Land of the Lost

Capt. Steve Dougherty June 14, 2011

Thanks to unique currents, aggressive bottom contours and the banning of commercial purse seining with recently added restrictions on large scale longlining fleets, trophy game fish abound in the fertile waters surrounding the rugged coastline of Panama.

land-of-the-lost1

1 of 12

Photo: doughertyphotos.com

The lore of this exotic destination’s incredible fishing opportunities is out, and adventurous anglers who are willing to immerse themselves can expect intimate experiences with some of the most powerful fish in all of the world’s oceans. Big game sport fishing in the warm coastal waters of Central America doesn’t get any better, and having been over a year since my last visit to Panama I was excited and eager knowing all of the opportunities at hand. With populations of highly prized game fish on the brink worldwide, it’s comforting to know that Panama is leading the way in conservation and dedicated to the protection of marine resources and the practice of sustainable sport fishing.

Situated just east of the fabled Coiba Island and Hannibal Bank, anglers find themselves at ground zero with supercharged game fish that have no remorse for busting tackle and breaking hearts.

Unlike typical shorebound lodges and resorts, which certainly offer incredible opportunities, for this much needed getaway our regional sales manager Captain Carlos Rodriguez and I were in store for a real treat. With the absence of marinas and infrastructure along a majority of the Panamanian coastline, fishing unspoiled waters can be a real challenge to say the least. Nestled along the Pacific Coast amid a beautiful backdrop of lush jungle in the vicinity of sheer cliffs that fall steeply into the ocean, Cebaco Bay Sportfishing Club operates a 115-foot mothership that caters to traveling anglers as well as private yachts in-transit from the Panama Canal to Costa Rica and beyond. The mothership provides a unique experience that sleeps up to 15 guests in five air-conditioned staterooms. With tricked out pangas, a 31-foot Bertram and 47-foot Buddy Davis available for charters, the options and targeted species are truly endless.

Situated just east of the fabled Coiba Island and Hannibal Bank, anglers find themselves at ground zero with supercharged game fish that have no remorse for busting tackle and breaking hearts. And with the mothership capable of holding 60,000 gallons of fuel, the fun never has to end. During our four night stay several well equipped sportfishers passed through, with some spending the night and swapping fish tales on the back deck, and others spending just enough time to top off their fuel tanks. Hanging out with the transient crews, everyone was talking about the estimated 1,100-pound black marlin and 300-pound yellowfin tuna caught within 40 miles of the mothership only a few days prior to our arrival. To say we were fired up was a vast understatement.

Although our journey from Miami started off on the wrong foot with a nine hour flight delay and a tsunami warning from the devastating earthquake in Japan, when we finally arrived at the mothership all of our worries melted away as the sun dipped behind the jungle clad forest. After settling into our cabins and feasting on an incredible tuna dinner, we swapped fishy stories with Manager Hennie Marais and Captain Tim Hetherington—it was clearly evident that we were in good hands. With Hennie and Tim both dedicating years at some of the world’s most exotic and respected fishing lodges, we had reached our boiling point and hit the sack in anticipation of our first day on the water.

We woke to the succulent smell of fresh bacon and eggs and after preparing our gear and inhaling breakfast, we boarded the Bertram Extreme and set out for what was to be a memorable day on the water. The Tuna Coast, Aguja Reef, Jicarita, Hannibal Bank, Ladrones and Montuosa are all within easy reach and the hardest decision was deciding when are where to focus our efforts. We decided to start the day at Aguja Reef, where anything goes. Here it’s possible to connect with trophy cubera snapper and giant black marlin during the same outing and we were assured that whatever our flavor, we surely wouldn’t be disappointed with a visit to Aguja Reef.

While trolling for skipjack to deploy as marlin bait we caught glimpse of a truly phenomenal sight—spawning cubera snapper cruising the surface. We immediately changed tactics and prepped the popping rods, although the finicky snapper were more interested in love than feeding. Not to worry, as we dropped vertical jigs to the bottom and battled scores of hard fighting amberjack.

Battered and bruised we decided to make a short run to Punta Mariato, a remote coastline that offers one of the most picturesque backdrops an angler will ever experience. Ripping our poppers through the turbulent whitewater we were bombarded with bluefin and bigeye trevally, monster houndfish, roosterfish, rock snapper, African pompano, sierra mackerel and jack crevalle. Hours of continual casting—in addition to intense battles—will put the hurt on even the most athletic angler and by lunchtime we were exhausted.

We made a move offshore and were greeted by acres of bonito, skipjack and yellowfin tuna busting the surface. Dolphin, marlin and sailfish are only some of the species encountered offshore and although the water featured a green tint with patches of red tide, we still found plenty of action that lasted throughout the afternoon. Having had a great first day we headed towards Isla Cebaco, but thinking we hadn’t had enough our captain stopped at a high spot only minutes from the mothership for one last drop. The vertical jigs were once again clobbered by determined jack and a surprise grouper. Now we were really beat.

Speaking with the captains that evening it was clearly evident that the presence of red tide offshore was going to limit our ability to target pelagic predators. Fortunately, the northwest coast of Panama offers endless variety if you adapt to the conditions and alter your techniques. We decided that the best bet would be to focus the rest of our trip on the area’s incredible inshore opportunities. Here, inshore is a relative term with depths upwards of 60 feet only a stone’s throw from the black sand beaches and rugged cliffs.

While most boats head out with baitwells full of live cojinua, we wanted to fish strictly artificials. There’s just something about fooling game fish on faux forage. However, traveling anglers must beware. The aggressive predators that prowl these waters strike with vengeance and artificial offerings that suffice for Florida may stand no chance against the crushing jaws of the supercharged game fish cruising these virgin waters. Over the course of our angling extravaganza we had 3X treble hooks break, split rings straighten out and plugs that were once brightly colored reduced to paintless plastic. After losing a fish to tackle failure Carlos would repeat a common phrase, “There’s saltwater grade and then there’s Panama grade!”

With such powerful opponents, it’s a good thing Cebaco Bay outfits their boats with the highest quality jigging and popping outfits. With deep water so close to shore we even encountered roaming schools of yellowfin tuna eager to demolish poppers and stickbaits ripped along the surface. Fishing tight to the rocks and in the backwash of long period groundswells, we were constantly on the defense.

All in all we had an unbelievable trip that certainly exceeded our expectations with incredible fishing, top-notch crews, world-class meals and super comfortable amenities, all in a magical setting. You’d find it a serious challenge to find a sport fishing destination with the variety and abundance of species that swim the waters off the Pacific Coast of Panama. While the current Cebaco Bay operation is first class, you can expect big things in the near future with the development of lodging accommodations on Isla Cebaco including quaint villas, a freshwater swimming pool, restaurant and bar as well as the addition of several more boats. As a traveling writer and photographer there’s no place on earth I’d rather visit. Without a shadow of doubt, Cebaco Bay Sportfishing Lodge is a shining star among the world’s most elite fishing destinations.

Getting There

The name Panama is roughly translated as Abundance of Fish and it certainly lives up to its namesake. With easy access and the nicest highways in all of Central America, Panama delights even the most jaded international traveler. Numerous airlines provide service to Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City and a 31/2 hour drive puts you in Puerto Mutis near the town of Santiago. From here an hour boat ride through the mangrove tangled shores of the San Pedro River will have you settled on the Cebaco Bay mothership and in prime position against trophy targets.

Cebaco Bay Sportfishing Club: cebacobay.com

Join the Discussion