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Fly fishing Cayo Santa Maria Cuba

Cayo Santa Maria Tarpon Hunting Trip 2009

In spring 2009 I presented the new LOOP destination in Cuba. In July 2009 Bruno and Christoph from Germany joined me and my wife to fish the destination. There are only four fly fishing skiffs in the harbour in Cayo Las Brujas, so there was one boat left as the three of us used single skiffs. The use of a single skiff makes it possible that you fish on all fish you spot on your own. So you do not have to rotate with your partner on the boat which is of course a great advantage because you never know how many fish you will spot during a day. 

As a consequence the pressure on the area was really low especially if you compare it with other Cuban destinations like Cayo Largo. Remember that the territory on Cayo Santa Maria is four times larger. In Florida there are many times more boats than tarpon around and the traffic on and around the tarpon grounds can be really terrible. In CSM we were fishing more or less in paradise and if not intended we did not see any of the other two skiffs the whole day. We were guided by Samuel, Marco and Nelson. All of them are excellent guides who know exactly how to approach fish and how to handle the skiffs in the best possible way to not disturb the fish. They are good fly casters, too and they speak proper English. So communication was never a problem. The guides are really good there.

Our target fish - tarpon

The tarpon is the fish you are looking for if you fish Cayo Santa Maria. Other fish species are abundant but more or less in low numbers because the area protection is quite young and there are still a few locals that occassionally try to net bone fish. Tarpon fishing on Cayo Santa Maria is better than anywhere else in Cuba at least there has been no better spot explored yet. A little comparison: According to my guide last year six boats on Cayo Largo landed a total of 300 tarpons whereas only four boats fishing on Cayo Santa Maria caught 1200 tarpon in the same period. So the chance to catch a tarpon is 6 times higher than on Cayo Largo and as the area is much larger the chance to fish for unspooked fish is better. Fishing for bonefish on the other side is better in the South. So the chance was good that all of us would catch our first Cuban tarpons. The area has many resident tarpons but is also used for migrating ones before they spawn in the open sea. The avarage size of the tarpons is about 50-70 lbs. with the possibility to catch a 100 lb+ fish. Larger fish are around and you will probably even see them but as there are so many tarpon usually the smaller ones are faster if it comes to take the fly in a channel where the really big ones are hiding. This is the reason why not more big ones are caught. One big tarpon was lost after more then 4 hours of fight being never closer to the boat than 50 m. Then he broke the leader. There are still many things unknown what the life circle of these fish are concerned. If you are interested, I suggest you to read the book "Biology and Management of the World Tarpon and Bonefish Fisheries". Tarpons get very old and fish around 100 lbs can be 50 years and older. The oldest reported tarpon was even 85 years old.

The equipment

During our fishing week we could take advantage of free use of Loop fly fishing equipment. The equipment consisted mainly of the new series of #12 Loop OPTi Salt 1290-3A rods with the strong cross-weave blank and the new x-grip, #10Loop OPTi Salt 1090-3A rods for permit and #8 Loop OPTi Salt 890-3A for bonefish. The reels were equipped with the LOOP Opti Big and the Opti Megaloop as well as the LOOP Multi 9/12 for bonefish/permit. Our boats left the harbour every day around seven in the morning because usually at about 2-3 p.m. wind comes up which makes fishing on the flats very difficult. Anyway, tarpon fishing is mainly taking place in the morning if you are on the boat for 8 hours.  

As we were looking for tarpon we used tarpon leaders with 80-120lbs shock tippets as large tarpon could be expected, too. Anyway un CSM the tarpon are usually not leader shy. The flies were attached to the leader with a very simple but also very effective loop knot which Samuel showed me. I was very astonished that I had never met that knot before. You just make a simple knot in the shock tippet about 8-10 cm from the end, go with the end of the tippet through the eye of your hook and back through the loop of the knot you tied before(which you open a bit to make it easier to go on). With the short end of the tippet you just make a half stitch around the main leader. Then you fix your hook around an iron bar or equivalent and pull from the end of the shock tippet and at the same time grab the other short end of the tippet with the pliers and pull it in the same direction (never down in direction of the hook as the loop closes if you do it this way). This loop knot is very easy and is very strong as it tightens when a tarpon pulls at the end of the line. This loop was maybe the most valuable thing I learned during the whole trip. I am sure I will use that loop knot very often not only for tarpon but for all strong fish. It is much easier as the Rappala knot!

