Fish Caribbean Islands Casting Poppers and Stickbaits

Sight-casting lures over flats, channels and shallow reefs is flat-out fun for an amazing array of game fishes

February 13, 2017
Huge black grouper on a stickbait
The author, walking the walk, with a monster Caribbean black grouper he caught while throwing a favorite stickbait. Julien Lajournade

But First! A Little Background: Fishing Poppers and Stickbaits, An Indo-Pacific Phenomenon

This giant trevally was caught in Australia, not the Caribbean. But the same technique this angler used — throwing poppers around shallow reefs — attracts plenty of aggressive predators in tropical Atlantic waters. Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Globe-trotting anglers who love to throw lures and sight-fish for a great variety of saltwater game fish associate that fishery mostly with Indo-Pacific reefs. That’s where they can expect to hook up with bad boys of the reefs such as giant trevally, red bass (the aggressive snapper Lutjanus bohar), dogtooth tuna, coral trout, potato grouper, barracuda — you name it.

Using top-shelf spinning gear, anglers fishing these Pacific destinations cast expensive lures in hopes of provoking toothy critters, looking in particular for unforgettable, explosive surface action.

Cubera snapper caught on a popper off Panama
Those who don’t venture as far from the United States as Australia can head to the eastern Pacific off Central America to cast for nearshore hooligans such as this cubera snapper from Panama, as well as roosterfish. Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Caribbean Islands: Sight-casters’ Undiscovered Heaven

So yeah, I’ve been there (to many Pacific and Indian Ocean locations) and done that sight-casting thing, but I’ve been elsewhere and done it also — notably around the islands and reefs of the eastern tropical Atlantic. True, the primary draw for many sport fishermen visiting the Caribbean from the United States is fishing blue water and flats. But large areas of deep flats, channels and reefs of rock or coral reefs, found between shore and deeper drop-offs, aren’t fished as much by visiting anglers, especially those who cast and retrieve lures.

Caribbean fishing grounds in all their many shades of blue
Flats, channels, reefs — Caribbean islands have it all, fish-filled habitat where an angler can throw lures all day. Julien Lajournade

This fishery is simply not on the radar of many local guides, who often have no clue about the effective and exciting technique of fishing lures around reefs and shallows. When predators including snappers, groupers, jacks, tarpon, barracuda and others are hunting nearshore waters, all can be suckers for a well-presented lure, throughout the Caribbean — including the Bahamas, Cuba, Trinidad, Mexico’s Yucatan and the cays of Belize and Honduras, as well as many other islands.

Map showing Caribbean islands
Throughout the Caribbean Sea, islands offer sight-casting opportunities. Sport Fishing magazine

“The Lip is Broken Off Your Lure!”

The author's favorite small stickbait
One of the author’s favorite (and very battered) stickbaits. When fished properly, stickbaits seem to catch just about everything. Julien Lajournade

In Caribbean waters, inshore guides often are primarily fly-fishing specialists. They may have little knowledge of lures such as poppers and stickbaits. “The lip is broken off your lure!” is a comment I’ve heard more than once from guides seeing my stickbait who are not familiar with plugs other than diving Rapalas with plastic lips.

I heard just such a comment most recently during a visit to the British Virgin Islands, a lovely paradise at the top of the Leeward Island chain. It was September, the weather was superb, and I had the islands largely to myself. The first morning, my guide stopped his 35-foot center console in a small cove to catch live bait.


I had already tied a 4-inch stickbait to my 30-pound spinning outfit. I threw it out near some pelicans, twitched it twice, and a 30-pound tarpon jumped several times before throwing the lure. A few more casts resulted in another missed tarpon and two nice bar jacks.

Bar jack on a stickbait
A British Virgin Islands bar jack that slammed a 4-inch Sebile Stick Shadd. Julien Lajournade

We moved on that morning to fish stretches of beautiful coral reef. The water was so clear, it reminded me of atolls of the Indian Ocean. Hard-fighting horse-eye and bar jacks, as well as barracuda, large yellowtail snapper and more species, grabbed my lures. I also lost some unidentified creatures that made off with two of my favorite stickbaits.

Huge barracuda on a stickbait
The author fished a small stickbait for a huge barracuda on this BVI flat. Julien Lajournade

In light of the fact that we were just a half-mile from the marina, such hectic action was a nice surprise. The guide admitted he had never caught so many fish so quickly without live baits (which he seemed to forget all about that morning). Thus began three days of exciting fishing around reefs that, surprisingly, probably had never been seriously plugged before.


