75. That is the number of yellowfin tuna our squad of six anglers tagged in five days of fishing at the Panama Sport Fishing lodge during the week of May 20th, 2013. The yellowfin ranged from 20 pounds to 205 pounds. It was the best fishing any of us have ever experienced. To put this accomplishment in perspective 12 anglers in 2011 (many of them professional) tagged 56 yellowfin, last year 12 anglers tagged 27. This year I would have been pleased if we tagged 50 given we only had six anglers. Prior to this trip we already had three tags recaptured from our Panama tagging efforts, one tuna swam to Equador, one to Costa Rica and one to Southern Panama, so with another 75 tags deployed we are looking forward to hopefully more recaptures this year. On two of the days we literally ran out of tags. Had I brought an extra 25 tags we could have broken 100, which is the new goal for next year. We fished three guys per boat instead of four and this was a great move as each angler had plenty of room to move around. Successfully tagging and releasing this many fish requires the most important ingredient, which is teamwork, between each other and the Captains and mates. At the final closing dinner, the one thing guys were most proud of was the teamwork that developed throughout the week. This enabled every angler on the trip to accomplish personal best fishing goals. This time of year in Panama, the rainy season is beginning to take shape, so every day saw some rain, at times torrential. With the many thunder cells passing over South America toward Panama, the seas were either bumpy or at times a bit rough. We didn’t have the glassy conditions typically found in early Spring. This was actually fine with all of us, as the clouds kept the sun’s power at bay. No one had lips burned off, or the top of ears fried. Instead we were thankful for the windbreakers some of us brought as driving rain, rough seas and thunder squalls required more that a sun shirt to keep warm. However the tuna love this weather and as we found out they were not shy. The tuna attacked out poppers and jigs and flat out molested any blue runner that was presented. The trip started out fast and furious as on day one, the boat captained by Carlos with veteran Atlantic Tuna Project anglers Geoff Taylor, Christian Burns and Scott Kozak tagging 16 tuna. The second boat, Captained by the famous ChiChi, with myself and first timers John Mullenholz and Devin Nolan tagged five tuna, tallying the first day’s total to 21 tagged tuna. The fishing never slowed down all week and the tuna kept getting bigger. One day, both boats cried “Uncle” one hour and a half early because the 100 pound tuna literally brought us to our knees. We had doubles and triples all day, fighting through rain squalls, thunder storms and sunshine, as 75 – 100lb tuna beat us down. In general the fishing method was to look for the porpoise and birds. Then run and gun to cast poppers into the schools of porpoise hoping to entice the tuna below. On many occasions you would see tuna jumping in with the porpoise. The yellowfin tuna porpoise relationship is the one the great symbiotic pairings in the ocean. Once the poppers were out, the mates would throw over a live blue runner. On so many occasions, the poppers came tight, the jig came tight and a larger tuna inhaled the blue runner. As the week progressed larger and larger tuna started mugging the live bait with Geoff, Christian and Scott tag teaming several big fish that tied them up for hours. Their knees told the story best, as the constant pressure of being slammed into slight combing pads chewed up the caps. Christian Burns and Devin Nolan also did fantastic work on the jig rods. Devin Nolan, from Baltimore who also happens to hold the Maryland state record for Striped bass (67 pounds) was a natural on the jig, landing a 75lb yellowfin with a Spinal 250gr rod on a Stingo PBR 150 silver jig. Christian Burns was high hook on the jig rod as he came tight on so many occasions. The tagging operation this year was well oiled. Having veteran taggers like Scott Kozak, Christian Burns and Geoff Taylor on the trip was invaluable. Geoff kept meticulous records of each fish, turning in a pile of tag cards each day fully completed. He fought gallantly taking fish on his popping rod, Spinal jigging rod and hauling in many 75lb+ tuna with a personal best of 100lbs that he bested in 20 minutes, which earned him the infrequent handshake from Capt. Carlos. Scott Kozak even brought his own tags, which we put to good use. He also fought many of the 50 tuna his boat tagged as the bruises on his arms and legs can attest. This is the third consecutive year Atlantic Tuna Project members have been to the Panama Sport Fishing Lodge on a tagging mission. As a result the Captains and mates also know exactly how to tag. For the third straight year we used The Billfish Foundation tags, which are great. TBF keeps great records and has been wonderful in reporting the re-captures. Each tuna was carefully fought, tagged and released. The best method was to first bring the tuna close to the boat, tag the fish in the water, then lift the tuna in the boat, cover its eyes with a wet towel which renders the tuna motionless, measure the length from nose to fork of the tail and then release. John Mullenholz made a great observation relating to how tuna react when out of the water. John noticed that on cloudy days with low light, the tuna were motionless on the deck without the towel over their eyes, and on sunny days the tuna needed the towel to remain calm. He suggested the cause for this difference in behavior was the tuna’s sensitivity to sunlight. Brilliant suggestion, as I think he is right on target. Both boats became tagging machines by the end of the week with anglers, mates and Captains working as one team. Anglers knew to anticipate when the person fighting the tuna was getting tired, so they were ready with fighting belt affixed for a quick handoff. Because of this teamwork every angler had several personal bests on this trip. Christian Burns successfully tagged and released the biggest yellowfin tuna to date in the program at 205lbs. A beast of a yellowfin that inhaled a live bonito at the Hannibal bank and had the boys tied up for nearly two hours. Once tagged and boated, the guys hugged like school kids, knelt to the tuna for a quick photo and back in the water she went.
