Big Game Fishing in Panama:
Our Fortieth Anniversary Trip
Bob dreamed of an exotic big game fishing trip in Panama. We’ve deep sea fished off Mazatlán in the Sea of Cortez three times, in the Bahamas and, off the Big Island out of Kailua-Kona; this was an opportunity to go to the legendary Hannibal Banks near the Costa Rica and Panama border.
Leaving from Oklahoma City, we flew to Houston and then onto Panama City. After a two plus hour layover we attempted to fly to David an hour or so south. The plane was a good-sized puddle jumper that was pretty much filled with about 40 passengers. It was raining when we took off and after about 90 minutes into an hour flight the captain announced we were heading back to Panama City as the visibility and wind were too problematic in David. If it was the U.S. I’m sure we would have been stranded in Panama City for the night. To our surprise, the flight crew didn’t go home as we waited out the worst of the storm. We finally took off about 90 minutes later and came to a stop at the end of the runway in what was a white-knuckle landing around 10:00 PM.
Aura, the manager of the Panama Big Game and Fishing Resort met us at the gate and, after introductions we hopped into her van and began the 90-minute dive to Chiriqui. The trip to the Lodge had one more twist as we boarded a launch that took us to the Lodge. The Lodge was a couple hundred yards of steps straight up from the dock in the pitch black night. So along with our luggage we sat down in a one car cog wheel train car to ascend upto the lodge. The four and a half star lodge rooms were cool and very comfortable. The chef, who had waited for us, cooked us a great meal at midnight, took our breakfast and lunch order before we headed in for some much needed sleep.
First Day of Fishing – great fish – not such a great day:
Our departure the next morning was set for about 6:30 and the weather was tropical with a fresh breeze. We met, Chi Chi, the captain and Martine, his mate, and left the dock heading for our first Panama fishing adventure. Unfortunately, we didn’t get far as one of the manifold hoses blew off the engine. They tried to fix it but the next attempt at leaving ended the same way. Lots of calls were made and Chi Chi decided we should take the owners personal boat, a 35-foot center console with twin Yamaha engines.
There was a tropical storm a couple of hundred miles into the Pacific and with a late start the captain decided we should only head out about 35 miles, which turned out to be a fortuitous decision you’ll hear about that later!
The Fish Story:
Note – this was a catch and release trip – the fish was fine but we were worse for the days wear.
We trolled for marlin and tuna for an hour or two and caught a couple of barracuda but nothing else of consequence. The weather and the seas had turned nasty. The seas were in the 8-foot range and the rain was torrential. Chi Chi turned to Bob and told him that we’d find some bonito for bait in less than a mile. Sure enough, we spotted the birds and a school of small bonito appeared. We quickly caught two and dropped them face down in the bait tubes. Chi Chi told us there’d be marlin around. After eating a bit of our lunch, it became rougher and Bob was getting seasick fast.
The Captain and Martine had the bait out only a couple of minutes when they pointed and said there’s a marlin; we never saw it but it cut the first bait in half. The leftover was quickly reeled in and our remaining bait was attached. It was really rocking and rolling by then and Bob was hurling amidships. A minute or two later Chi Chi yelled, “there he is,” and the next thing you knew the black marlin was leaping 100 + yards from us. Martine strapped a man-sized stand-up fighting harness on me and the fight began. It was raining so hard and the seas were so big that Martine wrapped one arm around my waist while the other held onto the captains chair. Meanwhile Bob was alternating between cheerleading, barfing and taking pictures as I fought the fish. After about 30 minutes we took pictures and released the 450 +/- pound beauty.
That day’s adventure was not over. While heading back in a very rough sea, one of the engines failed and very quickly the other did as well. We had a little power and only were only making a few knots of headway, while inching our way back with a long way to go. It turned out to be a computer part that spoke to both engines malfunctioned. Bob was still very sick and we were forced to anchor among some uninhabited volcanic islands to wait for another boat to rescue us. Hours later, their bigger boat, the Bluefin, met us. Getting Bob and I onto the other boat might have been the most challenging and dangerous thing we did all day as the two boats were heaving to and fro. We arrived back at the dock an hour later around 10 PM. The chef and Aura met us at the Lodge. They took our dinner orders; told us we had plenty of time to freshen up and dinner would be ready when we came back.
The first day’s adventure was a wild one. The storm, catching the big marlin, Bob getting sick, and then the engine breakdown in very rough seas had us scratching our heads wondering if we made the right decision to go to such a remote place. There was no coast guard available to rescue us the day before. Years later we laugh and realize that it was the #1 highlight of the trip but there was still a lot of fun and adventure ahead of us. What a fish story!
The next day we slept in. We had decided to take the day off from fishing in hopes that the tropical storm affects would disappear and sure enough the day dawned sunny, humid, and warm. Aura ordered a driver to pick us up to go inland, deeper into the Chiriquí province so we could go zip lining. We had a blast zip lining; we went over deep ravines and rivers through the jungle for many miles. There were more than 10 segments to this very rustic trail. It was amazing and ruined us for zip lining at any other place because nothing could compare to jungle zip lining in Panama. After we had a nice lunch and a did a bit of shopping at the zip line lgift shop before we headed back.
Later that afternoon, Martine’s son Christian took us out about five miles to a small uninhabited island. He anchored on the leeward side as we found a white sand beach on the other side. Being on an island by ourselves in exotic Panama was really exhilarating. We could have been stranded on the island for decades if our guide left us. We were in the middle of NOWHERE!
More Fishing – Lots of Tuna:
Day #3 and #4 found us fishing again, this time at the vaunted Hannibal Banks about 89 miles from the lodge. Both days were partly cloudy, and the seas were fairly calm. We saw all kinds of life including sea birds, whales, turtles, sharks and dolphins. Whenever we found dolphin there were always yellowfin tuna with them and we encountered “bait balls” several times. There were football field sized schools of bait boiling on the surface with tuna of all sizes jumping through them gorging themselves on a midday meal. Bob went up to the bow inside the casting cage and cast plugs into them hooking several fish that way. I fought and landed about a 100-pound yellow fin tuna without him realizing I had it. Oh, I also caught and released another 250+ pound black marlin. The fish gods were definitely on my side this trip.
Too Much Excitement – time to chill:
After five days of fishing and zip-lining it was time to head to our second half of our trip. We were heading to Riviera Maya for a relaxing week at a luxury resort on the beach. Before we left, we took advantage of a day in Panama City and hired a guide to take us on a tour of the Panama Canal and the city. We stayed at an amazing hotel “The Grace”, who upgraded us to the presidential suite when they discovered it was our 40th anniversary. Wow what a trip!