This experience offered further proof that light-tackle enthusiasts, prepared with the right gear to explore islands in the Antilles and elsewhere in the Caribbean, can find memorable action on hard lures.

The Caribbean’s Jurassic Park for Plug Fishermen

In the early 2000s, Cuba was the first eastern Atlantic destination to which anglers (particularly from Europe) brought serious popping gear with the clear intention of catching big fish like cubera snapper. Huge marine areas around Cuba had been isolated for decades with minimal access or fishing pressure; many Cubans don’t own boats, and there are no modern tackle shops around.

North coast of Cuba
The deep flats adjacent to reefs along the northern coast of Cuba, where one cast might yield a 20-inch yellowtail and the next a 50-pound cubera snapper. Julien Lajournade

As a result, many fish live long and grow big in these famous protected zones dedicated to divers and fishermen from abroad. Most of the fishing boats available are flat skiffs and can’t easily venture onto deeper reefs, though they offer fishing of world-class dimensions in terms of the variety and size of fish.

A flock of flamingos, Cuba
Cuba’s protected waters offer abundant marine wildlife, as this flock of flamingos shows. Julien Lajournade

A Procession of Game Fish

With small surface and subsurface plugs on the deep flats, channels and shallow reefs (to 20 feet), you can find jacks, ‘cudas, baby tarpon, mutton snapper, young goliath grouper and cubera. These game fish offer great sport on 30-pound tackle.

Mutton snapper on a stickbait
Seeing a big pink mutton chase down a stickbait offers sight-casters a real heart-stopping moment. Julien Lajournade

But if I were casting larger lures over deeper reefs (say, 30 feet or more), I’d think twice before casting with a light rod. Monster cubera and big black and gag grouper patrol those waters. If you don’t have strong, giant trevally-class tackle, and lack much experience battling big fish “street fight-style,” you’ll likely lose your lures and could harm trophy fish.

A black grouper in Cuban waters on a popper
Throwing poppers and stickbaits over deeper reefs in Cuba and similar areas requires heavy spinning gear; with lighter tackle, you can kiss bad boys like this big black grouper goodbye post haste. Julien Lajournade

When fishing big lures along these reef edges, you have no idea what will come up to grab them. It could be a 15-pound jack that ends up being swallowed by a giant cubera seconds after you hook it.

Monster cubera snapper on a popper
Big, noisy poppers are a good bet to call up big, angry cubera snapper from the coral. Julien Lajournade
Amberjack on a large pink popper
For more than 15 years, we’ve enjoyed many memorable experiences while fishing lures in Cuba, such as attacks on poppers by packs of amberjack in places so shallow we could easily see the bottom. Julien Lajournade

One of those jack attacks happened in the Gardens of the Kings, a chain of keys on the north coast, while we fished a sandy flat, looking for large barracuda. Near Cabo San Antonio, at the western tip of Cuba, we were trying for snapper along a reef drop-off when a school of 15 or 20 AJs showed up and charged all our lures at the same time. Things quickly become chaotic, but at least we were using strong GT rods. Even so, hooking a 50-pound amberjack five feet from the rod tip is something brutal.

Fighting a big amberjack
Whether struggling against 50 pounds of amberjack or an even larger cubera, as this angler is doing, anyone truly serious about landing some of the biggest reef predators in a place like Cuba will want serious GT tackle and 100-pound braid. When fishing poppers, the reefs are shallow hence quickly accessible to a hooked monster and all at once it’s a locked-down, drag-out battle. Julien Lajournade

Gear That Gives You a Fighting Chance

At best, an angler still makes an awful lot of casts, on average, to hook a prize like a cubera. It’s a shame, then, to lose the fish before getting a good look at it, and if the fish breaks off, you’ve also lost an expensive lure (and, especially if the barbs are still on the hooks, you might have doomed the fish as well).

Fishing reels designed for tough duty
High-end spinning gear made to hold up under the onslaughts of giant trevally will perform well in similarly demanding conditions in Caribbean waters. Julien Lajournade

Guides don’t always have the time or experience to move a boat quickly enough to help the angler keep a big fish away from rocks, caves or coral heads. You need to lock down the drag (at 30 pounds or more) and stop such fish in their tracks. A GT rod with a large, high-end spinning reel, using 100-pound braid, will give you a fighting chance.

