Zapata Cuba

Today I returned from a fishing trip to Cuba put together by Flywater Travel.  This trip did not live up to my hopes but the Zapata peninsula certainly has the potential to be a premier fly fishing destination.  It is a huge area of flats, channels, mangrove forests, and small islands.  There are abundant bonefish, baby tarpon, some permit, and many other species including barracuda, jacks, snapper, snook, etc.  In the right conditions, at the right time of year, I am certain the fishing could be excellent.  The accommodations, food, and staff were pleasant and professional.

Unfortunately, the fishing over the past week was quite poor, mostly due to bad weather. There was constant wind, ranging from brisk to very strong which made casting challenging, sometimes dangerous.  Seas were also very rough making skiff rides jarring and occasionally hair raising, like when waves broke over the bow.  Even at anchor the mothership where we ate and slept was tossed enough to make some anglers sea sick at times.  Choppy water, extensive cloud cover, and occasional rain often made spotting fish next to impossible for the fishing guides, not to mention us gringos.

The guides all complained about how cold the water was (mid 70s) and how fishing would not be good until it was 10 degrees warmer.  They claim that when the water is “cold” most of the fish stay in the deeper flats and channels.  You can attempt to find them by blind casting, but the fish could be anywhere in an area of thousands of square miles.  I was told that fishing in February can be good if it has been warm but the more consistent fishing starts in April when the seasons change and the water warms up.  The fact that we were fishing in the off season for all fish, not just large migratory tarpon, was not explained to me before I signed up for this trip.

Weather is part of fishing and cannot be controlled but sanitary conditions can be.  I was one of 5 of 8 anglers who came down with what I think was food poisoning.  I was not able to eat or drink anything and keep it in my body for 24 hours.  Others took 48 hours to recover.  The staff on the boat insisted that we suffered from sea sickness or we came aboard sick.

Finally, I found the amount of time spent actually fishing to be frustrating.  It took 3 days to get from my house to the mothership and then another morning to motor to the flats where we were anchored for the week.  From there we took skiffs every morning to places the guides thought would be productive based on wind, sun, tides, desired species, etc.  Those rides would last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.  If no fish were to be seen after a while we would move to another spot, a trip that could last 15 to 30 minutes.  This could be repeated several times a day.

If you shared a skiff with another angler only one of you could fish at a time, further reducing actual fishing.  The guides would also take an hour break for lunch.  The most time I was able to fish in a 10 hour day was about 6 hours.  That only happened once, 4 to 5 hours was more common.  The least amount of time I fished in a day was 2.25 hours when I was in a double skiff, 4.5 hours of fishing shared by 2 anglers.

I believe that everyone else was fine with this as they wanted to fish with another angler in the boat for companionship and were not interested in casting 8 to 10 wt rods in the wind for hours at a time.  Personally, I want to maximize the time I spend actually fishing and have no problem wading, casting, and only occasionally speaking broken English with a guide all day long.

Turning to results, I caught far, far fewer bonefish wading the flats than I expected, only briefly saw two tailing permit, and the baby tarpon were sized more like infants who hid deep in the mangroves where casting, much less landing, was exceptionally difficult.  Given all this, it’s hard to pass judgement on the fishery.  From the few good hours of fishing I did have it looks like the Zapata peninsula could offer excellent fishing in the right conditions and right time of year.

I should acknowledge that the other anglers on the trip were somewhat more satisfied with it.  They are in their late 60s and 70s, retired, and happy to just be on an adventure.  I appreciate that, but I am in a different phase of my life.

Here are brief notes by day on the trip.

Day 1, Thursday, February 20, 2020.  Flew from Redmond to Houston, spent the night in Houston.

Day 2, Friday. Flew to Havana, arriving just after 4 PM.  HAV is a small, run down airport and terminal building.  Customs were slow followed by a very long wait for bags to arrive.  A taxi was waiting for us, which drove us about 30 minutes to a hostel, where we arrived around 6:30.  Went out to dinner with all 8 anglers on the trip.  Reasonable food, nothing special, about $35/person.  One angler has a Cuban wife who dined with us.  They both now live in London.  She said that only tourists can afford to go out to dinner.  Her father maintains a hospital building and makes $32/month.  I heard this same comment from many other Cubans, only tourists are in the restaurants.  One of our fishing guides is married to a doctor who makes $40/month.  Another said teachers also make $40/month.  The guides on our trip each made $450 in tips in one week.  Think about that!

