After the incredible fishing we experienced last year, it was a no-brainer to arrange for a return visit to Panama Sport Fishing Lodge again. This year, we joined up with the event organized by Scott and Jennifer McCall, who were also in the group that we fished with back in 2012.
Teaming up with Atlantic Tuna Project founder John Logioco, and members, Scott Kozak and Devin Nolan, we would be fishing aboard the Stamas with Capt. Carlos. After a late arrival at the Lodge we enjoyed an incredible wahoo dinner and heard tales of solid fishing action experienced by the group that was leaving. Last year, we arrived early and enjoyed a nice afternoon of rigging time, but that wasn’t possible this go around due to the travel schedules. So we headed out the first morning a bit disorganized, but the team was mostly ready to go by the time we reached the local bait fisherman off Isla Parida and loaded up on live blue runners and headed out to the grounds.
Day 1: Tagged 13 Yellowfin Tuna. 1 kept, as well as big dorado.
Running straight out towards Montosa, as we neared the island Carlos pointed and said “action” which indicated there was talk over the VHF about fish ahead. It didn’t take long to find them on the closer North side of Montosa. While approaching vast pods of porpoise breaking the surface and with the tunas expectedly cruising underneath, it was only then that we realized that we hadn’t brought along a dedicated bait fishing rod. We had our own jig rods ready with jigs and our popping rods, ready with poppers, and so after a little discussion, we converted over my Spinal and Scott’s Black Hole, putting on big circle hooks to cast out baits and the fish were immediately cooperative. After landing a couple on bait, there were signs all over that the tuna were here to play, and numerous “washing machines” erupted around the boat allowing us all to throw our top water poppers into the explosions. Hook ups were a high probability when the lure could be cast and worked in just the right place, which is easier said than done. There is truly nothing like the excitement of a top-water tuna bite on the popper, and when it is happening, with tunas slashing and frothing before your eyes, and you deliver the right presentation and it gets slammed, that is one of the best things in fishing. This is why we come, and this day, it is what we got. I was fortunate to get 4 nice fish on the Heru Tuna popper, from JigNPop, that morning, 2 were tagged, one was hooked deep that was kept and 1 came unbuttoned right at the boat. The guys were also doing well, and Devin landed a real nice dorado that assaulted a Heru Tuna popper as well. On a quick rigging note, I am running OTI Raptor Lure hooks in both the front and back positions and, in most cases, a smaller size on the front. While we had one deep hooked fish today, that was the only fish of the entire trip that we had to keep due to hook damage. There was also no evidence or impression that we missed any fish at all to single hook vs. treble hook presentation and there is ample evidence that it is easier and less stressful to the fish to remove the single lure hook.
The most memorable event of the day comes later when Scott is gritting into a tuna battle following an explosion on his popper, that puts a nice bend into his custom popping rod. Tunas fight. Tunas fight until you get them close to the boat, and then they usually fight harder. After a typically tough fight, this tuna, stopped fighting. And it swam right up under the boat, surprising all that witnessed it, as Scott reeled to take in the line. It was quickly apparent why, as a massive and lit up blue marlin cruised into view while stalking it’s lunch. It was a big tuna, and it was a really big marlin, estimated by Capt. Carlos at 800 lbs. Scott captured some great video of the sequence that follows, it was amazing. To try and summarize, the big tuna (about 40 inches) breaks off the line and is free swimming, but does not leave the security of the underside of the boat. The marlin, circles the boat, while a live blue runner (small bait) is thrown it’s way by the team time after time, but its’ not interested in this nibble when the main course is close at hand. There are further attempts by the crew to hook the marlin but it was not to be, and we return to the Lodge with our release flags of the incredible tuna tagging adventures of the day flying high.
Day 2: Tagged 4 Yellowfin Tuna.
As we boarded the boat this next day, we were sure to have a dedicated bait fishing rod and the recommendation is to have a shorter spinning jig rod for this. The previous year, we had a couple of very nice popping length rods for the live bait and that allowed for long casts of the bait. But, when dealing with fish of 150-200lbs. the popping rods made the fights quite long and the shorter spinning jigs rods from Black Hole, really are the way to go to get the big fish to the boat for a quicker tag & release. This morning, we were happy to have along an embedded photographer named Ian, from Panama Sportfishing Magazine, who would be taking pictures and video from the trip.