When I throw lures around Cuba’s deeper reefs, I generally use 120-pound PowerPro. Lures designed for giant trevally, with the strongest split rings and treble hooks or in-line singles, should hold up. I’ve seen too many anglers relying on 50-pound-test lose nearly every big fish they hook.

Bahamas — Best of Inshore Variety

As most anglers are aware, the Bahamas archipelago is a true paradise for fly-fishermen looking for bonefish. But when it comes to fishing plugs, the potential of these waters is overlooked. Lightweight bucktail jigs, used to target small snapper for dinner, are the only lures I’ve seen in most guides’ boxes, whether at Grand Bahama, Andros or Crooked islands, or the Acklins.

Blacktip shark on a stick bait
Most days, anglers in these waters have opportunities to sight-cast stickbaits, like this Sebile Stick Shadd, to blacktip sharks, as well as lemons in the shallows. Julien Lajournade

Yet the opportunity the Bahamas offers for light-tackle fishing is immense. Anglers can expect mutton snapper, monster barracuda, smaller tarpon, horse-eye jacks, bar jacks, blacktip and lemon sharks, Nassau grouper, cero or king mackerel, and on and on. I was amazed by the variety of fish I caught while blind-casting lures around shallow reefs (and even in marinas), and I had incredible fun sight-fishing the flats, particularly for big, laid-up barracuda (which are truly explosive in such skinny water).

A queen triggerfish on a stickbait
“Variety” in the Bahamas certainly includes triggerfish, like this striking queen trigger that grabbed the author’s stickbait. Julien Lajournade

As one example of the islands’ potential, last February I was invited to spend four days exploring Long Island’s great bonefishing. Sustained north winds, however, had cooled the flats. The bones were hanging off the flats in deeper waters; we caught a few to 8 pounds, but fishing was tough.

Toothy great barracuda
The author enjoyed the wild attack of this barracuda not far from the dock at Long Island. The guide watched with some surprise as Lajournade had a blast catching cudas, muttons to 12 pounds, big horse-eye jacks and other species. Julien Lajournade
Long Island, Bahamas, mutton snapper
One of several muttons the author caught around Long Island. “My guide hadn’t expected we would see such action, and particularly not from mutton snapper, known to be wary targets,” he says. Julien Lajournade

Parting Act

On the last morning during my most recent Bahamas trip, before I had to hop on the plane to Nassau, I picked up my spinning rod and box of lures and went for a walk along the rocky beach on the island’s eastern shore, below Stella Maris Resort. Here deep water is close to the rocks. The weather had become superb, the ocean totally and unseasonably flat, and I had this part of Long Island to myself.

I started heaving out a Cordell pencil popper and was rewarded with immediate action from hungry ’cudas. I tried a Williamson Speed Pro Deep, an excellent plug for casting, and immediately caught a beautiful Nassau grouper.

Nassau grouper in the Bahamas
Shore-caught Nassau grouper caught shortly before the author had to fly out. Julien Lajournade

Right after I released the grouper, I spotted a big triggerfish cruising near the surface and tossed a floating stickbait in front of it. I let the lure sit motionless, and the trigger pounced on it, sucking in the rear hook. It was game on.

Afterward, my fourth fish raised was yet another species. Throwing a Williamson popper, I watched a reef shark in triple digits charge — and miss — it, leaving my hands shaking.

The last fish I hooked in the short time I had that morning came in behind that same popper, perhaps 20 yards from shore and in water not much more than 10 feet deep. In a huge swirl of water, it attacked the lure. That wasn’t unlike strikes I’ve experienced fishing GTs in the Seychelles. I saw it well enough to recognize an amberjack of possibly 50 pounds. Had I been in a boat and using heavier gear, I might have had a chance, but this brute charged out on a hundred-yard run before the line passed over a rock, and that was all she wrote.

After that taste, I hope to get back someday and, in a boat with a guide, cast big plugs along the wild side of Long Island.

Caribbean Snappers

Caribbean mutton snapper
Pound for pound, mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis) are some of the strongest fish found in Caribbean shallows — not just in reefs and channels, but even up on bonefish flats. Julien Lajournade

Once hooked, muttons rush to find shelter in a cave, under a rock or a coral head, or even in a hole in the sand. Using 30-pound braid is a minimum if you are targeting muttons of 10 pounds or more. Unlike their cousin the cubera, which prefers a slow retrieve and frequent pauses, muttons are prone to going after sinking stickbaits worked with dynamic twitches (pauses too long give these sharp-eyed fish time to rethink the wounded baitfish). They also respond well to lipped diving minnows the size of big sardines, and where muttons remain abundant, they will take surface lures.

