enough already! If you want any more specific info on any aspect of it, feel free to drop me a message…if I can help, I will! Most of my fishing has been done around Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Coco, Cayo Romano, and Cayo Paredon, both guided and DIY. I favour fly fishing, but conditions can change fast , so the selection of gear keeps me fishing through all but the very worst of weather...beats sitting in a bar watching the rain!