Appeared in November 2006 'Fly Fishing & Fly Tying' Magazine

For a fisherman, the winter months in Britain are not the best time, even for a committed grayling nut like myself. The rivers are often out of sorts, high and dirty from the interminable rain. Day length is short and the sun a poor, weak thing. The time-honoured answer has been to retreat to the fly tying bench. It’s true that it’s a cosy place to relive the capture of special fish, to remember beautiful places and more practically to refill fly boxes. But recently there has been an alternative: escape to a tropical paradise and fish for tarpon and bonefish.

One of the most popular destinations is Cuba. The island of Cuba means different things to different people. Mention the name and for a large number of men the first image to spring to mind would be old American cars or the world’s finest cigars. For others it’s salsa music and dance. For the more politically minded, the island represents one of the last bastions of communism. Cuba has all this and great history and architecture in the capital, Havana. Something for everyone. And of course, to fishermen Cuba epitomizes salt water fly fishing at its best.

The only problem you face, once you’ve decided to go to Cuba is where to fish? It’s a problem of riches as there are several options. Most fly fishers want to catch bonefish, tarpon and possibly the elusive and desirable permit. There are 3 main locations: Las Salinas, Casa Batida Fishing Club and Avalon at Jardines de la Reina. (MAP?). Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Where you decide to go depends not only on your fishing demands but also what else you would like to get from your holiday. It would be all too easy to arrive in Cuba, fish, and fly home without gaining any sense of the place and its people, and for me that would be a great loss. Cuba has so much else to offer other than fishing.

There is no straightforward way to say one fishing location is better than another; they are simply different. But if you know what you want from your holiday you may find one suits your needs better than another. But before looking at the differences between the three sites it’s worth talking about what is in common: the seasons and the weather.

Cuba is a decidedly tropical country. The average daytime temperature throughout the year varies between the 69 and 80ºF (20º and 26ºC). The extremes, which are really what you need to know, as this determines your comfort or enjoyment or lack of it, are 50 to 90ºF+ (10 to 33 ºC). Whilst in British terms the island is warm all year there are very distinct seasons. The winter months, November to February are pleasant with average day time temperatures in the low 70 ºFs (22ºC) and nights a cool 61 to 63ºF (16 or 17 ºC). At anytime of year you can suffer a few days of low grey clouds but this is most likely in the winter months when cold fronts sneak in from the north. This is bad news as polaroiding and sight fishing becomes very difficult whilst you are literally ‘under a cloud’. The wind can be strong and bothersome at times but mostly the breezes are light. March and April are delightful: the weather is typically warm and sunny as this is the end of the dry season. This is the best time to see wildlife as most beasties are breeding. (Perhaps to the surprise of some anglers, Cuba does have animals of note other than bonefish, tarpon and permit. The world’s smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird lives only on Cuba. There are large rock iguanas, brightly-plumaged parrots and spectacular migrations of colourful land crabs. These can all add immeasurably to your holiday experience). The rainy season runs from May until the end of October. The weather is hotter and more humid. In the afternoon clouds can grow into huge thunderheads. Tropical deluges, thunder and lightning can be seen as an added element of excitement to your holiday: something quite dangerous and scary or just an unwanted interruption to your fishing day. You just need to know that from May onwards the weather becomes more dramatic, culminating in the hurricane season. That officially starts in June, but the main period is August to October. It’s probably best to avoid fishing at this time if you can. The heat and humidity are oppressive for all except old tropical hands, and the threat of violent storms, water spouts and hurricanes is real.

So what of the fishing. Bonefish are present the whole year, in Cuba. I’m going to ignore the peak hurricane months of September and October for the obvious reason and the fact that this may also be the peak spawning season for bonefish. The fishing is good for all the other months of the year with March to July having a slight edge. But if bones are your prime or only target then you can fish at the 3 locations from November to August confident that you will see plenty of feeding fish.

If tarpon are your quarry then things are a little different. Both Casa Batida on Cayo Largo and Avalon at Jardines de la Reina have plenty of tarpon. The best time for big tarpon is April to July, this is when most fish in the 60 to 100lbs+ range appear. They may have migrated to the flats or simply slipped out of the deeper water around the reefs, but if you want a 110lb tarpon think of these 4 months. Las Salinas beside the bay of Pigs doesn’t have tarpon, but the nearby Rio Hatigaunico does. These fish are typically small tarpon, up to 10lbs, or ‘babies’, weighing from 10 to 20lbs. So realistically there are 2 locations and 4 months to choose from.

