Panama Revisited – January 2001

World Records and the Lure of Pacific Tarpon

 Panama Revisited – January 2001  

By: Dave West, Sportfishing club of the British isles 

I suppose with every fishing trip one undertakes there are always expectations of the results.  In hindsight sometimes they prove to have been totally unrealistic.  But I guess without them we’d never actually go!

So how about this particular Panamanian trip?

Many of you, I am sure, will have previously heard of Club Pacifico – the fabled fishing camp that Bob Griffiths created on Isla Coiba, off Panama’s Pacific coast.  The camp closed in ‘88.  Whilst the whole archipelago, of which Coiba is the main island, has subsequently been designated a national park.  However the original Club Pacifico bungalows are still there, and being rented out by the Parks Authority.  This is where four of us – John Bowman, Dick Clack, Andy Sale and myself – were to be based, at least initially.  More of the ‘initially’ later though.

Dave Hoenes - 44lb Amberjack

For both Dick and I this was to be respectively our third trip to Coiba, although through circumstance we hadn’t previously fished there together.  But for Andy and John it was to be their first.

Andy was still the ‘marlin virgin’.  In fact he’d yet to open his account with a ‘big’ big game fish.  And John was looking to record his first Black.  I’d perhaps rashly assured them they couldn’t fail to catch a marlin, fishing as they would be the fabled Hannibal Bank!  And although I’d finally managed to break my duck with Roosterfish – a 12 pounder off Guatemala the previous year – I desperately wanted a BIG Rooster.  The area has the potential; I’d lost any number on previous trips to Coiba.

Then there were the REALLY ambitious targets – the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.

Let me explain.  From previous trips I was aware the area contains significant numbers of large Almaco Jacks that the locals mistakenly refer to as Amberjack.  And, having studiously perused the record lists beforehand, I was convinced we had a realistic chance of establishing a world record or two for this species.

Now to the ‘initially’.  Andy and I were in addition planning, after the trip to Coiba, to spend a couple of days fishing the Bayno River, down near the Columbian border fishing for Snook and Tarpon.  This was to be with a larger than life character, one Antonio Herdon.  Tony had had some real monsters from there in the past with Tarpon in excess of 260lbs and 50lb plus Snook!  And remember this is on the Pacific side of Panama!  The Tarpon had, over the years, migrated there through the Panama Canal.

Dave West - 600lb Black - Coiba

So that starts to set the scene.

The trip down was uneventful – Heathrow to Miami and then a connecting flight, a couple of hours later, to Panama City.  I suppose the only drawback in those days, pre-September 11th, was incarceration in the International Transfer Lounge in Miami.  Loads of ‘lost souls’ speaking halting English or more normally Spanish – and that was the ‘bi-lingual’ ground staff – and only American beer to dull the experience!

As the plane commenced its descent into Panama City I regaled the others with tales of the ‘five star’ treatment we’d receive on arrival.  That was part of our package.  Not with the masses, none of this standing in interminable queues.  We’d be met airside by an attractive young uniformed hostess who would whisk up through formalities and arrange to have our luggage collected all whilst we luxuriated in the first class lounge sipping cocktails.  Well, all true.  Except we curled up laughing when we saw the board she was holding up.  It read “Dave West, John West, Dick West and Andy West”.  However we were in Central America and there those sort of things happen!

It’s at this point that you realise your body clock’s telling you it’s 1:30 in the morning.  Still off to an Argentinean  ‘meat’ restaurant – La Gaucho – that serves the most amazing steaks and full-bodied red wines.  We all agreed these were the best steaks we’d ever tasted.

A leisurely start in the morning, a gentle swim in the hotel’s pool and a ‘phone call from our captain – Tom Yust – confirming arrangements for our charter flight to the island.  It wasn’t to be Tom’s usual captain though whose plane was being serviced that day.

We arrived back at the international airport to be greeted by our stand-in pilot and his co-pilot.  And then the ‘fun’ started.  This wasn’t a scheduled flight with recognised check-in procedures.  How were we to get airside past the bureaucrats?  After a protracted discussion we were directed downstairs.  Our long-suffering porter carried the luggage down a flight of stairs, but then another impasse.  The ‘below stairs’ bureaucrat tried to direct us upstairs.  Frustration was building in our porter who then started dragging the luggage upstairs.  But perseverance by our pilot paid off.  Yes we could go through.  Back came the luggage and we set off, airside, through deserted corridors.  Except we encountered yet another bureaucrat dosing in a booth!  He stirred and visibly blanched.  He hadn’t been tutored in the confrontation of ‘gringos’.  Mr Clack’s patience was wearing thin.  Dick thrust his passport at the startled official who studied it and waved us through.   Success!

