“This Remote Region Features Untapped Reefs, Black Marlin, Yellowfin Tuna and Hordes of Light Tackle Gamefish”
In April of 1990, Captain Jim Wiese lost an engine on his 47-foot Buddy Davis “Aguja” at CoibaIsland which led to an exciting discovery. “I had ten days to kill but decided to head back toPanama City for repairs,” relates Wiese. “Along the 210 mile route I had to settle a curiosity I had. My old Omega chart showed a 58-foot high spot off the southwest corner of theAzueroPeninsula that I had to check out. Most of the reported high spots on these charts that I had checked out were false, probably from readings of dense schools of tuna or bait. Approaching the area I could tell this one was real. I found deep blue water, tons of bait, birds and a whale shark on top with no one else in sight. The highest spot read 124-feet so I figured the shallower reading was probably taken with bait over it. We made bait and had a black marlin on within five minutes. I couldn’t maneuver well on one engine and lost it. Every pass over the reef, which is about the size of Piñas Reef, something ate the big skipjack baits including amberjack and cubera. This place was alive and I was determined to come back and work it right. I named it Aguja Reef after my boat,” relates Wiese.
Returning in April of 1991, Wiese spent several days fishing the reef with great sea conditions. Black marlin were thick with the best day recording eight blacks including a double hook-up. Sailfish, wahoo and yellowfin tuna were scattered around the area, however, Wiese, a dedicated marlin guy, was shocked by the indigenous reef dwellers. “We caught so many big fish while we were trying to catch bait it was amazing. We had a 109-pound amberjack on 20-pound line and TLD 20 that took a small silver spoon intended for skipjack. It doesn’t get any better if you’re into light tackle. We lost a lot of marlin time because of those hook-ups,” says Wiese with a sly smile.
My first venture to this region, which I termed theTunaCoastin November, 1998, was to the more accessible easterly shoreline near the town ofPedasí. The only boats available were 23-foot commercial pangas (open skiffs) pushed by 40-horepower outboards so this was primarily a light tackle fishery. Even so, we suspected marlin were likely here given the deep water shown on the charts just a few miles from shore. Previously, an 850-pound black marlin was taken on a handline by a local snapper fisherman.
Probing the nearby islands, rocky points and reefs with surface poppers, deep jigging and trolling lures revealed an incredible array of gamefish. Sailfish, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, dorado, amberjack, rainbow runner, hammerhead shark, goliath grouper, roosterfish, snook, African pompano, corvina, sierra mackerel, jack crevalle, broomtail grouper, cherna (snowy grouper), greenbar snapper, bluefin trevally, cubera and mullet snapper, barracuda, bonito and bigeye trevally offered nearly nonstop action. I was to visit several more times including April, 2006 fishing from the comfortable Villa Marina Resort at Playa Vénado with panga guide Augusto Lopez. The use of faster center console pangas is becoming more common as artisanal commercial fishermen start catering more to sportfishermen from theU.S.andPanama City. Richard Castaneda of Cass Tours started bringing groups of stateside anglers here after a trip with me in June of 2000 when he remarked, “This is like Baja 50 years ago, if Baja was ever this good,” after releasing 18 species of fish in three days without the use of live bait.
Despite these great light tackle trips, I kept looking west where the rugged Cerro Hoya mountains met the 100-fathom line less than a quarter mile from shore. Fished only by private yachts in-transit, this most inaccessible half of theTunaCoastwas essentially off-limits to visiting anglers. Until recently.
THE TUNA COAST CONNECTION
While visiting friends at the Flamenco Yacht Club inPanama Cityin February, 2004, I was introduced to Captain Jim Wiese on his new “Aguja”, another 47-foot Buddy Davis that had been “tricked out” with Detroit MTU’s to perform long high speed runs. Focused and energetic, Wiese related how he was staring a project to establish a yacht refueling and supply station atCebacoIslandwith the mothership “CebacoBay,” a 110-foot converted oil field utility vessel. From this location, a mere 13 miles north of Aguja Reef, Wiese would also offer charter fishing with a mix of yachts and fast center consoles. At last, Wiese could fish his favorite spots from a convenient home base. It was also a way for me to access the intriguing western half of theTunaCoast. However, knowing the logistics and other challenges, I wanted to keep my eye on this remote development for at least a year or two before confirming its success. My first visits toCebacoBayin February and April of 2006 revealed not only great fishing but a well-run, professional operation.