Running straight out to Montosa again and with expectations super high, it’s amazing what difference a day makes. Predictions of an improving moon phase and the crackling of “action, action” on the VHF didn’t materialize and we arrive on the grounds to find only calm conditions, “nada nada”, and so we settle in to try and troll up some bonita to use as bait later in the day. While trolling, I have switched typically from the splashing style popper to a swimming style and after losing a Heru in the action of the previous day, a Dorado Slider was deployed. We caught a few bonita and at the same time, while it looked dead, there was a flash from a dorado on the Slider and then an investigative tuna, with no takers, but it was a sign. Around lunch time Devin also switched his lure over to a small swimmer dubbed “the gurgler” which imparted enticing action that was eventually rewarded with a strike from a tuna that came unbuttoned. Reaching a few active porpoise later still, John decided to switch things up and dropped a jig and was rewarded with a nice hook up and release on a big tuna to start the action of the day.
Just about release time, Capt. Carlos spots a “washing machine” with birds building on the horizon and so we run full speed and pull up to a nice foamer. Everyone throws in, and my Dorado Slider is slammed with a massive explosion and as I come tight and experience the big rod bend and drag screaming, it feels to be a nice fish. Tunas fight… and it is nice long fight, the Captain asks “is it a big one?” We get the tuna pretty close to the boat after a while and to where it may have been gaffed, but we are looking for the tag and release, and then the tuna sounds again. It’s a massive battle and with help and assistance from the guys, it is really close and then, my rod breaks. It sounds like a shot gun, BAM! Capt. Carlos ever present and right next to me says “its ok” he puts his hand in the air as if to say, “don’t worry” and all is calm. A hush falls over the boat, its full concentration as Carlos hand lines the fish up, my only job at that point is to be sure to take up the slack line on the reel. The tuna is 10 feet from the boat and with the broken tip of the rod at it’s mouth, anything can happen, but with Carlos’ feel and experience the fish is inched up in his hands. The mate joins, foot by foot, and the giant spirals up and the tag is applied by Scott, who had one shot and made it count.. “tags in!”. Communication starts again, where is the measure tape? The mate Carlo secures the fish as so many all week and heaves it into the boat, along with 2 pieces of broken rod. Capt. Carlos says “it’s a BIG ONE” and while the team takes the measurement of 58 inches!, I try to catch a few breaths to recover from the battle. A couple of quick picture and then the fish is released back to the ocean. I’ll never forget that fish, approximately 120 lbs. on 60 lb. test hollow core Jerry Brown, 80lb wind on leader from BHP, the reward of returning it to the ocean, and the great teamwork that helped to make it possible. Thanks guys..
The siren call of the VHF sounds again, we speed away to the West side of Montosa and find increasing action and John gets things going with a fish on the Stingo jig and Devin follows with a nice fish on the popper. While he’s fighting his fish, another one comes tight on the live bait deployed for a double header. John and Scott, have a funny exchange about who will be taking that fish and finally Scott settles in to the battle. Devin’s fish is stubborn, but he gets it in for a nice release, meanwhile Scott is taken around the boat by the second fish that would not come so quietly. In fact, eventually all of us would be taking turns on this beast of a fish hooked on the spin jig rod that we remembered to bring along, and good thing. After several rounds of swaps on the rod and with the cameras of Panama Sportfishing rolling, we final are able to get the fish tagged and in the boat where it tapes out at 61 inches, or around 150lbs. to finish up another memorable day.
Day 3: Tagged 6 Yellowfin Tuna.
While a bit sore and bruised up from the big fish of the previous day, we pulled away from the dock with eager anticipation for another day. Having traveled, mere minutes, and with the other boats from our group passing by, we had to turn around and return to the Lodge, due to an engine problem. It was a Sunday and no mechanics available, but thankfully the guys were able to find the issue and had some spare parts to get the engine running again. We lost time, but kept calm in the shade of the Lodge and headed back out to salvage the remainder of the morning. Without the possibility to buy bait, we pulled up on a giant log found on the way out and it was loaded with baitfish and also a number of dorado. While the mate and Capt. Carlos attended to filling up the live-well with quality live baits, the team played around with the small dorado and trigger fish that, while not much larger than the poppers, still were ambitious and took swipes. A few better size mahis were actually hooked and so there was going to be good appetizers again that night.
