Zapata, Cuba // Fly Fishing Trip Report

December 27, 2018

Cuba, Zapata // Trip Report

Out of all the fly fishing trips I've done to other destinations, never ONCE have I gotten a "Grand Slam" in a single day.  I've been close more times than I can mention. Sort of like Dan Marino trying to win a Superbowl.  On paper he should have had a fistful of  rings, and on paper I should have had a dozen Grand Slams.  It's tougher than you think.

Pursuing a Grand Slam

Catching a Permit, Bonefish, and a Tarpon all in the same day isn't "typical".  It's not impossible, but for those that accomplish this rare feat its certainly a day to remember.  Especially if each species is a worthy specimen and not some dink caught simply to check that box. On my first trip to Cuba I was able to get 2 Grand Slams.  It lived up to the hype. It is an unbelievably great fishery.

About the Zapata, Cuba Liveabord Trip

cuba zapata liveaboard vesselThe Liveaboard program was outstanding.  I was able to tip toe onto my skiff in 6 giant steps from my cabin!

Zapata Preserve Cuba

I had always wanted to fish Cuba, but my annual trips to Ascension Bay and Christmas Island are hard to miss. I love those spots. Winter before last however, I was positioned across the aisle at a trade show from Fly Fishing the Run. They coordinate a Liveabord operation in the Zapata Preserve of Cuba.  One big yacht with 6 fishing skiffs that orbit around the yacht like worker bees.  After a short chat with scheduling manager Cristian Rodriguez, it was a done deal.  I had most of the details worked out before the day was up.  One thing I love about trade shows is the person-to-person interaction.  It gives you an opportunity to detect somebody's bullshit.  Body language, tone of voice, and volume can explain a lot of the emotion and flavor of a particular fishery.  It will either give you doubt or confidence. I was confident.  Cristian answered all my questions, passed the BS test, and we got out some maps and I was able to see exactly where the mother-ship would be anchored and the flats we would fish. 
The Zapata is a marine preserves in Cuba with highly regulated sport fishing access. The only anglers in this entire preserve at any one time is this group on the Georgianna yacht. Just 9,300 people live in the 4,322-sq-km Ciénaga de Zapata, the most sparsely populated municipality in this country of 11.2 million people.  It's a pristine location.
Grand Slam 1 - Cuba Zapata
I never set out to get a Grand Slam specifically, but when you have that much variety in such close proximity to one another it sure makes it easier.  On my last day in Zapata, which wasn't even a Grand Slam day, I jumped 8 Tarpon while targeting Permit!  I was really impressed by how close the Tarpon, Permit, and Bonefish were.
Caught this Permit fishing the coast line on a Crab Pattern.  These fish are one giant propeller!  They are incredibly strong and fast. I personally like an 8 weight for Permit in calm conditions like this so that I can set the fly down soft. 
Picked up this Bonefish not far from the Permit (after taking shots at about 6 more Permit).
The Tarpon came last that evening, and rounded out this Grand Slam. I jumped about 8 fish before finally getting one in the boat!

Cuba Grand Slam - 2

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This Permit came straight at me through the choppy water in a group of 3 fish. A good clean cast with a Raghead Crab Pattern got this one! 
This Tarpon was caught in small lagoon. I had jumped and lost several others in various flats and lagoons before I finally got one to hand. After that it was off in pursuit of Bonefish!  It took a black and red Devil Bunny Tarpon Fly. 
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It didn't take long for my guide to put me on a great school of Bonefish and I knocked out another Grand Slam!  It's a pretty special place when you get shots at such a great variety of fish. Especially when they are healthy specimens.  One of my most productive patterns for Bonefish was a Pink Bonefish Scampi Fly. 
Preparation and Travel Paperwork
Over the years there have been various avenues for folks that want to travel to Cuba, fish, and of course mix in some cultural exploration.  The laws and rules have evolved even as recently as the past year.  In general, folks that want to mix fly fishing and some education can travel to Cuba with fairly few restrictions.  We coordinate group trips and utilize a tour coordinator to help insure our visit to this wonderful country is all on the up and up.  On my trip, all that was required was a Cuban Travel Visa and possibly an affidavit for returning into the US. Never needed the affidavit. 

