Ali Baba and the 40 Tarpon. Cuban Diary Part One

Ali Baba and the 40 Tarpon. Cuban Diary Part One

Photos by Graeme Field and Conrad Botes

“Hey, whatsyourname, bonefish 11 o’clock”

July 2010. It’s my second day in Jardines De La Reina, Cuba, and my guide, Bemba, is still struggling to pronounce my name. For some or other reason, Conrad is a tongue twister for Spanish speakers. Graeme Field, whom I’m sharing a skiff with, offers some advice. “Choose a nickname dude. Something that’s easy to say”.

I remember a nickname that was given to me by the Moroccan traders in the souks of Marrakech. Young men wearing beards were frowned upon and everybody called me the same name.

“You can call me Ali Baba”, I later tell Bemba. “Ah! Ali Baba! Bonefish one o’clock. 30 feet.” It worked a charm, and for the rest of the trip everybody called me as Ali Baba, even Graeme.

I don’t normally keep fishing a journal, but since this was my first trip to an exotic destination I decided to keep a brief record of the daily routine. The following are selected extracts from my Cuban journal.  I the trip was hosted by Liquid Horizon and was a two week package consisting of 14 days of fishing. There were 6 anglers in my group, all South Africans, and besides Graeme and myself, we were joined by Dave Moffet, Paul Weingartz, Chris Binnington and Derrick Beling.

3 July 2010

We get up at sparrows fart and at 4am leave Havana for Jucara. In Jucara we are met by the Avalon crew and get on board Halcon, our live aboard quarters for the following two weeks. The crossing from the Cuban mainland to the Jardines De La Reina takes about 5 hours. On our way we start rigging tackle; 9wts for bones, 10 wts for permit, and a 12 wt for tarpon and jack crevalle.

Halcon, home for two weeks
Halcon, home for two weeks

At three pm we arrive at Tortuga, the floating base camp in JDR. Graeme will be my fishing partner for the next 2 weeks and we meet our guide Bemba. (Bemba is the guide featured in Confluence Films’ “Connect”) No time is wasted and soon we are scooting through mangrove channels en route to the fishing grounds. We start off by looking for permit, but don’t find any. Bemba suggests we catch a few bones, just to get our accounts opened and soon both Graeme and myself have a bonefish. I struggle to spot the single cruising bones on the turtle grass, a lot more demanding than the eager schooling bones of the Seychelles.

Graeme with a Cuban bone
Graeme with a Cuban bone

Then it’s tarpon time. We go to a good tarpon spot but find lots of jacks instead. Graeme pins a good fish, perhaps 80cm or so. Eventually it’s my turn on the casting deck and I make my first cast at a tarpon as it came snaking through some mangrove roots towards the channel. I make a cast, its all over the fly but doesn’t eat. Bummer.

On our way back we cast blind into a channel that drains the flats with the dropping tide and I manage a horse eye jack an a mutton snapper.

4 July Day One

It’s early morning and I jump my first tarpon of about 40lbs. I am completely unprepared for the speed and brut power and it pops the 80lb tippet on its first jump. Later we arrive in a small murky bay and find grey pelicans working the water. Bemba spots some rolling poons and suggests we fish the surf on foot. We actually see quite a lot of fish rolling and Graeme manages to catch a nice poon, the first fish of the trip.The first poon of the trip

The first poon of the trip

Later we go for bonefish. Again we fish from the shore and we decide to split up. I wade a flat consisting of turtle grass with interspersed sand patches. Bemba guides me onto my first bone and then head back to the skiff. I end up with seven bones, some of them the biggest I‘ve ever caught.

Later back on Halcon, I tie a bunch of unweighted Charlies. Most of the bones are in super skinny water over turtle grass, causing regular weighted patters to get stuck.

Bones in overcast conditions
Bones in overcast conditions

5 July Day Two

I wake up with an epic rum hangover. Nonetheless I catch my first tarpon at the light beacon point in open water casting blind. I’m super stoked and forget about the hangover. We move to a smaller calm bay with lots of rolling poons, mostly smaller fish. Graeme jumps and loses his second tarpon for the morning. The poons are sipping tiny baits and are not interested in our flies.

First tarpon. Happy guide and angler!
My first ever tarpon. Happy days!

We decide to go dredging and we catch a whole bunch of fish. I manage a nice jack and we also land Spanish macs, snapper and other trevally. We come across a huge baby tuna blitz and after hooking and losing 4 fish, we decide to head back for lunch.

I don’t eat lunch, instead I just crash and sleep until we head out again. After lunch I fell 100% better and we decide to play with the bones again. I catch two and Graeme are busted up by two that stitched him through the mangroves. It’s textbook sight fishing to singles over turtle grass.

On our way home I jump another poon, that pops the leader on its first jump. I am developing serious tarpon fever. We go back to the small bay of this morning and there are small tarpon rolling in slightly murky water everywhere. Again they seemed locked in on small bait and we get no inquiries despite the fact that we are using tiny flies, big flier, dark flies. “That’s tarpon fishing man” is Bemba’s explanation.

Bemba doing his thing
Bemba doing his thing

Stay tuned for part two: The dark side of tarpon fishing

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