by Frank Bolin
Florida Sportsman Magazine
Sails surrounded Vintage 360 degrees on the compass rose.
Everywhere I looked, one, two, three, four, heck a hundred or more broke the slick Pacific sheen. Some danced, many pranced, a few probably tailwalked for our entertainment. But, most charged sardine schools in a scene that slightly resembled Indians circling a wagon train in a classic John Wayne western.
Welcome to Panama, and Tropic Star Lodge® to be exact, a solitary fishing outpost poised on the volcanic slopes of mountain-ringed Piñas Bay (translation Pineapple Bay) on the country's southern Pacific coast. The lodge is revered among marlin enthusiasts for its spectacular black marlin fishery. But, blacks are a January-February thrill and my trip was in late April, just in time for the start of sailfish season.
The first step of any lower Panama sailfish jaunt is to catch bait. After that, sails are practically a done deal. So it's a good thing that procuring bait doesn't take too long, not with the endless anchovy/sardine schools encountered along this jungle - and I mean impenetrable jungle - coast. To stock up, simply troll and/or jig skipjack tuna schools with small bucktail or Mylar jigs. The idea is to bail enough skippies into the boat to rig a day's supply of Panama strips - the standard sailfish bait for Tropic Star's 14-boat fleet of 31 Bertrams and guest boats alike. Make sure to catch lots of bait. While I was there, 50 sailfish shots per morning were commonplace and 46 anglers competing in the Presidential Challenge Panama out of Tropic Star Lodge® released 570 sails.
Sailfishing the southwest Panama coast is an adventure I'd recommend to anyone, especially spindlebeak freaks in need of a heavy fix. Instead of relaying the trip in words, I chose another route - bombarding your senses with visual images. Kick back and join me on a spectacular Panama angling journey.
Ever try to stay calm when sails nonchalantly swim by the boat with dorsals fully extended? It's nearly impossible. On this morning I saw perhaps 200 fish herding bait on the surface. One visiting angler stowed his trolling gear and went after the sails with a 12-weight fly rod and a pink streamer tied on a circle hook. He released eight fish before calling it quits.
Pacific sails outweigh their Atlantic cousins substantially. Most sails we encountered pushed 80 pounds and a few dozen had to best 100. Fish were aggressive and readily responded to trolled strip baits. The trick to scoring hookups is to scout for surface activity, tap the throttle and get baits near the sail pod pronto. With literally thousands of fish vying for food, elaborate dredge teasers were not necessary. Pacific sails are a first-rate challenge on 20-pound gear.
While I was there multiple strikes were the norm with up to half a dozen sails at a time attacking the 4-strip baitspread. Strips trolled close to the squid teaser never went unmolested for long. If you tire of releasing sails, head for Zane Grey Reef, which is approximately six miles offshore on a 275-degree heading. The reef has three pinnacles that rise to 130 feet from 310 feet. Local skippers say it's easy to spot due to rips and loads of bait. Troll the reef's fringes with artificial lures for black and blue marlin.
A satisfying day of sailfishing begins with more fun - reeling in skipjacks on the light stuff. The typical drill is to run under a flock of birds, hook as many tuna as you can, flop 'em into the basket and put your jig out for more. Most skippies averaged only a pound or two, but several 10-pounders tested tackle and surprised anglers.
Panama strips cut from skipjack tuna bellies and rigged with a circle hook are the standard bait for sailfish. The strips are quick to rig and can withstand several swipes from a sailfish bill. Best dropback count for hookup was about five seconds. Tuna schools collected at the mouth of Pinas Bay and just off the cliffs on either side of the bay. For procuring skippies, take a hint from the locals who use bucktail jigs for catching bait.
Tropic Star's fleet of 31 Bertrams is crewed by courteous native skippers and quick mates who know how to fish and communicate. Each boat comes fully equipped with a full complement of trolling gear - Shimano reels on Cape Fear rods - and everything you'll need for the day. Boats are shipshape and overhauled each season.
High-flying Pacific sailfish have a solid future thanks in part to Miami angler Joan Vernon. Vernon cannoned a switch to circle hooks in several Central American countries including Panama. Her Presidential Challenge tournament series makes stops at Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Preserving the region's sportfishing and promoting it are now important goals for Central American fishery managers.
Jaque Indians ply the rocky coastline in dugouts much like their ancestors. This angler was knee-deep in skipjack tuna that he baited and battled on handlines. The tuna school had anchovies balled up within several yards of shore. Plug these same rocks with large poppers and you'll likely score roosterfish, snapper and amberjack. Roosters here grow large; the lodge record is 90 pounds. I'm packing a plug outfit on my next trip.
Panama Travel Tips
Panamanians seem very happy to accommodate American fishermen and tourists. Due to its remote location and inbound flight arrival times, anglers heading for Tropic Star Lodge® will need to stay in Panama City one night - TSL has arrangements with Caesar Park Hotel and Bristol - and take a charter flight to Pinas Bay. The lodge will handle your charter flight. Roundtrip airfare on American Airlines from Miami to Panama City ran $400.
You will need a passport to enter the country and your airline will sell you a Panamanian tourist card. Airlines that fly to Panama City include American, Copa, Continental and Delta. Tropic Star staffers recommend Regal Travel (800-940-7668) for anglers who do not have a travel agent.
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