The world’s two greatest bone fishing areas are oceans apart. With plenty of experience of fishing global saltwater destinations, Peter McLeod flies to Cuba to see how the Caribbean compares.
Over the course of six years working for an American fishing consultancy, I have enviously looked over the fence at anglers travelling to Cuba. I had heard so much from returning clients about the prolific and large bonefish population in the Caribbean, the aggressive tarpon and my personal nemesis, the permit, but had no direct experience to accurately compare the two places. At the time I was a huge advocate of Alphonse Island in the Seychelles which I had visited a number of times, and I was pretty doubtful that any fishery could match it.
With the establishment of my own business and freedom from my parent company it was clear to me I should experience fishing in Cuba quickly: if the reports of the fishing were true I couldn’t wait. So in late November 2005 I found myself boarding a direct Virgin flight at Londow Heathrow, bound for Cuba, a “Rough Guide” under one arm, and sheaf of notes under the other. Now was my chance to find out for myself the differences between Cuba and the Seychelles.
I have always loved landing in the Seychelles, that first contact with the intense heat outside the aircraft is like hitting a wall. Very quickly you are surrounded by smart hotels, purpose-built to receive guests from all over the world. You find yourself immersed in a world of cocktails and air–conditioning, and the culture of the local community is always slightly at arm’s length. Arriving in Cuba is dramatically different. You are immediately struck by the culture and history from the minute you first arrive. Being in Habana Viejo (Old Havana) is an assault on the senses, making you feel as if you have stepped into a different decade. You wander amidst 1950′s Cadillacs and Chevies, staring at the beautiful crumbling architecture and catching a hint of cigar smoke on the breeze. The people are immensely friendly, and the city has a buzz all of its own, mostly to the beat of the Rumba. Further out in the country, at Trinidad or Cienfuegos, there is an opportunity to see Cuba’s roots, where the people came from, and what shaped its culture and economy. The imprint of 16th century Europe still lingers in the buildings and people, and it is also easier to see here where Castro’s regime is failing, and also where it seems to succeed.
History aside, the first thing that gave me an idea of the differences between the fishing operations was the sheer scale of the fishing areas. The St Francois lagoon that is fished from Alphonse in the Seychelles provides about sixteen square miles of fishing area divided between twelve rods. The area around Cayo Largo in Cuba that Casa Batida fishes is 110 square miles, and Jardines de la Reina is a whopping 2600 square miles. Fishing at Jardines de la Reina is almost like having the Florida Keys to yourself. As these are private areas you will not find any other fishermen in the vicinity.
So how does the fishing stack up? Very well. In the Seychelles I have stood on St Francois on Morning Traffic flat as the tide is just beginning to push, and seen literally hundreds of bonefish coming at me over the white sand. You will probably not find those numbers anywhere else. However, the fish in Cuba are big and aggressive. My best bonefish from the Seychelles was 7lbs. My first fish in Cuba was 8 lbs, and my third fish was 10 lbs and it pulled like a freight train. It was one of three 10 lbs fish I landed, all caught tailing in amongst the mangroves. I was astounded by the size of the bones, their girth and their breadth. We would find them tailing happily away grubbing for crabs and shrimps, and it was often possible to take several from one school.
In the Seychelles I have always loved the diversity of fishing at St Francois, and Indian Ocean fishing is very different from the Caribbean. In the Seychelles if the tide was not right then we would look for giant trevally, milkfish or trigger fish which I treasure. The prolific triggers can be found scudding around the hard coral finger flats, and are a highly underrated fly species. I have been lucky enough to catch a milkfish, but it is by no means certain that they will be in the vicinity, much less in the channels where they really need to be. The fishery is tide dependent, and it is very important to get that right or you can end up standing on a dry flat. But in Cuba the variation between the tides average just 50 cm, so this expands the window of opportunity.
As Cuba is a Caribbean fishery you’ll also find permit and many other species, but in particular tarpon which are for me a truly exciting fish. They might not necessarily be the bruisers that trevally are, but they are really acrobatic which for many is often more fun than tussling it out with the bulldog of the piscatorial world. There are huge numbers of tarpon in Cuba, more than I have seen anywhere else in the world, and although the staple size is between 20 and 60lbs there are many channels that have fish well up into the 90lbs + category. In this huge fishing area many of these fish have never seen a fisherman and they are certainly not shy, almost pouncing on the fly. There are also permit of 20 to 30lbs, which will give you a real battle…. if you can hook one.
The white sand and coral finger flats of St Francois in the Seychelles have now slightly been eclipsed in my mind’s eye by Cuba’s huge sand and turtle grass flats, crisscrossed by aquamarine channels that hold tarpon, barracuda and huge snapper. St Francois will always hold a special place in my mind, along with the people that live and work there. The more travelling I do, the more that I like to combine good fishing with a little flexibility. In Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina one can be on the water early in the morning and not stop until it is dark. At Casa Batida one can fish for half the day, and return back to the hotel to spend time with the family in the afternoon if you so desire.
The Seychelles will always be one of the finest fishing destinations in the world, but this does come at a price. For the same cost as a week fishing in the Seychelles one can fly first class to Cuba, and experience fishing of equal quality. Cuba is excellent value for money, and extended trips offer an incredible travelling experience in a richly rewarding Hispanic culture. They are both excellent, and I feel privileged to have had the chance to compare them.