“Exotic Fishing on a Small Boat Budget”
The huge mass of leaping sardines sounded like hard rain as they tried to avoid attacking yellowfin tuna, only to be picked off by swift frigate birds and wheeling terns from above. Casting surface poppers to the edge of the melee, the calm, blue water erupted as each lure was crashed after a couple of pops. School tuna in the 20-to 40-pound range were soon being released in a seemingly unending cycle of action.
Panamanian businessman Ramon Gonzalez-Revilla wearily retrieved his PILI popper expecting more tuna, only to be surprised by a hard-charging sailfish. The light popper was knocked left and right by the thrashing bill as the sail was having a difficult time eating the thing. In a moment it was gone, leaving Gonzalez-Revilla a little shaken but re-energized. After 21 tuna releases and one for the sushi table by mid-morning, we started trolling to Los Frailes, a cluster of flat-topped rocky isles about four miles off Panama’s Tuna Coast. En route we were interrupted by three dorado (dolphin) and a big sail estimated at 130 pounds that took a Mold Craft Super Chugger.
The radio crackled. “You guys should get over here,” came the abrupt message from Californian Rick Casparian on another panga that was already at Los Frailes. Within minutes we arrived to see Casparian release a 15-pound rainbow runner while his pangero , Algis Garsia, fought a big fish from the stern of the drifting boat. Casparian hollered that everything was there. Since they had arrived an hour earlier, yellowfin tuna, dorado, rainbow runner and some big cubera snapper had been hooked on poppers and metal jigs. Garsia had just put out a whole skipjack and now the boat was being towed backward by an unseen predator. Hoping it was a black marlin that refused to jump, we were disappointed to see a large hammerhead shark appear. Previously, an 850-pound black marlin had been taken on a handline by a local snapper fisherman.
We decided to drop the rusty rebar anchor on a high spot in 100 feet of water just east of the main island. We started out by casting poppers in random directions while our pangero fished deep with skipjack. The fishing was slow for about 15 minutes, then I saw a V-wake tracking my large Mr. Pili. It was a whole school of “something” that disappeared quickly. Repeated casts brought them up again, and we were soon hooked up. These were hefty bigeye trevally in the 12-pound class, and they turned out to be harbingers of better things to come. For four solid hours, different game fish came in waves, including yellowfin tuna, sailfish, dorado, amberjack, rainbow runner, cubera snapper, hammerhead shark, bluefin trevally, barracuda and a 200-pound jewfish that got curious.
We surmised that the pinnacle we were anchored on was being circled by myriad game fish. We never hooked the same species consecutively as one group of fish would move on only to be replaced by something else. It was superb variety fishing, using techniques from popping and deep-jigging to soaking natural bait.
During this trip in late May our four-person group also raised black marlin, whitetip and tiger shark, broomtail grouper, sierra mackerel, African pompano, barred pargo, jack crevalle, mullet snapper, roosterfish and wahoo to 80 pounds. Adding to the excitement was the realization that we were fishing a new frontier, exploring the pristine habitat of this remote area in small outboard skiffs and doing so on a low budget.
THE TUNA COAST
For years, knowledgeable anglers have studied charts of Panama and were drawn to a section of coastline that nearly ran into the 1,000-fathom drop-off. This is the Azuero Peninsula, a huge block of land that separates the Coiba Island region from the Gulf of Panama. It runs smack into the deep-water migratory routes of the big game fish that have made both Coiba and Piñas Bay famous. 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 game fish 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. 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.
The 50-mile Tuna Coast, from Punta Mala (Bad Point) on the east to Punta Mariato to the west, features long stretches of white sand beaches interrupted by rocky terrain that jut seaward like fingers into relatively shallow water. These areas hold lots of sardines and other forage which create a topnotch fishery for roosterfish, trevally, sierra mackerel, cubera snapper, snook and African pompano. The rocks have caught their share of vessels over the years and those sunken fish-attractors hold untapped numbers of jewfish, broomtail grouper and snapper. Punta Mala is noted on charts as an area of “strong current” and a steep sea can develop quickly especially during the winter. 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 its seven miles. Freighters transiting the Panama Canal Zone run tight to the Tuna Coast and its deep water routes.
Punta Mariato is very remote and is usually sportfished only by yachts in-transit or by adventurous trailerboaters that launch in protected coves and camp after a four-wheel drive over dirt roads. The fishing, however, is excellent and will undoubtedly be made more accessible in the near future. The Punta Mala area, which includes Los Frailes and Isla Iguana, supports a commercial fish camp with about 40 pangas that subsist on small deep water snapper that are handlined and sold for the restaurant trade. Isla Iguana, a wildlife sanctuary on the northeastern side of Punta Mala, is only two miles from the panga fleet but can produce big wahoo, yellowfin tuna and a variety of resident species including jewfish and African pompano. Most of the Azuero Peninsula is 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 where, for example, a complete filet mignon dinner costs $5.