Day 3, Saturday.  Walking tour of old Havana which is a very run down, depressing place.  Very poor.  Crumbling buildings everywhere but filled with people living in them.  Everyone is trying to sell you something.  Restaurant employees in the street trying get you to come in.  Souvenir stands everywhere.  Some buildings have been restored, at least the facades have been, but a crumbling wreck is attached.  Our tour guide was a former English teacher in his 30s.  He quit teaching as he can make more as a guide.  8 of us gave him $10.  $80 for a 4 hour tour was a much as he made in 2 months as a teacher.  The bus picked us up at 4 pm, we drove 3 hours to the mothership, had dinner and went to bed with the ship in port.

Day 4, Sunday.  Quick breakfast and we left port to motor about 3 hours to the fishing grounds.  The wind was howling, seas were rough, and a couple of us got sea sick until we arrived at the somewhat sheltered spot were we spent the rest of the week.  Around 11 am we left on skiffs to go fishing.  Another 30 minute boat ride to some bonefish / barracuda flats.  The wind howled all afternoon which made seeing the fish tough and casting to them even tougher.  I ended up getting one small barracuda, around 20”.  Maybe 4 hours of actual fishing.

Day 5, Monday.  Today I was in a double skiff.  We motored about an hour to a place that is supposed to hold tarpon and spent all day looking for them to no avail.  The amount of time spent moving from place to place plus the out and back trip was about 4.5 hours.  The boat was beached for about an hour for lunch.  That left about 4.5 hours of real fishing in a 10 hour day, split between 2 anglers.  We did not catch anything.  At the end of this day I came down with a horrible case of food poisoning.  I vomited at least 10 times from 5 PM all through the night.

Day 6, Tues.  I had slept very little and was still unable to eat or drink anything but I decided that I would rather be miserable on a skiff than laying in bed.  I only vomited another 3 times over the side of the skiff and caught no fish.

Day 7, Wed.  Fully recovered, went with the head guide to search for tarpon.  He said from the start that we would not catch fish that day.  Very windy and raining, sometimes hard.  Did a lot of blind casting into deep channels.  I hooked into something big, it ran all the way across the channel, maybe 100 feet, into a hole in a coral reef, and was gone.  Even with a 10wt rod and the drag cranked way down I could not slow it down.  We then spent hours looking for very small tarpon deep in mangroves.  We did find a pod in a very small open area.  I was able to make a short roll cast and got a hook up, but it lasted about 5 seconds.  The fished jumped twice, ran into the mangroves, and was gone.  More blind casting and I got a big snapper and two very small bonefish.

Day 8, Thurs.  Another very windy day, but sunny in the morning.  The guide took us deep into a mangrove area where we found a little shelter from the wind and we could see some fish.  I was able to land 4 bonefish in the 2 – 4 lb range as well as a barracuda that looked about 3 feet long and 10 lbs to me.  The guide said it was 12 lbs.  We had lunch at a cayo that was filled with small iguanas who all came up to us expecting to be fed.  The afternoon was a bust.  The wind really picked up along with cloud cover in the afternoon.  We tried to find permit, and saw a couple of tails, but the wind was too strong to make good casts to them.

Day 9, Fri.  Best weather of the trip and the last day.  Mostly sunny with moderate wind mixed with periods of clouds and strong wind.  The periods of sun and moderate winds allowed for decent fishing.  Spent about 5 hours wading in 6 to 14 inches of water, saw many bonefish, and was able to land 6.  Most were around 4 lbs.  The guide said I also caught 2 big ones at 5 and 6 lbs.  Fishing the flats was over around 2 pm, however, as conditions deteriorated.  We tried some blind casting from the boat in a variety spots with deeper water but had no luck other than the small snapper in the picture above.

Day 10, Saturday.  This was a travel day.  We were underway around 6 AM for a 3 hour boat ride to port, followed by 3 hour bus ride to the airport, a flight to Houston, then to San Francisco where I spent the night.  If you ever do this trip give yourself plenty of time.  The flight departed very late out of Cuba for no reason other than they seem to work on a different time schedule.  I had given myself 2.5 hours to make my connecting flight in Houston to SF and made it with 2 minutes to spare.

Day 11, Sunday.  Flew home to Bend / Redmond airport in the morning.