After years of fishing Aguja Reef, Wiese compares it favorably to both Piñas Reef and Hannibal Bank as a black marlin producer. “When the currents are right Aguja can be phenomenal. On our best day we released ten black marlin which is world-class. When the water gets green and cold, which can happen anywhere down here, we just run further south or fishHannibaland the other Coiba high spots,” says Wiese.
BLACK MARLIN TACTICS
You don’t release ten black marlin in one day without having a good system and crew. Wiese runs a tight ship and has definite ideas about fishing blacks. “First of all, black marlin are not afraid of boats and are attracted to engine noise and prop wash. In the days before tuna tubes we would hang spare baits from the outriggers right next to the hull. Quite often we would hear a “wham”. It was a black marlin ripping these baits right off the rigger and slamming into the boat. These are fearless animals. My twin Detroit MTU Series 60’s at 825 horsepower each can really raise fish even at slow idle. I like to put my baits in close at about 40-feet from the outrigger where you can see the swivel and at 70-feet. The close one gets bit 90% of the time,” says Wiese. In fact, if you’re not real fast these aggressive fish will take both baits which happened twice during my trip. Another advantage to fishing close is that it’s easier to observe the bait, usually live black skipjack, getting nervous when a predator approaches as they will veer off at an angle and flash in the clear water. On several occasions the angler and crew were able to get ready before the knockdown occurred. Unlike some skippers that wander all over a seamount as well as away from it, Wiese sticks to the high spots trolling tight to the schools of bait. As the bait sinks during a strong current, downriggers may be used to reach this deeper strike zone, otherwise, this is a topwater bait system.
Large circle hooks are bridled to the bait. After trial and error Wiese had to replace the Mustad 16/0’s with 20/0’s. “We found that the gap was too small on the 16/0’s after measuring the corner jaw on a big marlin. It wouldn’t fit even if we tried to push it in. The 20/0’s solved the problem and our hook-up ratio improved greatly. This shows that you need to match your hooks to the biggest fish you’re likely to raise no matter where you are. Another thing we adjusted was increasing the distance by a few inches between the hook and nose of the bait. We were rigging too close to the bait and the hooks were either getting buried in the bait or fouled during a strike. Let the hook swing a little,” advises Wiese.
During a strike the angler plays a key role when using circle hooks. When the fish is taking line the angler reels fast and steady with the rod pointing down and to the side. This keeps the line angle low and facilitates the hook pulling to the corner of the jaw. The boat is kept in slow-ahead idle or even stopped briefly to monitor the fish movement before striking. The classic “J” hook practice of striking vertically with the rod while the boat is gunned forward to set the hook doesn’t work with circles. This also puts considerable distance between the boat and marlin where the angler may be at an immediate disadvantage having to regain lots of line. Wiese likes a tight surface fight which circle hooks allow for initially. Aggressive backing down on the fish if it strays too far keeps a good line angle and discourages a deep dive which can prolong a fight or prove fatal for the marlin. A spectacular but exhaustive surface show can often result in a ten or 20-minute release even on large fish. We had an estimated 500-pound black marlin at the leader in 18 minutes using this technique.
GEOGRAPHY, GAMEFISH AND SEASONS
TheAzueroPeninsulais a huge block of land that separates the Gulf of Panama region from theGulfofChiriqui. It runs smack into the deep-water migratory routes of the big game fish that have made both the Coiba Region andPiñasBayfamous. It’s southern portion, or Tuna Coast, attracts blue, black and striped marlin, big sailfish, wahoo, sharks, dorado and, of course, yellowfin tuna. When the blue-water current swings in close, all the pelagic gamefish can be caught within a few miles of the coast, however, we found that most of these fish are active in the green water as well. To the east, Outer Los Frailes rocks are on the boundary between the nearshore and offshore fisheries. They rest in 77 fathoms, but within one-half mile the bottom drops to 573 fathoms. Inner Frailes, about three miles landward of Outer Los Frailes, lies in 42 fathoms and is a good light-tackle destination. On May 21, 2006, Wiese released a 400-pound black marlin at Outer Los Frailes while heading back toPanama Cityaboard the “Aguja”.