The journey to Coiba took just 50 minutes, with our flight path taking us southwest over the Panama Canal and the mountains of the Azuelo Peninsular.  The folds in the mountains graphically illustrate how this land – the isthmus connecting North and South America – was formed, thrust out of the ocean by collision of two of the earth’s tectonic plates.  Then to what should have been the mangrove swamps surrounding the rivers.  Unfortunately though most of this habitat has now been eradicated, replaced by manmade shallow lagoons supporting the intensive farming of shrimps.  And unfortunately once they’re harvested the lagoons are flushed through with poisons doing irreparable harm to the estuaries and marine environment.

Then there was Coiba just 30 miles offshore, covered as it is with virgin rain forest, its rugged volcanic coastline interspersed with beaches washed by majestic Pacific rollers.

We bumped down and taxied to a halt on the prison camp’s grass landing strip.  Sorry, I’d forgotten to mention the prison!  In its ‘heyday’, during General Noriaga’s dictatorship, Coiba was a prison island with four separate camps housing some 600 prisoners.  Things had improved somewhat though and now there were only a hundred and twenty prisoners left on the island, all in a single camp.  And some of these – trustees – were participating in an impromptu game of football against the guards!  The game stopped briefly as the commandant came across warmly welcoming Tom, who’d walked up from the beach, and us.  Not surprisingly they don’t get too many visitors to the island!

Three trusted prisoners, accompanied by a guard, carried our luggage down to the beach.  The Jennie Lee (one of the two substitute vessels for our charter) was lying just offshore.  We quickly transferred our gear by inflatable and met Tim, the ‘Kiwi’, and Andre, one of the mates.  Andre, a student, whose uncle owns the boat, was now resident in the ‘States.  He was down in Panama on holiday.  I have to say though he was the only mate I’ve ever met who wore designer shirts out on the water!

The two 350HP Cummins fired into life and the 31’ Bertram, a classic amongst game boats, was quickly up on the plane.  Our base for the week was some twenty miles away from the prison camp separated by impenetrable (?) rain forest.

Ask Dick, when you next meet him, to describe his first visit to Coiba when, whilst at the original Club Pacifico, he and the camp’s other guests were taken hostage by three armed escapees.  It ended up like ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ with three very dead prisoners!  Seriously though, since the camps were combined into one, there hasn’t been a repeat experience.  Without fail those prisoners who do escape now make for the other side of the island where favourable currents steer any driftwood they might utilise back to the mainland.

The Jennie Lee came off the plane and coasted into an idyllic bay.  We disembarked and met Tom’s girlfriend Tyra, his pet dog – a 10 month old Doberman puppy named ‘Thor’, and the second of our mates William.  Everyone though called William, who haled from Hawaii, ‘Bamboo’.  If you met him you’d understand why!

So this was going to be our home for the next week.  The camp has a certain rustic charm about it and, after hurriedly un-packing, we sat down to our first meal in the open-air palm thatched main building.  Darkness comes quickly in the Tropics but it was quite strange seeing Tyra, and her Panamanian assistant Leida, don miner-style headgear to illuminate their cooking.  Tom explained that the camp’s generator had broken down several months previous, and the Park rangers were still waiting, after much form filling, for a replacement part through the bureaucratic chain of command.  And even his brand-new personal generator, still under warranty and bought for just such contingencies, had also literally just failed!

Still the candle-lit dinner was most enjoyable.  That’s apart from visits by the most enormous locust-type creatures that resided in the thatch.  Occasionally, disorientated by the candles, they would end up flying down and crashing into you.

We nattered into the evening planning our fishing over the next week.  It was the sheer variety of opportunities that had brought me back.  In the six days it would be impossible to do it all!  There would be no long runs offshore, everything was within a two hour range of the camp.  And you could literally release a Black Marlin and within 20 minutes be fishing the back of the surf line for Roosters.

In Tom we had an excellent guide.  Over the past eleven years, he had developed an intimate knowledge of this whole area.  He knew the inshore marks as well as the offshore banks like the ‘back of his hand’.  And Tim, the newcomer, had a wealth of fishing experience not only in his native New Zealand but also Australia and Micronesia.  Together they would operate the 31’ Bertram and a 24’ Mako that gave them a degree of flexibility – either boat being capable of operating in- or offshore.  Also the Bertram gave them the added benefit of being able to overnight and fish more distant marks into the evening and from first light.

We planned to fish three days on each of the boats, but alternating boat partners.  So we’d each fish with the others twice during the course of the week.

There’s too much to describe everything.  But let me summarise the trip and highlight some of the specifics.

