One of the translations for the word Panama is variety. Whoever originated this translation must certainly have been a fisherman. After broad experiences in Central and South America, it must be said that for variety, Panama ranks among the best that the hemisphere has to offer.
This was my third trip to the Panama Big Game Fishing Club, and sixth overall to the country. Club owners Bill Beck, and Lee Campbell are both ex-charter boat captains, and this is reflected in their operation of the club.
Captain Campbell manages the club on site and handles the in-country arrangements. After a four-hour flight from Houston, we were greeted by representatives from Starlite travel and escorted to the airport’s VIP lounge. While the agents took care of our luggage and passports, cocktails were served. A waiting van took us to our first night accommodations, the new five-star hotel Veneto in downtown Panama City. The city is clean, modern and sophisticated. Exploring the restaurant scene is an adventure for the palate.
Early the next morning our van took us to the local airport for our 6:00 am departure to David, the second largest city in Panama. A short 10 min. drive to the marina had us in a small transfer boat for about a one hour scenic river cruise to Boca Brava, the home of Panama Big Game Fishing Club. Capt. Lee was waiting on the dock when we arrived. I knew the routine, so we wore our fishing clothes on the flight into David. A 36 ft. Palm Beach had her engines running at the dock when we got there. While the staff carried our gear to our rooms, we stepped right onto the boat and took off to fish around 9:00 am.
Our destination was Montosa Island, about 40 miles from the club. There were reports of schooling yellow fin tuna in the area. After 30 minutes of fishing, we heard a radio call about a big school of tuna on the other side of the island. Our captain, Tatti, told me the voice from the other boat’s radio belonged to his cousin. . It also turned out our mate, Virgel, was the son of a captain I had fished with many years ago at the famous Club Pacífico, on Coiba Island. From my visits to this part of Panama over the years I’ve found that most of these excellent native fishermen are related. The sons follow in the footsteps of their fathers.
Moving quickly to the new location, we found the sea alive with surface busting baitfish and diving birds. Speeding directly to the school’s perimeter, I cast a large popping plug into the action and began a rapid retrieve. The lure only moved about 3 feet before the strike occurred. This was a 30lb. yellow fin tuna, which provided great action on top water with a spinning rod. The reels are loaded with 65lb.braided line. Capt. Lee had just respooled with 65 because of breaking off some fish the week before. We spent the rest of the afternoon casting to schools of 30 to 40 lb yellow fin. The fish would stay on top for only a few minutes before they had to re-group and ball the bait again. Later that day, I found out why Capt. Lee had added the heavier fishing line. Another cast into a feeding frenzy brought an explosion of a strike. It was a much larger tuna that took the line screaming off the reel.
Forty-five minutes later we finally saw the flash of the fish as it began circling on its side. We timed it so as it circled toward the boat I lifted the fish toward the surface, and two gaffs found their mark. A 125 lb. yellow fin was slapped on the deck. Cheers and high fives were all around. During the next day we did more of the same. What great sport on top-water casting outfits! Some of the other boats were also live-baiting small bonito, to catch larger tuna over 250lbs. On day three it was all sun and the yellow fin surfaced much less. So we fished much closer to Montosa catching some Wahoo to 40lbs., and big jack crevalle to 30lbs. We even dropped down some cut bait for some barred snapper to about 10lbs.
Our last day’s fishing took us south to another group of islands. There were big schools of bonito, and we had no trouble with all the bait we wanted. We even caught two dogtooth tuna mixed in with the bait. Trolling around the islands, we caught more Wahoo and jack crevalle, and then headed out to large under water pinnacle. We dropped down live baits and immediately hooked up with a 50 lb. Amberjack. We lost a large broomtail grouper and had an enormous cuberra snapper come off at the boat.
We wanted to try some casting inshore, and headed back into islands’ shallows. This is my favorite type of fishing locally. The islands are beautiful and the waves break on the rocky shoreline sending white foam spray 20 ft. into the air. I caught a big blue trevalle on a top water plug. Panama is the only place where I have encountered this amazing species of jack. While casting, we also free-lined a dead ballyhoo. Moments after boating the trevalle the free line went off. Fifteen minutes later an 80lb. Roosterfish was photographed and released. The rest of the afternoon we tried trolling ballyhoo. The sailfish weren’t home but we did manage three bull dolphins in the 40 lb. range.
Back at the Club we all shared our weeks full of stories over cocktails and tuna sushi. Capt. Lee was also a chef earlier in his career and brought out a finale dinner of local beef and all the types of fish we had caught that week prepared in different ways.
That’s a glimpse of fishing Panama style. On two previous trips to Panama Big Game, we caught hot marlin bites, averaging 6 to 8 marlin strikes per day. At other times we found huge logs floating offshore, which were loaded with dolphin. There were so many dolphins that we would only catch the 30 to 40 pounders and then move on to the next floating hotel.
The hand made cottages that house the sleeping rooms are extremely nice. They line the stairway, which meanders up the hillside to the main dining room and lounge. The accommodations belie the Club’s remote location. So if you are interested in one of the most interesting places available for variety big game fishing, then consider the Panama Big Game Fishing Club. It is run by professional fishermen and is staffed by some of the friendliest people imaginable. It’s the place to be. El Capitan
Our thanks to: Captain Mike Love & Susan Maza