Dating back more than a hundred years, Panama’s colorful history has been riddled with both tragedy and resurgence. Bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia, Central America’s southernmost country is famous for The Panama Canal, which connects maritime trade routes between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. During construction of the canal, from the late 1800s through completion in 1914, thousands of French and American workers tragically lost their lives digging, carving and shaping what is still considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Today, the Republic of Panama is thriving with a massive canal expansion project and bustling downtown revitalization highlighted by a towering skyline rivaling that of Miami Beach.
As a tourist destination, Panama offers one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. In a single day a visitor could literally stick his feet in two different oceans. One could also enjoy a morning of mountain climbing followed by an adventure into a remote rainforest jungle where you never know what you’ll find—or what might find you. Even with the long list of wondrous things to see and do across Panama, it’s clearly the extraordinary blue water fishing along the nation’s rich Pacific Coast that continues to lure enthusiastic anglers from all over the globe.
From self-propelled kayaks to twin outboard powered pangas and a fully outfitted Buddy Davis, there are excellent platforms for whatever you choose to chase.
Just mention the word “Panama” in conversation and everyone who is anyone in the fishing industry typically conjures up visions of the world famous Tropic Star Lodge located in Piñas Bay. Hosting more than a thousand guests a year and outfitted with a dozen 31′ Bertram sportfishers, Tropic Star has earned its reputation as the crown jewel of all sportfishing lodges. However let the truth be told; the prolific waters along the entire Pacific Coast are home to the hottest black marlin fishing on earth. With that being said, Tropic Star isn’t the only game in town catering to angling’s elite. If you find yourself inflicted with a severe case of foreign fishing fever then allow me to introduce you to a special option that only few have experienced.
The Journey Begins
One way or another you’ll need to get to Panama and for many the journey starts in Miami. After boarding your designated Boeing 737 at Miami International Airport a relatively short two hour and thirty minute flight will have you minutes from Panama City. If you have the time it’s highly recommended you spend at least a day or two taking in the sights and exploring the old Panama Canal Zone—a 5 mile swath of land bordering each side of the canal for its entire 51 mile length. Unfortunately, my wife, daughter and I only had a brief layover and regret not having more time to explore this inspiring area that’s so rich in history.
While a commuter flight followed by a thrilling helicopter ride is an option to reach your final destination as quickly as possible, ground transportation is perfectly suitable with English speaking drivers who aren’t afraid to talk. Expect to wind your way through mountainous terrain and colorful villages bordered by expansive sugarcane fields and grazing cattle. With so much to see time flies by and in only a few hours you’ll be stretching your legs at the riverside settlement of Puerto Mutis, a functional marina servicing local commercial fishermen. Here we boarded a panga in preparation of our final tour to our journey’s end. Along the way we were awestruck by distant mountain peaks, cascading waterfalls and more gliding frigate birds than we’ve ever seen. Jurassic Park is the only way to describe the surroundings, as we waited for a pterodactyl to swoop down over the next fog-covered cliff.
After finally entering the Pacific Ocean and passing by ancient rock formations protruding from the depths, our home away from home finally came into view. Right there where you would least expect it in a small, secluded bay along Cebaco Island rests Cebaco Bay. In all of her glory she gently swayed with her rugged bow proudly facing the oncoming swells.
A 110 foot converted steel crew boat as old as I am, for nearly a decade Cebaco Bay has supported her owner’s passion for black marlin fishing, along with servicing passing by sportfishing yachts making their way to and from The Panama Canal, Costa Rica, Guatemala and destinations far beyond. Cebaco Bay carries over 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel and is the only refuge for more than 200 miles in either direction.
Today, Cebaco Bay has expanded operations and the floating fuel station harbors her own fleet of fishing machines. From self-propelled kayaks to twin outboard powered pangas and a fully outfitted Buddy Davis, there are excellent platforms for whatever targets you choose to chase. She’s certainly had some cosmetic work done over the years and now provides clean accommodations for up to a dozen visiting anglers looking for an experience that no editorial could fairly describe. But the Hilton she is not. However, she is comfortable and visitors are guaranteed to enjoy an authentic experience with great company, freshly prepared meals, and jaw-dropping views of lush forests, surrounding mountain ranges and the wild Pacific.
Get Hooked Up
After breakfast on the aft deck each morning, passengers board their designated boat and head a mere 18 miles to the 100-fathom drop-off in search of aggressive black marlin, powerful yellowfin tuna and monster dorado. On the way expect to load the tuna tubes with tempting bonito, which rarely go ignored. Once on location, the Pacific erupts with playful porpoises and diving seabirds leading the way to the action. Unlike other congested areas in the Pacific the prolific waters off Isla Cebaco are untouched. In four days of fishing we crossed paths with just one World Cat.
Does Hannibal Bank or Coiba sound familiar? While these famous honey holes are certainly within reach, rarely is there a need to run 50 miles when world-class action typically unfolds right out front. After only a single day of fishing and familiarizing myself with the lay of the land, I quickly realized that Panama is one of those international angling destinations where the biggest problem is simply deciding where to fish. Nevertheless, wherever the captain pulls back the throttles it’s game on, with slow-trolled livies and proven trolling lures both producing big results.
For fit anglers looking for an added level of visual stimulation don’t miss the opportunity to throw poppers at busting yellowfin. The tuna here run 20 to 200 pounds, with real cows typically showing up around February, so make sure to bring your favorite 50 to 80 lb. class popping outfits along with your favorite plugs. Don’t loose sight of the fact that your mothership and her fleet are fairly equipped, however, it’s always a good idea to bring along your favorite gear when fishing this far from home.
After satisfying your appetite offshore, head toward submerged peaks and drop-offs for remarkable vertical jigging. The shear variety and size of aggressive game fish is astounding—most of which have never seen metal. At one point seven consecutive drops resulted in seven different species, topped off by a stud broomtail grouper. While it is easy to get carried away, other than a fish or two for the grill the strict policy is catch, photograph and release.
If you’re a true ironman and actually have energy remaining, finish the day by throwing the same noisy poppers along the breaking surf. A hefty jack…rooster…cubera…who knows what the next cast will bring. All of the fish here are big, mean and do what they can to send you home humbled. While saltwater-grade tackle exists, it will be in your best interest to bring gear worthy of being labeled Panama-grade.
In hindsight, Panama was an extraordinary destination that we would revisit in a New York minute. Putting the scenery, culture and everything else aside, this is one destination where you don’t have to be a world-class blue water angler to catch world-class fish. Without hesitation we would highly recommend this destination to anyone looking for the angling adventure of a lifetime. And while there are numerous land-based choices, enjoy four or five days aboard Cebaco Bay while the option still exists. You won’t regret it.
Regarding entry and exit requirements, U.S. citizens traveling by air or sea to and from Panama must present a valid passport when entering Panama and re-entering the United States. U.S. tourists are permitted to stay in Panama for 180 days without extension. Outside the Panama City area, which has many first-class hotels and restaurants, tourist facilities vary in quality. Along the Pacific Coast visitors should be wary of vessels that may be transporting narcotics to and from Colombia. Bales and specially wrapped packages have been found floating in the ocean and on remote beaches. Boaters and beachgoers are warned to steer clear of these items and to immediately report their location to the Panamanian authorities.
Notes of Interest
- Climate: Panama has a tropical climate with temperatures from 80° to 90°F. The dry season spans from December to April, with the rainy season lasting from May to November.
- Language: Spanish is the official language but many Panamanians speak English.
- Currency: The U.S. dollar is legal tender in Panama.
- Water: There is pure, potable water in all towns, qualified safe to drink directly from the faucet.
- Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set over the Atlantic.