Fish is at the very heart of Tobagonian life, and there are plenty of places to tuck into freshly-caught seafood, watch the boats come in or even try your hand at fishing
Go rock fishing
Many of Tobago’s coves and beaches are separated by outcrops harbouring rock pools and forming barriers where frothy breakers crash. At low tide, you can fish among the rocks with equipment as simple as a piece of string or fishing line with crabmeat, or other bait, hooked on the end. You’ll see children braving the rocks to catch crabs and small fish – talk to them to get the lowdown and be sure to wear shoes with grip because the rocks are slippery. A good place to go rock fishing is Mount Irvine Beach
Watch the boats at Buccoo
The heartbeat of this sleepy village is a small dock and jetty from which fishermen set off at daybreak and return from mid-morning onwards. The vessels are typically small motorboats, deftly manoeuvred by their skippers to the edge of the jetty to unload, and then positioned back in their anchoring spots, where they bob on the tide. Much of the fish caught here ends up on plates at El Pescador, the restaurant that overlooks the harbour (see below). Some of it ends up in the stomachs of the cartoon-like pelicans that cruise the skies before picking their target. If you want to try your hand at catch-and-release fishing for tuna, marlin or sailfish, five miles off the coast, Brandon Bruce runs excursions from Fish Tobago guesthouse in Buccoo.
• Fish Tobago, 26a Buccoo Point, +1868 309 0062, fishtobago.hostel.com. Fishing trips around £95 for a three-hour session
See the seine nets at Black Rock
On the beach at Stonehaven Bay, fronting the village of Black Rock, you will also see fishermen pulling in seine nets, as they have for around 150 years. The men are friendly veterans, very likely to hand you a herring or two from their bulging nets. If handouts aren’t forthcoming, you can always buy directly from them (you shouldn’t have to pay more than £1 a fish).
Eat fresh fish at El Pescador restaurant, Buccoo
Set almost opposite Buccoo’s jetty, El Pescador restaurant has panoramic views across the harbour of this pretty fishing village. Get here at lunchtime to see fishing boats bringing back full lobster nets and hauls of snapper while you eat seafood prepared by Venezuelan chef Leo Larios. Some main courses are simply listed as “grilled fish” because Leo will cook whatever has just arrived.
• +1868 631 1266, leos-pescador.com
Hear the calls of Tobago fish vans
Listen out for fish vans passing through the villages of Tobago in the morning, selling their wares. The fishmonger will often call out his catch on a loudspeaker as he drives through. Among the names you might hear bellowed is carite, a wonderful silver fish, cut into chunky steaks, seasoned and baked like salmon – locals will demand the head or tail, leaving you with the succulent fleshy parts. You may also hear “fry-dry” announced: sardines that have been cooked in a spicy sauce, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried.Nungwi Village
Enjoy just-caught fish at Tobago Paradise Travel & Grill, Pigeon Point
This traditional fisherman’s hut was converted into a restaurant in 2012 by Lynette and Allan Grant, and has quickly become renowned for its really fresh seafood. The setting is charming: you eat on a veranda overhanging the sea at Pigeon Point, the tide lapping beneath. Rustic fishing huts line this coastal road, some converted into gift shops, some still housing boats, oars and equipment. The views out to sea are divine, with fishing boats coming and going. The restaurant opens for brunch from 10.30am to ensure customers get the freshest catch, seasoned and thrown straight on the grill.
• Pigeon Point Road, +1868 322 9441
The crystal-clear seas of the Caribbean are perfect for free-dive spearfishing. The authentic way is to snorkel in reefs and shallow waters with a spear gun, snorkel, mask and fins. Hold your breath and descend to the seabed looking for your prey – barracuda, cavalli and numerous types of jack – among the coral. Spear them with a barbed dart and get back to the surface quickly. It’s an activity for the adventurous. You could also see parrot fish, tiger sharks, reef sharks and hammerhead sharks – which are very rarely dangerous to humans. The best places to spearfish are The Shallows, near the southern tip of Crown Point, or around St Giles Island, near the northern tip of Charlotteville. Braver folk can try their hand at blue-water spearfishing in the deep, using larger guns and searching for big pelagic fish. Some operators offer scuba-diving equipment rather than snorkels.
• Phillip Almandoz organises tours and an annual spearfishing competition, held in May at Castara. +1868 684 3440, spearfishingtobago.com
• Kester Jerry arranges spearfishing from Parlatuvier Bay and sites along the north coast, call +1868 701 5848 or +1868 374 3442
Take a fishing trip from Charlotteville
This pretty village is one of Tobago’s main fishing hubs. Commercial fishing tours are available here, but to get an authentic experience, arrange a trip with a local fisherman. You’ll meet Charlotteville fishermen at bars or cafes along the shore, playing chess and dominoes once their day’s work is over. You can negotiate a price for a day or half-day out in a small boat taking four or five people – most excursions go in search of wahoo, kingfish, tuna and mahi-mahi (known locally as dolphinfish). Try bottom-line fishing, also known as “banking”, a type of deepwater fishing with the line weighted and let out to the bottom of the ocean. You can arrange such excursions with Junior Murray, a very experienced fisherman whose day job is repairing motorboats, but whose passion is bottom-line fishing. On a trip with him, you are likely to catch snapper, grouper, amber jacks and sharks.
• Junior Murray, +1868 354 5392 or +1868 660 6329, half-day excursions around £75-£100, including tackle, bait and other equipment, as well as a serious lesson in Caribbean sea fishing
Cast a fly
There’s plenty of potential for coastal fly-fishing in Tobago, although the sport is not common here. The best places for it are off jetties, around which snook and ladyfish look for smaller fish on which to prey. Pigeon Point jetty is a picturesque place to cast from, though you may have to butter-up the lifeguards – it’s primarily a tourist spot for swimming and sunbathing. Alternatively, Turtle Beach in Plymouth has a long, crumbling jetty built on wooden stilts. Local fishermen have long been campaigning for new facilities, so you are bound to enter into some interesting fish-based conversations.
• Anglers shops offering tackle include The Mangrove Shop, Pigeon Point
Visit Castara fish market
Almost every morning, Castara hosts a lively fish market, set back from the beach over a small bridge. Most of the fish is caught, early in the day, in seine nets, which are cast out to sea and pulled back filled with the mackerel and herring that congregate near the shore. Visitors are welcome to help the fishermen pull in the net, for which they may be rewarded with fresh fish. It is laborious work – pulling in a net can take up to an hour. Once the catch arrives at the market, vendors clean and gut the fish, and prepare them for cooking on the spot. It’s a holistic experience watching fish being caught, prepared, sold and grilled – and then eating it.
Joshua Surtees is a former editorial researcher in the Guardian’s audience department who now works for the Trinidad Guardian as a journalist.
• This article was amended on 02/10/2013: ‘Tobagonian’ is the appropriate term, not ‘Tobagan’ as originally stated in the subheading. An error in the byline was also corrected.