“Macho!, Macho!, Macho!, que paso Macho?” crackled from the radio every morning as our three center consoles steamed toward Isla Montosa (map below) for a full day of yellowfin tuna jigging and popping while fishing from John De LaCruz’s Panama Sportfishing Lodge in the Chiriqui Region of Panama. Macho is one of John’s Captains and his brother, Capt ChiChi, also a Captain at the lodge, would beckon Macho over the radio with such gusto and charisma, that we all were repeating it by week’s end. Our mission on this trip to Panama, led by the well known jig master Kil Song, was two fold, first to test the latest jigging and popping tackle on bruising surface feeding yellowfin tuna, and second to introduce tuna tagging to this region. This yellowfin tuna fishery is special to many people including Atlantic Tuna Project sponsors Guy Harvey Sportswear, AFTCO and Hogy Lures as upon learning of this trip all donated items for the tuna tagging anglers. To my surprise, once others learned of our tagging intentions, other companies like Braid Products and JigNPop.com also donated gift certificates and product for tagging achievements. Panama has long been conservation minded, specifically toward billfish, however tuna conservation is still nascent. Most yellowfin tuna that come to the boat in Panama end up in the boat, and while the stocks are strong, practicing conservation now will serve this fishery and the lodges that host the traveling anglers well into the future. But herein lies the challenge, as anglers, captains and crews that are used to keeping tuna can be challenging to convince when it comes to catch tag and release. To help prepare the anglers and crews, I gave a presentation prior to the first day of fishing on tagging gear, how to safely deploy tags, how to use a tag stick & AFTCO tailer, how to release the tuna and the importance of filling out tag cards. While everyone else had a few thousand dollars worth of rods and reels in their rod tubes, I had wooden tag sticks, AFTCO tailers and other tag gear that drew some funny looks from folks when I was unpacking. I brought enough tagging gear to outfit three boats, as each vessel had a wooden tag stick, a batch of tags and tag cards, a tape measure for measuring the size of the yellowfin, an AFTCO tailer and most of all a pen, for recording the data. Pens are a valued commodity 50 miles off the coast of Panama so next time I will bring extra. At the end of my tagging presentation, I distributed AFTCO sun masks in blue and green camo to each angler, as well as AFTCO hats and visors. Upon successful tagging of a yellowfin, each angler and captain also received a Guy Harvey “Tagging Member” t-shirt. On the water, anglers had access to a sample package HOGY Lures large swim baits specifically designed for casting to tuna that owner Mike Hogan donated in support of our conservation efforts.
After spending one night in Panama City, driving 6 hours the next day to the lodge, preparing all the gear, we were ready for the first day of fishing the next morning. After a good night’s rest in the air conditioned and comfortable rooms at the lodge, our group of 12 anglers, split into three groups boarded one of three center consoles. It took us roughly 45 minutes to reach the fishing grounds each day (Isla Montosa pictured above), and since we were focused on popping, our main goal was to spot either birds feeding over tuna, or porpoise with hopefully tuna underneath them. Almost all days were spent fishing around the island of Montosa which lies about 45 miles off the coast. Right out of Jurassic Park, the island’s silhouette comprises surf crashing around its rough and jagged reefs, palm trees and jungle that descend from steep cliffs to the water, a small beach on the leeward side of the island and creatures of all kinds abound. As we quickly found out, finding a school of jumping yellowfin was not a big deal, as they were so many. But most of us on this trip came from New Jersey, and anyone from New Jersey that sees jumping tuna will act like they might never see them again. So those first few pods of blitzing yellowfin were really exciting. This is “run & gun” fishing where the Captain pins the throttles to get up close to the school, then stops just in time for the casting anglers to hurl their poppers into the feeding tuna. So you can imagine, being totally excited, doing 30 knots then stopping instantly, trying to get a good cast off while the boat is moving and get your popper popping produced quite a few hilarious fire drills ripe with jittery mistakes. That didn’t matter because there were so many tuna. I was not sure if we would tag a tuna on the first day but I had that wrong. Within the first couple hours on the first day, we had several yellowfin to the boat, which were promptly measured, tagged and released in great condition. Most of the yellowfin on the first couple of days were from 30 pounds to 60 pounds, with the average in the 40 pound range. Tuna that measured 30” or less from nose to the base of their tail were released without a tag, as these younger fish should not be subject to the wound a tag inflicts upon deployment. On day one, between three boats we tagged 17 tuna. That was already amazing to me, as I was hoping we would tag 20 for the week. Many more were caught that were just under the size limit for tagging and many were also fought and lost at the boat. The reason tuna either missed the poppers on the initial hit or came unhooked during the fight is because mostly everyone was using single hooks. Although this can be frustrating to