Mike Hill 2020-11-12 08:22:12
Panamá: An Angler’s Paradise
By Mike Hill
The azul waters of the Pacific were calm and flat as the 28-foot center console boat slowed to a stop. I dropped a line in the water and quickly caught three bonito, beautiful little members of the tuna family, each about 20 inches long. Before I could throw them back, the captain grabbed them and put them in special “tuna tubes” to keep them alive. “Carnada,” he said. “Bait.”Thirty minutes later, as the warm sun lulled me into a sleepy daze, we slow-trolled a live bonito behind the boat. Then the deckhand suddenly grabbed a rod, playing out line for severals seconds as the boat lunged forward. The circle hook latched into a corner of the marlin’s mouth and the deckhand handed me the rod. Forty five minutes later, my arms, shoulders, and back aching, I claimed victory and held the 300-pound blue marlin’s bill in the water until it revived. I watched in awe as I released the behemoth, it slowly sliding beneath the surface to fight another day.
It was another day, a year later during my next trip to Panamá. The 10-inch long Rapala lure pulled through the water around 20 feet below the surface. We passed over a reef in about 80 feet of water when the rod suddenly slammed downward. A huge flash of orange appeared for a microsecond before disappearing into the depths. I grabbed the rod to keep the fish out of the rocks, slowly gaining line, then just as quickly losing it, as the fish sought to separate my arms from their sockets. The battle lasted only a few minutes as the brutish fish was built for power but not stamina. After one last futile run, my guide struggled to lift a massive 47-pound cubera snapper into the boat. Later that morning we caught a 35 pound cubera by trolling, then a 30-pound cubera and 20-pound amberjack on jigs. The only drawback, if one might consider it a drawback, is that we only caught four fish the whole day. But oh, those four fish were huge!
For full disclosure, let me say that not every day is like the ones described above. But these are the kind of days one can have while fishing in Panamá. There are big fish here. Bigger and badder fish than most other parts of the world. There be monsters here. Panamá, which means “An abundance of fish,” cartainly lives up to its name. You can have fun catching a variety of fish in the 5 to 15 pound range on a daily basis. And if the gods are with you, you just might catch the fish of a lifetime.
Let me tell you about a few of my favorite places.
Pedasi is a wonderful, sleepy town on the southeast tip of the Azuera Peninsula. Playa Verano is but 8 minutes from the town center and is lined with pangas – incredibly seaworthy wood and fiberglass boats used for transporting tourists to Isla Iguana and taking anglers on daylong excursions. Pedasi is on the tip of the “Tuna Coast” where yellowfin tuna can be caught here year-round. The southern edge of the Azuero Peninsula where the continental shelf is just a few miles from shore. In addition to tuna, cubera snappers will streak from the depths to take a trolled lure or surface popper. Any floating debris will likely feature mahi mahi, while amberjack (known as “reef donkeys” because of their stubborn heavyweight fights) lurk near sand and structure alike. Jack crevalle, the brutish fish that fight with every ounce of their muscular body, abound here. Other popular species include wahoo, best described as an aquatic missile with razor-sharp teeth, as well as roosterfish and sierra.
But Pedasi is not only an angler’s paradise. Come during the summer months, especially July and August, to see humpback whales. Turtles abound in the warm currents. And dolphins are present year round. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of dolphins in a single day, many times leading anglers straight to a school of tuna. For non-anglers, Isla Iguana is just a 20-minute boat ride away. This beautiful white sand beaches offer snorkeling, sunbathing, and of course, iguanas. Frigate birds use the island as a rookery and frequent the skies in search of any luckless baitfish cruising too close to the water’s surface. There are no services on the island, so be sure to pack lunch, water, and of course, plenty of sunscreen.
Playa Venao is a short 40-minute drive south of Pedasi. This beach offers a world-class surfing experience. Novices can rent boards or take lessons from the local surf shop. Non-surfers can relax on the beach or enjoy lunch, sangria, and other libations at the local restaurants. You can also enjoy Bull Beach, just a few minutes from “downtown” Pedasi with its own beautiful beach and restaurant. Speaking of restaurants, Pedasi offers several nice dining experiences. Some of my favorites include Smiley’s Restaurant, where burgers, sandwiches, ribs, and fish are served along with live music on many evenings. Bohemia Restaurant offers delicious Italian dishes and pizza as well as great sangria. The bakery, immediately across the street from the colorful Pedasi sign, bakes fresh breads and pastries every day. Try the chocolate crossants. Yes, there are many other fine restaurants, but you need to find your own. And most restaurants will prepare your catch for dinner, making it the freshest fish meal you may ever have.Remember, there is no wrong way to enjoy Pedasi.
