“Hold on Tight for this Power Fishing Style”
The idle chatter onboard grew gradually silent the closer we got to Montuosa Island, one of the premier pargo destinations in Panama, if not the world. Having both won and lost battles with these powerhouses here before, I went over my gear one more time; checking drags, knots, hook points and sideplate screws because any weakness in the system will result in losing one of these fish. Big pargo are what I call “tackle testers”, if not busters, that will quickly reveal any flaw in your tackle, as well as your fishing ability or skippers boat handling skill. One imperfect knot or error in judgment means you’ll be re-rigging soon. These are not forgiving fish.
Montuosa is a jungle island surrounded by deep water except for its southwest side where a large shoal extends out a few miles. This shelf eventually drops into a deep canyon but before it does hundreds of craggy rocks, islets and coral heads protrude upward forming a vast field of pargo structures. Approaching “Sentinel rock” that I named because it sits alone on the easterly face of the island and about one-half mile offshore, I went to the bow of the 28-foot Albemarle to start launching popping plugs. Captain Domingo “Mingo” Acosta put us in good position about a medium cast from the deep side of the rock. As he slipped the gears into neutral he knodded and I cast a fluorescent red-orange Braid Pop Dancer well beyond the rock so that it would pass close by on the retrieve. Red is a good lure color for pargo and I will take red nail polish on trips to paint a plug if I run short. The splashing surface lure was just leaving the rock behind when the ocean seemed to erupt in whitewater and foam. A pargo missed the lure but came back and hit it solidly. With a swipe of its broad tail it slapped the water, making a “whooshing” sound as it powered straight down.
Pargo are notorious for their ability to dive into the rocks, cutting the line before you know what happened. This one made a mistake by heading for deeper water and towards the boat. It could easily have powered back to the shallow ridge at the base of the rock where it stood a better chance of escaping. With 25 pounds of drag pressure exerted directly overhead and with a savvy skipper moving the boat to keep a good line angle, this pargo was mine. “I got’em!” I hollered after Mingo told me we were in deep water. Since a cut-off was very unlikely now I backed off the drag a little and let the fish make slightly longer runs. The vertical give-and-take fight, characteristic of pargo, was nearing an end as its crimson red flank appeared about 50-feet below. “Cubera!” I said excitedly because they are my favorite species of pargo for their handsome-good looks and eating quality. Called “dog snapper” for many years in Baja, the International Game Fish Association now labels this fish as Pacific cubera snapper. By any name they are brutal adversaries. Mate Chi-Chi Bernal lip-gaffed the exhausted fish and hauled it aboard as I made my way down to the cockpit. “Looks like about 30 pounds,” I estimated. My excited crew said “40” so we settled on 35 before getting it quickly back in the water after a photo. It swam slowly downward with big, sluggish strokes of its tail fin.
After thanking my Panamanian crew I got busy checking hooks, leader, drag setting and taking a big drink of cool water to keep ahead of the tropical heat. Returning to the rock resulted in a missed strike on another pargo and then the jacks took over. “Uh-oh,”, I muttered as the deep bounces on the rod tip told me a jack crevalle was on the other end. Sure enough, a 20-pound jack came grudgingly to the boat and was released. “Let’s move. It’s too hot to mess with these guys,” I said, knowing that when these aggressive jacks show up they tend to crowd out the other fish.
With a roar of the twin diesels we headed for the nearby rocky shoal that holds a motherlode of big pargo up to 70 pounds and more. The good thing is they hit poppers like crazy. Getting them in the boat is the problem and challenge. Since these battles are usually won or lost within the first ten seconds after hookup as the pargo tries to get in the rocks, I forced my star drag to move another fraction of an inch to give me 30 pounds of pressure. A Shimano Calcutta 700 with 50-pound spectra isn’t designed for this heavy drag setting but it gives the angler a fighting chance under these extreme power-to-power matchups.