We took self-tied standard tarpon flies with us like Cockroach, Black Death, Bunnies, Deceivers and several other own creations that somehow could imitate prey or at least were well visible for tarpon. Usually the fish there take most flies as long as they do not sink too fast. For the channels I recognized big baitfish flies to be very effective as they are more visible there. I tied my flies on Tiemco 600 SP 2/0 and 4/0 hooks and Gamakatsu 5/0 circle hooks. My guide had no good opinion on the TMC. He said that the tip of that hook was too long and weak. The first tarpon I caught proofed his opinion. The guides on CSM are all fond of Owner hooks

Let's go fishing!

The first day of fishing Cuban waters for tarpon was very exciting for me and also the others of our group. My guide Samuel wanted to start with a good day so he brought me to a special spot in a deep channel with big tarpon. On the way there we passed several islands and mangrove channels and I was very optimistic for that week because the weather and wind forecast was pretty good for fishing. After about 20 minutes of drive, Samuel stopped the boat about five hundred meters from the anchor place and paddled the skiff all the way to the correct place. We saw many tarpon rolling in easy fishing distance but they did not take any of the flies I offered them. Just two little pulls, that was all I felt that day. However, some days later I cracked their feeding code but the first day I was only looking at them. Bruno did much better the first day. When we met again in the harbor he showed us the picture of his first tarpon ever. It was a nice fish of about 50-60 lbs. He also caught his first bone fish that day so he was the one to offer the group some drinks in the bar in the Marina. Also Christoph caught a nice fish of about 80 lbs. that day.

Fishing the flats

The next days we moved to the flats. Fishing the flats for tarpon is the most interesting and demanding way to fish them. You stand on the tip of the boat always ready for the cast and wait. Sounds easy but to find the fish and approaching them is more or less like hunting. For me it was always like a game who of us would spot the fish first. My guide of course had the much better sight from his platform. A guide has to have very good eyes(and polarizers!) to see the fish in distance to bring the boat in a good casting position. If you are too close or the angle to the fish does not fit, the tarpon cannot be hooked because you want him to close the mouth and turn with the fly to set the hook in the corner of his mouth. More or less all other parts are hard as stone. If you stand in the heat of the sun(and it is more or less always hot where you fish for tarpon) for hours and suddenly a fish shows up you have to be very fast and concentrated to not make a mistake and spook the fish. This is the difficult thing because if you are waiting for a long time you might loose your tension and concentration. But if you see the fish coming closer, opening his big mouth to take your fly, this is the moment you were dreaming of and all the heat is forgotten. Adrenalin is is spreading through your body. You want him to be hooked well and hear the reel screeming. The screeming of a good reel during the first run of a tarpon is an unforgettable sound. For me it should last one more day to hear that sound.

Hungry Barracudas

The sight on the second day was not really good. We saw quite some rolling tarpon but despite of the fact that we  approached them slowly we were always too close, when we saw them. So at least I saw my first shoal of tarpons passing fast under the boat in only hip deep water. This day was very hot and did not allow us to fish the flats correctly anyway so I asked my guide to bring us(my wife accompanied me that day for filming) to a snorkling spot at a reef. It was good to refresh - although 30°C water temperature is not really refreshing - and to see all these beautiful carribean saltwater fish(even lion fish) and corals. We even saw turtles from time to time coming to the surface for breathing. Later we tried for barracudas but it was just not my day. The first big cuda broke the hook(!) and the next two fish I hooked were snappers which were both cut into halves by huge barracudas. My guide was not very happy at all as they usually take the snappers back home for eating. "Well", he said, "two halves makes at least one fish...". The others did better. Bruno caught another tarpon and a nice barracuda and Christoph jumped two fish. Besides that he got two bonefish and saw a 30 lbs permit. The permit was a smart one.

