Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
This was my second research trip to Cuba, and involved collaboration with scientists at the Zapata Swamp National Park and the University of Havana. This has been a good beginning to what I hope willbe a long-term research collaboration. I travel to Cuba on a research permit to conduct research on bonefish and tarpon. Unfortunately, it remains illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba without specific travel permits from the U.S. Department of Treasury. What follows is a brief summary of the most recent trip.
On Day 1, I arrived in Havana and traveled by car to Playa Larga, on the south coast adjacent to the Bay of Pigs. I was in Playa Larga for two reasons – to help initiate the bonefish tagging project in Cienaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp) National Park, and to attend the Humedales (Wetlands) international conference, which included a Recreational Fisheries Management workshop. The workshop focused on ways that catch and release fishing and protected areas can be used as environmental management tools. I gave a presentation on the bonefish research that has been and is being supported by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust on Day 2 of my stay. I also demonstrated to the guides and anglers in attendance how to tag bonefish. This training was in preparation for Days 3 and 4.
On Day 3, I gathered with 16 Cuban guides and anglers at the boat launch location in Las Salinas, a large flats system that is part of the National Park. This was the kick-off day for the bonefish tagging program in the Park. There were 10 boats fishing that day, with a guide and angler in each boat.
Although conditions were tough (very windy), and fishing ended early due to squalls from the outermost bands of hurricane Ida, we managed to tag a total of approximately 40 bonefish during the day. That’s not a bad start to the project, but they have a total of 2,000 tags to deploy. With dedication, I think they can tag that many bonefish in the upcoming 2009-2010 season.
Las Salinas is a protected area of 100 square kilometers of flats in which only catch and release fishing is allowed. The area is divided into 15 zones. Under normal conditions (i.e., not official tagging effort) no more than six boats can fish in the area in a single day, and no zone can be fished two days in a row. Each boat carries a single angler and guide, and for all but one boat a push pole is the only means of propulsion.
Despite these protections, it appears that the catch per unit effort (number fish caught per angler per day) has declined compared to 10 years ago. It is unclear whether this is due to fishing pressure (even though it is all catch and release and with limited access), or harvest of bonefish from locations outside the protected area. I was shown some preliminary data from a University of Havana researcher, and based on fish size and sex ratio, it appears that harvest from areas outside the protected area may be a problem (this is supported by anecdotal reports from guides). Thus, even though they have put a lot of effort into managing protected areas for long-term sustainability of the bonefish catch and release fishery, it appears that harvest (mostly illegal) is having a negative impact on the fishery. Hopefully, the tagging study will help to determine how many fish are harvested from areas outside the National Park. Cuba has many National Parks and Protected Areas throughout the country, but anecdotal information suggests that illegal harvest is a problem for most of these areas. Even so, the fishing is typically good to excellent, depending on the area and time of year.
On Day 4, we had a half day of fishing and tagging. This was a special day in that Machito and Felipe brought along 15 kids or so for the day. The kids are part of their conservation and education program – the kids are instructed in fly casting, knots, and other fly fishing essentials, as well as conservation. The goal is to train and prepare these kids to be the future fly fishing guides and conservationists for coastal fisheries. A great idea.
They assigned one kid to each boat, to fish with an angler and guide. My fishing partner for the day was Andres, who, despite tough conditions (windy, overcast) caught the second bonefish of his short career. You can see from the smile on his face that he was pretty pleased. After a couple photos and tagging, the fish was released.
Fishing stopped after a half day, and they held a pig-roast for the whole crowd.
Travel in Cuba is always interesting. If you rent a car, the challenge is to not get lost – road signage is very poor. If you take a taxi, it’s expensive and the car may be unreliable.
If you take the bus, depending on which company, you may be in good shape (or not). After completing my task in Playa Larga, it was off to Santa Clara, pretty much dead-center of Cuba. This day it was the bus – Viazul – which was on time, and a very comfortable ride.
Santa Clara was to be the center of operations for tagging tarpon along the cays of the north coast, but the winds and rain from the outer band of hurricane Ida prevented us from fishing in the cays. We spent one day fishing for bass in lakes near Santa Clara (a big challenge with the wind and rain), and an evening watching a Cuban band at a local bar, then it was off to Havana a day early to try to get an earlier flight back to Florida. I was able to leave some tarpon tags with the guide we were planning to fish with, so he should be getting some tarpon tagged starting this week. Since he and his guides (4 total) recorded nearly 1,500 tarpon caught last year, I think this will be a good tagging location.
Guides and Anglers.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
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