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Magnificent Tarpon Fishing in Cuba

I recently had the pleasure of a return visit to Cuba to fish the prolific flats, channels, lagoons and mangrove keys of the Canarreos archipelago. The area is designated as a marine park by the Cuban authorities and lies between Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) and the island of Cayo Largo to the east. It’s a paradise for saltwater fly fishers, home to the all the super slam species (bones, tarpon, permit & snook) with a supporting cast of jacks, barracuda, snappers and sharks to add to the appeal.

Life on the Live-Aboard Mothership Georgiana

Home for the week was the purpose built luxury yacht Georgiana – not the most beautiful craft afloat by any means but an extremely practical, comfortable and spacious base. Ideal for a likeminded group of friends to spend a week and enjoy a true wilderness area, catch some amazing fish and of course have a great time. The food onboard is simple and effective with fresh tasty fish and lobster on tap plus pork and chicken if you get fed up with all that lobster! There’s plenty of vegetables, salads, fresh and delicious tropical fruit with rice and pasta to keep the carb levels up. There’s a full range of drinks plus a satisfying complimentary mojito to welcome you back from fishing in the evening, wine with meals and plenty of beer!

Cuban Fly Fishing Boat Georgiana

The best thing about staying on a live-aboard is you start and end the day close to the fishing areas. The normal routine starts with an early breakfast followed by the arrival of the guides in their skiffs around 8.00am - you then fish with your partner from the skiff through to lunchtime when you return to Georgiana for lunch, a swim, a siesta or just some chill-out time in the shade. The afternoon fishing session starts around 3.00pm. By this time the mid-day heat has subsided and you can fish through to darkness – one of the best times for tarpon to feed. At most land based lodges you would miss fishing the twilight hour as the day ends.

The Fishing and Tackle

Both my visits have been at the end of June and the majority of the time is spent in pursuit of tarpon. There are plenty of other species there but I really enjoy tarpon fishing so everything else takes a back seat. I saw a decent number of permit on a flat, one small group was following a large lemon shark and the other was swimming directly towards the skiff but I saw them a bit late to get a meaningful shot in. There are plenty of shallow flats holding shoals of good sized bones but these were not our target species.

Ross with his first Cuban tarpon!

A Typical Tarpon Fishing Session

I fished the first session of the trip with Ross - we were guided by Manolo and headed off from Georgiana in the skiff through a maze of flats and channels to a key that had been hit by a hurricane a few years ago. Lots of trees had been smashed up around the shore leaving a series of perfect ambush points for feeding predators. Ross was first up on the front of the skiff and it wasn’t long before Manolo spotted the first group of hunting tarpon. After some world-class skiff manoeuvring by Manolo, Ross was back in position for a great shot at the feeding tarpon. A couple of casts later Ross was attached to an angry 25lb tarpon – after the usual display of tarpon aerobatics the first tarpon of the trip was ready to land. Next it was my turn and I was really pleased to land a similar fish on my 9 weight sage. A great start – 2 for 2, sadly not a realistic average to keep up for very long with tarpon.

Heading Out on a Skiff

Then it was off to a deep flat – home to a large shoal of sardines with a number of predators lurking in the wings waiting for a chance to rush in and nail a sardine or two. We had a couple of shots here but couldn’t convert the follows into taking fish.

Buff HeadwearWe then went off to a flat in search of permit and tarpon – this flat gave Ross and I a few good chances but nothing connected – I knew the 2 for 2 average wouldn’t last long!

Next up a trip into a mangrove – here we found some tarpon and some mosquitos. Sadly the mosquitos were keener to bite than the tarpon so we canned the mangrove!

Always have bug spray handy and invest in an insect shield Buff.

Finally Ross was up on the casting platform with the skiff drifting down a channel blind casting with a sink-tip line across the current. A few casts in a larger (50lb ish) tarpon grabbed the fly, jumped and shot off down the channel only for the hook to disengage. That’s tarpon fishing for you – a mix of excitement and frustration!

