It took me a decade to finally make the trip to Cuba for its legendary flats fishing. A group of us filled the majestic Avalon II for a week of luxury accommodations, chasing bonefish, tarpon and permit in the Jardines de la Reina. However, trips do not always work out as planned.
As we packed up at the end of the trip early last summer, our guides apologized and told us we’d had the worst week of flats fishing that they’d experienced in the last 12 years. We still had a great time, despite the high winds and unfavorable tides and weather. Several people had told me to bring a medium-weight spin rod and a heavy plug rod, along with lots of D.O.A. jigs and Zara Spook-type surface plugs. I picked up two travel rods from Temple Fork Outfitters and loaded one with 12- and the other with 30-pound braid, figuring casting plugs for mutton snapper in the channels and around coral heads could be pretty cool. It saved our trip.
There are channels and blue holes everywhere in Cuba, as well as clusters of coral heads. The muttons were our primary target, but we also caught dog snapper, big jacks and barracudas. Occasionally a 30-plus-pound cubera snapper would smash the plug and promptly cut us off in the rocks. There is nothing that compares to a cubera striking a surface plug — it’s like someone throwing a cinderblock into the ocean. I don’t know if a heavier rod and line would have made any difference on the cuberas because they were only in 15 feet of water, and there was a lot of line-cutting coral between the strike and the boat. The cudas were plentiful and big, so I added a foot of knotable wire to the leader; the snapper didn’t seem to notice it.
The surface darters and poppers were great fun, but if they didn’t produce, a jig and soft plastic worked fine. I also had a lot of strikes on Shimano Waxwing plugs in various sizes. They worked so well that I lost every one I had in the first three days! I even caught a 30-pound tarpon on a plug, jumped a few others, and sight-cast to two goliath grouper that smashed the plugs, then promptly cut me off in the mangroves. The fun part was not knowing what was going to wind up on the end of the line.
We also went offshore one afternoon when the weather settled down and fished a blue hole for tarpon. The tarpon were absent, but when we dropped down a Waxwing or jig, something quickly devoured it and just as quickly cut us off. There are some really big critters down there, so bring a lot of plugs. We were way undergunned for the reef fish.
We had no problem catching bonefish, but the tarpon disappeared. Most everyone had a few shots at permit, which were difficult to spot and set up on in the 25-knot winds we had most days on the ocean flats. If we hadn’t had the plugs, our trip would have been a disaster. You can catch bonefish, tarpon and permit in the Florida Keys under almost identical conditions, but I doubt anyone in Florida has caught a mutton snapper on a surface plug in a channel in decades.
If you’re thinking about going to Cuba, I highly recommend Avalon Cuban Fishing Center’s liveaboard vessels (cubanfishing centers.com). And I don’t care what kind of fly-fishing aficionado you are, don’t leave home without a travel spin rod and about 3 pounds of plugs. It could mean the difference between good fishing and fantastic fishing.