Surprisingly the marlin fishing was somewhat slow from what is normally a particularly prolific fishery.  We release just two small Blacks.  But that was Andy catching his ever first marlin – a 200 pounder, and John releasing his first Black – a 250 pounder.  Relief on my part, especially with Andy’s that came in the last afternoon of the last day!

They both came on livebaits surface-fished on circle hooks – although I have to say that Tom gets the majority of his Blacks on down-riggered baits.  Probably the ratio’s two to one.  You see the strikes and, as soon as the circle hook lodged in the corner of their jaw, they’d go airborne!  Exciting fishing!  However this lack of marlin action was more than made up for offshore with significant numbers of Sailfish, in the 70 to 100lb range, big Dorado and Yellowfin Tuna.

Andy had the best Yellowfin estimated at in excess of 150lb, although some of the fast moving shoals we encountered, feeding with the dolphin, appeared to contain fish in the 250 to 300lb range.  Real monsters!

Dick was with Andy that particular day.  Tom, having targeted the shoal, raced to get in front of them – the bigger fish are often positioned at the head of the shoal – and deployed a small Black Skipjack livebait.  They got a good hookup and Andy decided he was going to fight the fish – his first ‘big’ big game fish – standup style, butt pad but without a kidney harness.  For the first few minutes Dick commented ‘it was all testosterone and enthusiasm’, but then with a little tuition the battle became more even, and slowly turned in Andy’s favour.  After a long and gruelling fight the fish was finally boated in just under the hour.  A good fish on 50lb test, and what an introduction to big game fishing.

And the inshore fishing proved as varied as ever with notable specimens including Cubera Snapper to over 40lbs and Roosterfish to 30.  Also Dick landed several very large Bluefin Trevally, one of which looked to be well over 20lbs which, if weighed rather than being released, might well have nudged the current IGFA line class record.  I’ll leave you to judge from the photograph.

And then there was that best-laid plan that went sadly awry.  As I’d mentioned the area contains significant numbers of large Almaco Jacks that the locals mistakenly refer to as Amberjack.  John duly caught a fish of 50lb 12oz that easily bested the existing line class record.  The only downside was that it engulfed a small Black Skipjack Tuna that had just taken one of the jigs on a bait rig!  Unfortunately the bait rig had three hooks on it thus invalidating it for world record consideration!

Andy also had a foray into the world of blue water flyfishing.  There were enough Sails around to make it practical so we deployed a pattern of teasers and I tutored him through the likely scenario.  The fly line was carefully reverse coiled into a bucket containing a little water.  Then Andy was instructed, once the fish was locked in on the teaser, to throw the fly away from the wake, creating initial resistance, before attempting to aerialise the line.   That was the plan.

Up came a reasonable 20lb plus Dorado tracking in on the teaser.  Unfortunately though Andy attempted to cast the bulky fly conventionally, like you would in a chalk stream.  It was just prescribing a 10’ arc either side of his head.  Suddenly there was the ‘fired up’ fish at the back of the boat.  Andy cast, the fly plopped into the water and the fish ate it.

Except the bulk of the fly line was still in the bucket with Andy desperately attempting to free a rogue coil from around its handle.  The demented fly line took on a life of its own.  It snaked through the rings closely followed by the bucket, which jammed against the stripping guide!  The top three sections of the rod and the bucket disappeared after the fish.  And Andy was left holding just the butt without any guides on it.  Still after we all stopped laughing – Andy included – we managed to re-unite him with the rest of his rod and, surprisingly the fish.  Is that what you cryptically describe as a ‘bucket assist’?

As well there were my brushes with Roosterfish.  I’d opened my account with a baby – a mere five-pounder – taken on a surface popper.  Exciting stuff visually, seeing it track the lure.   Then, on another day whilst fishing with Andy and Tom, we spotted what must have been several Roosters corralling a shoal of Blue Runners hard against the shoreline on a deeply shelving beach.  So picking up a bait rig I cast a set of flies into the mêlée.  There was no difficulty in hooking what I think was two baits, except one was immediately seized by a reasonable Rooster.  In typical style it ran, parallel to the beach with its cock’s comb of a dorsal easily visible scything through the water.  Unfortunately the drag was just a tad tight and the line popped.  ‘Oh bother’, I sure that’s what I must have said.

Working our way round Coiba, we fished the numerous beaches and coves – loads of Jacks and Snappers but no Roosters.  Finally, early afternoon, we arrived at a beach he’d nicknamed ‘Casa del Rooster’ – the home of big Roosterfish.  We were trolling plugs on 30lb gear.  However Andy then also deployed my set of 12 fished with a small Rapala Sliver.