Atlantic dog snapper
The Atlantic dog snapper (L. jocu), like cubera, favors reefs that drop off into deeper water, facing the open ocean. (They’re less likely to wander into shallows as are muttons.) These trophy snapper are never plentiful but are found from the Bahamas to Trinidad and at times will strike big surface lures. Few guides can confirm their presence around their islands, simply because they don’t fish for them. Dog snapper can weigh 50 pounds, and cubera twice that size. They hunt mostly during dark hours but will feed during the day as well. Julien Lajournade
Caribbean yellowtail snapper
While not the largest of snappers, no species beats the yellowtail for beauty. Fun on light tackle, abundant yellowtail also make for fine eating. Julien Lajournade

Pick Your Plugs

Around shallower reefs, for just about any predator that swims, no lure beats a sinking stickbait. Julien Lajournade

Stick baits cast long distances and swim with an underwater walk-the-dog motion, typically just a bit below the surface. For lighter duty, 4- to 5-inch sinking Sebile Stick Shadds, Shimano Orcas and the like will turn on everything from yellowtail snapper to big tarpon. Floating stickbaits might be less effective overall but are more fun. Besides the classic red-and-white Zara Super Spook, there are many other options, including floating models of the Stick Shadd and Orca, as well as the Rapala X-Rap Walk.

Huge popper for cubera snapper
For heavier duty, such as for cubera, bigger grouper and AJs, you need big lures of the sort designed with giant trevally in mind — up to 10 inches or more, weighing 150 to 250 grams (8-plus ounces). These lobster-eaters don’t come to the surface for a little appetizer — they want a big meal! Julien Lajournade

Work big lures slowly. That’s one key for success with cubera and big grouper: Using sinking stickbaits, employ a slow retrieve with many pauses lasting a couple of seconds. Similarly, with big poppers, retrieve with strong jerks and a stop every 10 yards or so. Be on guard, because vicious attacks often happen when the lure sits motionless.

Mutton snapper on a huge stickbait in the Caribbean
With sinking stickbaits, orange or purple are preferable, as are a white belly and flanks and a blue or pink back. I’ve found that with poppers, color has little importance, but with floating stickbaits, nothing beats white. Julien Lajournade

Leader Lore

Bahamas horse-eye jack
A loop knot — as the one on this stickbait that a Bahamas horse-eye jack couldn’t resist — is the best option to attach a lure if the leader isn’t very heavy, but you can also tie the leader to a swivel, then use a split ring to make the connection. Julien Lajournade

Forget wire leaders; 2½ feet of fluorocarbon or hard mono is better. You might lose a few lures to the teeth of barracuda or king mackerel if you’re unlucky, but you’ll have plenty of bites, and it will be easier to control fish boat-side. Connect braid to leader with an FG knot. When fishing 30-pound line, I use 50-pound fluoro and check it after every fish or strike. With heavy tackle, using 100-pound braid, for cuberas, don’t go under 150- or even 200-pound-test for leader.

Crimped sleeves offer an alternative to tying a loop knot with very heavy mono leaders, though not a lot of anglers use them. (But in any case, I like to carry a big Hi-Seas crimping plier because it will cut through a large hook and adds a measure of safety when fishing remote areas.)


With most smaller plugs out of the package, the standard treble hooks will last about two seconds if you hook even a 10-pound snapper on 30-pound line. Plan to replace the hooks (and split rings) from the get-go with strong hardware, as this Caribbean-reef plugger has done.

For heavy poppers and sinking stickbaits, you should have 250-pound split rings and serious trebles, or the biggest single jig hooks rigged with a short 300-pound assist cord. (Don’t forget to carry pliers designed to open heavy split rings.)


Author Julien Lajournade, editor of Voyages de Peche
Julien Lajournade started fishing in 1990 as a guide in Africa — first in Sierra Leone, then Guinea Bissau and Madagascar. He has been the editor-in-chief for the French angling-enthusiast magazine Voyages de Pêche since 2003. Lajournade loves all fishing, fresh and salt, but nothing as much as casting surface plugs to badass fish in the tropics around the world. Julien Lajournade

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