The first few “boiler” rocks produced colorful bluefin trevally and smaller pargo lisa or mullet snapper. On the next stop my popper just disappeared where it landed. I didn’t even see the hit. The line went tight and after a hard zip on the drag I was soon reeling in limp line sans popper. “I didn’t have a chance with that one. He must have been five feet from his hole,” I said, somewhat impressed while studying the frayed 100-pound leader. Even 30 pounds of drag won’t turn some pargo away from protective cover if they really want to get there. The best scenario for the angler is to have the fish follow the popper for a good distance away from the rocks and get a hookup in open water. That way it must turn and power back to cover which provides time to turn it away - if you have the gear to apply the brakes. Pargo will also make mistakes occasionally by not taking advantage of nearby structure while choosing the perceived safety of deep water. One advantage that popping has is that the fish must come to the surface. Bottom fishing with bait or jigs puts you in their rocky habitat and much closer to a potential cut-off. With either style of fishing you’ll still lose a lot of fish so bring plenty of lures.
Popping pargo around here is like being in a heavyweight fight for the full 15 rounds. Your mate even gives you water and a wet towel between “rounds” as the skipper moves to another spot. By noon of this January day, 2001, we reflected on our successes and failures. We had released three cubera in the 25-to 40-pound class, kept a 50-pound brute to add to the Coiba Explorer menu, released six mullet snapper up to 15 pounds as well as nine bluefin trevally (a.k.a. bluestar jacks), three jack crevalle, one five-foot needlefish and three bigeye trevally. On the negative side I lost five lures to trophy-size pargo which is the most I’ve ever lost in just one morning. On the other hand it indicates that there are lots of big fish around which bodes well for the quality of this habitat. Since losing lures is an unavoidable side-effect of pargo fishing I recommend replacing standard treble hooks with singles which are more easily “rubbed out” by fish that are broken off. Single hooks are also safer when releasing fish and do less damage to a fish than trebles.
The incoming tide was starting to cover most of the rocky outcroppings. Low water is preferred so we decided to start trolling for bluewater pelagics in the afternoon only a few hundred yards away. In Panama you can have it all.
Pargo generally prefer to ambush prey from the secrecy of rocky cover in deep water. That’s what their bodies are designed for. A broad, powerful tail, muscular body and sharp canine teeth allow for a quick burst of speed to then snatch and hold on to its meal. Pargo do not commonly attack surface poppers throughout their range with the exception of Central America where a different mind-set seems to prevail. Maybe its the competition for elusive food in a constant warm-water habitat that makes these fish more aggressive combined with a lack of anglers to make them smart. Whatever the reason, serious anglers head south for premier surface action with cubera and mullet snapper, the two most important and obliging species of the pargo clan.
My first pargo on a popper taken in January of 1989 hooked me for life. Casting a pink PILI popper near Matapalo Rock at Golfito, Costa Rica, brought on a tremendous splash and jolting hit. The fish went straight down and put up a typical vertical fight. The candy-apple red cubera weighted 24 pound 6 ounces. Things only got better further south in Panama as I discovered beginning in 1994. One highlight in November, 1995 found Rick Casparian and myself at Montuosa Island again. My notes read: “Lots of rain but incredible action. Saw a “herd” of pargo attacking tiny fish or something around a floating log in open water. Easy pickings for a popper. Caught and released 17 mullet snapper 8 to 24 pounds on PILI’s and a 31-pound dog snapper on a red and black PILI.” In November, 1999 I was on the Hannibal Bank near Coiba Island, popping for big dorado near a barnacle-encrusted floating log over the deep bank. “The dorado disappeared and a great sight occurred as the ocean seemed to erupt beneath the boat. An acre of bright red pargo lisa foaming on bait around the drifting log as it passed over Lalo’s (Captain) high spot on Hannibal” read my notes. The scene was so awesome we just put down our rods and watched. Somehow popping under these circumstances seemed anti-climatic.
