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There may be better places in the world to catch super-large tarpon than in the Archipelago De Los Canarreos, east of the Isle of Youth in Cuba. And there may also be places where you can catch greater numbers of baby tarpon. But as an all-around tarpon spot, offering everything from behemoths in deep channels to juveniles on shallow flats to babies along mangrove shorelines the Archipelago De Los Canarreos is unbeatable. I say that having fished the archipelago twice now once from the hotel near Nueva Gerona and now from Perola, the new mothership operating there.
As I write this, more than a week after my return from Cuba, the knuckles on my right hand are still sore from a series of 60- to 70-pounders I jumped on my next-to-the-last day with a 10-weight. Fair warning do not come here for tarpon with a 10-weight. Even an 11-weight is too light. Bring a 12-weight. I hooked three tarpon in quick succession that morning, it seems, landing one, before I turned to my guide, Koki, and said, ‘Enough!’ And that was the truth. I simply did not want to hook any more large tarpon.
How many had I already jumped that week? Who knows. I lost count somewhere in the high 20s. And my numbers were so low (yes, low) because I kept pushing my guides to go look for shoreline snook and juvenile tarpon on the flats where they could be sightcast to. I do know, last year, one group of eight anglers fishing the Isle of Youth jumped 285 tarpon in a week. One angler alone jumped 47 and landed 26. These were all sizeable fish, mind you 50 pounds or more. Also, as this is written, word has just came in that a hotel-based angler in the Isle of Youth this week jumped 18 tarpon in a single day. The fish averaged 60 pounds. Who in his right mind would want to wrestle with more big tarpon than that?
In all, according to the Italian trio who operate the Archipelago De Los Canarreos fishing operation and the even more famous operation in the Queens Garden Archipelago farther east, roughly 200 clients this year in the Canarreos jumped 2,699 tarpon. Included in the 200 clients are a number of neophyte anglers and a number of good anglers who got weathered-out for days. Also, some of those anglers pushed their guides (as I did) to spend time looking for other fish, most notably bonefish, permit and/or snook instead of tarpon. Taking into account that this is a big-fish fishery, that is a good, solid number of tarpon.
But hold the phone. Here at The Angling Report we don’t mindlessly promote places. We try our best to describe places accurately, and that means pointing up problems and limitations as well as strengths. For sure, Isle of Youth has some of the former, and I will get around to them.
First, though, let me dwell a moment on the positives. The new, 75-foot mothership, Perola, that Avalon Fishing Center has put in place in the Archipelago De Los Canarreos is a wonderfully comfortable, well-appointed craft. The food, while understandably too fish-oriented for some tastes, was delicious and the service cheerful and more than adequate. I do not believe even a picky traveler could fault any aspect of the service aboard. As anyone who has booked a mothership will attest, the mothership experience can sometimes become a bit claustrophobic and, well, smelly of sewage. Neither was an issue on Perola.
To be sure, the pleasant feeling of being aboard may have been at least partly the result of the congenial company we were lucky enough to be put with. Exceptional weather helped too, no doubt, which allowed us to eat and socialize throughout the trip on the wide-open upper deck that provided soul-melting views of sea and sky. The sunsets and sunrises were glorious.
There is no question that a mothership trip is the best way to enjoy Archipelago De Los Canarreos right now, especially in light of the guide problems I will have more to talk about in a moment. The mother- ship leaves you closer to the fishing each day and puts you into waters that simply aren’t sensibly reachable from the hotel. In that connection, Perola moved about 45 miles from its starting point during my week on board. The mothership also allows you to get on the water earlier and stay there later. One afternoon, we actually fished until almost pitch-dark.
All things considered, I rank my stay aboard Perola last month as among the very finest fishing experiences I have ever had. I say that and add quickly that any one person’s experience in an area is necessarily only a snapshot of that area. The extraordinarily good weather we had, the good companionship and the good and varied fishing all helped put everything in the best possible light. Anglers the week before us on the Perola apparently had a very different experience because of high winds and rain. They spent much of their time, it seems, reading and chatting.
As for the problems and downsides of fishing in the Archipelago De Los Canarreos, I mentioned most of them in my last report on this destination last year (see article 1833 in our Trip-Planning Database). The main problem for guests in the hotel is the expanse of open water that has to be crossed each morning to reach the good fishing areas. The run across that open water can take a half hour or more, and it can be a back-breaking experience.
