When you think about Cuba its Fidel Castro, cigars, rum and old American cars that spring to mind immediately! It seems like you’re in an old American movie when you walk through the centre of Havana.

It’s full of historic old buildings and cars that have been driving around for more than 50 years. Time has stood still in this fascinating country! 

Havana, with it's 50yr old cars and colourful buildings

But there is so much more to this amazing place……the saltwater fishing is phenomenal. From vast sand flats and dense mangroves to deep flowing channels among the many islands and cays.

This is the domain of bonefish, tarpon and barracudas! As long as you stay away from the crowded cities, there are plenty of fish to be found.

The flats

On this trip, my buddies and I planned to target these amazing species on the fly, which is one of the most exciting ways to catch a fish.

Light tackle fishing at its finest. However, we always carried a spinning rod with us for when we see a barracuda or shark may pass by……you never know!

A 10'o clock cast

Bonefish are something else! It was in Cuba that I had my first experience with these incredible creatures. They were the first fish we had a go for.

The nickname “ghost of the flats”, becomes clear once you actually try to catch one because they are virtually invisible in the crystal clear, shallow water!

poling the flats looking for action

When targeting them we look for movement or the shadow of the bonefish, which stands out more than the fish itself. It takes some time before you know exactly what to look for and your eyes tune in. Then you still have to make sure that the fly ends up in the right place, without spooking the fish. It’s never straightforward.

Spotted fish can suddenly vanish or a fly lands on top of them and its game over.  In short, it took a while before I hooked my first one but when I did, it was well worth the effort. Drag screaming runs of 100 meters in the knee deep water are the norm! Amazing stuff!

An amazing bonefish!

Wading the flats or poling along in a small canoe were our methods of attack. As far as the eye can see there is nothing and nobody. It’s wild and a little spooky at the same time. Only the mangroves themselves interrupted the wide-open vista.

These fish were not pressured in the slightest. If the fly was presented correctly, usually an aggressive attack followed…. accompanied by a screaming reel!

Another bonefish on the flats.

After success with the bones, we searched further in Cuba and arrived in Isla de Juventud, an area with countless islands and famous for its tarpon fishing. A totally different fishery altogether. We needed heavier rods, sinking fly-lines and large streamers. The preparation took a lot of work.

We had to figure out which fly lines and leaders were required and make lots of streamer flies in a wide variety of colors. Almost nothing is available in Cuba tackle-wise, so we had to bring everything we needed with us, just in case!

Bent to the butt on a tarpon!

Once on site, it was a nice contrast to our previous experience. No more fiddling around with canoes as we now had brand new flats-boats that took us at full throttle to the fishing grounds. We selected our flies depending on the color of the water. Natural colors in clear water, black or brightly colored streamers in colored water for added contrast.

The fishing spots happened to be full of variety as well here.  Often, we were fishing in dense mangrove one moment and then in a deep, hard flowing channel as the tide ripped through the next. We had a fly rod prepared for all eventualities.

Lunch time on the boats!

We hunted the tarpon deep in the mangroves and it’s usually the smaller ones that hide in these shallows full of obstacles. The sight fishing was amazing, you could see everything happen right in front of you.

We also regularly encountered barracudas. Just like pike, we saw them at a confluence or near some bushes and they rarely let a popper pass by unnoticed. They are the ultimate flats predator! 

Barracuda on the chew

The guides would push the boat through the narrowest of openings with hardly any space to cast, let alone fight a fish, it was true jungle warfare! From his elevated position the guide had a good view and spotted the fish easily giving us instructions on where to cast.

Schools of tarpon would appear regularly from the mangroves. A short cast was all that was needed to plop the streamer right in front of the fish. They rarely hesitated before turning to swallow the fly. The fight is short but intense with these smaller tarpon, jumping many times and tangling with the roots and branches. These smaller fish up to a meter long are a truly memorable experience deep inside the mangroves.

Tense moments boatside

Another area we tried was known as “monkey island”. It was picture postcard perfect with white sandy beaches fringed by palm trees and twinkling blue crystal clear water. In itself, it was a perfect lunch stop and of course, there were monkeys everywhere!

It was a completely different fishery surrounding the island with many fast flowing channels between the maze of cays. Together with Jan, I fished the deeper part of one of these channels, it looked perfect for a fish. 

Monkey island

The water was slightly colored, so we opted for a black streamer which stands out the most. Long casts were essential to cover as much water as possible. When the bite came it was insane how hard the tug on the line was.  I set the hook firmly and soon a bigger tarpon was cartwheeling through the air in front of me!

This tarpon fought heavily down in the depths, but also regularly jumped out of the water. ‘Bow to the King’ my guide would shout every time the fish was mid-air. They have such a hard mouth that it’s a regular occurrence to lose fish. Full concentration is required during the fight. The fly rod bent all the way to the butt and with the boat we followed the tarpon. 

Tarpon are such amazing prehistoric looking creatures.

This time luck was on our side and when the tarpon got close to the boat the guide was able to successfully land it. We had some hectic action that afternoon. We got four bites, of which we end up with two fish landed. A good average when fishing for tarpon. I’ll take that!

But it wasn’t always this easy. The problems with not properly hooking the fish remained very apparent. Derek landed his first tarpon after hooking 15 in a row! Several large fish were lost. Their hard mouths in combination with the uncontrollable jumps meant we lost lots of fish. Henk was the lucky one who managed to land what we class a truly big tarpon.

My best of the trip

We had our fair share of unexpected catches also, there is always the chance of something special in such a unique area. Large jack crevalle would occasionally intercept a streamer intended for the tarpon. Or in a deep hole, in the middle of a large flat we’d find a big school of snappers.

There are a lot of fish on the protected shallows and it paid dividends to make a few casts in the not so obvious spots. There were often surprises to be found. 

Nothing is safe out on the flats. It’s a case of eat or be eaten! Viva Cuba!

Henk with the biggest we caught