Each year in October and November, the world famous Tropic Star Lodge in Panama closes for a few weeks of renovations and to give the staff a chance to rest after a 300-day season. The next season opens around Thanksgiving week with an international tournament, or “torneo” and teams come from all over the western hemisphere to participate. It is also a qualifying event for the IGFA Offshore World Championship.
In addition to getting ready for the tournament, I was acquiring more footage for my documentary about billfish in Panama so award-winning producer George Schellenger was on the expedition with me. In an earlier visit I had interviewed the President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, about his two new decrees aimed at conserving game fish in Panama’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone or EEZ.
Three teams from the Caymans participated again this year including the reigning champs who arrived a few days early to enjoy the fishing before the other teams arrived. I was joined by Cayman restaurant owner Andi Marcher and friend Jason Ward. We jumped aboard the Australia with Capt. Gavilan Cordoba and mate Ermel Sousa and headed out to the 100 fathom curve. Our first afternoon was classic — we left with no bait, we pulled lures and carved a path through the attacking dorado.
Within minutes a 300-pound blue marlin jumped on the right teaser and I pitched a softhead to it. She grabbed the lure and went off to the horizon, unzipping the ocean, jumping all the way. Cameraman George Schellenger was all smiles. Ermel got the marlin on the leader after Andi worked the fish back to the boat and I planted a six-month duration satellite tag in the marlin’s right shoulder before the marlin swam off, with its brilliant blue stripes showing vividly. We were off to a good start!
Some more big dorado were brought in and then we caught bonito bait along a trash line and fished live baits, which is the way the Panamanian crews like to fish for marlin.
Our next bite was a 130-pound yellowfin tuna landed by Andi, and Jason was casting poppers to the tunas as they mingled with a large school of spotted dolphins. The other Cayman team of Troy Burke, Tony Berkman and Derrin Ebanks also released a blue marlin and barely survived the dorado attack with Troy landing a 60-pound dorado. In Cayman we work hard for a dorado (aka mahimahi or dolphin fish). In Panama, we drive away from them. Just crazy!
Day two was a blank for all Cayman teams on the marlin but a couple of sailfish flags were flying in the riggers at the end of the day. The third Cayman team of Sebastien Guilbard and Buster McLean went without a billfish for their second day. A team from Spain released a black marlin of around 400 pounds.
On the way in we stopped at the Piñas Reef so George and I could dive and film the vast schools of fish. Andi and Jason had some fun deep-jigging for amberjacks. The reef is a small seamount and is loaded with big schools of mullet snapper, crevalle jacks, amberjacks, rainbow runners and yellowfin tuna and we acquired some excellent footage.
Then the heavens opened and it poured for the next 48 hours. In spite of high winds and the rain, two black marlin were caught, one by Jason Ward and the other by Tony Berkman, each around 400 pounds. Jason Ward also landed a 62-pound dorado, a monster by any standards.
The weather finally cleared but bait was scarce so we pulled lures at the start of the official tournament practice day. I was watching the lures on the bridge with Capt. Gavilan when a fine blue marlin darted in and ate the green-and-orange softhead on the right rigger. Angler Andi Marcher caught the 450-pound blue in 30 minutes and I placed a satellite tag in its left shoulder. Before we released the marlin George and I dived with the fish to get some footage. Then I cut her off and she swam off strongly carrying the six-month tag. The remaining tournament anglers arrived at the lodge that morning and fished through the afternoon.
At the tournament kickoff event director Eleanor Armstrong and dockmaster Albert Battoo welcomed nine teams from Canada, three teams from the Cayman Islands, one from Jamaica and one from Guyana. The boat draw always creates a lot of hype — who is going to fish with who? But to me, all the crews are so good at Tropic Star so things are very even for all teams.
Everyone left the dock promptly at 6.30 a.m. for the first day of fishing. It was a scramble to get bait at the reef. The water was dirty from all the rain but we managed to catch four bonitos on board Puerto Rico, with Capt. Armando Mona and mate Levin Grajales. We than ran out to the shelf and started fishing with three live baits on a flat-calm day. After 90 minutes of no action Armando wanted to move and instructed us to wind in our baits. Mine came in first, then Andi’s and just then a big dark shadow loomed behind Jason’s livey. From the amount of color in the water we could tell it was a big fish. I jumped up on the bridge to see the marlin better as it crossed the wake looking at Andi’s bait then went back to Jason’s, checking everything out.
Then its tail turned florescent blue and I knew the fish was really focused now, but it faded back and disappeared. George was shooting video and I felt disappointment that the marlin had not eaten. Suddenly it rocketed up from deep below, all lit up blue and bronze and pounces on Jason’s bait. Only a short dropback was necessary and Jason was hooked up to one of the most exciting blue marlin I have ever seen.
The marlin went crazy, doing a big circle on its tail then charged towards us and overtook the boat on the port side, barreling along like a jet ski throwing up sheets of foam. Armando did some exotic moves with the boat to keep Jason in touch with the marlin while George captured the action on film.
My shots were not that great, blue marlin throw out so much water when skating along the surface you generally have a lot of white water with a bill sticking out front. On the other hand, black marlin make high graceful leaps and are much more photogenic. The big blue did another series of jumps and was at the leader after 45 minutes as mate Levin got us on the board with a technical release. I wanted to deploy a satellite tag on this marlin so Jason worked it for another hour before we got her back up and the tag was placed perfectly in her back.
She was the biggest blue marlin I have seen caught at Tropic Star, which we estimated at around 650 pounds. On release she rolled upright and swam off strongly. A good week had just become a GREAT week.
Out went our two remaining live baits. We had not yet finished a celebratory Panama beer when Levin calls out sharply as another marlin struck the right rigger bait and Andi hooked up. He makes short work of this 300-pound blue and brought it back to the boat after more wild jumps on a placid ocean. The sat tag went in and the marlin swam off. By 11:30 we were in the lead with two marlin. The fleet released six marlin and a couple of sails on the day. On the way back in we found a Ridley turtle tangled in fishing rope and buoys and lifted him into the boat to cut all the rope off and set it free. One happy turtle later — it was high fives all around.
Only one of Cayman’s other teams the “Cayman Brac Down” with anglers Alistair Walters, Sebastian Guilbard and Stuart Sybersma (the reigning champions) scored with a sailfish and some big tuna and dorado. “Cayman Hard Buoys” (Derrin Ebanks, Tony Berkman and Troy Burke) hard some bad luck losing a black marlin and a handful of sails on day one. They then lost a blue but scored with a sailfish on day two and also got amongst the tuna and big dorado.
George and I had to head back to the States the following day so Andi and Jason carried the Cayman flag for us — and carried it high — fishing on Tropic Star with Capt. Jacob Panzeo and mate Enot Mecha. I was sitting in the departure lounge at Tocumen waiting to board my flight when I got a message from Eleanor that Jason had caught another blue marlin. Tremendous! It was going to be close as the Guyanese team also caught a blue and a couple of sailfish. Time ran out at 3 p.m. and the final scores were Cayman Islands “Los Bamofos” 900 points, Guyana 800 points, and Canada “Bush rats” in third with 600 points.
For two consecutive years a team from the Cayman Islands has won this prestigious event and will be representing the Cayman Islands at the IGFA Offshore World Championship.
To learn more about Tropic Star, visit www.tropicstar.com.
Tropic Star Marlin Tournament