“This Panama Hotspot is a World-class Billfishery”
When venturing to foreign billfish grounds local knowledge can be a great asset. January 9, 2002 , found us trolling over the famed Hannibal Bank in the Coiba Island region of Panama with Captain Antonio A. “Chombo” Isazas of the Coral Star fleet. Noting that the water was ebbing, off-color and holding sparse bait concentrations Chombo suggested we work the deep blue water often found south of Montuosa Island about eight miles west of our position. “We can come back later about three o’clock when the tide is high. A high, slack tide is good on this bank. The baits school up and stay on top better,” advised Chombo.
Off Montuosa we had 86° flat, blue water and spent the day releasing sailfish, yellowfin tuna and dorado. One 400-pound black marlin stealthily swam towards the boat with one of our live skipjacks, quickly shaking it free before we knew what happened. By 2:30 p.m. I noticed Chombo looking at his watch and with a slight nod of his head his “mate”, Captain Antonio “Kid” Murray started clearing the deck for a fast run to Hannibal . Kid, who usually skippers another fleet boat, was taking advantage of a light early-season week by accepting my offer to join Californian Sabrina Williams and me for some fun fishing.
By the time we arrived at Hannibal most of the sportboats had departed even though the bait was up, birds were working and things looked “fishy”. Kid bridal-rigged two black skipjack and dropped them back in staggered distances from the outriggers. Within five minutes the starboard outrigger was yanked down until the pin finally released under heavy pressure. This fish was hungry and Chombo advised in animated tones for Sabrina to push the lever drag up and let the circle hook do its job. A 300-pound blue burst from the calm surface spraying water as it made a characteristic series of low profile power lunges interspersed with high, tail-kicking leaps. It expended lots of energy on the surface and was released by Kid within 20 minutes of hookup. We congratulated Chombo on making a perfect call this day while chiding him on being lucky as well.
Later, on March 14, 2002 , Chombo upped his personal best with an estimated 900-pound black marlin. Angler Valentina Cugnasca hooked the big fish off Montuosa Island . It was released after a one hour fight on relatively light tackle. A 30 International with 50-pound line was used.
Fish get big in Coiba waters. Dennis Braid, owner of Braid Fishing Products, is a giant tuna fanatic who frequents the Revillagigedo Island area of Mexico via the long range fleet based in San Diego as well as the giant bluefin tuna fishery off North Carolina . “Few places can put you on monster tuna on smaller boats in calm seas than Panama ,” says Braid. “The Hannibal Bank is so reliable I score on big fish every trip by chunking, slow trolling live skipjack or trolling lures. Everything seems to work. My last trip on a “Coral Star” boat in March (’02) I taped-out a yellowfin at 300 pounds before releasing it,” adds Braid. All of Braids fish including marlin are taken stand-up style.
Captain Kit Mc Near, Director of Education for Western Outdoor News, also likes to fish stand-up style. Fishing this way in Panama is a real challenge. During the third week of January, Mc Near was trolling from Julian “Jay” Gustin’s 55-foot Hatteras “The Angler” near Montuosa Island with the new Sevenstrand Sonic lure. It produces a battery-driven sound like a wounded baitfish. After it was attacked repeatedly by sails, yellowfin tuna and dorado a 450-pound black marlin finally got a chance and took it deep, pinning Mc Near to the transom. Mc Near short-stroked the fish hard, motivated by the challenge as well as to recover the pricey $240 lure. Second skipper Travis Peterson released the marlin cleanly and got the lure back. “There’s such a variety of fish here in all sizes that it’s easy to get a tackle mis-match and could get you tied up for hours on a big one. I don’t like to use anything less than a 50-wide outfit for this reason,” advises Mc Near.
PANAMA ON THE MAP
Panama is not a secret to international billfish anglers. The Coiba Island region, with its numerous banks, seamounts and islands positioned near the meandering 1000-fathom drop-off, provides a spectacular habitat that has been attracting top-level pelagics for eons and fishermen for decades. The real challenge has been to find ways to access the region and fish it effectively by spending multiple days on the water aboard reliable vessels with experienced crews. Several operators have faced the logistical hardships that only a remote, isolated venue can test you with, including fuel delivery, boat maintenance, fresh food sources and finding competent staffs, issues that are easy to resolve in more developed countries.
The demise this year of the well-run and largest operator in the area, the “Coiba Explorer II” mothership and her fleet of 26– to 28-foot sportfishers, raised eyebrows and concern regarding continued access to the region that so many anglers have become accustomed to. Since I make three or four trips annually to Panama I too was concerned with the immediate future of its sportfishing capability. Motivated by self-interest as well as a desire to share information about the status of the region today and its promising future, I spent a few months researching and fishing with both established and new operators that will fill any perceived sportfishing void. In fact, the diversity of fishing styles, size of operators, quality of boats, choices of liveaboard or land-based programs and level of experience is greater now than at any other time. Here’s a rundown of what’s available now and what is planned for next season.
