by Roy Attaway
Probably nowhere else in the world can sportsmen- of any skill level-experience more angling excitement than at the luxurious Tropic Star Lodge®, a remote jewel in a part of Panama that once was a favorite haunt of Zane Grey.
We reached Cocolito Reef near the Colombian border at noon, exhausted from an overnight run that began near Hannibal Bank at the far western end of Panama, about 400 miles distant.
But there was no time-nor inclination-for rest. Not even a quick catnap. Fighting fatigue was the last thing on our minds. Our fight would be with fish. And for that, we were in the ideal area, a place billed as one of the world's most incredible billfishing locales, a haven for sailfish and marlin, some of record proportions.
Almost instantly,we discovered that its reputation was not exaggerated.
Sailfish Within just five minutes after Capt. Ronnie Locke and Mate Mark Staley put out a four-line set,we had hooked four sailfish. Four very excited and acrobatic sailfish. One jumped off in less than a minute, but we still were left with a solid triple-header. And in that single, bright, hectic period, all signs of weariness were banished. It was as if a cool wind had swirled out off of the mountains and embraced us. By 12:25 p.m.,we had the lines back in.And within three minutes, we had a doubleheader.
Jerry Booth, our host and owner of the 82-foot Hatteras Jerry Lynn VI, was elated. He and the rest of us were beginning an angling adventure of which dreams are made. For four hours, almost every time Capt. Ronnie spun the big sportfishing craft to present baits, sailfish slashed our offerings.
Finally, trembling from exertion and prompted by worsening weather, we decided to find our way into an anchorage. Clouds gravid with moisture boiled toward us from the east, the rain sweeping under them like heavy veils. The color of the sea went from gunmetal to pewter to almost black. Peach light limned the northern trailing edge and to the west; the sky shaded from robin's egg blue to pale lemon to saffron in irregular striations.
By the time we reached Los Centinales, the twin rocks that guard the entrance to Piñas Bay, the rain blocked all visibility. The rocks were detectable only on the radar, their images materializing like prints emerging in a cold photographic solution. Finally, feeling our way into the narrow, fjord-like bay, we saw the lights of Tropic Star Lodge® rimming the beach. We were safe. Hemmed by mountain and jungle, our anchorage was one of the best on the continent, protected from all but the most pernicious surge. We went to bed early, then slept long-and late.
Our coming to Piñas was almost accidental. I had joined Jerry and his crew two days earlier in Golfito, the old Costa Rican banana port. Jerry had planned to fish that area, dipping down across the Panamanian line to explore the archipelago of islands off Chiriqui. That we had done, all right, with modest success. And then came the report over the radio: a big sailfish bite was in progress off Piñas Bay. That's when Jerry gave the order and Ronnie charted a rhumb line for Puerto Piñas.
We all knew about Piñas Bay and Tropic Star Lodge®. We'd heard about them for years. The place was a Mecca for big-game fishermen from all over the world. So it took no persuasion for us to change our collective minds and head south (or east, as the case may be, because Panama runs at a right angle to the rest of Central America; the canal actually runs north-south, even though you may be going east-west.) The next morning, under nonthreatening skies, we left the protective cup of Piñas Bay, heading out around Punta Jacque into the long, slow swell of the Pacific. Within about half an hour, Ronnie spotted six sails on the surface, definitely a promising sign, one further reinforced shortly afterward when our first two baits were inhaled as soon as they hit the water. During the next five minutes, we hooked another three sailfish. By 2 p.m., our strikes totaled 51, with 25 sailfish wired and released. Our final tally was 34 for 64. We never boated one, but my guess is these fish were in the 80- to 100-pound range.
Even that astonishing figure doesn't tell the entire story. All day long, we saw an incredible number of free jumpers, sometimes two or three in concert. One, in fact, "greyhounded" across the water 11 times. In all our years of fishing (more than 150, collectively), we had never seen such a display of sailfish activity. We learned quickly why "Panama" translates roughly as "land of many fish."
