travel

The Mojito Coast (Part 1)

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We are wading back to the anchored skiff after and slowish morning on the sand-flats, when our guide stops, crouches, and points urgently into the shallow sea. Out goes James’s fly-line, the little shrimp pattern pitches down, a silvery fin wags briefly above the surface. his rod bucks and the reel begins to whizz like a dentist’s drill - it has taken more than 20 years for this to happen, but finally my son has evolved into Homo piscatorius.

Description: The Mojito Coast

The Mojito Coast

For our first-ever fishing safari together, I had little hesitation in choosing Cuba. Of the 30-odd countries where I‘ve swum my hooks, this is the one I have most revisited: its maritime wildernesses have only recently been opened up to sportsmen, and it’s as offbeat and funky a destination as any I know.

This is my ninth trip, but for the first time we are bypassing Havana entirely; instead, the itinerary begins in the provincial city of Holguin. Holidaymakers who jet in to the capital or one of the seaside resorts seldom see just how big an island this is (Cuba has some 5,000 miles of coastline and the Caribbean’s only railway system), but our four-hour charabanc drive northwards through the heartlands of Las Tunas and Camagüey also reveals how lush it can be. We speed past citrus orchards, walnut groves and rolling dairy pasture green and pleasant enough to he in parts of Devon — if you leave out the turkey buzzards and those cheery billboards advertising ‘Socialismo o Muerte’.

Description: Cuba has some 5,000 miles of coastline and the Caribbean’s only railway system

Cuba has some 5,000 miles of coastline and the Caribbean’s only railway system

They don’t see many tourists in the sugarcane township of Brasil, our home for the coming week. Stately matrons stop and stare from beneath nylon parasols as our bus descends the slip road, where rice has been strewn to dry along the verge. The outskirts are a disconcerting jumble of Bulgarian-style concrete tenements, cactus-fenced fields, and frangipani. The refinery has been mothballed, and we are staying at La Casona, the former manager’s house — an elegant colonial-style building facing the civic square. The rooms are spacious enough (one had its own bar, where we held an impromptu cocktail party), but essentially ramshackle. Several of the shower heads deliver electric shocks; there is only one remote control between all the air-con units in the place: and if you found something on your pillow it wasn’t going to be a chocolate. But we had come for some hardcore angling action, not spa treatments: we were ready to kick some fin!

Description: The refinery has been mothballed, and we are staying at La Casona, the former manager’s house — an elegant colonial-style building facing the civic square.

The refinery has been mothballed, and we are staying at La Casona, the former manager’s house — an elegant colonial-style building facing the civic square.

A 40-minute commute north lies Cayo Romano, several hundred square miles of largely uninhabited mangrove  islands in a restricted zone where just a few tourist boats are allowed each week. Although backward in some departments (human rights and plumbing spring to mind), Raúl Castro’s regime is keen on its nature reserves: this one is protected by a military checkpoint, partly for the benefit of the turtles and ibis population, hut also to prevent local citizens accessing that geopolitical gulf that leads to Florida, and freedom. As a result, there is abundant marine life, and minimal angling pressure. Fifteen years ago, I was in one of the first groups to explore a similar region off Cuba’s southern coast (the Jardines de la Reina), and the sport there was truly outstanding. But such places can soon be spoiled by over-development The popularity of flats fishing’ — the light- tackle pursuit of shallow-water species such as bonefish and tarpon — is growing every year, and has caught on from Christmas Island to Venezuela. So, if you’re looking for somewhere a little ‘off piste’, I’d strongly recommend toting your tackle here, sooner rather than later.

Description: Fifteen years ago, I was in one of the first groups to explore a similar region off Cuba’s southern coast

Fifteen years ago, I was in one of the first groups to explore a similar region off Cuba’s southern coast

After omelettes and powerful coffee at 5.30am, our group of seven fanaticos crams into the minibus, and we’re away up the causeway towards the dock. Great vistas of mangrove keys stretch out on either side, lacing the salt breeze with their medicinal tang. Even at dawn, the weather is unsettled: a flamingo cloudscape to the east suggests we will not get the clear, sunshiny conditions we require for sighting our quarry, but of course we are brimful with optimism. If anglers ever stopped being idealists, they would end up in the bughouse. At the thatched cabin, there ensues a frenzy of tackling up our guide Yoandry (a former coastguard and, at 27, the same age as James) helps us assemble my collection of six rods. and before long his sleek Mitzi skiff scooting out to sea, the outboard sending up a proud rooster-tail of spray.

On his first morning we are aiming to introduce my son to Albitta vulpes — the ‘pale fox’, or bonefish. Many sportsmen regard this as the ideal quarry, and certainly it’s my favourite: handsome, wary and powerful, ‘bones’ leave their deep-water refuge once the tides begin to flood the shallows, and eagerly graze on the crustacea flushed out of the substrate. Sometimes they cruise the mangrove carousels, snacking off the tiffin sheltering in these tidal forests: at other times you see them scurrying across the open marl and pouncing on their prey. Large bone dogs are solitary (anything over 10lb is a world-class specimen), but the smaller chaps often travel in schools. Either way, they are exceedingly hard to spot. Their mirrored flanks give them chameleon-like powers, and often you just discern an innuendo of their presence - a puff  of silt, a wink of fin, the faintest ruffle of wake. Small wonder they are nicknamed the ‘grey ghost of the flats’.

Description: Even at dawn, the weather is unsettled

Even at dawn, the weather is unsettled


Whether wading or standing in the bow of the boat, when you do target a bonefish you must be stealthy. The careless clatter of a flybox, or scrunch of the guide’s push pole, will have old Houdini Fins zigzagging away like snipe off a marsh. You should be prepared to make long, delicate presentations at short notice, and often into the wind – harder than it sounds, when there’s loose line to manage, the sun is broiling down and you’ve contracted a serious case of ‘fin fever’ from all the adrenalin in your system. James, who had just had one casting lesson back home, settled into the rhythm with a natural athlete’s skill. Whereas, Dad was frequently unpicking knots of Gordian intricacy, tangled in the mangroves and muttering in Desperanto. At one stage, the insolent youth even advised me to ‘chill’ — and to think I used to change his nappies.

When it does all come together, and a bonedog feels the Judas kiss of your hook, he streaks in a halogen blaze for the next parish. All engine and no hull, for his size this must be the mightiest fish that swims. Bring him finally to hand, and you are cradling an aquadynamic creature sculpted out of moonlight. He has little turquoise details along the fins, a glassed in eye, and an underslung mouth that makes him look like a genteel Morningside auntie cooling her soup spoon. If you hook a dozen of these beguiling fish in a day, you will have had great sport. Out here they average a good four pounds apiece, and I think of every one as a trophy.

Description: He has little turquoise details along the fins, a glassed in eye, and an underslung mouth that makes him look like a genteel Morningside auntie cooling her soup spoon.

He has little turquoise details along the fins, a glassed in eye, and an underslung mouth that makes him look like a genteel Morningside auntie cooling her soup spoon.

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