Part-way down the beach, approaching a jumble of rocks, off went the set of 12.  I was cranking in the other sets of gear when there was a huge splash and Andy’s screaming ‘Tarpon, Tarpon’!  Remember this is in the Pacific.

Well there it was a reasonable Tarpon, around 120lbs, jumping like a demented thing within yards of the rocks.  During these initial crucial minutes we were forced to stay close, near the rocks, we couldn’t risk a break-off.  He then quieten down and tracked out towards deeper water.  It developed into a fascinating struggle backwards and forwards, with occasional Manta Rays to avoid.  Except it was impossible to stop the fish breathing in air when exhausted.  That was despite Andy’s attempts, in such situations, to ‘roll’ him with the rod top thrust under the water.  He was still jumping right to the end of what proved to be a 2 ½ hour battle when, we assume, the main line abraded on one of its gill covers.  Such a strong fish!

Dick Clack - Bluefin Trevally

Tarpon are particularly rare off Coiba and Tom commented it was the first he’d seen since I’d hooked into one some two years previously.

So that was a trip to Coiba, almost at an end.  Well not quite.

Our last morning on the island was spent lounging, with Andy and John taking advantage of the kayaks for ‘excursions around the bay’.  Then a large French registered sloop motored into the channel between Coiba and Isla Ranchero and weighed anchor.  The crew came ashore and started indiscriminately slashing down palm fronds – they were holding a cocktail party on the after-deck that evening and needed ‘decorations’.  And a small shore party of guests accompanied them, complete with sun loungers!

Dick Clack - Cubera Snapper

Two young ladies came to our end of the beach and started frolicking in the ocean.  Then I spotted something.  Keeping my eye on it I hurried towards them and shouted out ‘Do you speak English’?  ‘Yes’ came the reply.  Then the bombshell, for them – ‘Crocodile!’  Well not quite ‘walking on water’ but a passable impression of Ian Ward, the Australian Commonwealth Record Holder.

It wasn’t a massive saltwater croc, probably a ten-footer, and showing no apparent interest in them.  But only 50 yards away and still, for them, a sobering experience.

Soon after we travelled back to the airstrip.  This time we were to be accompanied by ‘Bamboo’.  We all boarded, with the exception of Dick, who was to sit next to the pilot.  Then literally as he stepped onto the wing the plane tilted backwards, nose skywards!  The pilot appeared totally nonplussed, but I have to say there was some nervous laughing from the passengers!

Anyway that ended our eventful trip to Coiba.  The next day Dick and John were to return home via Miami.  Although John was planning a day’s fishing with an American friend off Key West with the redoubtable Greg Sheretz.  More of that later.  And Andy and I were to fish a couple of further days with Tony Herdon.

Tony, trailer-ing his 18’ aluminium skiff, picked us up just before 5:30 in the morning.  He’s a fascinating character and we got his potted life history on the way to Lake Gatun – a huge 650 square mile lake that formed in the flooded river valleys when the Panama Canal was build.

Tony’s dad was a retired US Marine Sergeant, his mother coming from a wealthy Panamanian family.  However as a 5 year old he had difficulty settling in to the local school.  The ‘young lad’ was then packed off to England – his aunt being married to a London-based Merchant Banker – and sent to a boarding school in Ramsgate, Kent.

The stories went on – London in the ‘swinging sixties’, two marriages, two sons, and his eventual return to Panama by way of Atlanta.  And there he was – his second wife a successful businesswoman, Coca Cola’s HR Director for Central and South America – running a guiding operation and thoroughly enjoying life.

We crossed the main shipping channel and glided into an ‘alien’ world – navigating between the bleached tops of long since dead trees, surrounded by virgin rain forest.  Then, in a secluded lagoon, as we started fly-fishing – fan casting around the shoreline – we were ‘challenged’ by one of the territorial male Howler Monkeys high up in the tree tops.  For their diminutive size, and given that enclosed environment, they generate a lot of noise!

I was using a surface popper, which only seemed to attract the persistent attentions of a brightly coloured Bee-Eater (a bird).  However Andy had much more success with a Deceiver pattern landing several, including what was to prove the largest of the day, a Peacock Bass a shade over 5lbs.  (Tony however has in the past taken any number of ‘double figured’ fish.)

The Bass are not native to the lake.  However a small number ‘escaped’ from a feeder stream some 30 years previous and the population has literally exploded to the detriment of the native species.  They predated on small fish, but Tony explained that research had indicated that they wouldn’t cannibalise their own species because of the presence of the distinctive tail spot.   Paint a tail spot on fry of one of the native minnow species and they’re left alone; obscure the spot on an immature Bass and they’re ‘fair game’!