Boca Chica is a relatively small town about 45 minutes west of David and 30 minutes south of the InterAmerican Highway. The town itself is not much to look at. Chickens, cats, and dogs all lay in the street and cast an indignant eye at passing drivers, often refusing to budge from their rest spot (a common occurrence in much of Panamá). But don’t let its appearance fool you. This is a fishing town, pure and simple, where angling dreams come true.
Boca Chica is protected by an archipelago. The 8-mile-long island Boca Brava guards the launch ramps and docks. Once past Boca Brava, one can head southeast to Isla Seca for a chance at big cubera snappers, wahoo, and roosterfish. Isla Parida and its hundreds of surrounding rocks are loaded with snapper, jacks, roosterfish, and the occasional giant grouper. Trolling a small squid imitation will net you lots of sierra mackerel with delicious white flesh that is great when grilled, put in tacos, or made into sashimi. But the real monsters lurk further offshore near Isla Montuosa, Coiba Island, and the famed Hannibal Bank. This two-hour boat ride is well worth the opportunity to catch giant marlin and tuna. This area is sometimes referred to as the Jurassic Park of Panamá fishing.
The Hannibal Bank is a giant seamount rising from the ocean floor several thousand feet deep to just 120 feet below the surface. The seamount is nine miles long, 4.5 miles wide, and features fish-holding steep slopes, canyons, pinnacles, and gullies. Upwelling currents bring nutrients from the depths which feed baitfish. The baitfish feed the larger fish, which in turn feed the monsters. May and June are peak months to catch yellowfin tuna that can exceed 200 pounds. Sailfish are a common target as well, but January through March are the peak months to catch huge black and blue marlin. On the day we caught the marlin described at the onset of this article, we lost a bigger one that snapped the line. It is common to catch marlin in the 300 to 500 pound range, and larger fish – including the occasional “grander” that tops 1,000 pounds – are caught every year. Be aware that keeping a billfish in Panamá is illegal. All marlin and sailfish must be released. But if you really want a trophy for the wall, you can quickly measure the fish while it is in the water alongside the boat, snap a lot of photos, and have a fiberglass replica made of your fish after it is released. Roosterfish should also be released as they are great fighters but poor table fare. Whales, dolphins, turtles, and even the occasional whale shark can be found in this area as well as closer to shore.
There are several lodges one can stay at in Boca Chica, including Roxy Fishing Club, Come Fish Panamá, and the Reel Inn. Many include a package deal that includes lodging and fishing. A quick online search will give you an idea of accommodations and pricing.
You can also hire a water taxi to take you to Isla Bolano, another beautiful island with white sand beaches and great snorkeling. As with any tropical beach, don’t forget the sunscreen. Other fishing opportunities.
During the rainy season (May through November), dozens and dozens of rivers carry water to the ocean. These rivers and their accompanying estuaries offer great fishing opportunities. Small snappers make their homes in the estuaries until they are large enough to venture to deeper water. And great fighting and delicious black snook prowl the rivers and beaches as they seek baitfish, shrimp, and other prey. Black snook can exceed forty pounds in these rivers and immediately seek the safety of mangroves wheh hooked, so bring stout and sturdy gear if you want to tangle with these bad boys.
And lest we forget, the Panamá Canal and Lake Gatun are loaded with peacock bass. These colorful cichlids are named for the large spot that resembles the eye of a peacock feather at the base of the tail. Most peacock bass in Lake Gatun top out at four to five pounds but catching 50 to 60 fish in one day is not uncommon. Bring the aspirin because your arms will be sore!
Pedasi and Boca Chica are located on the Pacific Coast of Panamá. There are many other fishing opportunities on the Carribean side where one can catch snappers, sailfish, barracuda, and even tarpon. But I’ve had so much fun fishing the Pacific that I still haven’t made it to the Carribean side. Some day I will make it to Panamá’s north coast as see what denizens await. And that’s okay, because one of the great things about Panamá is not necessarily knowing what it is at the end of the line, and my favorite fish is the next one I catch.