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Stalking Silver Ghosts Under the Cuban Sun - Part 1
Last edited on: Apr 27, 2014 05:20:13 PM by Kevin

On March 22, 2014 I enjoyed a packed yet comfortable flight down to sunny Cuba. It is amazing how the lack of leg room is totally forgotten when you have tarpon and bonefish on the brain. I could close my eyes and feel the moment a fish strikes under the tropical sun. Soon it will be a reality!


Arrival Cuba!

We landed at the Varadero airport and started on the first stage of the journey… the Cuban body scan. OK…maybe not really a body scan but there are more hoops and whistles to jump through than you would expect from a country praying for tourist dollars. First you make your way to the entry cubicle line ups. There are a series of small rooms with immigration staff there to take your Passport and then take your photo and only one person at a time is allowed here. From there they buzz the door open and you enter into a larger room with a tightly laid out scanning system between you and your luggage. The scanners often don’t work and the scanners seem to be scanning for interesting things to confiscate…like chocolate. Still I made it through…and I had no chocolate to declare even though it was legal.

Last year I was smart and zipped out to exchange money before the lineup got too long. Unfortunately this year there were no security people at the door as I went through to change money. I had a very awkward tourist moment coming back to get my luggage when I was stopped by a raft of recently arrived staff blocking the door. I did my best impression of a dumb tourist… actually I often nail that one without any trouble… and eventually after lots of confused looks on my part and showing my airline ticket I was allowed back in to claim my luggage. Tips for next time…don’t do that.

We arrived at the hotel and initially thought it looked nice. The staff were all smiles, friendly and helpful. Unfortunately the Iberostar Tainos Hotel in Varadero looked nice on the brochures but looks can be deceiving. There was smoking inside the hotel which was not up to North American health standards which while was to be expected in Cuba this difference stood out. After all Cuba is the land of the Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo and all the history behind it. However what I really did not expect was seeing shoddy food cleanliness with improper temperature regulation, cats wandering around at night with access to open trays of bread, lack of gloves on cook staff and hands touching food one minute then garbage the next. The Russian tourists I came into contact with were rude and ignored simple etiquette like lining up or having any spread of politeness. I found the French seemed nice but if you did not speak French they seemed distant. I ran into some English and German tourists that were more friendly and outgoing. I would like to try and get to know some Russian tourists more to see if I just ran into an odd lot.

Since we arrived late the grounds looked interesting in the dark while the lobby bar was hazy with smokers. Our room was ok with just minor mold in the bathroom and thankfully the air conditioner was working well enough to keep the room comfortable for us colder climate tourists.

Before going to bed that night we arranged what clothing we needed for tomorrow and what gear we needed at the ready. I wanted to make sure we had everything set and ready to go once we got to the river.

A Tarpon Fishing We Will Go!

We woke up early on March 23rd and headed out into an early morning taxi ride to the river. The taxi ride was un-eventful and yet always an interesting drive through the countryside and towns of rural Cuba. You do not drive through modern anything in Cuba. It is common to see bike taxis, ox and horse draw carts and even ox and plows in the field. What few tractors you see could be in a North American museum and most cars are either classics from the 50’s or later model Lada’s or more newer model Chinese or European cars. Overall petroleum powered vehicles make up less than 15% of any rush hour intersection traffic jam.

It seems most larger buildings such as schools in the country and other cities and towns are Soviet era in construction or simple cement block construction for local homes. While people’s homes can look run down on the outside I suspect it is due to prioritizing where they spend what little extra money they have. I have seen a few homes on the inside and they all looked very well cared for. Publicly managed commercial and tourist buildings seem to experience very little maintenance which is a shame and detracts from the desire to travel to Cuba. Cuba also has a serious problem with garbage and what to do with it. In some areas the roadside can be literal mess of garbage and if you are watching in some towns it seems garbage can permeate the public lands. Most yards do seem relatively clean which shows a Cuba pride for their own property.

After turning onto a major highway (roads are also poorly maintained) our driver got concerned he was lost and stopped to ask some local hitch hiker for directions. Hitch hiking is a very common form of travel and often people hold up some local Cuban currency. From there we headed straight to a roadside rest stop to pick up drinks and sandwiches and meet our guides for the first day of tarpon fishing. From there we had a short drive to the river wherein upon arrival we quickly put all our gear together, grabbed our lunches and packed bags and headed to the boat to begin our first day’s adventure on the river chasing poons!