That evening, back in the bay and the embrace of a soft tropical evening, we went ashore to have dinner at the luxurious Tropic Star Lodge®. There, not only did we enjoy a fantastic meal, but we also discovered a jewel in the jungle.
Shown on many contemporary maps as a blank, the province of Daren-where we were-is the almost lawless border between Panama and Colombia, where even the Pan-American Highway judders to a halt. In some ways it resembles the Na Pali coast of Kauai in Hawaii. The 3,500-foot mountains of the Sapo (Toad) range plunge dramatically into the sea, intersticed with strips of brilliant beach. Now and then a fisherman's shack breaks the thick jungle shield; waterfalls appear as a white gash in the rainforest, and the ocean fringe is a receding series of headlands calving rocky islets. Dramatic. Isolated. Beautiful.
You may recall Keats' line: "Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/He star'd at the Pacific-and with all his men/Looked at each other with a wild surmise/Silent upon a peak in Darien . . ." (Forget that Cortez never got south of Mexico-it was Vasco Nuñez de Balboa with 190 soldiers who discovered the Pacific. Call it poetic license, I suppose. But definitely call the Pacific Coast of Panama fantastic.)
Author and angler Zane Grey was the first sportsman to fish these waters, back in the 1920s. Later, in 1961, a wealthy Texan named Ray Smith built his home-away-from-home at the head of Piñas Bay. Within four years, it was expanded and opened as Club de Pesca de Panama. Smith died in 1968, and the lodge was bought by Edwin Kennedy, who renamed it Tropic Star, a companion property to his Arctic Star Lodge in Canada.
In 1976, Conway Kittredge bought the lodge and transformed it into what it is today-a world-class resort with unparalleled fishing. Kittredge died about a year ago, but the lodge has been owned and managed in recent years by his daughter, Terri Kittredge Andrews, and her husband, Mike. Terri holds 11 world fishing records, all set in nearby waters.
The Tropic Star Losge® complex is built on the gentle slope of a mountain, overlooking the bay. Accommodations consist of rooms in the main lodge and cabins. All are air conditioned and modern, but without TVs, telephones, and fax machines. A spectacular suite called The Palace sits 122 steps (or a short ride up on its own funicular railway) above the rest. Once the original owner's home, it accommodates up to six guests. The lodge also has a large freshwater swimming pool-with cabaña bar-a welcome respite after a day on a sunstruck ocean.
Adjacent to the lodge's picturesque dining room is a bar that has played host to hundreds of anglers, including some famous ones like Mark Sosin and Stu Apte. Marine artist Guy Harvey has practically made the lodge his home. Hollywood celebrities, too, have visited repeatedly, among them John Wayne and Lee Marvin. Concerned about their guests' privacy, lodge officials choose not to reveal the names of today's A-List. Suffice it to say, though, it contains many famous personages from sports, show business, and captains of industry.
Tropic Star Lodge® maintains its own fleet of customized Bertram 31s, one of the most famous fishing boats ever made, crafts found in virtually every great angling venue around the globe. The lodge owns a dozen, each painted a bright color. Local captains and mates know the waters and the techniques, all but guaranteeing good fishing. But keep in mind, that even amidst this plenitude, fish are fish, and as one old fishermen once said, "You can't make no 'pintment wid fish." They don't call it "catching." Even so, the odds of success here have to be the best in the world. More than 170 world angling records have been set by the lodge's fishermen.
For guests who don't bring their own tackle, the lodge provides Shimano and Penn International reels and customs rods in 16- to 20-pound class, as well as two 80-pound-class outfits. Also furnished are hand lines, harness, belly gimbels, teasers, and marlin and sailfish leaders. Fly-fishing equipment and light tackle (under 16 pounds) are the responsibility of individual anglers. Marlin And More
Sailfish aren't the only reason to visit Piñas Bay, although last June, 1,257 were "caught" on 10 boats over a six-day period. Sails are most plentiful March through June. Reef fishing and inshore fishing is twelve months a year.