Permit are an elusive and frustrating fish. If you really want to catch one then again the wet season is the best time, April to August. All 3 locations have permit but Las Salinas, with its absence of tarpon doesn’t give the real trophy hunter a chance at the Grand Slam (permit, tarpon and bonefish caught in one day).

What really separates the 3 fishing locations is not the fish themselves but the ambience and the non-fishing possibilities. Jardines de la Reina is the most remote location. It’s a day’s journey from Havana, either by a ridiculously early morning flight or a 5 to 6 hour taxi ride, followed by a 3 hour noisy boat ride to the line of cays 40 miles off the southern coast of Cuba. The boat is run by Avalon and only goes back and forth once a week so you are committed to 6 days fishing. Once there you are in paradise. Now its remoteness becomes a strength. The cays are unspoilt and uninhabited, apart from the fishing and diving guests, the Cuban guides and support staff and some commercial crayfish fishermen. So you have over 1000 square miles of fantastic fishing, and superb scenery with a seasonal population of around 100 people. The accommodation is on a metal barge, La Tortuga. It looks unprepossessing and whilst the rooms are small they’re comfortable and the food is excellent. The cays have lots of wildlife, and the diving and snorkelling is first class should you decide to take a break from fishing. And that is the only possible snag: other than fishing and diving there is nothing else. The remoteness of Jardines de la Reina is both its strength and weakness. This is a place for a full-on fishing holiday. The 250 or so islands stretch over XX miles. Avalon has modern well maintained flats boats. They are fast and comfortable, unless there is a nasty chop, and even then the guides normally know of a more sheltered route through the maze of mangrove-lined channels. There is more than enough water so you need never fish the same area twice in your week, though some days the travel time may be an hour each way.

Casa Batida Fishing Club is based on Cayo Largo, a resort island off the south coast, and the biggest in the Archipelago de los Canarreos. To get there you need to take an internal flight, often at an extreme hour of the morning. But the flight is only 40 minutes and you then face a short transfer from airport to hotel. The fishing set up is similar to Jardines de la Reina. The outfit has exclusive rights to sports fishing over more than 140 square miles of islands and flats where there is no commercial fishing. I would not like to make comparisons between the 2 operations. Both have a huge amount of water, good boats and guides and plenty of willing fish. Both locations are well managed by Italians and they and the guides speak good English. Whilst some may disagree (including the owners of the companies) I think there is little to separate them in terms of the quality of the fishing. Perhaps Jardines de la Reina has more hard flats where you can wade and stalk bonefish. Casa Batida tends to have more fishing from the boat. Set against that it offers terrific fishing for Jack Crevalle and Barracuda in slightly deeper water around small reefs. The real difference lies on the setting. Cayo Largo has been developed as a tourist island. You stay in 4 or 5 star hotels which means you do leave the world of fishing each day. This can be a good or bad thing depending on your outlook and circumstances. The hotels are ideal for non fishing companions. They offer a range of activities and the chance to think and talk about something other than fishing ! On the other hand you might (at least my fishing buddy and I did) feel slightly out of place in your fishing gear surrounded by the bronzed bodies of sun worshippers and honeymoon couples. Whilst both locations are normally booked as a package fishing holiday for the week, you used to be able to fish for shorter periods at Casa Batida; please check with the company to see if this is still possible.