Flights to Cuba

Many US commercial airlines fly in and out of Cuba on a daily basis now.  Booking flights isn't much different than booking a flight for anywhere else. You will need to state the legal purpose of your visit.  Our tours fall under a particular category, so no sweat there. It's easy.  We took the red-eye down leaving Seattle at about 10:30 pm, slept on the plane, had a short layover and some breakfast in Miami, landed in Havana mid morning.

Landing in Havana

Things move a bit slower in Cuba. Customs is easy and interesting. The security is well uniformed.  First thing we noticed was that the ladies wear very short skirts and flashy stockings. We got a kick out of this. They were super professional, just a lot different than TSA back home.  Our immigration paperwork was very straight forward and although it took forever we were on the streets of Havana before we knew it.

The Streets of Havana

Old cars rule the streets of Havana.  Castro's 1959 ban on imports froze time and the same cars that roamed the strip back then, do so today. Most have little diesel motors and 4 coats of paint.  I walked out of the airport, met our tour guide, and crossed the street in front of several old cars.  For a reasonable fee you can get a tour of the city in one of these old classics.

Arrival Day

We landed mid-morning which gave our group ample time to tour the Central Parque area.  Our crew rode down to a nice hotel and we paid them a fee to baby-sit our luggage while we split up and toured the surrounding area. Horse drawn carriages, old cars, and spectacular architecture adorned the landscape. We got some food and walked around.  It's a neat old city and I was blown away by the cool old buildings and the European influence. I have never been to Europe, so I probably don't know what the hell I am talking about.   That's what it felt like to me though.  Very unlike central America anyway.
cuba havana fly fishing tripWe spent about 3-4 hours touring the Central Park area enjoying the surroundings and getting a taste of the local flavor.
After fooling around for 3 hours or so, we met our tour guide and boarded a sweet bus with lots of room, AC, and proceeded toward the Bay of Pigs and our yacht. It was a nice 2.5 hour drive on good roads. We stopped for Cubano Sandwiches and a Pina Coloada drinks along the way.  That evening we boarded our beautiful yacht in a dilapidated commercial fishing boat port. The surroundings were a reminder of the struggles that face Cuba's working class.  The tired lobster fishing boats were a stark contrast the Georgianna where we were planning to spend the next week.  

We arrived at sleepy little port that is primarily used for commercial fishing boats.  It was pretty run down and our yacht was a stark contrast to the surroundings. 
We got settled in, met the crew, got our assigned bunks and drank and ate till the wee hours. The yacht stays in port that first night. At 7 am or so, the crew fires up the boat and we head about 3-4 hours north to the pristine fishing grounds of the Zapata preserve.

Sleeping on the Yacht

I had never stayed overnight on a boat so I didn't know what to expect.  I was sort of afraid of feeling "couped up" but this wasn't an issue at all. There are 4 single cabins, and two double cabins. They aren't big, but they are big enough. I slept very well and never noticed any rocking or swelling at all. The yacht is 100' long and very stable.  The top deck where we ate meals and enjoyed lots of cocktails is huge.  Plenty of space for 8 anglers to socialize in a big group or a couple of smaller groups.  Cigars on the back deck were a nightly Cabin #1 (first one on the right) was mine. I volunteered to sleep right over the generator.  It hummed me to sleep.  Nobody had any trouble sleeping on the boat and it was plenty roomy. 

Day 1 - Off to Flats

The captain fired up the engines about 7 am or so, and it was fun watching them navigate the big yacht out of that little marina.  The crew was obviously super-pro, well uniformed, and capable at both hospitality and marine navigation.  After hitting the open water they rev'd up the engine and we headed west to the pristine flats of the famous Zapata.

There was plenty of time to string up rods and get your gear in order on the way out to the preserve and our destination for the week.  The head guide Marco showed us maps and gave us a detailed orientation on the fishing program for the week.
We arrived at our anchor point around noon, had some lunch, and jumped in the skiffs which had been secured on a nearby shoreline (in the middle of nowhere). We had towed a couple of skiffs, and met the others on site.  The guides also slept and lived on the boat with us, but other than the last night when we enjoyed a bunch of cocktails they stayed in the lower front half of the yacht. At night the guides would hand line fish off the back under the lights which was a hoot.  I might have caught a few little snapper on a handline.
That first day we fished from about 1 pm to about 7 pm, so it was a slightly abbreviated day but I stuck a Tarpon on my THIRD cast so it didn't take long to heat up. We had an amazing time that afternoon and immediately knew that this crew and this trip was going to be a success.

