by Dave Ferrell - Marlin Magazine
In the world of exotic fishing destinations, you hear a lot of comments like "untouched," "pristine" and "virginal" to describe particular places. Rarely, if ever, does the location live up to the description. And while Tropic Star Lodge® in Pinas Bay, Panama, has certainly seen its share of visitors over the past 30-plus years, it remains one of the most beautiful and primeval places I've ever visited. It earns these descriptions honestly. The lodge sits on the edge of the Darien rain forest, and there are no roads in or out. Every time I come, I expect some sort of dinosaur to raise its head out of the mist-covered jungle and shake the ground with a mighty roar. Luckily for us, the only behemoths found around Tropic Star swim just offshore in the waters surrounding Zane Grey Reef.
Black Marlin Country
Just a 20-minute run from the lodge, Zane Grey Reef rises up from 350-foot depths to within 150 feet of the surface. This huge block of solid rock sits right in the path of the prevailing northerly currents, creating upwellings of nutrient-rich water, which in turn attracts enormous amounts of bait. It's this concentration of bait that gives the area one of the best black marlin fisheries in the Americas.
With all the bait in the water, live-baiting with the abundant Pacific bonitos and skipjack tunas represents the best way to target the big, hungry blacks. Boats here leave at first light to get out on the reef when the bonitos are still up on top and easy to see and catch. Usually a pass or two pulling lead-head jigs or small silver spoons garners enough live baits to start the day. All of the lodge's boats have tuna tubes to help keep baits as healthy as possible. Don't fret if your bait doesn't last - you'll also find downriggers on all the boats so you can troll your bait rigs deep when the bait gets skittish and goes down.
A typical fishing day starts with catching bait and then bridling them up on circle hooks for a good soaking around the reef. Crews usually give the reef two or three hours to produce in the morning, and if the blacks don't show, they either head offshore to target blues, stripes or tunas or turn inshore to target the huge numbers of sails in the area. Black marlin here average 350 pounds, but 500- and 600-pounders are commonplace. (The first time I came down to the lodge, I watched light-tackle expert Raleigh Werking fight an estimated 600 pound black for over six hours on 16-pound test before eventually breaking off the fish because of darkness.)
Prime time for blacks here runs from August through March, with the winter and fall monthsproducing greater numbers. (The lodge is closed during October and November.) When clean, blue water moves in over the reef and combines with a strong current, the black marlin bite turns on strong. In early September 2001, Larry Dahlberg, of the Hunt for Big Fish television show, went 10-for-13 on black marlin (most pushing 500 pounds), using live baits and circle hooks over a six-day period. Even if you don't hit it at the hottest time, however, you can expect at least one visit from a black martin each day.
Unfortunately, on my trip down during September 2002 (in a vain attempt to repeat Dahlberg's success), a heavy rain had muddied the water on the reef. While I didn't get the numbers of fish that were seen the previous year, I still managed to set the hook on a 400-pounder before passing off the rod to take photographs. (I figure I got to do the fun part anyway.) A 300-pound blue and a fairly large striped marlin pushing 200 pounds were also caught during my stay, so even slow trips to I topic Star still shine.
Even though we slow.trolled some pretty big skipjacks around the reef, we still couldn't shake the sailfish. I had several sails in the 80- to 100-pound class come up on the big baits and try to choke themselves to death. I somehow even managed to catch a couple on big tunas.
If you really want to target the sails, however, come down in the spring, between March and June. The size and numbers of these fish will astound you. While the lodge has always been known for its good sailfishing, the past few years have produced fantastic numbers. Last year the lodge broke its sailfish record twice, with 10 boats catching 1,257 sails during the week of June 8-14. When you consider that one of those boats was flyfishing and two others took time off to bottomfish, the number could have easily topped 1,500.
Two things contribute to these incredible catch numbers: good numbers of hungry sails to start with and the use of strip baits and circle hooks when targeting the sails. I can't say enough about the effectiveness of the circle-hook/ strip-bait combo. First, with a strip bait you'll never experience another san cocho - the toughness of the strip ensures that your bait always comes back no matter how many times a sail tries to eat. Also, the sails never feel the sting of a circle hook until it has already found its mark in the jaw. This means that the fish will try to eat the tasty strip again and again until it's hooked.
Actually, there is one more thing that contributes to the great numbers of fish found here - the conservation ethic of the lodge and its owners, Mike and Terry Andrews. The pair remain instrumental in pushing conservation measures throughout Central and South America and were quick to turn their live-bait fishing operations to all-circle hooks after discovering their effectiveness in preventing gut-hooked fish.
You might think that getting to a place as remote as Tropic Star would be a hassle, but nothing could be farther from the truth. While you do have to spend one night in Panama City, Panama, on your way in, the city is only a 2 1/2 hour flight out of Miami and the lodge just a 45 minute flight from there. The charter flight from Panama City to the lodge passes over some truly amazing scenery along the Panamanian coastline, and you'll probably be so engrossed in the view that the flight aboard the chartered Cessna will seem all too short.
After landing at the private concrete airstrip, you then board a panga for a 10-minute boat ride across the bay to the lodge. You couldn't ask for a more dramatic and scenic start to your journey.
Everything about Tropic Star Lodge® is top-notch the food, the fishing, the accommodations, the service, everything. Even the guests you meet can impress, and you'll likely wind up visiting with some of the who's who in sport fishing. The first time I visited, I sat next to fly-fishing legend Billy Pate on the plane, and most recently I had the pleasure of sharing the Tropic Star Lodge® experience with Dr. Eric Prince, one of the leading billfish scientists in the United States.
As a traveling angler who's seen some of the best our sport has to offer, I don't think you'll find another fishing lodge in the world that can match the consistently excellent service and fishing opportunities found at Tropic Star Lodge®.
Join Marlin University at a special session to be held at Tropic Star Lodge® at the end of March 2003. Please call 888-281-5770, ext. 4800, to reserve your spot. - Ed