the Captains, due to seeing many anglers miss tuna that hit the poppers but do not get hooked, its much better for the tuna. Single hooks inflict much less damage to the tuna, especially the top hook that is almost always free and swinging around during the fight, as the tuna almost always are hooked on the back hook. This is not easy fishing. Its very physical as long casts with heavy gear are required all day. So anyone with soft shoulders, bad balance or weak arms need not apply. Our anglers were tough, even the ladies as we spent all day casting to and catching yellowfin tuna on the latest spinning gear. As on most fishing trips where anglers arrive from different locations and don’t know each other, what starts out as a band of strangers soon turns into a band of brothers. Battling tuna all day can really bring folks together and that’s exactly what happened. This trip had an eclectic mix to say the least; first it was organized by Kil Song, who is one of the most successful and reputable jigging and popping fishermen in the USA, he owns the website jignpop.com and is an authority on this style of fishing, we also had Mr. Shin Dong Man, Korea’s most respected fishermen. Shin had a professional photographer with him at all times capturing footage for his TV show and magazine, Jamie Massion a virtual founding father of West Coast long range fishing and soon to be editor of the jigging and popping forum on jignpop.com, a bunch of us from New Jersey, Scott and Jenn McCall, William Kehr, Chris Varjan, Esther and Jane who work with Kil, charter captain from Texas, Mr. Dennis Crawford aka CaptDC, his buddy Harold aka “Tuna Loco” & my buddy Racko. All are excellent fishermen.
In total our group tagged 52 tuna in five days of fishing. Average size was 42.6” inches, which would weigh approximately 53 pounds. The biggest tuna tagged was 72” inches with a girth of 48”, which is estimated 233lbs. The few largest tuna we tagged were caught on live bait while slow trolling for marlin. Capt. Dennis Crawford tagged the largest tuna (72”) and also won the award for the largest tuna caught on a jig or popper, with a 48.5” tuna, which is about 80 pounds. Scott McCall won the award for most tagged tuna, as he successfully deployed 17 tags. There is a good chance with 56 yellowfin tuna tagged, we set a weekly record for tuna tagging in Panama from sportfishing boats, and also likely we set the record for largest tagged yellowfin tuna at 233lbs from rod and reel. I welcome feedback from anyone who reads this and challenges these two statements. Here is a graph that shows the distribution on the size ranges that were caught and tagged. The (x) vertical scale is (0-80) is inches, the (y) horizontal scale is # of tuna caught.
The data above was derived from this online source for estimating how much pelagic fish weigh.
Although it was a bit challenging making sure three boats had all the necessary tagging gear they needed for the day, the operation went smoothly, and got easier each day. Once the captains and mates found their own rhythm of tagging, the process became well oiled. During the week I rotated around the three boats to teach both anglers and crews how to tag and release. The basic scenario followed a sequence; angler fights the tuna to the boat, mate secures the leader, captain either tags the fish in the water or lifts the tuna aboard, if the tuna was large we would use the AFTCO tailer, once aboard we quickly placed a towel over the tuna’s eyes which renders the fish motionless, the tag was then deployed in the shoulder of the tuna, single hook removed, we then picked the tuna up with the rag still on the eyes, remove the rag, take a quick picture if the angler desired and sent the tuna back into the water like a missile to get the water rushing over their gills. I released many tuna myself during the week and all swam away with strong energy. The biggest tuna, 233lbs, was a bit difficult on our gear and process so I have some modifications to do for larger fish. But for the tuna 100 pounds and under, the tagging process worked quite well.
Much credit goes to lodge owner John DeLaCruz, his Captains Sergio, Macho and ChiChi, and their mates for trying something new and adapting quickly. They were all genuinely interested in the process and were eager to learn how tagging might help improve their business and tuna fishery. It was clear from this trip, that traveling anglers are eager and willing to practice catch, tag and release in Panama with yellowfin tuna. The Panama Sportfishing Lodge is now an official tuna "tagging member" and if this lodge and its crews are any indication for how other Panamanian lodges would respond to tuna conservation, then Panama will soon lead the efforts here as they have done with billfish. As it stands now, Panama does not have a conservation program for recreational anglers that addresses yellowfin tuna, but judging from this great experience, such a program might soon exist.
The success of this trip could not have been possible without the following support;
John De LaCruz; Owner of Panama Sportfishing Lodge.
Kil Song - for organizing the trip and taking a step toward conservation by adopting a catch, tag and release format for the weeks’ fishing. www.jignpop.com
Hogy Lures – Mike Hogan for donating items to support the tagging efforts.
360Tuna.com – the forum where we all met and continue to share our tuna stories.
The Billfish Foundation – billfish tags that we used for yellowfin tuna.
Braid Products – Dennis Braid for donating a $250 gift certificate for tagging achievements.