barracudas are plentiful on CSM

Bruno presenting a nice barracuda

My first Cuban tarpon

The third day I finally could manage to land my first tarpon in Cuba. It was a typical situation on the flats like on the days before. The sight was not too good so we were once more already too close to the fish when we saw them. A tarpon suddenly turned and passed the boat in front of us. With a trick cast, in fact a back cast bow over my shoulder, I could somehow manage to present the fly in an interesting manner in front of the fish. The tarpon took it right away and turned his head. That was the time to set the hook. Everything was fine and after some time and a pretty good fight with some jumps I finally hand-landed the fish in hip deep water. After releasing it I looked at my fly which was completely destroyed by the tarpon. I checked the hook and immediately remembered what Samuel told me about the TMC 600 SP. He was right! The point was bent. The following days were much better. There was a lot of action on the flats and all of us could jump and land the one or other tarpon. Bruno was fishing the big flat in the north east that day and caught different species. Among them were two really good snappers which fighted incredibly even on a #12 rod.

What a fight!

Having arrived at my favourite spot above a deep channel crossing, I immediately presented my baitfish fly that I tested the day before: I improved it during a nightly fly tying session. The fly was perfect. Although there was no movement at the water surface the tarpons had to be there somewhere.  Already with the first cast I hooked a good fish of around 80 lbs but it broke my leader and said goodbye with a really good jump. I put on a new shock tippet and gave it another try. It took not more than three more casts and another good tarpon attacked my fly just in front of the boat just in the moment when I wanted to lift it from the surface. The tarpon came from the dark of the depth all from a sudden. Wow! It was just incredible to look into the raging eyes of a hunting tarpon whose prey disappeared. I immediately dabbed the fly on the water again and the fish of a good 80 lbs. attacked it once again. I was too quick and amazed about that attack... so I missed the fish. A few minutes later I hooked another goo tarpon, however, he said goodbye after a 15 minutes fight. Three fish lost in a row within a short time. Samuel was a bit disappointed but that's tarpon fishing and as my philosophy says that "a fish you loose you do not deserve" I did not care too much about it. The next fish should be mine.

The next tarpon took the fly about ten meters from the boat. I gave some line when I felt him swimming away. Then I grabbed the line and made the circle hook being pulled into his jaw. He was hooked and immediately jumped out of the water to let us see his size. 'Yes that's my fish!', I thought and the tarpon started his first run. After 200 meters I told Samuel that I would sooner or later run out of backing. He said the fish would turn soon as he would not go out of the "pool" at the current junction. If we started the motor to follow the fish we would not have caught any more fish on that spot that day was his argument. He was right. After another 50 m the fish jumped again and then he turned and started swimming back into our direction. I reeled in line as fast as I could and after a while I saw the line coming back on the reel. But where was the fish? It should be visible again soon. I did expect everything else but not what happened next. With an enormous jump the fish came up right in front of us and ... landed in(!) the boat hitting the steering console. For a second I was about to jump on it but as fast as the big fish jumped into the boat it catapulted itself back into the sea again. That reminded my of the marlin that jumped into the boat some years ago and killed someone before he jumped back into the sea. I could hardly imagine that something like that could happen. No I know what these jumpers can do. It was more then a wonder that no rod got broken because they were sitting in a bundle just on that side of the boat. 'Is he still on?', was my first thought after the fish disappeared in the dark water again. Yes, he was, pulling with a power I did not expect to meet. It was like having hooked a submarine. I just could not do anything, but holding against, trying to make him tired. We were in the open sea at the meeting point of two channels, there was no tree, no rock, nothing but muddy ground so it will be only a matter of time I thought. If he will not break my 150 lbs. shock tippet or get rid of the hook he will be mine the sooner or later.  If...