Typical Day on the Georgianna

That first night was a riot. We had so much fun in the open air watching the sun set over the Atlantic.  The breeze on the boat is just right and makes for a "bug free/sweat free" atmosphere. I'm not sure it could be any better.
On the yacht, every sunrise and sunset is a treat. There are no powerlines or visual obstructions to destroy the view.  It was practically a spiritual experience watching the sunrise every morning. 
A typical day starts about 6:30 am with coffee and juice out and ready, we ate breakfast around 7 am and the food was great.  Nothing was sacrificed by living on a yacht.  Guides leave in the utility skiff about 7:40 am to retrieve their fishing skiffs moored on a nearby shoreline. They pull up behind the yacht at 8:00 am sharp and pick up their guests.  I was able to get in my guide's skiff in 6 steps from my bunk.
Cuba Zapata Flats Boat
Their equipment is top notch. This is a Super Dolphin boat for 2 anglers.  They are very fast and can navigate shallow water.  Each boat also has a standing brace which is appreciated. 
Fishing days were about 10 hours. I love long ass days on the flats. The guides work their asses off and are very focused.  They live on the boat for the week so its not like they are running home to the bar or a girlfriend. While I enjoy being immersed in that culture on other trips, I came to appreciate the long days and success based focus of this guide crew.  It felt like a hunting trip.
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All the guests enjoyed cocktails and the sunset every night. There is plenty of room on the yacht. 
food on zapata cuba yacht
Dinners were wonderful and the service was fantastic.  
I came back to the yacht about 6 pm each evening, but many boats were back early.  It's a lot of fishing and not everyone needed 10 hours on the water. We enjoyed Mojita's every night and plenty of cocktails.  They even had red wine with dinner and cigars were a nightly routine.  The service was top notch.

The Grand Slam Species in Zapata, Cuba

I've yet to fish another destination that offered so many great shots at Grand Slam Species.  What was different about the Zapata was everything was close.  A lot of destinations have great divides between the species. If you want to chase Tarpon after landing your Permit this could require a 45 minute boat ride.  In Zapata, we threw at Tarpon and Permit on the same flats almost daily!  More than a dozen times I had to decide between my Permit setup or my Tarpon setup!  

Bonefish in Zapata, Cuba

My favorite. Without Bonefish there would be no fishery in much of Central America and/or Cuba.  These are the most fun, beautiful, and enjoyable fish. They are lightning fast and would rip the skin off a steelhead of equal size when tied tail-to-tail.  One of the best things about Bonefish is that they play fair!  You do your job, most often you get bit.  
This was an exceptional fish. I was wading by myself while the guide worked with another guest, so did my best to get some type of selfie showing it off.
The Bonefish were good sized with 5 pound fish being fairly common. My largest was probably 8 pounds and in my top 3 Bonefish I've ever landed.  I can't say enough about the quality of fishing here.  I could go on and on, but we enjoyed fishing Mangrove canals, lagoons, crystal clear flats, open water Tarpon, Permit in lagoons, Permit in big open shoals along the coast, and Bonefish in both tailing situations and deep water ledges.  The only fish that was harder to get were Snook. There weren't as many Snook available as Tarpon and Permit, but if I had to trade Tarpon and/or Permit for Snook?  As much as I love those green monsters I'm taking the silver fish with the black tails every time.

Tarpon Fishing in Zapata, Cuba

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Look at the school of Tarpon chasing my fly in the tiny lagoon!
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Hooking fish in these tiny spots is a rush!  They go absolutely bonkers and you'll see them go airborne numerous times.  These fish can be tough to land because the jump so vigorously!
Most of my experience is with small Tarpon. I did a couple of trips to Costa Rica chasing monsters and struck out both times.  I have much better luck with aggressive smaller Tarpon ranging 10-20 pounds in the Mangroves. They bite hard, fight like hell, and are aggressive.
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We did catch a lot of Tarpon out in the open water as well.  It was really fun to chase the bigger schools out in the open flats just to mix up the challenges. 

Permit Fishing in Zapata, Cuba

You will love 'em and hate 'em. Sometimes on the same day.  I think the main thing is you need to try and make one good shot. If you miss, make it short.  Be aggressive and put that fly within 2' of the fish. If you spook 'em, at least you played to win.  
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Carter caught this Permit just before I landed one. He had several takes and two hookups that morning on Permit.