The fateful bait stop also allowed us to scan the area well North of Montosa and we were pleasantly surprised to see tuna blowing up just to our West. Running full speed to the fish while I rode up in the bow was another awesome experience that was rewarded by an insta-bite when the Dorado Slider hit the mark, ending in a successful tag and release. That was followed by another washing machine hook-up on my popper shortly thereafter, and we enjoyed these fish all to ourselves. The guys hooked up on popper, jig and live bait. In one instance, Scott was fighting a fish on the live bait jig rod and the ceramic ring separated from the top guide and so the drag was reduced while the Capt. and mate attempted to fix the problem. What was remarkable, was that as the pulling pressure on the fish from above was removed for the fix attempt, the fish virtually stopped pulling from below. There wasn’t any hurry and it seemed the fish was just swimming along, until the fight resumed and once there was a bend in the rod again, the fish picked up the fight as usual, ending in a release.
Later, it became very calm and very hot and we ran all around following various lazy pods of porpoise. There was one final fish on a live bait later in the day that Loge fought in and that became tangled with the bait catching sabiki the Capt. was working. The sabiki was loaded with bait, and there was free swimming bait all around the boat and with the calm conditions, when the tuna came up to boat side, with hooked baits trailing, it looked like an aquarium. Great photos of that catch would finish up the day as we returned to the dock with our flags flying, only to hear that even with our late start, we had been fortunate to find tuna that day.
Day 4: Tagged 8 Yellowfin Tuna.
The Isla Parida bait crew was not open for business this morning and so we were happy to find another massive log floating on the way out and loaded up with fresh live bait. Local commercial fishermen have adopted a technique when they find a floating log with bait underneath, where they slowly tow it out to the tuna grounds and create a feeding frenzy behind their boat. This may account for the seeming increase in floaters that were found this trip. We ran to building action to the East of Ladrones, with smaller size tunas blowing up all around which were quickly covered up by a number of commercial and sportfishing boats. We tried popper and jig, and even with good presentations, these fish just didn’t want to bite anything but live bait. We tagged and released 4 or 5 fish there, before the fish were pushed down by the pressure of all the boats and so it was off to Montosa with the radio crackling again about building action. Arriving, apparently about 20 minutes late, the action had died, so we were in search mode again. Running to the West of the island, we found impressive washing machines of tuna, but again, they would not touch poppers or jigs and we relied on the bait again. The highlight of the afternoon came when John tossed in a live one into a pod of dolphin that resulted in an explosion, quickly followed by his reel screaming, as the line dumped off the Stella. After some quick boat maneuvering and with a lot of the spool showing, John was able to retrieve a bunch of line and settled into battle. We got him rigged up with a bucket harness and spin strap and thus began the epic sea battle. While making quite prolonged stand-up-style fights possible, fighting big tuna while strapped into a harness is no joke. You can use your body weight to counter the pull of the fish and the drag, which is nice, but there is potential risk to be pulled over, and so we were sure to have someone behind and holding on at all times. John did a great job on this really tough fish, which was fought, tagged, released and taped out a 61.5 inches, for the big fish of the trip for our boat. Great job Loge! As we rode in that afternoon, Carlos reported that another boat on Hannibal Bank, not too far from where we were, had landed 15 fish, including a massive 300 pounder. We decided to leave early the next morning, as it would be our last.
Day 4: Tagged 3 Yellowfin Tuna.
As we pulled out of the dock, we heard again that there would not be a possibly to visit the bait guys and so we pulled up to the local bait area to catch blue runners with sabiki again. This morning, the bait would be finicky and it took a while to get just a handful of the smaller baits. We ran all the way to Montosa in hopes of getting a few Bonita, which is the larger bait that hooked the huge tuna the day before, and also provide a chance at hooking a marlin. With the sighting of the marlin on the first day in our memory, and with Hannibal Bank being a prime global location for big marlin and tuna close by, we trolled up 3 of the big baits and decided to go for possible glory at the Bank and despite reports of a building tuna bite that we passed back up to the North.
