At trip report from Peter Rippin
What a funny place Cuba is. The faster the world of technology moves, the further behind Havana seems to be, intermittent texts, no email in most places if using a UK phone. Perhaps a nightmare for some, but I mean this in a 100% complimentary way - digital detox!
After a week aboard the Perola, fishing in the eastern area of Jardines de la Reina archipelago, with zero mobile reception and limited internet, I felt relaxed in a curious way. I hadn’t felt this for a while and by Tuesday I had forgotten I even had a mobile phone, which was my choice but of course you can have contact if you need it. Returning to the mainland with the bing, bing, bing of texts etc. was a jarring shock which only made me appreciate the previous week all the more.
I joined a team of four fishers – Robert, Guy, Titu and Mark - who had been great friends at university and having maintained their close friendship liked the idea of getting away together for a weeks sport in the sunny saltwater climes of southern Cuba.
The team arrived in Havana on Thursday’s direct Virgin flight from London and checked into the Parque Central hotel located in ‘old’ Havana near to the good bars, historical sites and formal governmental parts of the city. In between two dinners and a few cocktails the Friday was spent wandering around the city and soaking up the sights – emphasis on “soaking” as it rained all afternoon. La Guarida still remains my favourite restaurant in Havana and now sports a super cool rooftop bar for pre dinner drinks overlooking the Havana cityscape.
On the Saturday morning at 6am we were met in the hotel reception by our transfer driver who then took us on the six-hour minibus drive to the Port of Jucaro, where the liveaboard boats and staff awaited their new teams of fishers. A boring and long drive but relatively painless with a few hours snoozing en route. On arrival at the port we transferred onto the “Perola”, a boat built with no shortage of love and attention in the ‘70s and which still has a real feel of comfort and class, despite being a little slow.
This was to be our floating base for the week. We met the crew and our host Ivan and hostess Jammy and had lunch whilst the captain began the six-hour cruise south to the centre of the Jardines de la Reina fishing area where we would have dinner and wait for the first days fishing. We used the time to snooze, organize a bit of our gear and begin the digital detox – Robert and Guy making good use of the two large hammocks on the upper deck.
With Perola on anchor in a mangrove channel, used as a forward operating base by the fishing vessels, dinner was served – fresh snapper and ‘Cuban sea-chicken’ (lobster) with salad and fruit. Simple but very delicious, a format for all dinners throughout the week prepared by our young, extremely hard-working cook and assisted by the multitasking duo of Ivan and our captain.
Titu was first up on Sunday morning and cloud cover was prevalent. We all had breakfast (bacon, eggs any way, fruit, tea & coffee etc), met the guides and began to head off. Robert with super experienced Bemba, Mark with Rey, Guy with Alejandro and Titu and I with Keko. Well this day started out fantastically with everyone seeing action of sorts in the first hour, only for seriously heavy rain to fall for the next few hours, Titu and I returning to Perola while the others fished on. At the end of the day Robert landed an approx. 25lb tarpon and the rest of us accounted for some bones and various. A wet and slightly ominous start. The plan had been for Perola to move eastward during the day but the poor weather and visibility had prevented this, therefore it would move east during Monday as we were out fishing.
Monday was a different story! Glorious sunshine, although with quite a bit of wind, we headed out with plenty of expectation. Titu and I went out with Rey, Mark with Keko and the other pairings stayed the same. Late morning the call came over the radio from Bemba “Grand Slam” – Robert had achieved one of his fishing dreams! A stunning 18lb permit, a 90lb tarpon (one of five he landed including a 50lbder and 70lbder) and some bones. We all “jumped” plenty of tarpon that day, with Mark contacting a very good fish and losing it after a long battle. Guy landed half a dozen good bonefish. Whilst admitting that tarpon are a good looking fish, Titu was more fascinated by the wide variety of snapper, grouper, barracuda and ‘various’ in the channels and mangroves and kept us highly entertained with the species count!