The last location, Las Salinas is the most different of the three. It is run by Cubans which makes it stand out straight away. You can book it as a package as you do Avalon and Casa Batida Fishing Club, but you can also just arrange your own fishing. Las Salinas lies on the south coast, to the west of Bahia de los Cochinos (the infamous Bay of Pigs). It is part of the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park and benefits from the protection offered by the reserve. The Cubans have a style all of their own. You will not be met at Las Salinas with a cocktail or cool drink. Instead what greets you are some dilapidated buildings at the end of a deeply rutted dirt road. But that road runs through Zapata National Park and you are likely to see flamingos feeding in the lagoons alongside the road. The boats are not state of the art, expensive and specially made for flats fishing. No, here you will find a row of green plastic vessels that can only be described as a cross between a canoe and a punt. However don’t be put off: they are extremely functional, if a little unstable. Until you have your saltwater flyfishing legs its best to sit in the boat and let the guide propel you (with a wooden stick not a fibreglass pole). Las Salinas is an extensive area of shallow flats, in places very shallow, separated by lines of trees. It’s difficult to work out the exact extent of the area, but it provides more than enough fishing. Some guides have reasonable English whilst others have very basic comprehension, so if you have a few Spanish words it can help. That said, the bonefishing is brilliant. There are plenty of fish of differing sizes up to double figures. You can fish from the boat but the best fun is to be had wading. Las Salinas is shallow and so has masses of water that can be fished on foot. The ambiance is all Cuban: no frills but plenty of thrills. Whilst Las Salinas has bonefish and permit it doesn’t have tarpon. For these bruisers, and for Snook, you need to fish on the Rio Hatiguanico which is also in the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park. The fishing is about a 30 minute boat ride, this time in an almost conventional fibreglass thing with an outboard motor. The tarpon are found in the mangrove creeks, some so narrow that playing a fish is more like all in wrestling.

The best accommodation for Las Salinas and Rio Hatiguanico is Batey Don Pedro, a collection of wooden cabins. The rooms are charming but without air conditioning. There is a ceiling fan which as well as cooling you will keep off mosquitoes at night, but it would be wise to take mosquito repellent for the evenings if you’re out and about.. The food is excellent and provided by a Cuban matriarch who takes great pride in her job and equal pleasure in your happiness. Batey Don Pedro is close to several Cuban towns and villages and so you can meet and mix with local people, an option not available at the other two locations. The big advantage of this place is the National Park. You can go nature watching (Zapata is the best place to see the Cuban bee Hummingbird), and the snorkelling and diving in the crystal clear waters of Bahia de los Cochinos are excellent. Batey Don Pedro is about 40 minutes drive from both Las Salinas and Rio Hatiguanico.

There are a couple of other locations that I must mention for completeness. Avalon, the company that runs the fishing on Jardines de la Reina, has just started a second operation on the western end of the Archipelago de los Canarreos just to the east of Isla de la Juventud. The news so far is that this location is exceptional for big tarpon in the 100lb range. However it is a tricky location to get to, and for the present, those primarily interested in bonefish might be better off at the 3 locations already discussed.

Finally there are bonefish around the tourist resort of Cayo Coco, an island off the north coast. It has many international standard hotels and offers all the normal amenities: discos, dancing, sightseeing excursions, parascending etc. I have not fished here but I’ve heard good and bad things about it. There have been reports of catches of as many as 30 bonefish in a day – exceptional fishing in anybody’s terms. However unlike the 3 locations featured, the area is not protected as a wildlife reserve. Bonefish have been netted commercially, normally in September and October, and this may still be going on. Despite this, I’ve read that people are still catching a few bonefish. As I said I’ve not fished here, but the big advantage of Cayo Coco is the range of activities for non-fishing friends, partners or family and the good quality hotels. The downside is the unknown quality of the fishing and the uncertainty: you may arrive just after the netsmen have been and have a poor time of it. If you want to try, then Cayo Romano and Cayo Guillermo have both yielded the ghost of the flats.

The 3 locations each offer something special, where you choose to fish will depend on your fishing goals, and the non-fishing needs and desires of yourself and your companions. Wherever you go I suspect you will have a great time. If you have the opportunity I would highly recommend adding a day or two to your trip to visit Habana. The city is like no other on earth. Habana Vieja is the old town and a bit of a tourist trap, but still worth a visit. The colonial architecture is special. Other districts are more genuinely Cuban. Vedado has cinemas and nightclubs and Habana Central is worth walking around to see an almost troglodytic way of life. The houses have suffered so little maintainence that they now resemble crumbling cliffs, with what were once doorways now the entrances to dark passages and caverns. The Malecon is the delightful sea front that curves for miles around the bay. Here young lovers stroll, musicians practice and fishermen look for their supper. And if you really can’t forget about fishing then you can always visit La Floridita, the bar frequented by Hemingway and the home of the daiquiri. Cuba is fun.

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