by Capt Dave Lear
After four decades, Panama’s venerable Tropic Star Lodge is still the superstar among the world’s big-game fishing destinations.
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The clicker on the big gold reel went off like a string of firecrackers. Snatching the stand-up rod from its holder, I jammed the gimbal into the fighting belt while mates Flaco and Azael scrambled about the cockpit, clearing the other lines. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Capt. Armando barked a command from the flybridge. “OK, señor, reel!”
I flipped the drag clicker to silent mode and wound the reel handle like a madman. With increased tension, the line suddenly reversed course, snapping like popcorn as it disappeared behind the transom. Three hundred yards astern, a shimmering shape rocketed skyward before crashing back into the cobalt-blue depths.
“Black marlin! Black marlin!” the crew shouted with excited peals of laughter. “Let’s go, señor, let’s go.” For the next 30 minutes, Armando backed and spun the 31-foot sportfisherman as I gained, then lost line to my stubborn opponent. I had forgotten just how strong black marlin really are until my bicep and thigh muscles started reminding me. After a series of dervish leaps amid steady pressure, I finally pumped the estimated 350-pounder close enough to the boat for the mates to insert a tag and let it go. Not bad—a black marlin release in the first two hours on the water. That would be a rare feat in most places, but here in Panamanian Paradise, which is my name for the waters surrounding Tropic Star Lodge, catching billfish is status quo. In fact, it’s very unusual when billfish are not landed during the course of a day.
Western novelist and pioneering angler Zane Grey first discovered the spot where I caught my black marlin back in the late 1920s. The massive, three-dome formation now known as Piñas Reef juts up off the 350-foot bottom nearly 160 feet and is a short, five-mile run from the dock at Tropic Star Lodge. Pacific bonito and skipjack tuna school on top of it throughout the year, and they in turn consistently attract the structure-loving blacks. In fact, there’s not a more dependable place in the Americas from which to catch black marlin than Piñas, a distinction that has impressed big-game anglers for 44 years.
Ray Smith, a Texas oil baron, built the original facility on Piñas Bay in 1961 as his home away from home. Four years later, he hung out a sign for Club de Pesca. A Canadian company took possession in 1968 after Smith’s death and renamed it Tropic Star Lodge. After an earthquake struck the region in 1976 and caused extensive damage, the late Conway D. Kittredge of Orlando, Fla., purchased Tropic Star and continued its resort expansion. Today, it’s still owned and operated by his daughter, Terri, and her Canal Zone-born husband, Mike Andrews.
It’s hard to imagine a more pristine spot for a fishing lodge. Tropic Star is literally carved out of the side of an emerald-green mountain at the head of a sheltered, deep-water bay. Located at the edge of the protected Darien Jungle, 150 miles south of Panama City and 35 miles from the Colombian border, there are no roads within a hundred miles. The lodge can be reached only by boat or twin-engine charter plane, which lands on a private concrete airstrip along the Jaque River. From there, guests are ferried to the facility a short distance away.
Soon after Smith finished his jungle retreat, he caught one of the first International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world-record marlin on 12-pound line. “There are going to be all kinds of records set here,” he said at the time, and his prophecy has since come true. During my visit in early December, four more records were broken, including three in the junior angler categories.
Setting sportfishing benchmarks is commonplace at Tropic Star. Over the last 40 years, more than 200 world records have been established in these waters. No other lodge or resort in the world can match that feat. Angling skill and top-notch crews account for much of this success, but the biggest reason Tropic Star’s fishing has been so good for so long is simply the incredible number of fish available. Remote location and limited pressure aside, Tropic Star excels because of the careful and passionate stewardship of Terri Andrews.
Andrews has been an IGFA trustee for the last seven years and was leading the fight to protect Panama’s marine resources long before that. Her constant lobbying efforts led to the establishment of a 20-mile radius around Piñas Bay for no commercial fishing. Following that, Panamanian President Ernest Perez Balladares issued a decree in 1997 that prohibits any billfish from being killed throughout Panamanian waters unless it is a world record. Andrews has also established the Conamar Foundation to help other areas in the country create their own sportfishing-only zones. In 2000, she mandated the use of circle hooks with bait at Tropic Star.
“The release format that we had been using for almost twenty years was just not enough,” Andrews explains. “We were tired of releasing so many fish in bad condition that we had to do something different. We thought the biggest battle in making the change would be with our local crews. They had been fishing with ‘J’ hooks for decades, but believe it or not, it didn’t take them more than one season to see the true value of using circle hooks. They were losing less fish, and they, along with the clients, began feeling much better after releasing a feisty fish, knowing that its chance of survival was greatly improved.”
Tropic Star employs a fleet of meticulously maintained Bertram 31 convertibles. Powered by twin Detroit Diesel engines, these nimble and seaworthy craft are well-suited for the typically calm water and short run to the fishing grounds. Common features on all boats in the fleet include VHF radios and GPS units, as well as a fighting chair and a custom baitwell/tuna tube combo designed by Mike Andrews and built at the lodge’s elaborate maintenance facility.
The typical day offshore starts with a direct run to the reef to gather bonito or skipjack tuna for bait. Feather jigs trolled or fished on spinning outfits quickly produce enough bait to load the tuna tubes, with some left over to rig the region’s signature belly baits. If black marlin are the day’s target, two of those live baits are swiftly bridled with waxed thread and a 20/0 circle hook and sent down on 50-pound outfits. One goes deep on the downrigger, while the other is clipped into the outrigger and pulled just below the surface. Using the ever-present bait schools as natural teasers, the rigged baits are slow-trolled in the vicinity of the reef until a strike. When that happens, the bait is free-spooled to allow the fish a chance to swallow. As the circle hook rotates and impales the corner of the fish’s mouth, the slack line is reeled tight and the fight is on.
From the reef, the 100-fathom curve is about 10 miles farther offshore; tack on another five miles or so and you’re in 1,000 fathoms of water. Blue and black marlin range in size from 250 pounds to grander (1,000 pounds) proportions, and you’re liable to encounter both around offshore drop-offs. Striped marlin migrate through with regular frequency, and spunky sailfish—up to 150 pounds—are here throughout the 10-month, December-through-September season. Multiple hookups are not uncommon with sails or dorado (dolphin fish), another annual resident. These blue-and-yellow scrappers, typically weighing 20 to 60 pounds, get so thick they’re often a nuisance when the focus is on billfish. Wahoo, big yellowfin tuna and the occasional swordfish round out the offshore menu.
With its abundant variety and consistency, it’s no wonder private yachts visit Piñas Bay regularly. John Waldrop, an orthopedic surgeon from Columbus, Ga., was on his sixth trip last December, and he planned to return again in February, May and New Year’s 2006. “I’ve fished Costa Rica, Guatemala and St. Thomas,” he told me over hors d’oeuvres after releasing two blue marlin, one black and a striper pushing 300 pounds that day. “There’s no question, Tropic Star is the best.”
First-timers are equally impressed. Dal Keller and his wife, Constantine, of Willis, Texas, made their initial trip to Tropic Star in December. In three days, Dal released five sailfish, a blue and two black marlin. His wife landed her first billfish ever. As for me, I never matched my first-day success in the black marlin department, but I certainly won’t complain about the 40 dorado I boated on the subsequent days. And I didn’t even get a chance to sample the snapper, grouper or roosterfish inshore. But that’s all right. It gives me an excuse to come back to the world’s best fishing resort.