Arriving that the Lodge around noon on Saturday, we are treated to a nice lunch on the patio which is wrapped up rather quickly and we all switch into rigging mode. The preparation of rods, drags, leaders, crimps, plugs, and jigs takes the remainder of the afternoon while enjoying a few Balboa beers, “beer for men” as the local saying goes. An impromptu “snook tournament” ensues after dinner and with everyone itching to hook into something. The first fish of the trip is hooked by John M. with his fly rod, a nice little snook. Rain puts a quick end to the attempts and off to bed with high expectations.
Teamed up with Christian Burns and Scott Kozak leaving for the morning aboard the Marlago with Capt. Carlos and mate, Carlos aka Carlito. First stop is to pick up a few live blue runners that are provided by another guy named Carlos who lives on Isla Parida. The bait was caught with hand lines and sabikki rigs and Carlos using his kayak turns out to be a very reliable source of live blue runners every morning and for the rest of the trip. The live bait, it will turn out, was very effective and so we have Carlos and his kayak to thank in part for making the trip as successful as it was.
Day 1: Tagged 16 Yellowfin tuna, released 2 at boat side including an untagged skipjack that was my first popper fish of the trip and kept one for dinner for total of around 18 fish caught and released around Ladrones. An amazing start for a fishing adventure highlighted by 10 fish tagged and released before 10am and with bites coming on popper, jig and live bait. Carlos and Carlito proved more then up to the challenge of the week, to tag and release fish, with zero learning curve. In fact, Capt. Carlos was keen to tag the fish himself while the rest of the team handled the landings, covering the eyes, measuring the fish, and then the release. With the quick start and great number of fish, we quickly got our release system fine-tuned and efficient; tag removed from the card and pre-loaded on the tag stick, pen with clip attached to the blank card, upon release, the card is filled with key data, # of fish, angler, length, lure or live bait, and then filled card is placed at the bottom of the stack. Next tag is preloaded, pen attached to the next card at the top of the stack. We handled singles and several double headers with this system for the rest of the week while out on the boat and then filled in the remaining information while back at the Lodge. On the way back to the dock, picked up the couple from Chicago from their boat that had an engine down, we relived the success of the day having run out of tags brought along and proudly flew our tag and release flags back into to the slip.
Day 2: Tagged 4 YF tuna. On the run out spirits were high after the previous day and encouraged by the sighting of huge whale breaching 2 times nearly fully out of the water. Moods changed rather quickly after, as the boat entered darkening sky and building seas. Long story short, team was pummeled by driving torrential rain for the better part of 2 hours straight, leaving everyone soaked to the bone, pruned and chilled. Skies cleared enough to fish around Montosa, but the weather challenge was quickly replaced by the fishing challenge. The bites were all on live bait and the size of fish was much bigger than the day before and all fish hooked on long popping rods which were definitely outclassed by the size of the fish. While only 4 fish tagged on the day, it seemed that we actually fought fish more of the time then we actually were trying to catch fish. Some of the fish were huge, one almost spooled completely the Stella reel before the hook pulled, foreboding things to come. A subsequent fish settled into a fight lasting nearly 2 hours with the full team taking turns fighting each of us to exhaustion and then passing off, until the next guy was finished and then passing, and on and on (and on) like that. Even gave the mate and Captain some turns, and in the end the line broke, and before we ever saw the fish and as we were totally outgunned without the possibility to use any type of harness. Captain said he thought it was over 250lbs and estimated by the trajectory of the line during the majority of the fight, with the flatter the line and less straight up and down, he explained, the bigger the fish. Totally punishing and physical layout of effort resulting in the broken line was exhilarating but also left a score to settle with the big fish off Montosa. Day was highlighted by having a more reasonable size fish in the 70lb class that I fought and landed in a solo fighting effort on the popping rod. While walking the fish around the bow of the boat, the tuna took a powerful run which lurched me completely with both feet off the deck into the side of the boat and where luckily my knees stuffed into the bottom of the combing pads, which likely saved me from being launched into the water, and also happy to have not lost grip on the pole, and then landing, tagging and releasing the fish.
Day 3 – Tagged 16 YF tuna, leader releases on 2 more, and 1 kept for total of around 19 fish on the day. Having picked up our bait, Scott had the sensible suggestion knowing that there were lots of fish around Ladrones to start there and to avoid the black rain clouds forming in the direction of Montosa and potentially repeating the soaking of the previous day. Turned out to be a good call, as there was instant action again with fun-size tuna in the porpoise schools, which we were able to chase around all day in pleasant conditions. Highlight of the day was hooking & landing 2 more fish on the popper and with additional dramatic strikes on fish that didn’t stay hooked thru the battles, and then also, finally hooking and landing fish on the new jigging pole from Spinal with the Talica II provided by Max at Pride Tackle here in Red Bank, NJ. Christian and I got a popper/ jig double header and were discussing the picture that we were going to take to give to Max when Carlito proceeded to quickly release the fish over the side and we had a good laugh about it. Mate did a great job and was even too quick in that case. We pulled back into the dock with our release flags and spirits flying high. Later that night at dinner, John DeLaCruz, owner of the lodge hears the story of our epic battles with the bigger fish of the day before, offers for us to take a couple of Black Hole jigging rods that he recommends to pair up with the spinning reels to use if we run into bigger fish again, the change up turns out to be prophetic..