Anyway, by constantly moving, finding isolated pockets of fish, we had marvellous sport with the Bass and large Oscars (much beloved of those who keep tropical fish).  The Peacock Bass were particularly aggressive striking at an assortment of Deceiver-patterned flies, surface plugs and minnows fished on micro jigs.  All in all we landed 60 plus fish.

Just one story.  At one point, casting hard into the bank, I’d taken five fish in consecutive casts.  Trying for the sixth, the next cast went just a tad too far.  Rather than pulling for a break Tony manoeuvred the boat towards the dense undergrowth and, half jokingly, warned Andy, who was standing on the prow, to watch out for any crocodiles or snakes.  Suddenly there was a tremendous ‘crashing’ and Andy nearly leapt over the side – we’d disturbed a large ‘Jesus Christ’ lizard that jumped off the branch it had been sunning itself on and literally ran across the water.

So Lake Gatun proved to be a pleasant diversion.  But the original plan had been to spend both days on the Bayno River, down near the Columbian border fishing for Snook and Tarpon.  (The Bayno may strike a chord with the bibliophiles amongst you.  There’s reference to it in chapters 16 and 17 – Book 2 – of Mitchell Hedges book ‘Battles with Giant Fish’. Except the battles described there are with crocodiles not fish!)

Unfortunately though there had been a delay in the normal seasonal up-welling of cold water in the Gulf of Panama which drives mullet and the huge predators into the river.  Did we want to take a chance?  There was always the possibility of some isolated resident fish in the river.

Tony gave us the choice – fish the Bayno, re-visit Gatun or run offshore – he’d also got a trail-able 26 footer that he fished the salt in.  We elected to take a chance and struck off early the next morning down the trans-America highway into Darien province.  This was real frontier land; with a few miles after the village we were to launch the boat at the highway coming to an abrupt halt.  The next hundred miles, over inhospitable terrain – virgin rain forest and mountains – is literally the only gap in the highway that runs all the way from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.  And apart from some primitive native tribes all that traverses this area are the occasional drug smugglers and those engaged in illegal logging operations.

Well it wasn’t to be.  Not only was there no up-welling offshore but cold water had been released from the upstream dam and what fish were there appeared to be suffering from ‘lockjaw’.  We clocked up over 60 miles running up and down the river, juggling with tidal states, for just three small Snook of different species – a Black, White and Fat one – on sinking plugs.  The one decent Snook we hooked came off in record time!

It had been frustrating, particularly for Tony.  So we loaded the boat back on its trailer and downed some beers purchased from the primitive local cantina whilst Tony regaled us with more tales from an apparent endless repertoire.

The most fascinating had been when four of his friends had swamped their small boat offshore and spent close to 30 hours in the water, sharing just the waterlogged vessel and one life vest.  Way into the second night they’d finally heard the ‘putt putt’ of a fishing boat’s engine and their shouting attracted the crew.  Relieved they were dragged onto the deck.  Except it didn’t have a cargo of fish – it was running drugs!  The captain assured them though that he wasn’t going to kill them, otherwise he’d just left them in the water.  But they couldn’t expect him to take them to Panama City.  He dropped them on this remote shoreline.  And it took them a further 24 hours to find their way through the forest to the road.  But at least they lived to tell the tale!

Earlier I noticed that Tony had stored a revolver in a waterproof container.  What was that for?  Well that triggered yet another tale.

Three years previous, in the same village, he’d been stowing gear in his boat when one of the locals jumped on board offering to help.  Now most have no perception of fishing tackle and Tony was concerned it would get broken.  He remonstrated with the man to get out.  Unfortunately for him he wasn’t quick enough and Tony – 6’ 3” tall with frame to match – threw him overboard.  It quickly turned sour, and the local’s friend came at Tony brandishing a machete!  Tony waved the gun, Indiana Jones-style, but it appeared to have little effect so he shot him in the leg!  Down went the man and the locals called the police – the one policeman in town.  Having assessed the situation though he then asked Tony whether he wanted to press charges!  Tony declined and the poor man was taken off to hospital.

So whilst he was telling this tale there was us with our backs to the cantina.  The hair on the back of my neck started to prickle!  I started to imagine ‘machete man’, emerging from the cantina dragging his injured leg behind him.  Luckily it was just my vivid imagination.

So that ends the tale and the trip.

Although finally, by way of postscript, John returned to Florida where he spent a day with Greg Sheretz out of Key West fishing offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.  As well as some excellent Kingfish up to 35lbs on light spin gear John had a real tussle (70 minutes) with a big Coiba on 12lb test.  It weighed in at 59lb 12oz – what a superb specimen.