Tuesday we also had decent weather, largely sunny despite a strong wind. This was the chastening day of the week. We all headed out to the Cabesa del Este the ‘Head of the East’ – a lighthouse with a structural flat around the east and southern sides forming a pinch point for tarpon looking to navigate round the point of the Jardines de la Reina archipelago. We could see the fish coming from some way away, not that many in the morning and in small groups or ‘manchitas’, however when the tide turned around lunchtime the ‘manchas’ arrived – larger groups of fish up to around 50 at a time. We had in the region of 50 takes and jumped 34 tarpon for the day but one way or another landed just six between us. Mark had two excellent fish from six jumped, Guy landed one from nine, Robert zero from nine, Titu two from three (!) and me, one from seven. Frustrating in the extreme, and also fairly wonderful to see so many tarpon taking, jumping, tearing line off the reel in milliseconds and generally causing havoc.
Wednesday saw three tarpon landed from 16 jumped, but the weather began to close in again with intermittent rain. Exasperating given that everyone had analyzed errors from the day before and we were ready for a big tarpon day back at the lighthouse. Mark saved our blushes by converting well. Titu then landed the various fish of the week with a 12-15lb Cubera snapper – rare and super hard fighting, virtually snapping the 12wt rod on several occasions as he battled it out of the rocks and corals below the skiff.
On Thursday Robert and Titu headed out with Rey and I headed out solo with Bemba. It was a day we dedicated to permit. The weather almost defeated us again, with heavy cloud, rain and wind. Terrible visibility made them difficult to find especially when the permit tended to be in slightly deeper water (3-4ft) and on more structural areas of coral in the open sea areas. However, Bemba channeled his experience, using the worst of the weather to catch a couple of smaller tarpon in the wind sheltered mangroves before heading off to find the permit.
We came across at least 20 permit ranging from 5-25lbs in small shoals and often right under the boat before we saw them, hence they spooked! Around lunchtime we did see a small shoal of permit on a clear white flat, and from a fairly nice position put in a decent cast which immediately got a take from a small ‘outlyer’. Four minutes later and I had my permit for the day! Yes, it was a small permit, but Bemba and I were over the moon nonetheless! It turned out that the bonefish was the hardest to catch as the tides were wrong, but we got there in the end to much relief and laughter.
The Friday fishing session is a short one. You have to meet the Perola at 2pm, at which point she sets off on the six hour cruise back to Jucaro where you overnight before the transfer back to Havana at 9am. We therefore all headed out a little earlier, around 7-7.30am to get a good 6-6.5 hours fishing. Again we were bested by the weather with torrential rain and poor visibility. The guides worked hard to ensure everyone got some fish to the boat and we met for an amusing lunch with our skiffs tied to a small mangrove island. We fed rice to some Hutias whilst we also ate the daily mix of rice, pork, vegetables, fruit etc (Hutias are an extremely friendly mangrove-munching cross between a giant guinea pig and rat).
By the time we finished fishing on the last day we were all tired but agreed it had been a great fun week – decent action for all – and would have been a truly excellent week if the weather had not been so unkind to us. As I write this the weather systems going around the Caribbean are still pretty lousy. The total fish count for the week was in the region of 20 tarpon landed for 80 jumped, a few dozen bonefish, two permit and a couple of dozen snapper, barracuda and grouper. Considering we only had two days of decent weather and four days of lousy weather this was a great result.
On arrival back to Havana around 3pm on Saturday, our phones bleeped, emails flooded in and we all wondered how we were going to re-engage with the world around us, given how truly lovely it had been to have not touched a smartphone for six days. Dinner in the very enjoyable “El Carbon”, was a prelude to me heading to the airport for the Air France late evening flight back to London via Paris (arrives London mid afternoon on Sunday.) All went smoothly, and I thought of the guys back in Havana having a few last moments in the old city, including a vintage car tour of the old and new town, before catching the Virgin direct flight back to London on Monday.
Thanks to Titu, Mark, Guy and Robert for welcoming me on their trip to Cuba, and to Avalon, William the fishing manager for the Jardines’ area, and the Perola staff and guides – what a truly fun and enjoyable week! (A sincere thank you also to my colleague Louise at Roxtons who makes all the planning and preparation for these trips go without a hitch.)
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