Then it was back to Georgiana to dissect the day over a beer or cocktail – this gives a good example of the sheer variety of fishing available, no two sessions are alike and there is always somewhere new to try.

Tackle for Tarpon

Due to the range of fishing conditions you will encounter I would recommend the following outfits:-

12 weight fly rod e.g. Sage Salt or Sage Motive fly rod matched with a Redington Behemoth Fly Reel with a choice of three fly lines - e.g. Rio Tarpon Quickshooter (Floating and Sink-Tip versions) and a fast-sink line for channel fishing e.g. Rio Leviathan 500gr 26’ sink-tip. You ideally need at least two sets ups – changing spools and lines between fishing spots is too time consuming. These outfits will be used where larger tarpon are likely to be encountered – when fishing the reef edge, in deep channels and where you can see large tarpon rolling!

Winning Tarpon Tackle Setup

You will also need a lighter outfit for fishing ‘baby tarpon’ around mangroves and where smaller tarpon are seen hunting and rolling. I found a 9 wt Sage Salt or Sage motive perfect for this matched with a Nautilus CCF –X2 8-10wt, and a Rio Bonefish Quickshooter 9wt fly line. You may prefer a 10 wt set up, but I’ve landed tarpon up to 50lbs on this outfit without issue. It also doubles up as a permit rod when needed.

Leaders – take a selection of mono and fluorocarbon leader materials. The guides prefer a simple leader made from a 6’ length of 40lb mono attached loop to loop to the flyline with a perfection loop, this is then attached to a 2’ bite leader of 60 – 100lb mono or fluoro with a slim beauty knot. The fly is attached to this with a perfection loop leaving the fly to swing freely and attractively as you retrieve. Tarpon have rough boney plates in their mouths so you may need to change your leader after each fish. You will notice the leader feels like it has been sandpapered after each encounter. Take a good stock of leader material with you.

Tarpon Fishing FliesSaltwater Fishing Flies

Tarpon bunnies are the main patterns used but it pays to mix things up a bit with a selection of baitfish patterns. Take a range of sizes – you need to ‘match the hatch’ on some occasions.

Our range of Fulling Mill Flies will give a good basic selection, we can also get one of our custom fly tiers to make you up a selection pack for your week. Please phone for details – and allow a month for delivery.

Travel Tips

Cuban Currency is not traded internationally so can’t be bought in advance. Instead take Euros or Sterling and change to Cuban Convertible Peso (tourist currency) on arrival at the airport in Havana. If you take US Dollars they are accepted but a 10% surcharge will be levied on the currency transaction. Change any CUC’s you have left over back when you leave as they are worthless outside Cuba.

Take a strong insect repellent liquid or gel and clothing impregnated with insect repellent as mosquitos can be a nuisance around mangroves if the wind drops away. We sell a Buff impregnated with insect shield that will keep the little so & so’s away from your face and neck.

Tarpon Fishing TeamTravel Planning Information

We travelled with Fly Odyssey - contact Mat Mchugh. Email: Tel: +44(0)1621 743711

We enjoyed a great night out in Havana – we ate at La Guarida (try the taster menu – it’s great) and enjoyed some great cocktails and live music at El Floridita Bar. The following day we visited Finca Vigia – Ernest Hemingway’s house on the outskirts of Havana – now preserved as a museum. His big game fishing boat ‘Pilar’ is also on display in the grounds.

Allan Shephard
I've spent a big chunk of my life either fishing, talking about fishing, teaching fishing or working in the tackle trade. My hunger for ever more extreme and challenging fishing adventures continues to grow and can only be satisfied by a regular angling fix! I hold AAPGAI advanced instruction qualifications in single & double-handed fly-casting and have had articles published by some of the biggest UK fishing magazine titles. I consider myself very much an all-round angler. I have fished in over 20 countries worldwide for a variety of species in both fresh and saltwater. Advising people how to kit themselves out with tackle and clothing for their next fishing adventure is always a pleasure – please take advantage of my experience and knowledge.