October 26, 2021
This article was originally titled "Happy Fish" in the Horizons column of the June-July 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
For a long time the flats of Cuba were only accessible to Americans who were adventurous and rebellious enough to sneak in through Mexico or fly direct from Canada. Now the forbidden fruit of Cuban fly fishing is an easy flight direct from Miami or New York. Stamps in your passport are now a rite of passage, not a liability with the potential for huge fines. Travel restrictions and regulations for Americans are falling away weekly, much to the chagrin of the Canadians and Europeans who have had this jewel to themselves for decades.
The explorer in me has always wanted to go to Cuba, and for good reason—the proximity, the culture, and the Caribbean beauty mixed with vast flats famous for grand slams of the big three—permit, tarpon, and bonefish. Havana exudes authenticity like few places on Earth. The Old World architecture covered in faded and chipped paint, the dancing and music in the streets, guayabera shirts and straw hats, and especially the old cars. Even the unprecedented quantities of Che Guevara T-shirts and copies of The Old Man and the Sea lining the streets can’t distract you from the soul and vibrancy of the place. Having a mojito in La Bodeguita del Medio where Hemingway sat is worth the price of admission. These are the important side stories to the fishing.
Hungry Cuban Fish
Beautiful flats with copious numbers of permit, tailing bonefish, and rolling tarpon mean that Cuba should be on the short list. But just seeing fish in a place doesn’t always mean the fishing is good.
One thing that has held true on all of my visits to Cuba is that the fish are happy.
You don’t see spooked or pressured fish acting super skittish or manically paranoid. The permit are cruising and feeding. They are riding on the backs of rays, cruising in the surf, pushing onto the flats when the tide gets right, and they all are mostly just thinking about feeding. They are where they are supposed to be and doing what they are built to do—eyeball your fly, get your heart rate up, and make you think “this is the moment.” If you put it out there they will almost always give your fly the stink eye, they rush it and take a hard look—and sometimes the bastards even eat the fly.
I picked up my best permit to date on my recent trip to Gardens of the King on the north side of the island. We had been looking for blacktails all week, but the tide wasn’t right. On the last day we had a 10 A.M. departure and Coki, a legend of a guide in Cuba, pushed to get on the water early for a two-hour window to close the deal for me. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and he hit the lights. Three cruising fish, one cast, and the line came tight on the first strip. It was a beautiful way to end a week.
While permit reign in my boat, the silver kings of Cuba are also a primary target. Unlike anywhere I have ever fished for adult tarpon on the flats, these fish eat. If you make the right cast and move the fly, they crush it every single time, and that gill rattle of a tarpon is hard to beat.
I have yet to make it there during prime tarpon season but there are some fish around almost every month of the year. The peak migration here starts in late March and continues through May and June.
Bonefish are honestly almost everywhere, and if you do it well they usually reward you. Cuba has healthy populations of fish, and a good average size—they are bigger fish on average than Mexico and Belize, but not quite as large as the Bahamas. I wouldn’t travel to Cuba just for the bonefish, but it helps round out the day as you wait for the tides to cooperate for tarpon or permit.
The fishing is the thread that ties all these adventures together but ultimately it always falls second to the experience of the culture, the history, the people, and the adventure.
To have a great trip in Cuba you need to appreciate the complex and unpredictable nature of frontier fishing. Too many people are scared to get out of their comfort zone, get rattled when plans are derailed or don’t go as planned, and look for wrong turns to complain about, rather than focus on all the wonderful things that happened by happenstance, and the fascinating people they meet. Cuba is not for these folks. If you can roll with the punches and laugh off the inconveniences you will have an incredible experience.
The list of surprises in Cuba is long, and the logistics of getting to the fishing can be brutal. Latin culture blended with the Caribbean attitude means things do not happen fast in Cuba. I have yet to check into a hotel when they actually have my room ready. I once arrived at midnight, and still my room wasn’t ready. At 12:45 A.M. they told me it was ready so I let myself into the room—but the couple sleeping inside weren’t expecting my company. My 5 A.M. bus pickup was 40 minutes late, leaving me wondering if I had missed it. That four-star hotel that comes with your fishing package might have hot water, but probably won’t have functional Internet access. If you are looking for a killer Cuban sandwich you better pick it up in Miami before you get on the plane. That mindset is critical on any trip to Cuba, but also serves you well anywhere else in the world. It’s the key to having a great trip filled with stories and pleasant memories.
There are quite a few misconceptions about Cuba floating around. While these Caribbean flats have not seen the fishing traffic that the Florida Keys have experienced, it’s not exactly uncharted water. The rest of the world never stopped visiting and fishing Cuba, and the fishing programs are well-developed with experienced guides who have been fishing these waters for years. The flats are not over-pressured. Each outfitter has exclusive fishing zones—there are no rogue operations or guides. Even more important, the Cuban government has been proactive in creating marine parks and reserves, and these are the areas where you are fishing. Gardens of the Queen is a giant national park, with patrolled enforcement. It’s a wonderful thing to see.
Keys to a Great Cuban Fly Fishing Trip
Everyone is jumping on the Cuba bandwagon lately but no American agency has been doing business there for any length of time. My first trip was radically different than my second. The difference? I traveled with Jim Klug of Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures and although he only started booking trips recently when travel restrictions eased, I was with him on his 20th trip to Cuba so he helped create a radically better experience for me.
Travel with the right expectations. If you are signing up for Shangri-la lights-out fishing on untouched flats where permit jump into your lap, Cuba is not for you. If standing in front of a hotel at 5 A.M. wondering if your bus will show up sends you into a downward spiral—don’t go there. If you can roll with the punches, and take in the sights and appreciate the total experience, this is a trip for you. It’s still flats fishing and permit are difficult fish everywhere. You’ll still have to work for them, but good anglers are eventually rewarded.
You can have tough days and maybe even tough weeks. But the fishery is healthy and the bones, permit, and tarpon are there, acting just like you’d want them to act. These are happy fish, and they are willing to eat.
There is no doubt change coming to Cuba; some changes will be great, but I expect some of the charm to erode with inevitable bus loads of American tourists who will trample through Havana. The great news for fly fishers is that the Cuban government is way ahead of the curve with conservation and fisheries management, and I expect to see an ever-improving fishery with operators who only get more and more dialed in.
Oliver White owns Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas and co-hosts with Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Belushi, Yvon Chouinard, and others the TV series Buccaneers & Bones on the Outdoor Channel.