How to Fish in Cuba (If You Have no Money)

It’s been a hell of a year for Cuba. Pope Francis, President Obama – even me – have visited the island nation, marking a turning of the tables for the way that modern world perceives and accepts Cuba’s socialist system.

President Obama’s recent visit was preceded by an announcement that included the easing of travel and commerce restrictions for Americans and American companies in Cuba. What will that mean for American fishermen trying to get to Cuba?

It has technically been possible for Americans to fish in Cuba for quite some time now. Through Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, you can buy a research permit and book through a few companies which arrange trips to the legendary Jardines de la Reina and other areas around the island. Or, there are routes for the more adventurous Americans that take a lot less paperwork – like flying through another country and asking Cuban officials not to stamp your passport. They’re pretty used to that by now. After all, it’s not their embargo.

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For decades now, Cuba has been the place that fishermen from other countries flock to. No Americans means significantly less fishing pressure. This is just one of the reasons that the fishing in Cuba is so great. A majority of Cuba’s coastline is protected. Commercial fishing is virtually non-existent. Nationwide organic farming stops any pesticides leaking into water ways. Cuba looks the way Florida would have 200 years ago.

Today, it is easier to fish in Cuba than it has been in 60 years. You will need to apply for some type of permit issued by the Treasury Department, but the US government has implied over and over that they will not be policing these too much. There are 12 permissable categories for taking a trip to Cuba, which are intentionally vague. If you can feasibly make your trip fall under one of them, you should be able to fit some fishing in. From the U.S. Treasury:

“Travel-related transactions are permitted by general license for certain travel related to the following activities, subject to the criteria and conditions in each general license: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.”

Your fishing trip to Cuba largely depends on how much you want to spend. Many European companies and increasingly more American ones set up trips to fishing hotspots like Cayo Cruz, Cayo Largo, and of course Los Jardines de la Reina. These weekly packages can run anywhere from $4000 – $15,000 and I’m sure they’re pretty epic.

Without a lot of guidance for DIY fishermen on a budget, I managed to get myself a day out on the marls. My recommendation for the fisherman with more time than money would be to fly to Havana from Cancun or Toronto. From Havana, take a bus (or even a shared, compartido taxi) to Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs. This is a well-known fishing town in the region. When I stepped off the bus in Playa Larga, a man pointed to my rod tube, said “fly-feeshing”, and brought me to a guide’s house on the beach. The guide’s house also doubled as lodging, only $30 a night and right on the water.

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Fishing here is a process. For me, it was a process of guess work. I’m sure there is a way to book ahead if you’re going it alone, but I have no idea how to do it.

Instead, I spoke with the head guide Lazaro who told me he could have me on the water in two days. From what I understood, there is a lot of paperwork and licensing involved. All the guiding is managed through the Playa Larga Hotel, and you will go there every morning to pay and sign your license before heading out to Zapata National Park.

There were two other anglers staying at the lodge the first night I got there. One American and one Australian, these gentlemen had met on a cigar forum and come to Playa Larga for bonefish and tarpon. They had the foresight to bring some Hendrick’s Gin, and I joined them for dinner (as per tradition in any fishing lodge). The American had come through Cancun and asked customs not to stamp his passport. They left the next morning, and mercifully left the rest of the Hendrick’s and a few cigars.

Casting practice with Juan on the Bay of Pigs

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I spent the next two days scuba diving and drinking rum on the beach. Cuba has some of the best diving in the Caribbean. The dives are mainly in the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinas), so there are a bunch of wrecks to explore. There is also freshwater cave diving available, as well as ecological swamp tours. It’s easy to kill time.

On my third day in Playa Larga, it was time to fish. I met the guides an hour before dawn. I was staying at a Lazaro’s house, but he had to go to Matanzas in the North to deal with a paperwork issue. Instead, Lazaro set me up with Manuelito – who claimed to have more grand slams than any other guide in town. The hotel staff corroborated this. I signed all the paperwork, paid the $240 in advance and set out for the 40-minute drive to a lonely house next to the dock in Zapata National Park/ Las Salinas. This video documents the rest of the day.

Needless to say, it was awesome.

Since that trip in August 2015, the Cuban/American relationship has only grown stronger. Soon, we will all have a chance to book a fishing trip to Cuba without navigating a sea of paperwork.

Six months earlier, I had gone to Cuba for a week and tried to subvert paying the full guide fees. That was a terrible idea which I was vastly unprepared to handle. The failure of that trip (strictly in the fishing sense), drove me to go back for a full month this past August. Check out that first story here.

If you have your own stories to share about fishing in Cuba – or want to take a trip to Cuba of your own – send us an email at hello@amberjack.com.

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