Arriving at the famed Hannibal bank there were a handful of commercial boats drift and bottom fishing, and also a boat of free-diving spear fishermen. So basically the prime spot was covered up, but we still gave it a go as another boat did get a tuna bite around the time we arrived. The troll doesn’t produce, but like the lottery slogan says, “you have to be in it, to win it”. As many know, I’m dying to catch a Marlin, but it would have to wait another year as we saw a massive tuna jump well off on the horizon, which informed the decision that it was time to run and gun again. We very quickly zipped off to some bird action that Carlos had kept his keen eyes on while we were wrapping up the troll effort. Within minutes we were into loads of breaking tunas, but they were on the small side and didn’t want anything to do with our poppers, so we gave up on them quickly and ran towards the reports of tunas blowing up North of Montosa. On the run over, with Carlos working the VHF he reported that Scott McCall’s boat with Jen, John and Rako had actually run out of tags while releasing a fantastic number of fish on the day.
We arrived to find dwindling action, but still some opportunities around the commercial boats.. In building winds and higher seas then we’ve had all week, I think it was Devin who lands the first fish, followed by a quick double header for Loge and I, all on the live bait again. Things got a little sloppy that last day as we knew the end was near, there were still tuna around, and we were close to a nice total number of tagged fish on the week. Just one more, we said.. And it happened, we hooked one more on the bait and Scott settled in, but seas were picking up, wind was coming up and when the hooked pulled shortly into that battle, we were disappointed that Scott didn’t get that last big fish, but it was also clearly time to go.
We had some very nice rides back to the dock the entire week, typified by a beer or two and some snoozing in the bean bags. From the start of this ride, it was clear things were going to be different. The team started getting soaked from spray and so we shifted around and I took the seat next to Carlos to try and give some relief, but there wasn’t much of any dry spot on the boat, as the spray from the waves blew into the boat. The radio is crackling and all Carlos explained while pointing ahead is “big wind, no good”. We got quite a long way towards the destination before things started looking fairly ominous on the horizon closer to shore. The previous year, there was one day on the way out when we entered into the dark sky and eventually into sheets of torrential rain and it was not fun, but this looked different. It was white.. And the Capt. was clearly very eager to get in, “no good”. When it hit, it was unreal. The change in wind velocity was immediate and went from windy, to just crazy screaming windy, and then the rain came shortly thereafter and was blown so hard that it hurt. Frankly, it was scary. There was zero visibility, I couldn’t see the front of the boat mere feet away and we were running towards a rocky shore line full of little islands and outcroppings, and all the other boats from the lodge were running to the same inlets. Thanks to the experience of the Captain and the navigation instruments, we broke through the other side of the white squall and while lightening was striking where we had just passed, Carlos encouraged us to fly our 3 release flags back safely to the dock.
In summary, our boat of 4, tagged a very respectable 34 tuna in 5 days with 21 on live bait, 11 on popper and 2 on jig for Loge.. I was very pleased to have contributed 8 tagged fish, with 5 on the popper and the sixth popper fish, was the only tuna that we kept for sushi all week. During fishing that last day, I was thrown off balance while stepping up to the bow and ended up with a knee injury that lingers still as I write, but is not expected, as of yet, to require more than several weeks and rest to recover. Will keep fingers crossed and remind all to be careful out there.. Icing on the cake, all of the participants in the group received a fishing shirt from sponsor Stormr, a t-shirt from one of the guys who runs a NJ fishing boat and finally I received a Black Hole Cape Cod jigging rod from generous sponsor JigNPop. Scott again spent a lot of time and energy on the boat with his dual Go-Pro cameras and captured some incredible footage, most remarkable of which is the marlin around the boat. Devin also caught amazing still shots with his camera, that hopefully survived that last day deluge. Can’t wait for next year to return with the guys, to represent Loge’s Atlantic Tuna Project and keep on tagging in Panama.