Author’s note: Originally published over at TheMonocular.com
Despite growing up in eastern Canada only two hours from the Atlantic coast, I made it to the grand old age of 50 before going saltwater fishing. Even more unusual is that my first ever saltwater fishing trip began in Arizona and took place in the pacific waters of Panama. I thought there may be some benefit on posting my observations, as a rookie, in case other fishermen and women were ready to make the leap to saltwater.
This trip was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity, made possible when a dear friend invited me along to what is an annual excursion for him. The price was right, my family was supportive so away I went. This trip was a full five days of fishing multiple species both inshore and offshore, with Pesca Panama – an amazing outfit.
It kind of goes without saying, but my first big observation was scale. I had grown up fishing brook trout and smallmouth bass and yellow perch, etc., and I had caught a ton. That being said, I don’t think I’d ever caught anything over five or six pounds. In Panama, other than baitfish, I don’t think I caught anything under 25 pounds. Ocean fish are big. The first fish I boated was a 120-pound tuna caught on a spinning reel. Before I was done, I would also boat a tuna estimated to weigh 275 pounds. Next, the ocean is big. “Well, duh” you’re probably thinking… but it’s humbling to be offshore with no land in sight. Further, big fish mean big tackle. Bigger than anything you’ve ever handled. That means more effort, and I’m going to talk about that too. Whe you’re casting a lure that is 10″ long, your arm gets tired quick; and if you hook up, it’s probably going to be a big one.
Without a doubt, this was my biggest takeaway. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no fitness fanatic, and I’m not in good shape. That being said I kept thinking “This would be even more fun if I was in better shape”. Ten minutes of casting huge poppers and I thought my forearms were worn out. When I hooked my first tuna (120 pounder) on a spinning reel, I literally thought my arms were going to fall off about 15 minutes into the fight. We all took a turn fighting it, then I ultimately landed it. On Day One my friend and I boated five tuna – the most of our five boats. By lunch on Day Two I had fought and landed a 275-pounder and Tim had fought a behemoth calculated at 316 pounds. After that guy was in the boat, Tim and I told the crew “No more tuna. Let’s go get something smaller”. I never thought I’d tap out on fishing! I loved catching those tuna, and I think if I was in better shape, I would’ve wanted to keep hammering them. I’m not sure how you get in shape for a fishing trip, but I intend to find out. Stamina is a big part of it, from casting poppers to “Reel, reel, reel!!!” when you’re beat – I think it is more about stamina than brute strength or even cardio.
Guides and Outfitters
I joined a group that had been coming on the same trip for 8 or 9 years. They knew the operation well and it quickly became apparent to me that Captain Mike Augat runs a highly proficient operation in Pesca Panama. Every single part of the trip from food to quarters to transportation to the boats and their crews was of the highest order. Mike’s operation is flawless from start to finish. Mike runs such a good operation and it is readily apparent that if one were to use a less capable operation, the trip of a lifetime could turn into a nightmare pretty quickly. Our crews knew where and how to fish. The boats and tackle were in tiptop shape. The food was amazing, the beds were comfy and every step of the journey went like clockwork. I shudder to think what a trip would be like if even one component was off – great food, but poor crews; shiny new boats but hassles getting to them from the airport; great fishing but bad food. When you’re that far away from home and spending that kind of money, everything has to be just right. Pick a good outfitter. Check references and check them again. Research them, Google them and research some more. Having a good outfitter will ensure an amazing trip, even if the fish aren’t biting like they normally do. Our crews were constantly working – adjusting tackle, checking bait, offering water and soda, cleaning the boat. The lodge (barge in Pesca Panama’s case) staff were constantly checking on us. An empty plate or cup barely would barely hit the table before they were scooping it up and asking what else they could get for you.
Equipment – like any trip, I asked a lot of questions. “Did I need a jacket? Did I need rain gear”. I asked about bug spray and sun block and what to wear for shoes. Remember, this was all new to me. My coworker bought me a floppy brimmed hat which was invaluable. I bought a fishing “neck gaiter” and I am glad I did. It kept the wind off my face when barreling across the open water and the sun off of my neck when we were fishing. I bought a long-sleeved “performance” shirt, which I scoffed at in the store, due mostly to the cost. I’ll have more with me next time. They keep you cool, and keep you from getting burned. Finally, on someone’s recommendation I brought along kneepads. I would recommend them as well, although I didn’t use them the entire trip. For the first couple of days, until I got my “sea legs”, I spent a lot of time bracing my knees against the gunwales and the kneepads definitely helped. Later however, I found that the Black Magic Fighting Belt they used actually pushed into my kneepads and the result was the kneepads ending up all askew anyway. Eventually I ditched them but I’m glad I had them to start.
Species – I spent a lot of time researching the varying species I might catch. Between photos and reviews and YouTube, I had a pretty good idea of what I might catch, how big different species typically were, and knew some basics regarding tackle and technique. It also allowed me to arrive with a “wish list” in mind; as I caught different species I knew which ones I wanted to go after next.
Language – This may surprise some readers but I thought I would throw it out there for consideration. If you’re planning to fish somewhere where “their” language is not “your” language – take the time to learn some basics. In my case, I had taken several Spanish classes over the past few years, but to say my Spanish was “rusty” would be an understatement. Don’t get me wrong – the Pesca Panama crew members spoke great English but I was hungry to learn and I think if I could have spoken some Spanish with them, I would’ve learned even more than I did. Plus, it’s just fun to be able to communicate with folks in another language. Next time I will definitely be brushing up before I go.
For my first saltwater fishing trip, I couldn’t have been more happy. It was amazing and truly the trip of a lifetime. When I learned I would be going, I had intended all along to write about my observations as a newbie. Maybe not about the “how to’s” like you might expect – but all of the other stuff. If you’ve never fished saltwater, don’t wait 50 years like I did. Seriously. You’ll be amazed.