RETURN OF THE “CORAL STAR”
For those anglers who enjoy the large mothership concept, the 115-foot “MV Coral Star” is now back in service for fishing and has been fully refurbished. New owner Don Perkins has devoted his vessel to sportfishing while setting aside some weeks for his dive clientele. Perkins has purchased much of the “Coiba Explorer II” fleet and has outfitted each sportfisher with new engines. Unlike its predecessor, the “Coral Star” is not fixed at one location and may drop anchor at a number of venues close to the hottest action, including Montuosa Island , Jicaron Island or Coiba Island . At times anglers may be as close as a ten-minute run to the billfish grounds.
The “Coral Star” fleet consists of four 28-foot Pursuits, a 30-foot Rybo Runner and a 34-foot Delta. The mothership is very comfortable with individually controlled air conditioned rooms including two master staterooms with queen size beds and full bath on the main deck, two deluxe and four standard cabins on the lower deck with portholes, sink and vanity, both private and shared shower and head. All rooms have new VCR set-ups with a good selection of video tapes. Several sun decks with lounge chairs and a covered “Fantail Bar” are favorite gathering spots. A variety of games are available for indoor relaxation while sea kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling and exploring from 18- to 22-foot motor launches can augment the fishing. Some anglers choose to fish at night from the mothership and have a blast with a wide variety of night-feeders. While anchored at Bahia Hermosa on Coiba Island we caught several cubera snapper, including a 45-pounder by the ships cook Andrew Robinson on a handline. Larger fish were lost.
The “Coral Star” operates from November to August on a Saturday through Friday basis. Most anglers fly into Panama City on Friday and depart on Saturday however, I recommend adding a few days to explore Panama ’s natural attractions as well as cosmopolitan Panama City . Upon arrival in Panama , Executive Service Representatives greet you and process your luggage and customs clearance so no waiting in line is necessary as you relax in the VIP Lounge. After overnighting at the 5-Star Caesar Park Hotel, an early-morning flight to David completes the travel leg as the “Coral Star” is homeported at the nearby port of Pedregal . After an orientation meeting and lunch anglers often have a choice of fishing the afternoon and rendezvousing with the mothership at its first anchorage or staying aboard as it navigates through the mangrove river system and open sea lanes to the outer islands. During low tide periods the “Coral Star” will already be in deep water offshore and anglers will depend on the fleet boats for transfers.
A typical fishing day is from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. so there is plenty of time to spend on the offshore grounds pursuing blue and black marlin, yellowfin tuna, dorado (dolphinfish), wahoo and sailfish among others. A growing number of even hardcore bluewater enthusiasts are taking some time to get in on the hot inshore action with the resident roosterfish, bluefin and bigeye trevally, amberjack, cubera snapper, mullet snapper, rainbow runner, broomtail grouper and black snook. Penn International 20’s, 30’s, 50’s and 80’s are provided as well as 30-pound class spinning outfits, however, I suggest bringing your favorite light to medium tackle suitable for deep jigging and surface popping. The Shimano Calcutta 400 and 700 filled with 30-pound and 50-pound spectra with mono or copolymer leaders has been very effective on the pelagic middleweights as well as the inshore gamefish.
A week of fishing with the “Coral Star” costs from $3,000 to $5,000 per person depending on the month, limited load specials or fishing seminar trips. November, which is a transitional month weatherwise, is usually priced lower than the peak December to March period. Prices include everything except airfare to Panama , bar tab and crew tips. Contact Sherri Wilson at 866-924-2837.
Owner Julian “Jay” Gustin came to Panama looking for a winter fishery to augment his successful Alaska charter operation. It didn’t take long to get hooked on the Coiba Island region and he quickly devoted his time and resources in developing an exceptional, customized operation built around “The Angler, a high tech 55-foot Hatteras. Gustin also brought his top crewman, Captain Travis Peterson, to help with the transition. The term “customize” fails to adequately describe how the clients can be involved with onboard decision-making. Before departure and every evening there is a gathering of crew and clients to discuss variables such as sea condition, weather, bait movement, fishing style or species to be pursued so that the general itinerary can be adjusted if necessary to give the client the best possible experience. With a maximum of four anglers, many clients split the group between island skiff fishing and blue water trolling and rendezvous before dark at a pre-determined anchorage.
“The Angler” has all the high tech equipment an angler could ask for. Spreader outriggers, downriggers, fighting chair, tuna tubes, central air conditioning and the latest in safety and electronic equipment including satellite communications, as well as gourmet meals are some of the amenities. Conventional, spinning and flyfishing tackle is provided such as Fin Nor, Penn, Shimano, Islander, Abel, Loomis, Calstar and Sage. Scuba and snorkel gear is also available.
