You won’t find any golf courses, megaresorts or late-night discotechs in Piñas Bay, Panama, and that’s part of the charm. What you will find on your vacation in panama is some of the best fishing in Central America, perhaps anywhere, and one of the sport’s most treasured outposts, Tropic Star Lodge. Home to more than 250 International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world records, the productive waters off Piñas Bay attract the world’s best anglers on a regular basis and a few surprise visitors.
Located on the edge of the Darien Rainforest, Tropic Star sits on a wild stretch of land 150 miles south of Panama City and is accessible only by airplane or boat. The lodge features a fleet of classic 31-foot Bertram sport-fishers, each named after a different country and all run by experienced crews. These captains see more big fish than just about any other place in the world. Everything about Tropic Star is first class. As the only operator in the region, the lodge provides everything an angler could want or need and then some. Lodge owners Terri Kittredge Andrews and her husband Mike Andrews run a tight ship with efficiency and quality assured. Get down to Tropic Star and you’re bound to have the trip of a lifetime.
“Their guestbook reads like a who’s who in the annals of sport fishing for good reason.”
A typical day at Tropic Star begins with a knock at your door signaling the arrival of fresh-brewed coffee and warm Danish as a prelude to breakfast in the main lounge. The boats depart at 6:30 a.m., fish all day, and return at 3:30 p.m., although guests are free to adjust the hours if they so desire. Captains primarily target Piñas Reef, also commonly referred to as Zane Grey Reef. The “rock” is home to a rich biomass that draws tremendous numbers of forage species such as black skipjack, frigate mackerel and sardines. With such a large abundance of bait in the area, the reef attracts and holds game fish on a year-round basis. Located just seven miles offshore, this world-famous seamount attracts huge populations of black, blue and striped marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, dorado, wahoo and numerous light-tackle game fish.
Most anglers travel to Tropic Star with black marlin in mind as the main target. Black marlin up to 1,000 pounds account for about 80 percent of the marlin catch. Crews usually slow-troll live bait for the big marlin with black skipjack usually getting bridled up and towed behind the boat. In other hot spots further offshore, the ratio of black to blue marlin runs roughly 50/50. As opposed to Cabo San Lucas, striped marlin are not a common catch in these warm, tropical waters. The peak fishing season, at least for the best weather and sea conditions, runs from December through March. While the prime time runs during the winter and early spring, you can count on catching something at Tropic Star any time of year, according to manager Raleigh Werking, who says billfish are available year-round as well as the inshore species, such as the prized roosterfish.
Billfish helped Tropic Star solidify its stellar reputation as a big-game fishing mecca, but the inshore fishing is becoming nearly as popular. As a light-tackle enthusiast, I’m more than ready to do some inshore popping and jigging after a few days of marlin fishing. So I decided to add a few inshore species to the agenda. We ran the boat up the coast several miles to Playa Perro to do some casting while slow-trolling live bait off the stern. This is a highly effective way to connect with some big fish while prospecting miles of good habitat. Sometimes the poppers catch more than the baits. Other times the poppers draw fish closer to the boat where they’ll spot the baits and grab a snack for a hook-up. Capt. Isauro Urutia and mate Libardo Cabrera were enthusiastic about fishing the beaches and quickly made bait, filling up the tank with the coveted bigeye scad (also called goggle-eye, caballito or ojon). The crew threw the net a couple of times near the long pier where the fleet docks up and we were ready to roll.
Powering along the coastline in the 31-foot Bertram provided a scenic treat as waterfalls cascaded through heavy jungle pierced by thick cover while monkeys scattered from the treetops. After about an hour’s run, the captain throttled down near a large bay with rocky structure randomly punctuating a long sandy beach. It was a perfect place to start fishing for the prized roosterfish. The live bait got the first action of the trip with a small shark. We then released a beautiful juvenile goliath grouper.
“We don’t see many of those,” Capt. Urutia said as we dropped another fresh bait overboard. Diving pelicans and terns were spotted tight to the shoreline and I pinned a scad to a Shimano baitcaster and made a long cast to the edge of the disturbance. The bait was instantly devoured and the fish raced off down the beach. I went to the bow to avoid a cut-off as the crew was occupied with a fish of their own. Then my fish jumped, which roosters occasionally do, but this fish was long and silver and shook its head like a… Wait a second, is it a tarpon? I hesitated to call it a tarpon because these silver monsters are indigenous to the Atlantic, but I finally told the crew what I thought it was. They had no reaction.
The mystery fish took us through sharp reefs and I held the rod high in the air to clear the ragged structure, knowing full well that the 15-pound line tied straight to a No. 4 hook with no leader meant that the rough jaw of the tarpon could break free at any moment. The fish finally turned and headed for deep water where it made a series of grey-hounding leaps. “Sabalo!” the crew yelled excitedly as they scrambled to their positions. Maybe I should have said “sabalo” to begin with.