The 50-mileTunaCoast, from Punta Mala (Bad Point) on the east to Punta Mariato to the west, features long stretches of white sand beaches interrupted by unnamed rocky points that jut seaward like fingers into relatively shallow water. These areas hold lots of sardines and other forage which create a topnotch light tackle fishery. Punta Mala is noted on charts as an area of “strong current” and a steep sea can develop quickly especially from January to March. Traveling west, the low-profile shoreline changes to forested mountains and the water gets deeper closer to the shore. The rugged stretch of coast at Punta Mariato is less than two miles from the 1000-fathom line. At Punta Mala it’s seven miles. Freighters transiting the Panama Canal Zone run tight to theTunaCoastand its deep water routes.
Punta Mariato is very remote and prior to the establishment of Cebaco Bay Sportfishing Club was usually sportfished only by yachts in-transit or by adventurous trailerboaters that launched in protected coves and camped after a four-wheel drive over dirt roads. Aguja Reef and a rocky high spot called Roncador are located a few miles west of Punta Mariato. Most of theAzueroPeninsulais devoted to agriculture and livestock. Fishing is a relatively minor activity. Only a few towns dot the quiet, rural landscape. Tourists are rare and bargain prices are based on the local economy.
Sailfish are the most numerous billfish at times and can be found in green nearshore water as well as offshore. Slow-trolling live or dead baits such as cojinua (green jack) or belly strips of skipjack cut Panama style is highly effective. Black Marlin are found near the seamounts and respond well to live bridle-rigged skipjack and bonito. Blue marlin cruise the 1000-fathom drop-off and big skirted lures trolled at seven to ten knots is a good way to find them. Yellowfin tuna school-up anywhere along this coast outside the 50-fathom line. Although anglers encounter lots of nearshore action with fish under 40 pounds, the larger tuna exceeding 100 pounds will generally be found in deeper water.
One attribute that separatesPanamafrom most other Latin fisheries is the proclivity of its many gamefish to hit surface poppers. Anglers routinely catch species such as amberjack, cubera snapper, roosterfish, mullet snapper, rainbow runner and sierra mackerel on poppers that aren’t readily known to take surface offerings elsewhere. Deep jigging is another productive style of fishing this region. In between marlin action, Wiese would stop the “Aguja” over a high spot and give us light tackle guys a thrill. Using the new Shimano Butterfly jigs we hooked up with 80-pound broomtail grouper, 50-pound cubera snapper and amberjack as well as a host of other species. From top to bottom, theTunaCoastis still an amazing place.
Most gamefish, especially yellowfin tuna, are available all year, however, the fishing season on theTunaCoastcan be affected by the weather. To the east it’s mostly a late-April to December fishery due to theCaribbeantradewinds that spill over the low isthmus of Panama from December to early-April. The northeast wind can affect the Gulf of Panama as far south as the Punta Mala area while the westerly section of theTunaCoastfrom Punta Morro de Puercos to Punta Mariato is protected by mountains and is calm most of the year. From December to May, the sea conditions are usually ideal in theGulfofChiriquiwhich includes the Coiba Island Region as well as Cebaco.
CHARTER OPTIONS AND PLACES TO STAY
Capt. Wiese and venture partner Jim McNamara are original “zonies”, having grown up in the Panama Canal Zone, so are very familiar with the Republicof Panama. Successful businessmen, Wiese as owner of Intercoastal Marine, Inc., a major maritime construction firm, and McNamara as former president of Universal Studios Productions and C.E.O. of Telemundo, they have a master plan for the Cebaco Bay Sportfishing Club, including the future development of a full marina, airstrip and resort complex. Next season, which runs from December 15 to May 15, the fleet will include the 47-foot “Aguja”, two 31-foot Bertrams and two deluxe center console pangas. The fully air conditioned 110-foot “CebacoBay” serves as the mothership with staterooms, galley, bar, movie lounge and huge multi-purpose deck. For visiting yachts, diesel refueling, overnight mooring and supply services are offered. A helicopter pad is located near the bay for easy access, otherwise it’s a one-hour boat ride to Puerto Mutis near the city of Santiago. For information or reservations; Web: www.gofishpanama.com; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Villa Marina Resort at Playa Venado is a comfortable ten room, colonial style inn located on 220 acres of landscaped gardens. Playa Venado is an international surf spot, however, the secluded Villa sits on the protected eastern shore where your fishing guide can pick you up directly from the calm beach. Los Frailes rocks are only a fifteen minute run offshore. Affable Manager Ovidio Diaz can arrange for fishing as well as other activities such as horseback riding. Guide Augusto Lopez from CirueloBeachhas a center console panga and we had great light tackle tuna fishing and nearshore popping and jigging here last April. From here to Pedasi, 13 miles to the east, it’s a small boat fishing experience. Contact the Villa Marina at 646-383-7486 (U.S.); 507-211-2277; E-mail: email@example.com; Web: www.playavenado.com.