FISHING NOTES AND TIPS
Sailfish are the most numerous billfish 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 inside the 100-fathom curve and respond well to live bridle-rigged skipjack and bonito trolled deep from Z-Wings. 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 under porpoise anywhere along this coast outside the 50-fathom line. Although anglers encounter lots of surface action with fish under 40 pounds, the larger tuna exceeding 100 pounds will generally be found deeper and are more selective. When tuna are encountered, drop whole or chunk bait down with a sinker at 60-to 120-feet for bigger fish. Another good technique is to troll lures from a downrigger or Z-Wing. Due to the limited space on a panga, Z-Wings are preferred since they can be used directly from a heavy cord without downrigger hardware.
Offshore big game fishing from a panga is an exciting albeit rugged sport to pursue. If you want more action with an incredible variety of gamefish, however, travel no further than the nearshore islands and seamounts. Through trial and error, we have found that trolling lures is probably the least productive of the nearshore techniques. The undisputed best method to get the fish going is to anchor over high spots near Isla Iguana or Los Frailes and chunk with cut bonito or skipjack. Surface gamefish such as dorado, sailfish and tuna will set up a swim pattern around the boat and bottom-dwellers like cubera snapper will move up the water column within easy striking distance of a splashing popper.
The one thing that separates Panama from most other tropical fisheries is the proclivity of its many gamefish to hit surface poppers. I’ve caught some species such as amberjack, cubera snapper, mullet snapper, rainbow runner and sierra mackerel on poppers that aren’t readily known to take surface offerings elsewhere.
Good alternative techniques include anchoring without chunking and using metal jigs bounced or “yo-yo” retrieved from the bottom in addition to surface lures. Blind-casting poppers among rocks and island crevices is a good method for bluefin and bigeye trevally, snapper and barracuda. Slow trolling live green jack and casting poppers along the beaches and rocky shoreline produces the prized roosterfish as well as jack crevalle, black snook and huge sierra mackerel to 18 pounds. Dropping a big bait down to wrecks as shallow as 20-feet can create a tug-of-war with resident jewfish, grouper and amberjack.
“This is like Baja 40 years ago” remarked Mel Topance of California, referring to the quality and price of fishing the Tuna Coast. Topance, an experienced traveler who flyfishes exclusively, lost an estimated 150-pound yellowfin tuna at boatside at Isla Iguana that was a sure all-tippet fly record. He had so much action in three days of flyfishing at Isla Iguana last June that he never bothered to fish Los Frailes where the fishing is usually superior.
International Anglers “Tuna Coast Adventure” eight day/seven night package costs $1,745 per person for a group of four anglers. It includes five full days of panga fishing (two anglers per boat), five nights at the Residencial Pedasí (single occupancy), breakfast and lunch in Pedasí, bilingual guide, round trip flight to Chitré from Panama City, ground transfers and two nights at the five-star Caesar Park or Miramar Intercontinental Hotel during arrival and departure in Panama City. For a group of six the cost is $1,645 per person. Price does not include air fare to Panama, fishing tackle, gratuities and meals in Panama City or dinners in Pedasí. Paul McBride at International Anglers (800-477-2076) can also customize packages to fit you needs.
An easy and popular side-trip for tarpon, snook and peacock bass is only a 45-minute drive from Panama City to the Gamboa Tropical Rainforest Resort. This light tackle fishing aboard new outboard skiffs can add variety to a Tuna Coast trip at a cost of $150 per day.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Anglers interested in fishing the Tuna Coast need to be self-contained with tackle, lures and any special equipment. Although its’ feasible to make the trip unassisted, it is highly advisable to go through a professional travel wholesaler. My trip in November of 1998 and May, 1999 were arranged by Paul McBride of International Anglers. Continental Airlines provided easy connections and its non-stop flight to Panama city from its Houston hub took only 3 hours and 45 minutes. Panama is a friendly and safe country to visit. English is widely spoken in Panama City but Spanish is more common in remote coastal areas such as Pedasí. Visiting anglers stay in the town of Pedasí. Two motels, a gas station, several palapa-style (thatched roof) restaurants and two markets provide the only creature-comforts when fishing Punta Mala area.
The 23-foot pangas are narrow-beamed, shallow draft vessels powered by single 40-horsepower outboards. Anglers board the boats from a calm beach. The panga captains (pangeros) are typically soft-spoken and speak little or no English. Sportfishing is a new concept here but they are eager to learn from visiting anglers. The pangas are spartan but functional and generally lack amenities such as flooring, seat cushions, shade tops, livewells and fish-finding electronics. Panga fishing is fun because its’ a “hands on” experience, builds camaraderie and your fishing close to the water, however, anglers that need the comfort and convenience of a big cruiser may not appreciate this small boat style of fishing.
The fishing season on the Tuna Coast is dictated by the weather. Generally it’s a late-April to December fishery due to the Caribbean tradewinds 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 the Tuna Coast at Punta Mariato is protected by mountains and is calm most of the year.
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The Roving Angler