These fish are very alluring!  Don't fall into the trap of obsession here with these critters.  It's easy to get addicted to the rush of chasing these black tailed devils.  It's easy to forget about all the other species and do nothing but fish Permit.  A two fish day is epic!

Snook Fishing in Cuba, Zapata

These fish are officially part of the "Super Grand Slam".  I cast at a Snook that looked as though it was 4 feet long. Didn't get 'em unfortunately. I like Snook. They have character and gotta have to love a fish that eats with a "whoosh" equatable to flushing a commercial toilet.  They live tight up under the Mangroves much of the time but during tide shifts they often come out in the open flats or cruise the beeches.

Several anglers caught Snook in our group, but we landed more Tarpon than Snook.  This fish ate an Enrico Puglisi Perfect Minnow pattern.

Other Fish Species Encountered in Zapata, Cuba

There were a fair amount of bonus critters on this trip.  I hooked a Shark that was about 150 pounds in the flats and lost it. Which was inevitable because even with the wire leader I had it wouldn't have been a very long fight.  Give me a 50 pounder and that would have been more like it.  It isn't very often you are thinking, "damn if only I had hooked a smaller fish" haha.  The Snapper and the Barracuda were the top bonus catches.
Eric landed this beautiful Mutton Snapper while targeting Bonefish. The Snapper were spectacular!  They are an underrated bonus!  He was using Bonefish Junk fly when he caught this dandy.
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One regret that I did have was not taking more shots at Barracuda. They are such a cool species and I saw a lot of 4' fish in the flats. I was really enjoying the Tarpon fishery and didn't have a rod setup with wire leader much of the time. The Cuda were very aggressive and they took a popper with a vengeance!
Overall Thoughts on The Trip
Our itinerary was managed well. Arrival was super fun and efficient, on the departure we fished late on Day 6 and had our traditional Red's "Christmas in the Tropics" event.  We enjoyed cocktails with the guides and played Santa Claus. One thing we do on our trips is give away lots of gear that we either aren't in love with, or we know the guides are. This could be headlamps, coloring books for kids, Buffs, pliers, nippers, fly boxes, rods, shirts, shorts, hip packs, etc.  We do it like a Chinese gift exchange and its a blast. The guides love getting some great gear and listening to them lobby for the other guides to choose something other than the gift they want is hilarious. It's really fun to share with these guys and a lot of it they can't buy anywhere.
We partied it up for a while and slept on the yacht still anchored in the same spot. Early on the last morning at sea the captain fired up the engines, pulled the anchor, and began to motor back toward the Bay of Pigs and the port.  We enjoyed the ride in and had a very nice breakfast on the way.  After pulling into port there was lots of time to pack up, shower, and take our time before getting in the tour van. It was a very relaxed departure.  We enjoyed the drive back into Havana stopping for the world's best Pina Coladas part way back.  
That night we stayed in Havana and toured the city. I arranged for some VRBO type lodging which was cheap and memorable. I'll just leave it at that haha.  I'll do a Podcast at some point and talk about that adventure. It was all good, but I would definitely pony up and get a room at one of the fancy hotels in Central Parque next time. I'll bet it wouldn't make as good of a story though.
The next morning it was easy to arrange a taxi to the airport and flying out of Havana was easy.  It was tough to leave. Cuba exceeded expectations.  Getting into the US was a piece of cake. No surprises there all is on the up and up.  Please contact if you would like to join one of our tours to Cuba, Zapata. 
  1. Joe, great report on you recent Cuba trip. It is easy to tell you are impressed by the organization of the crew and guides, how can you not have a ball on a trip like this. Reading this report and visiting with you about the Zapata trip really gets me excited about our future Zapata trip--can't wait. We are about three weeks from our Christmas Island trip and the excitement is building. Thanks again for all your help with putting together the equipment needed for this trip; as I have told my wife this stuff is an investment, not an expense. The proof is we can use much of it I'm Cuba! Great thinking, right?
  2. Thanks Bud, you guys are going to have a kick ass time in Christmas Island. That is a hell of a lot of fishing you have planned with an extended trip like that. I'm super jealous. I'll be back there in May this year, Cuba in May next year!