To alleviate this problem, the Avalon folks have bought a sturdy, 40-foot transfer craft this year. It’s powered by twin 150s and equipped with splash curtains. On particularly rough days (and we had one of those the week I was in Cuba), hotel clients are carried across the open water in the transfer boat, where they link up with their guides. Once across the open area, the guides can keep the pounding down by staying in the lee of islands. Returning home, the waves are almost always less of a problem because the prevailing wind creates following seas.
Crossing this open water, of course, is not a problem for clients aboard Perola, as they cross it only twice during the week once on the way out and once on the way back in. If the water is rough on the departure date, clients can simply stay aboard the mothership until it reaches calmer water.
The larger problem with this fishery is the amount of time the guides spend getting to the first fishing area of the day, then moving to other fishing areas during the day. This is a problem many lodge owners would love to have, of course, as it is solvable in time and it stems in large part from the guides having an absolutely bewildering jungle of opportunities to choose from at any given moment. The entire fishing area currently open to Avalon Fishing Center in the Canarreos stretches something like 80 miles. They aren’t fishing all of that, but for the record that’s roughly the distance from Islamorada in the Florida Keys all the way to Key West. And my comparison to the Keys is not accidental. There is every reason to believe that the Archipelago De Los Canarreos is as rich in fishing potential as the Florida Keys not the contemporary Florida Keys either, but the Florida Keys 100 years ago. There are not only tarpon galore in just about every between-island channel and on an as yet unknown number of flats, but there are bonefish, tarpon and snook on tap as well. There are also some permit around.
Unfortunately, however, it is not unfair to say that the guides in the Canarreos at this point are pretty much running amok in all this area. It’s not unusual for a guide in the Canarreos to run an hour or more, passing channel after channel between islands, all possibly loaded with tarpon, to arrive at an identical-looking channel he knows has tarpon from past experience. One case in point is the channel I mentioned above where I jumped several tarpon in the 60- to 70-pound range before throwing in the towel.
My guide that day was Koki, the organization’s most experienced and talented guide. Koki is leading the effort to train the other guides and help them find a sensible pattern of places to fish. He is pretty much alone in having the courage to try new places with clients in his boat. The others are so eager to please they tend to return over and over to the same proven places, often frustrating clients by spending so much time getting there.
But back to that canal. It turns out that Koki had never been to that channel before. Relying on his instincts and his knowledge of tides, he simply saw no reason why there shouldn’t be tarpon there. Indeed there were apparently hundreds of them, along with jacks and snappers. It is that kind of intuition and knowledge the other guides have yet to develop. And this is a serious problem. Running hours on end is not what anglers come to a destination like Isle of Youth to do.
A related problem is the amount of time guides spend staked out along between-island channels rather than poling the flats for sightcast-able tarpon. The problem, to be sure, is one that has been abetted by clients who seem to prefer blindcasting to large tarpon in channels over poling about on the flats seeking generally smaller, but sightcast-able, fish. The client who wants the latter kind of fishing will need to state his preference, and perhaps re-state it. The Canarreos offers this kind of experience, I know, because I enjoyed it for one whole morning. It was one of the many highlights of my trip.
Before too much is made of this criticism, it must be noted that the Isle of Youth fishery is still in its infancy. The first paid clients came there just last year. The first mothership clients arrived this year. And we are not talking about an area where it is easy to train guides. For one thing, it is out of the question for US guides to provide any instructions, and it is problematic at best for guides from other countries to help. Then there is the problem of access to boats. It’s no secret that Cuba has a problem with people using all sorts of watercraft to try to reach the US. The result is, company skiffs are kept under lock and key at all times. Guides are simply not allowed to go out fishing on their own which is what they need to do to learn the area.
The bottom line is, the client who goes to Archipelago De Los Canar- reos right now needs to be ready to intervene if area changes are beginning to take too long, or too much time is being spent staked out on between-island channels. He needs to be ready to encourage his guide to try new and closer areas, or seek out some tarpon on sightcast-able flats. It’s impossible to know right now, but there is every reason to believe that tarpon frequent flats throughout the Canarreos and are concentrated in most of the many hundreds of between-island channels out that way. The only variable seems to be size. For reasons no one understands yet, some channels have particularly big fish. The biggest fish taken to date weighed over 100 pounds. Bigger fish are sure to be taken.
As for bonefish, it is anyone’s guess how numerous they are. Most clients at this point come to the Isle of Youth for tarpon and go for bonefish only during off-tide periods or to complete an IGFA-recognized Grand Slam. In that latter connection, incidentally, all of the Grand Slams in the Canarreos to date, including the four I took, have been achieved by taking a tarpon and bonefish and then going for a snook rather than a permit. To date, I was told, no one has taken a permit in the Canarreos, though they have been seen in great numbers.