One of the main goals of this trip was to tag and release a cow yellowfin. Mission accomplished. This crew of three also tagged several other cows from 150lb to 180lb. In fact one day, they spent almost the entire time (5 hours) fighting large fish, with one monster coming unbuttoned. It was no surprise to me that the best fishing day came in the shadows of Montousa Island. This island, which upon approach harks back to scenes from Jurassic Park is an offshore magnet for all gamefish. When this place is on, it’s the best fishing location in the world. Fighting huge tuna, while waves crash on the nearby reef, the mist shrouding the island cliffs, in water deep azure blue filled with porpoise, baitfish, terns, turtles, sea snakes and jumping rays is something to behold. On one day, we participated in a mad dog tuna bite of fish from 60lbs to over 100lbs that lasted all day. Late that afternoon, as we were fighting another tuna, we noticed the water suddenly being beaten to froth just a few hundred yards from our boat. In seconds hundreds of large tuna 75lbs+ were jumping into the air from all directions eating small baitfish. Capt. ChiChi raced our boat toward the ensuing massacre knowing that these “washing machines” only happen for seconds then the tuna sound again back to the depths. Capt. ChiChi put our boat right next to the tuna storm and we casted our poppers into the frenzy. I cast my Heru Tuna Candy 100 right into the froth and instantly a huge tuna exploded on my popper. I came tight for a second then the tuna spit the popper out and got off. The popper came back to the surface, I twitched my rod and instantly a huge hole in the water swallowed my popper and from there my Stella10000 whined to the highest pitch I have ever heard as line spun off the spool. Almost spooled on the first run, my Spinal popping rod held on as the Stella’s drag held the tuna from spooling me and the fight was on. An hour later, after an epic battle with my Spinal bent nearly tip to butt the entire fight we had the big tuna to the boat. Capt. ChiChi knowing this was my personal best tuna on a popper leaned over the side when the fish was close and with one scoop grabbed the tuna by the gills and hoisted him over the gunnel. My Captain is always there for me in special moments. Roll the clock back two years, and he did the same thing when I caught my first marlin, in exactly the same spot, in the shadows of Montousa Island. I tagged my personal best tuna caught on a popper and released him back into the depths. The sight of the big tuna busting on the surface is one I will hold forever. That sight alone will have me coming back to Montousa for years to come.
In addition to the many yellowfin we also boated a huge wahoo that took a squid daisy chain meant for catching bonito. Devin Nolan began to fight what we thought was a bonito but after pulling line from the 50W, soon knew we had something more. The amazing thing was the wahoo did not break the mono line with its razor teeth. Also while popping at LaDrones Island, catching smaller yellowfin in the 30lb range, I had a 30lb+ mahi mahi jump on my popper. He literally jumped on the popper 50 yards from the boat and hooked himself. At first he remained still, then figured out he was hooked and in a few seconds sizzled a hundred yards of line off my Stella. Jumping madly in the air, my Spinal finally brought him in and this one we gaffed for the table. I am still honing my popping skills so any variety on a popper gets the juices flowing. Back at the lodge, the cooking is always a highlight. Literally every single meal is great. Fresh tuna, lobster, steak, rice, vegetables and desert come every night. However of all the delicacies, the wahoo took first prize. We had wahoo sushi, fried wahoo sticks and wahoo fillet that were unreal. Those dishes along with cold Balboas (Panamanian beer) were meals we will never forget. Every night we came back to the dock beaten to a pulp. Muscles tired, clothes wet from the rain, knees bruised, feet sore from holding on, hands crimped from holding the rods, fingers scraped up and yet the biggest smiles told the real story. In general the lodge takes very good care of us. Laundry is done every day when you get back so you always have fresh clothes for the next day. Cold fruit drinks are handed to you right off the boats. The staff is friendly and the bar service is quick. No one went without a cold Balboa or shot of rum on immediate request. Airport transfers are always on time and the Panama City overnight was smooth yet again. Many thanks to supporters of the program for their contributions and support. The good folks at AFTCO and Guy Harvey Sportswear provided the navy blue performance shirts which were invaluable as they dry super quick. Also the AFTCO Blue Fever fishing gloves and sun protectors are essential for this kind of trip. Spinal Rods for making amazing popping and jigging rods that were put to the ultimate test. Jig N Pop for the Atlantic Tuna Project hats and popping gear such as the Heru lures and the best pliers on the planet. OTI and Terminator Tackle for the single lure hooks that are a must have for any popper fishermen. Ditch the treble hooks and you will save more time, catch more tuna and leave them in much better condition. After this trip, in the tagging world, the bar has been raised, substantially. But as I write this post, the waves are still crashing against Montousa’s reef, the tuna and porpoise still swimming together as yet another year will pass by until we meet yet again.