Day 4 – Tagged 12 YF tuna and kept 1 for total of 13 fish for the day. Picked up our bait from “Senior Blue Runner” again and before any discussion on the destination of the day, Capt. Carlos announces that we are going straight to Montosa after previous day’s reports that there are still big fish there. With more dark clouds appearing in our way, we are apprehensive, but this time it’s not an option to play with Ladrones fish, as Carlos is clearly telling us it is time to “go big or go home”. We experience a few rain showers on the way out, but not nearly as torrential as day 2 and exit the other side of the storms to find immediate action around Montosa with several local Panamanian commercial fishing boats also working the porpoise schools. Quickly getting our game together, we throw into the “washing machine” created by boiling, jumping tunas and their porpoise partners and I’m again delighted by a couple more memorable popper explosions that result in tagged fish and with a bigger class then the previous day adding to the excitement. We run and gun through the morning around the porpoise and then with mate Carlito riding up in the bow like a bull rider, he points out to a distant sign a visiting angler has no business trying to validate, and the boat is speeding towards the South end of Montosa. Upon arrival its lines-in as we slide into an acre of swirling, spinning and jumping porpoise where a live bait is quickly deployed on one of the shorter jigging rods and comes tight with a noticeable BIG bend. So now we are tight to the fish and the line trajectory is scoping out flat and Carlos announces “Big Fish”, here we go and finally not on the long popping rod. Our team of 3 anglers is ready and committed now and we take turns achieving more incremental progress than previously experienced and finally after what seems an eternity with the repeated advice “line no touch boat”, we finally get the massive fish to boat side. With Christian taking an impressively unreal anchor-leg the fish is landed, tagged, measured, and released and we all hug like we won the Super Bowl (tuna taped out at 180lbs). A personal highlight comes afterwards on another fish that was later hooked and rather quickly boated, solo, then tagged and released, which was estimated by Capt. Carlos to be +100 lbs. and earned the Captain`s extended handshake, and that is something I’ll never forget. We run out of tags again, having passed a few off to John Logioco’s team, and return to the dock with flags flying, completely gratified that this week is truly epic, judged by any standard.
Day 5 – Tagged 1 YF Tuna (wait for it), released 1 and kept 2 for total of 4 fish for the day. Picked up bait again and headed to Montosa, “nada nada” didn’t see any porpoise action, overcast and rainy again so we made the call to catch some bait to look potentially for Marlin. We were mostly out of release tags and there were some bonita rippling on the surface and so the small squid chains were deployed and after a while the blue runners were joined in the tuna tubes with a few bigger live baits. Saw a small free-jumping fish that I called out as a sailfish which Capt. Carlos corrected as a small marlin and so we set out a couple of the baits on the slow troll which didn’t produce. Carlito again bucking the bronco on the bow made a move to an area South of Montosa where there was some porpoise action and that quickly produced a pair of 80-100 class fish. With some bigger bait in the tubes, we decide to run to Hannible Bank with hopes of hooking a marlin, however the expectations tempered, with Capt. Carlos explaining that when the big tuna are around, that the bonita are chased out and thus the marlin are not as active. However, while cruising into the Bank area, there is a big free jumping marlin spotted. We set up the live bait troll, a couple of bonita on big rods on the sides, a blue runner up the middle on a popping rod, and agree on an angler rotation, my turn passes without any bites and so the next option is encouraged to toss a popper off the bow of the boat as there are some birds around. Having thrown mostly a splashing popper for the trip, decide to switch up to a swim style bait and discuss the options with the team, ultimately opting for a dorado slider that has a hook already loaded up front as well as back, make my way to the bow, cast it out, lands, a couple of cranks, and is slammed by a tuna. Fight the tuna and its getting close to the boat when one of the big rods trolling live bonita out in back of the boat starts to scream, then pandemonium. We don’t know what has bit, so Carlos guns the engine to set the hook, my tuna still in the water and an afterthought at this point. The big rod comes tight and we are all looking for the tell-tale jump of a marlin, but it does not materialize, big bend in the rod, but no jumps, so it’s a big tuna. Christian straps into the fighting harness and the rod bend lessens, so I yell “tension, tension!” the Captain runs to the controls and guns the boat again to regain the advantage, while holding on for dear life to the popping rod I’ve got in my hands with the tuna hooked. Then look over to see that the middle popping rod that had the live blue runner trolled down the middle is forgotten and was just about spooled of any line, so grabbed and palmed the reel with one hand, other hand holding the hooked tuna and Christian now settled in with the big fish. Mate takes the popping rod and clears the blue runner, Scott most thankfully lands and releases the tuna (as he did so many times all week) working on the plug and now everyone can concentrate on Christian’s fish. He does a fantastic job and fights in a huge tuna. Big highlight, having kept just one more tag that Scott had, this tuna is boated, tagged and released and tapes out at 205lbs for the biggest fish of the trip and potentially one of the biggest fish tagged and released in Panama. Incredible! Return to the dock with a big tuna release flag flying.
Totals on the trip for our boat of 3 anglers were fantastic; 49 tuna tagged and released, 5 more released without tags, kept 5 for sashimi, and probably missed counting one, so roughly 60 fish caught in 5 days.. Return trip already guaranteed.
(Disclaimer: Report does not include details of the multiple challenges and physical side effects experienced. Your results may vary.. )