Snook is another matter. As a South Floridian, I have a fondness for snook that is almost certainly not shared by the bulk of this readership. But I will dwell on them for a moment anyway. There is every reason to believe that Isle of Youth is home to a genuine world-class snook fishery. I personally caught around a half dozen on the fly, all but one of them in the 27-plus-inch range. And the remarkable thing is, we found them whenever we looked for them, which wasn’t often because the guides have simply not been trained to go for these fish. They clearly do not have much of an understanding of these fish and the kinds of habitat they seek out during different parts of the year. I confidently predict that snook are going to emerge as an important part of the reason some anglers go to Isle of Youth.
Right now, though, the major appeal of the Isle of Youth is tarpon. The flats generalist who wants to chase bonefish and permit and spend just some of his time with tarpon is better off at Avalon’s other destination, Queens Garden Archipelago. Apparently, the folks at Avalon have correctly described the Canarreos fishery as a whopping 80 percent of booked clients have been happy enough with their experience this year to re-book for 2008. That figure speaks volumes about the seriousness with which you should view my own caveats and criticism, which are offered here in an effort to be helpful.
The bottom line is, the Isle of Youth offers a raw, developing tarpon fishing opportunity with guides who are working hard to understand what clients want and how they can provide it. You will catch fish here, lots of them. And everyone involved are folks you can’t help but like. You would have to be a first-rate curmudgeon not to like the Isle of Youth.
In that connection, one of the big surprises of this trip was the behavior of Alex Gonzalez and Walter Ehrlich, who operate bonefishing outfits on Los Roques. Both came as booked clients and left after two days, loudly complaining about every aspect of the service and, according to more than one source, making politically inappropriate statements that some theorize might make their way back to Venezuela given the close relations these days between Venezuela and Cuba. Along the way, I apparently came in for some harsh words as well for having brought up the matter of Los Roques outfitters illegally taking clients into closed parts of Los Roques National Park. Obviously, if you want a sour view of Isle of Youth, contact the duo above. I’ll stick with my mixed view of a place I thoroughly enjoyed. Don Causey.
(Postscript: At press time, as we rushed this article into print, 2008 prices for trips to the Isle of Youth were not available. In 2007, hotel-based prices during the low season (January to mid-March) were around $2,500, jumping to $3,490 in the high season (mid-March to around the end of July). Perola-based trips were around $3,500 and $4,300 respectively. All trips include everything from arrival in Havana to departure except international airfare, lodging in Havana and transport to and from the airport on arrival and departure dates. Hotels in Havana now run around $100 Euros a day. You can get more details from the Avalon web site at www.avalonfishingcenter.net.
As regards currency, it remains illegal for Cubans to possess or spend American dollars, and changing them in Cuba exposes US travelers to a special conversion penalty of 20 percent. The best bet for Americans who decide to ignore US Treasury sanctions and go to Cuba is to change their dollars into Euros or Canadian dollars before departure. Americans are not permitted to use credit cards in Cuba. Raising this possibility of Americans going to Cuba does not mean we recommend you do so. In fact, we explicitly recommend that you don’t, noting that some visitors are still being fined for spending money in Cuba, especially those who use Canada and the Bahamas as gateways. You can read all about the Cuba Sanctions Program by going to the web site of the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Simply google OFAC and click on Cuba Sanctions.
We’ve monitored the Cuba Sanctions Program closely over the years and note that new language has been added to the web site recently, explicitly forbidding flights on Cubana Airlines and purchasing travel packages to Cuba with entities outside the US. Also of particular interest is a steady and fast decline in the number of enforcement actions against Americans traveling to Cuba. In 2005, OFAC collected a whopping $617,494 in civil penalties from individuals caught traveling to Cuba. You’ll recall that was just after OFAC began providing judicial hearings for individuals contesting charges of illegal transactions. A backlog of cases was quickly cleared when the Department of Justice finally assigned some judges to OFAC to oversee those hearings, forcing people to pay penalties that had been pending for several years. The following year, the total collected in civil penalties dropped to $52,579, with two individuals charged for purchasing Cuban cigars online. During the first six months of 2007, OFAC has collected a mere $14,563, with only $850 of that for travel-related transactions by one individual. The balance is from penalties against people buying Cuban stogies over the Internet.
These figures, we should warn you, do not mean enforcement has stopped. If you decide to join the 80 or so Americans who fished in Cuba last year with Avalon you may get caught. We would not be abiding by the law if we didn’t advise you to pass this opportunity by.)