Actually, the major draw is the abundance of Pacific black marlin (some in the 1,000-pound range), which swarm into Panama's coastal waters in January, February, and March, then back again during June through September. Those are the prime months, but catches are made throughout the year. In January 2002, Tropic Star anglers raised 276 black marlin.
The first 1,000-lb. black taken on rod and reel in nearby waters was caught by Louis Schmidt in 1949. What made Schmidt's feat all the more remarkable is the fact that he had only one arm and one leg. He received a special citation from the International Game Fish Association because, in the end, he had help. Nevertheless, before handing over the rod, he fought the fish for two hours.
Geological oddities and ocean currents combine to make the Piñas Bay area a natural fish trap. Magellanic clouds of bait billow through, bringing in the game fish. In addition to Cocolito Reef, which is about 10 miles south of the bay, there is a famous seamount called Zane Grey Reef, about seven miles north. This double-tiered freak of rock looks like two miniature volcanoes rising to within 150 feet of the surface. They act as fish aggregating devices, and the action there is nearly always frenetic. (Cocolito, for some reason, is the hot spot for sails in June.)
Other gamefish taken in great numbers include Pacific blue marlin, striped marlin, and swordfish. The reefs also produce dolphin (not to be confused with bottlenose dolphin, aka Flipper), yellowfin tuna, jacks, bonitos, and rainbow runners. Toss in rooster- fish, a fine selection of sharks, grouper, snapper, and some good corvina fishing around the river mouths, and you have an incomparable smorgasbord of angling.
No matter where in the world you may have searched for marlin, sailfish, or many other saltwater species, a trip to Tropic Star Lodge® is almost certain to convince you-as it did me-that Piñas Bay has no equal. Anywhere.
GETTING THERE, COSTS, AND OTHER ATTRACTIONS...
Tropic Star Lodge® is accessible only by boat or aircraft. Guests fly at their expense to Panama City in a private plane or commercially (American, Continental, Copa, Delta), then connect with a charter flight to the lodge. From there, a $350 fee covers all transfers and the charter. After touching down at Tropic Star's cement airstrip, anglers are treated to a scenic, 10-minute boat ride to the lodge. United States citizens must have a valid passport to enter Panama. Upon presentation of a passport, airlines will sell the holder a Panamanian tourist card.
Costs for a week's fishing-six days on the water, seven nights at the lodge, during the prime times of January to March-range from $2,830 each (four to a boat), $3,275 each (three per boat), $4,000 each (two per boat), and $6,450 (solo). April to September and December rates are slightly less. The lodge is closed from September 30 through November 14. Half-week bookings also are available, except January through March. The tariff includes boat, captain, mate, and fishing tackle. It also includes your room, full breakfast, box lunch, and four-course dinner with wine, non-alcoholic beverages, and the basic gratuity for land staff. It does not include the bar tab, tips to captain and mate ($250-$350 per boat per week), airfare, or hotel expenses in Panama City (the lodge recommends staying at Westin Caesar Park Hotel). If you just want to sit and relax, do a little bird watching, or explore some of the nearby Indian villages, per-person costs range from $1,850, single occupancy to $1,450, double occupancy. The Palace is available for $1,800 per week.
When you're not fishing, consider visiting Play Blanca, a white-sand beach where you can snorkel, sunbathe, and swim. The diversion requires about a 40-minute hike on a trail hacked through the jungle and over the edge of the mountain. Be sure to take along water and sunblock. Kayaks also are available if you want to explore the Piñas River. The local Jaqué Indians frequently visit the lodge to sell, at reasonable prices, such folk art as handmade baskets, beaded necklaces, hand-carved paddles, canoes, hand-carved bows, and reed fishing arrows. For more information contact Piñas Bay Resorts, Tropic Star Lodge®, 635 North Rio Grande Avenue, Orlando, FL 32805. Telephone: (800) 682-3424, or visit www.tropicstar.com.
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