Cuberas rule a variety of habitat and can be found in tidal rivers as well as offshore banks and islands. On March 27, 1998, we ventured into the Boca Grande River on the southeast side of Coiba Island to do some light tackle exploring. Casting small PILI poppers under the mangrove overhangs and into jungle cuts we released six cuberas from two to 12 pounds and a pargo amarillo (yellow pargo). We saw one cubera charge under the inflatable that was about 40 pounds, a size that would have been unstoppable in the hostile snags. In addition to other gamefish an eight-foot crocodile swiped my popper and put up a rather boring fight before shaking off the crushed plug after a few minutes. Pargo fishing can lead to some interesting situations.
In the western tropical Pacific a cubera look-alike is called bohar, ban, red bass, or twospot depending on specific region. They crash poppers like their cousins as I found out at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Mark Santiago, owner of Pacific Island Lure Innovations (PILI) and I had a great time popping the coral reef edges in September, 1999. The bans would make some pretty dramatic surface commotions’ pursuing the poppers. It wasn’t unusual to release 15 to 20 per day up to 20 pounds. Larger fish were too much of a light tackle challenge to keep out of the sharp coral formations. In addition to Bikini, I have caught them at Milli and Arno Atolls, Palau and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The IGFA lists 26 species of snapper. These include squirefish, black, blackfin, colorado, cubera, Atlantic dog, emperor, gray, greenbar, Guinean (African cubera), lane, Malabar, mullet, muton, Pacific cubera, Pacific red, Papuan black, queen, red, schoolmaster, silk, spotted rose, twospot red (bohar), vermillion, yellow and yellowtail. The largest on record is a 121-pound 8-ounce cubera snapper caught in Louisiana. Many in this pargo group weigh 30 to 80 pounds. For anglers popping the Pacific, the cubera, mullet (lisa), yellow, colorado and twospot reds are most likely to race for the surface and whack a lure. Most pargo, however, are bottom feeders and prefer a deep, natural bait presentation.
Pargo will often hang out around structure, such as a rock pinnacle, which will put them within striking distance of a popper. In Panama’s rich pargo habitats, anglers score well simply by blind casting to promising structure. At times, pargo will also leave their deep water sanctuary if irritated enough by repetitive casts or by feeding opportunities as described earlier. In Mexico, chumming with live sardines will often get some surface activity going with mullet and cubera but they tend to be very wary, possibly due to heavy fishing pressure in popular locations. During the spring, places like Cerralvo Island, Punta Perico, Punta Pescadero and Cabo Pulmo (outside the preserve) experience large massings of pargo allegedly in a spawning display. These large aggregations may ignore offerings for days then turn-on in a feeding spree for the fortunate anglers who are in the right place at the right time.
BEST PARGO PLACES
Pargo (snapper) of various species are widely distributed in temperate and tropical seas. However, in most areas pargo will not readily respond to surface lures. The following places offer anglers good opportunities to be successful with the popping style of fishing:
Coiba Island Region (Montuosa, Coiba, Jicarón, Jicarita Islands)
Contact: Coiba Explorer II (800) 733-4742
Las Perlas Region (San José Island)
Contact: Herndon Charters e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bat Islands (Gulf of Papagayo, Guanacaste)
Drakes Bay (Isla Caño)
Contact: Adventure Sportfishing (800) 356-2533; Rod and Reel Adventures (800) 356-6982
Contact: Marshall Islands Visitors Authority e-mail: email@example.com
Contact: Palau Visitors Authority e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Great Barrier Reef
Contact: Rod and Reel Adventures (800) 356-6982
Baja Sur (Las Arenas, Cerralov Island, Los Cabos)
Contact: Las Arenas Resort (888) 644-7376; Cass Tours (800) 593-6510; Lynn Rose Tours (800) 525-9527; Big Game Fishing, Inc. (800) 458-2879; Roldan’s Tailhunter (877) 825-8802; Anglers Center (949) 642-6662; Rod and reel Adventures (800) 356-6982
Contact: Ixtapa Sportfishing Charters (570) 688-9466, or http://ixtapasportfishing.com
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The Roving Angler