The standard fishing package is five days from Saturday to Wednesday. Clients usually arrive on Friday in Panama City and overnight at the Marriott Hotel. A short flight to David and transfer to Pedregal starts the fishing on Saturday morning. Captain Travis Peterson may have “wet his teeth” in Alaskan waters but you would never know it. Peterson has some of the best local knowledge and skills to be found in Panama . Peterson is very effective in the cockpit as well as running the skiff working nearshore hotspots.
For next season beginning September 2002, Gustin will be changing the fishing format to accommodate more anglers. They have completely refurbished the “floating lodge” that served as the original “Coiba Explorer” guest quarters and will be anchoring it at a prime Coiba location. Upgrades include air conditioning, new galley salon and bar. It can accommodate 12 people. A new fishing fleet is also being introduced which includes three 27-foot center console Ocean Masters. The cost per angler is $2,495 (four anglers per boat), $2,995 (three anglers), and $3,495 (two anglers). For information and reservations contact Teri Fritch at 800-946-3474.
COIBA ADVENTURE SPORTFISHING
Captain Tom Yust has more than ten years of experience fishing the Coiba Region. The enthusiastic Yust has guided anglers via several operations including a mothership, floating lodge, private island base and now from the old Club Pacifico site at the northern end of Coiba Island . A 31-foot Bertram and 22-foot Mako comprise the Coiba Adventure fleet that is personally run by Yust. “Adventure” is his key word as Yust won’t hesitate to lead his clients to a freedive with billfish and giant tuna or kayaking up jungle rivers and photographing the local crocodiles and other wildlife. “Some people just fish, we explore,” is his motto.
The customized trips are flexible with three to seven day itineraries. Up to six anglers can be accommodated. All fishing tackle is provided. Circle hooks are the standard as all billfish are released. Trip costs vary with the itinerary selected. A Friday to Sunday “Poor Boy” trip aboard the Bertram is $900 per person, (three anglers), while a six day trip based at the Club Pacifico is $3,750. For more details contact their U.S. office at 800-800-0907, or Panama office at 011-507-999-8108.
LAS OLAS RESORT
This 40-room resort is located on Playa La Barqueta near the City of David . For anglers that prefer a land-based operation this is a good option. Owner Juan Arauz offers a variety of accommodations including suites and penthouses all with oceanfront views. The resort has two swimming pools, spa, weight room, room service, gourmet restaurant and other first-class amenities. A 34-foot Proline sportfisher is docked at nearby Pedregal and can do overnight trips to Coiba Island environs as well as one day local trips. Daily room rates start at $80 while the total one day charter boat cost is $750. A two-day charter is $1,000 inclusive (food, drinks, tackle, etc.). Contact the U.S. office at 800-346-1329 extension 806, or Panama at 011-507-772-3000.
RIO NEGRO SPORTFISHING LODGE
“We fish standup and barefoot,” describes Captain Tom Giles of his relatively low cost, land based operation located east of Coiba Island on the Azuero Peninsula . The Rio Negro fleet consists of 26-foot super pangas driven by 85 horsepower Yamaha outboards. The emphasis is on light tackle gamefish such as dorado, school yellowfin tuna, wahoo and roosterfish, however, guests can pursue sailfish as well. Both blue and black marlin are encountered but are not considered part of their target species. The fishing grounds include the waters off Punta Naranjo at the southwestern tip of the Azuero Peninsula, Cebeco Island as well as Coiba Island about 30 miles due west.
The lodge accommodates up to four anglers in two air conditioned, double occupancy guest rooms that feature a large patio and dining kiosk. It is a four-hour drive from Panama City or a short domestic flight to Santiago and ground transfer. A five day fishing trip including six nights double occupancy, meals, boat and tackle is $1,500 per person. Non-fishing guests are charged $60 per night. For more information contact Captain Tom Giles at 305-294-0603, (after 5 p.m. ).
Las Olas Resort
Rio Negro Lodge
Panama Travel Experts
Panama is served by major airlines including Continental, American and COPA. Cosmopolitan Panama City is the hub and most anglers will spend at least two nights in transit from a fishing trip. Panama is a safe destination, 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. In addition to the Caesar Park and Marriott Hotels that serve some of the fishing lodges, other premium hotels include The Bristol (507-265-7844), Miramar Intercontinental (507-214-1000) and Gamboa Rainforest Resort (507-314-9000). Most fishing packages include ground transfers but if you need to book separately contact Starlite Travel at 507-232-6401.
The dry season is from December to May. Most of the fishing facilities base their operations around this period although the Coiba Region is fishable all year for a variety of gamefish. Take plenty of sunblock, hat, sunglasses, umbrella (inexpensive locally) and insect repellent (if staying on land). Tips are not included in any of the programs here so figure at least 10% of the charter cost for good service. Although sportfishing is the reason for your trip, try to save time for other interests such as river rafting, jungle trekking, Baru Volcano, Boquete (an “Alpine” village near David), Panama Canal , surfing, snorkeling, or enjoying the nightlife in Panama City . Call Panama Travel Experts at 877-836-5300 for everything you need to know about Panama.
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The Roving Angler