The fight started at 11 am and we were going to meet the hottest time of the day soon. The longer the fight lasted the trickier it got because there were some waves coming up and I had to jump from one end the the boat to the other like a monkey to protect the line from any damage when the fish passed under the boat. Several times I had to pass the fly rod under the anker rope to avoid getting tangled there. What made me very confident during all the fight was the power of the nex X-weave blanks of the #12 Loop Saltwater rod. I was never in doubt that the rod will not be strong enough. You just cannot break them if you do not used them in a wrong angle. Finally after 1 hour 50 minutes of fight my guide could get both his hands around the jaws to hold the fish so I could drop the rod and help him pulling the tarpon on board for some pictures. The fish measured 190 cm (75,6 inches) from the nose to the fork of the tail and had a girth of 111 cm(44,1 inches). I was totally done and so was the fish but I wanted the lady to survive and jumped into the open sea to better help reanimating her and by doing that also refreshing myself. It was a great feeling swimming there with this huge fish. When the the tarpon was moving out of my hands I was very greatful of having caught such a beautiful fish on fly. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life and I want to thank Christoph Seidel for the great shots he made during the final part of the fight.

What a fish!

GF with a tarpon of around 150 lbs caught on CSM Cuba


The next days were good on the flats with tarpon being willing to take our flies from time to time and even on the last day we fished Christoph could jump 6 tarpon. Such days are the ones you are dreaming of. I could land another quite nice fish that day. So finally all of us could land several tarpon and we had a good time there. You will be happy there if you are looking for tarpon, if you are trying to catch travalle, bonefish or permit it will last some more years there until the protection works well and the net fishing is stopped. But remember, tarpon on the flats is not easy. It is demanding and can be tough. Nevertheless at a good tarpon destination like CSM the chance that you will land your first tarpon is more or less 100% and if you are lucky you can land one or even more fish a day. This is not the rule but it is possible. So after all there was a lot of action during our fishing week. CSM is a really good tarpon destination and when the wind is calm and the sight is good the sight fishing on the flats can be exceptionally good. If... because you cannot calculate the weather.

However in July/August the possibility for good and calm weather situations are usually given whereas in spring and autumn there might be a bit more wind. September is also very good but it is hurricane season and many do not like to travel during that time. The calm period is the one you are looking for although it is hotter then the rest of the year.

The hotel Melia Las Dunas is a 5* hotel which a beautiful sandy beach . The hotel offers you a lot of activities. So even a family with children can be happy there. The Villa Las Brujas is a cheaper alternative but the food is less, not really good and there is only a small choice. There are no activities there but the bungalows are very nice and clean as is the beach with a lot of coral fish and the one or other possibility to catch fish around the rocks. This is the place for people who want a quiet holiday and do not expect much comfort.

Tarpon Fly Fishing Video - Summer 2009 CSM/Cuba


Exploring the cayos

After our fishing week we stayed two more weeks in the Melia Las Dunas. That's the only place to rent scooters if they are available. You can also borrow bikes for free but biking except early in the morning is far too hot in Cuba and as you can only get bikes after 8.30 am better forget it except for going for some snorkeling to the little island about 3 km west of the hotel. The scooters are working pretty well if they are working. When we were there only our scooter was working without problems, except it rains. If it rains they will get water in the air filter and motor and you have to push your scooter. That's no fun. In summer Cuba is hot even if it rains! Nevertheless the scooters is in my opinion the best mean of transports there. You can reach two more really nice beaches with themOne is Cayo Las Brujas(13 min west) and the other one is Perla Blanca(about 20 min east in the ecologically protected area) and also the flat in the east(appr. 25 min) although you better place the scooter about 500 m from the bank at the last bridge as these last 500 m will be flooded when the tide is high. If you want to fish you can go there or go west on the road towards bridge 9 which is the largest one. That's about 40 min of drive from the hotel. You might even be able to see tarpon there early in the morning and you can catch Jacks on big poppers when the tide is right. On the way there you also spot some large flats on the left near the road where you can expect to meet bonefish. I have not fished them because I was not after the bonefish but I am sure around bridge 13-18 the chances are really good. Around all the islands you will always spot many barracudas. Some of them are really big up to nearly 2 m. Even at the Melia and Villa Las Brujas beach there are many of them.

If you are exploring the cayos by scooter you will see many lizards, geckos, anolis and also large green islands iguanas who can reach up to 1,5 m in length. I also saw two kinds of snakes. You will see many beautiful flowers, butterflies and many birds like the Cuban flamingos, pelicans, ospreys, herons, and many more. Meet Cuba for some tarpon fishing and enjoy it's nature!

Günter Feuerstein

Copyright © Günter Feuerstein