Atlantic Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) is an almost prehistoric looking fish both long and silvery with large scales that seem to provide shiny body armor. They are found from Virginia to Brazil on the western Atlantic and from Senegal to South Angola on the eastern Atlantic. Tarpon are interesting in that they have a respiratory pseudo-organ that can help them survive in brackish and low oxygen waters by gulping air. While the adults spawn offshore the juveniles eventually grow migrate back to inshore areas for cover such as estuaries, brackish tidally influenced waters, freshwater rivers and creeks, mangrove swamps and bocas while feeding on everything from insects to crabs to fish. Adults only eat fish and are voracious feeders and can grow to between four and eight feet in length and weigh well over 200 lbs. Fortunately tarpon are not prized as a food fish while highly prized as a sport fish due to their incredible power and acrobatics when hooked.

Traveling down the Rio Hatiguanico to go chase tarpon is a beautiful jungle lined adventure in itself past epiphytes decorated red mangroves and air so fresh you can't get enough of it. It feels like a Disney ride at times without the fake hippos.

I had to take a video of parts to remember the vista…however you can’t capture the freshness of the air and the humidity from the jungle and ocean.

Video of Creek catching tarpon and seeing a manatee

Julio was my guide on this first day due to logistics. Julio is the head guide for Las Salinas and a great guy to fish with. He knows this river very well and you can see the enjoyment he gets from his job sparkling in his eyes. You can tell when guides like fishing versus just going through the motions of taking clients out.

I got started right away casting for main channel tarpon and snook and after a pile of big casts with my 11 weight I started to feel the burn. This was my first time casting such a heavy fly rod and it showed in my stamina and the need to practice letting the rod do more of the work. The tarpon were rolling everywhere you looked which got the adrenaline pumping and anticipation building and fought away the burn in the arms. It is so cool to see these sometimes large 80 lb massive missiles leap violently from the water or swirl to the surface taking in air or attacking an unsuspecting bait fish. I learn later that the fish are seen at the surface then usually a long ways away in seconds. Timing is critical to catching them.

We started out casting the banks for rolling tarpon. It is now that I started to clue in that tarpon can move extremely fast up and down the river and casting to where they splashed is likely wasted effort. After some extended effort casting to large tarpon either unwilling to take the fly or just plain laughing at my amateur delivery we decided to move locations and target another species. Location is key to catching snook and I have yet to master dropping a fly within a foot of the back of the mangrove indents. I pounded the banks over and over again to no avail before again changing up the program. I started to catch up with the “casting for fun” program and in between pounding the mangroves for tarpon and snook I was able to slowly improve my casting skills with my 11 weight. While my fishing buddy was able to land some snook in his boat, snook still elude my fles. Snook are on my target list for next time for sure. After casting an 11 weight all day… I have to believe casting my 6 weight for trout all day will seem super easy. After casting an 11 weight all day… I have to believe casting my 6 weight for trout all day will seem super easy.

We drove to the mouth of the river to have a peek yet saw nothing rolling, fished for a little while and caught a few snapper which for their size put up a very strong fight. We then headed back up river instead to check out a side tributary and find some tarpon that would be easier to catch for a beginner like myself. Very interesting excursion and I started filming the tarpon jumping and exploding ahead of the boat. Fishing in the channel is like taking small kids to a fancy dinner for the first time. Sounds like fun. Seems like if would be easy. In reality expect all hell to break loose. You catch trees, mangrove roots, river bottom, the back of your head (insert ouch here), occasionally the guide, the boat and more. You get tangled in a mess of line around your feet while always being careful for if you do catch a big one the tarpon could tip all your guides out in a powerful run for the mangrove roots.

We set up in the guides favorite spot and tried a few practice casts. No problem casting with no pressure on to make a one time great cast. However my confidence was tested when the first push of tarpon came through. I was casting to the splashes under the assumption like with trout you cast to where the splash is. I was quickly and fully educated by Julio on this tarpon behavior. They tend to move around in the river and the tarpon to 40 lbs move up and down the side tributaries. Often you can see then coming as the surface far away then closer and closer speeding underwater like a missile does in the air. Timing is everything when casting for these fast moving tarpon. They will attack a fly but if has to be in front of their face in the murky water. I ended up hooking 12 and landing 3 today and captured lots of photos and video to prove it.

I lucked out with three hard fighting tarpon today along with over a dozen attacks. I also caught a few snapper for something different. I did manage to see a manatee back and tail that was way cool and totally unexpected yet hopeful for seeing!

This is a typical river tarpon.

Our house keeper did a great job cleaning up at the resort. Leaving a tip meant seeing some cool looking towels when we got back from a hard days fishing.

Kevin Egan is an avid angler who never turns down a fishing experience. Life is too short not to fish, learn, experience adventure!

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