La Playita Resort is located near a beautiful cove at AchotinesBay. Owner Lester Knight likes aminals and guests share the grounds with ostriches, turkeys, monkeys and other pets. In addition to fishing, snorkeling is a good activity here. Contact at 507-996-6551; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. At the quaint town of Pedasí, some anglers stay at the modest Residencial Pedasí for bargain rates. Contact 507-995-2322. The Rio Negro Sport Fishing Club, located on the mainland near Cebaco island, offers light tackle fishing aboard a 34-foot custom panga. Contact 912-786-5926 (U.S.); E-mail: email@example.com;
Independent guides will meet you wherever you choose to stay including Captain Tony Herndon who has extensive experience fishing all of Panama’s top venues. Herndon’s custom 28-foot panga is rigged for billfishing as well as light tackle options. Contact 507-6622-0212; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web: www.panamafishingandcatching.com.
English-speaking guide Augusto Lopez lives at Ciruela Beach near Los Frailes and can be reached at 507-6524-9421; E-mail: email@example.com;
Richard Castaneda at Cass tours can book all of these guides as well as venues. He also brings groups of 12 to 14 anglers from the U.S.to the TunaCoastabout four times a year with great success. Contact Castaneda at 800-593-6510; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web: www.casstours.com.
GOING TO PANAMA
Panamais served by major airlines including Continental, American and COPA. CosmopolitanPanama Cityis the hub and most anglers will spend at least two nights in transit from a fishing trip. First time visitors are usually surprised to find thatPanama Cityis modern, clean, safe and has a high-rise skyline equal to most largeU.S.cities. Over 140 banks are located here and a strongU.S.influence can be seen in the selection of fine restaurants, shops and nightlife available. English is widely spoken and the U.S. dollar is used as currency. U.S.visitors will need a valid passport and tourist card that can usually be obtained from your airline for $5. There is a departure tax of $20. Anglers arriving at Tocumen International Airportcan take a traditional 20-minute taxi ride into downtown or can arrange for a VIP ground transfer service that includes fast-track customs clearance, waiting lounge and direct luggage transfer to a shuttle van. This service can be reserved by calling any major hotel or your travel agent. A large number of first-rate accommodations are available including theWestinCaesarPark, Marriott, The Bristol, Miramar Intercontinental, Gamboa Rainforest Resort and Veneto Hotel. Airline service to the Tuna Coast is very limited so most anglers arrive by shuttle van or bus for larger groups. It’s a scenic five hour drive fromPanama Cityto Pedasí.
The dry season is from December to May. Most visiting anglers and some facilities such as Cebaco Bay Sportfishing Club focus on this period although theTunaCoastis fishable all year for a variety of gamefish. Take plenty of sunblock, hat, sunglasses, umbrella (inexpensive locally) and insect repellent (if staying on land). Although sportfishing is the reason for your trip, try to save time for other interests such as river rafting, jungle trekking, turtle nesting at Cañas,Panama Canal, surfing, snorkeling, or enjoying the nightlife inPanama City.
THE TUNA LAB
The Tuna Lab, more formally known as the Achotines Laboratory, is part of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) Tuna-Billfish Program. Here, visitors can view yellowfin tuna from egg and larval stages up to 150-pound adults swimming in large tanks. Captive tuna spawn on nearly a daily basis and the lab has facilities, such as egg incubators, to research the life development of this important species. I’ve also witnessed their collection boat taking live school yellowfin from Outer Los Frailes to add to the genetic pool. These research activities have grown to include turtles, whales and dolphins. More than 150 species of fish have been collected including at least 10 species of tunas and billfishes. AchotinesBay, located directly onshore from the FrailesIslands, contains one of the few coral reefs of its type found in the Eastern tropical Pacific and is adjacent to extensive rocky inter-tidal pools. The lab is also used for a variety of research in other areas of marine and terrestrial biology such as the restoration of the nearby Tropical Dry Forest. Visits to the Achotines Laboratory can only be mad with advance reservations by calling the lab at 011-507-995-8166 (from the U.S.), Website: www.iattc.org/achotines. The IATTC headquarters in La Jolla,California can be reached at 858-546-7100. Most travel outfitters can also make these arrangements for you.
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The Roving Angler