In mid-January I was contacted by friend Tim Williams and he asked “Whatcha doing April 1-8?”. I responded that I wasn’t sure and asked what was going on. “Fishing in Panama” he replied. And that’s how it started… Travel for me is a logistical challenge. My wife has some health issues that necessitate a caregiver almost around the clock. I was in the midst of a season of hell at work, my Passport had expired and of course – there was the issue of cost.
Well, Tim made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. My wife agreed to “rough it” for a week, with my daughter’s help and that of a fill-in caregiver. My co-worker Amy encouraged me to go, insisting she’d hold down the fort at work. Finally, I learned my passport could be renewed relatively quickly. With all that, the game was afoot.
Some context, I rarely travel. I rarely fly, and hadn’t ventured outside of the continental United States. Any trip that far and to a foreign country would be a big deal; a fishing trip? That was the makings for a trip of a lifetime.
Soon my flights were booked, my bags were packed, my family and coworkers were ready, and my trip had finally arrived. We flew from Phoenix to Miami and then from Miami to Panama City, arriving in Panama in the early evening. Some of the group was there already, some had travelled from Phoenix, some we had met with in Miami and some were at the Panama City airport. We were picked up at the airport and transported to the Hotel El Panama. We got checked in and then regrouped for an evening out. We enjoyed some amazing food at an authentic Panamanian restaurant, had a few libations and then turned in for the night. The next morning we were taken to the other airport in Panama City (Albrook International)to take an Air Panama flight to the city of David, about a 45-minute flight.
We were then picked up at the David airport by Captain Mike Augat and some staff from Pesca Panama who transported us down to the marina in Pedregal. There we boarded the five fishing boats which took us down the river towards the ocean. The intent was to intercept the converted barge which would serve as “home” the next five days.
The barge is ingenious. While other fishing operations have to return to the mainland every night, Pesca Panama utilizes a “floating lodge” which travels with the fleet of fishing boats. This makes the daily trips back and forth from the fishing grounds much shorter. The barge sleeps 16 or so guests, has a full bar and dining area and crew quarters too. There’s a galley, a small “living room” and provisions for laundry, crew quarters, etc. Staying on the barge itself was worth the trip! So we rendezvoused with the barge just before lunch; then we settled into our rooms, had lunch and headed out for an afternoon of fishing.
That first afternoon was relatively uneventful but it was a great opportunity to start getting our sea legs, catch some bait fish, start to get into the rhythm of throwing poppers and of course – to get to know our boat’s Captain and Mate – Tomas y Felix. The meal that night set the tone for the week – lobster. Yummm
Breakfast on the barge was always delicious, with some of the best coffee you’ve ever had. Locally grown, dark and rich. We typically ate around 6ish, and were in the boats by 7. Monday was our first full day of fishing, and tuna (yellowfin) was the name of the game. Spirits were high, we were excited, and away we went.
We headed towards Hannibal Bank, a go-to for big fish in Panama. The crew watched the birds and porpoises for feeding activity, and soon tuna were sighted feeding as well. Live bait in the water, and spare poles casting poppers. It wasn’t long before we hooked up and someone handed me a rod.I was fighting a tuna on a regular spinning rod. A few minutes in and I literally thought my arms were going to fall out of their sockets. Tim and the crew each took a turn fighting the tuna, then it came back to me and we got it into the boat. My first fish in Panama was estimated to weigh 120 pounds. Prior to that, I had never caught a fish bigger than five or six pounds – in my entire life. Then it was Tim’s turn. He landed two in quick succession that were estimated to go 150 pounds. After lunch he boated another that went 150 pounds. Finally, it was my turn again. I fought a tuna for about 45 minutes on big tackle. We got him in the boat and they estimated it at right around 200 pounds. At the end of the day, Tim and I had boated five tuna total – about 800 pounds’ worth. Most boats landed tuna that day, but we came out on top!
Another amazing evening meal, camaraderie and a cocktail or two – and I was in bed anxious for Day Two.
Day Two found us chasing tuna again. Back out on Hannibal Bank, “running and gunning” – watching for tuna feeding and chasing into the schools of feeding fish. It was a hectic pace, and pretty damned exciting. Then I hooked into something big. I was buckled in, and it was just like something Hemingway wrote about. A harness braced the stout rod into a lap plate and hooked onto the reel. Tim encouraged me. The Captain kept maneuvering the boat to try and gain the upper hand. They gave me water. They poured water on the reel. Then we saw color in the water. Then we got it close. Tomas and Felix got one gaff into it and then another. It seemed all they could do to get it into the boat. Soon Tomas was on the radio and I heard “Monstruo, monstruo!” – a monster. They estimated that fish to be better than 270 pounds. Later based on actual measurements, Captain Mike declared it at 275.
We weren’t done though! Now it was Tim’s turn! Tim hooked up and fought a fish for over an hour, and then he was exhausted. Tomas and Felix took over, with both of them on the rod at the same time. It would be another 45 minutes before that tuna was in the boat. It was bigger than mine, calculated based on taped measurements of length and girth to be 316 pounds. After lunch, Tim and I agreed and issued a plea to the crew that I never thought I would ever hear – “No more tuna. We’re done. Let’s go after something smaller after lunch”. We were beyond beat. We had an awesome lunch on the boat and then the crew obliged and we headed inshore for something a bit smaller.
Desert Rat note – this is too big a story to tell in one sitting. Look for Part 2 coming up soon!