The tarpon took some slow surface rolls and after 50 minutes of constant pressure we were cradling it for some photos. The tiny hook was deeply embedded in the middle of the upper lip where it was safe from any abrasion. The silver king weighed 45 pounds. The crew had never caught or even seen a live tarpon before and they had fished these waters for decades. That’s what makes Tropic Star so wonderful. No matter how many times you fish here, it’s always new and different. The inshore waters are home to such a large variety of game fish that you never know what might take your next bait. I still have the hook and a portion of the line to remind me of how lucky I was.
To add to the bizarre morning, we went back to the original spot where we saw some terns still working. This time I made a cast with a popper and I hooked another tarpon in the 30-pound class, which put on an even better show than the first one. Unfortunately, as Cabrera grabbed the leader it rattled its gills and threw the hook at the boat. We added three roosterfish, one pinto cabrilla and two jack crevalle before we headed for the lodge at 3 p.m. under a cooling rain squall.
Blue Water Action
One of the best days offshore I’ve witnessed on Piñas Reef came in February when I wet a line with my buddy Rick Casparian. Casparian was visiting Tropic Star for the first time, and he was already raving about the place.
That is the everyday experience at Tropic Star Lodge.
Back at the lodge that evening, we soaked up the time before dinner in the modern freshwater swimming pool, enjoying cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and plenty of fish talk. Later on we dined on a multi-course dinner,complimented by fine wine – a tasteful end to a wonderful day.
He was fishing with a small frigate mackerel, hoping to quickly catch-and-release a striped marlin, an unusual encounter at this time of year, but I wanted to catch him a grand slam of three billfish species.
“Let’s keep you on the rods and see if you can get a slam,”
I suggested, knowing that hooking the stripey was the toughest part of the task. Within an hour Casparian released a 400-pound black marlin and, by noon, a 250-pound blue marlin had put us one fish away from a slam. We put away the big baits and started to troll for Pacific sailfish – a much more common billfish in this area than the striped marlin. Late that afternoon, the strike came – but the big sail threw the lure and ended our shot at a slam.
ZANE GREY TERRITORY: Zane Grey discovered the fishing potential of Panama and Piñas Bay in the late 1920’s, but the secret was well kept for many decades. The famed author chased the world over searching for Black Marlin (what he called the Silver Marlin). The reef ranges from 120 to 350 feet and supports aquatic life beyond the imagination. Guy Harvey’s interpretation of what lies below the surface comes to life as a result of his numerous dives on the reef.
Zane Grey Reef is a relatively small seamount of solid rock which has its base on the flat continental shelf in 350 feet of water. The sides of the seamount rise sharply to the peak which is composed of three distinct pinnacles; the two to the south rise to within 150 feet of the surface and are joined, but there is valley 205 feet deep between these two and a larger peak to the north. A number of bait species and their predators congregate around the seamount, sometimes in astounding numbers.
While Tropic Star Lodge is located in one of the most beautiful, remote areas of Panama, it’s actually a simple trip to make. Guests fly into Panama City, where a lodge representative will shuttle you to a hotel. The next morning you will board a small charter plane and take off for the Darien Rainforest. The lodge has it’s own airstrip, making it easy on guests and the lodge as well. The flight takes about 50 minutes, and from there it’s a short boat ride to the lodge.
The original owner’s home at the lodge, known as El Palacio, or the Palace, offers scenic views of the bay and jungle. Guests can ride a cable car to access the Palace, or get a little workout and take the 122-step staircase. There are three bedrooms with private baths in the Palace for six guests.
Other accommodations include air-conditioned cabins and rooms, each featuring twin beds and private baths. A king-size bed can be requested. If you feel like taking some time off from fishing, the manager can plan a river trip to meet the indigenous peoples. Many guests bring donations along and school supplies to hand out to the locals.
Back at the lodge, you’ll be fed like royalty with multi-course meals served in the scenic bay-view dining room each evening. The chef prepares various specialties, such as baked Alaska, cherries jubilee, fresh-baked pies and bread, ceviche, and many more varied and delectable dishes. Fresh fish is available each day.
Tropic Star offers various packages including 6-day/7-night, 4-day/5-night and 3-day/4-night trips. Special arrangements can be made for large groups.
A weekly booking includes six days fishing on a 31-foot Bertram with captain and mate, seven nights lodging, three meals each day and all fishing tackle. Trips shorter than a week are available after May 31. The prime season runs from December through May. For more information and pricing visit www.tropicstar.com
About the Author:
Tony Pena, the BD Outdoors Pro Staff representative for Panama, first started fishing in the muddy backwaters of San Diego Bay, California, with a hand line at just five years old. While he didn’t catch much back then, he developed a sense of persistence and wanderlust that continues to serve him well as he pursues his dream of finding the ultimate unspoiled fishing paradise.