The ven­er­a­ble Tropic Star Lodge in Pi–as Bay, Panama, con­tin­ues to set the stan­dard for big fish, a cool fleet of boats and a comfy, but­toned-up op­er­a­tion in a re­mote jun­gle set­ting. By WIL­LIAM SIS­SON

The thrum of the diesels, a trop­i­cal sun and the boat’s gen­tle roll had worked me into a mild hyp­notic state. I was sit­ting on the port en­gine box early that af­ter­noon, sun-blasted, day­dream­ing, brain on pause, when a blue mar­lin push­ing 400 pounds sur­faced in the spread and snared a 3-pound tuna bri­dled to an 18/0 cir­cle hook as eas­ily as a tall boy plucks an ap­ple from a tree. The line snapped from the rig­ger, and I rock­eted into the glo­ri­ous, chaotic here and now; the sleepy cock­pit erupted in a cho­rus of in­de­ci­pher­able English and Span­ish.

I was on my feet, rod in hand, push­ing the drag lever for­ward on the 50-pound out­fit. The next thing I re­mem­bered was stand­ing in the port quar­ter of our Ber­tram 31, fac­ing the fish and yelling, “Yeah, baby!” as it ripped off 400 yards of line.

The mate cleared the rest of the lines, I got into the chair and 50 min­utes later I was no longer in the mood to shout much of any­thing. We had set­tled into one of those pro­longed tugs of war with a fish that had no in­ten­tion of wear­ing it­self out by per­form­ing showy ac­ro­bat­ics. My shouts be­came grunts as I tried to lift what felt like a chunk of the Pana­ma­nian seafloor.

“Don’t let up,” in­structed John Brown­lee, my com­rade and host of the An­glers Jour­nal TV show. “Keep the pres­sure on her. Re­mem­ber, if you’re rest­ing, she’s rest­ing. You’re gain­ing.”

The last line, of course, was wish­ful think­ing, but I kept crank­ing. Wel­come to Panama and the Tropic Star Lodge, where this sort of dance has been de rigueur for more than 50 years.

The Real Stuff

Brown­lee didn’t have to work too hard to talk me into join­ing him at Tropic Star, where he was film­ing an episode of An­glers Jour­nal TV. “It’s like Juras­sic Park,” says the noted South Florida an­gler and tele­vi­sion host. “Full-con­tact fish­ing.” All true.

The Tropic Star Lodge is on the Pa­cific about 150 miles south­east of Panama City, on Piñas Bay in the Dar­ién Gap, a dense jun­gle that runs to the Colom­bian bor­der. The only way in is by boat or small char­tered plane.

Vis­it­ing Tropic Star is like trav­el­ing back in time. Guests land on a re­mote airstrip be­side the tiny fish­ing vil­lage of Jaqué on a river that bears the same name. From there, a panga goes out the river’s mouth and around a point, re­veal­ing the lodge’s rain­bow fleet of more than a dozen vin­tage Ber­tram 31s on moor­ings and at the end of a long pier. Build­ings are set un­ob­tru­sively into the green hill­side. The set­ting is spec­tac­u­lar, and the fish­ing is ex­cel­lent.

The lodge is known for black, blue and striped mar­lin, roosterfish, Pa­cific sails, Cu­bera snap­per, yel­lowfin tuna, do­rado, wa­hoo, am­ber­jack, mack­erel and more. Cap­tains and mates are ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cals who are sec­ond to none when it comes to trolling live baits for blue and black mar­lin. They’re also ex­perts at rig­ging an ef­fec­tive Panama strip bait, which we used to fool sev­eral sails.

“You can catch a black mar­lin ev­ery day of the year,” says Richard White, a for­mer char­ter skip­per from South Africa who is the fish­ing di­rec­tor and man­ager at Tropic Star. More than 250 In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion world records have been set at the lodge go­ing back to its be­gin­nings in the early 1960s. Dozens are still in place.

“It’s widely con­sid­ered to be the best salt­wa­ter lodge in the world,” says Brown­lee, who was vis­it­ing for the eighth time. “This is the whole pack­age. There’s no place in the world quite like it.”

We were ac­com­pa­nied by off­shore fish­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Richard “Gibby” Gib­son, who has been shoot­ing big-game pho­tos in the far cor­ners of the world for decades. It was his first trip back in 20 years, and even he was as­tounded. “This is one of the most beau­ti­ful places I’ve ever fished, bar none,” says Gib­son, who lives in Home­stead, Florida. “The Great Bar­rier Reef is great, but this is the jun­gle.”

He paused to give the word its proper heft.

“The real stuff,” he con­tin­ues. “Very few places in the world make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. This is one of them.”

Out There

Tropic Star is about 25 miles from the Colom­bian bor­der, on the edge of the lush, steep and nearly im­pen­e­tra­ble Dar­ién jun­gle. The 60-mile stretch of marsh­land and rain­for­est is the only break in the Pan-amer­i­can High­way — a roughly 19,000mile net­work of roads stretch­ing from Prud­hoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego.

“We’re 100 miles from the near­est road,” says White, who is 33 and has dreamed of fish­ing and work­ing at Tropic Star since he was a boy. “The Bri­tish, Span­ish and Amer­i­cans tried to build a road through the Dar­ién Gap, and they all failed.”

And like all good fish­ing lodges, Tropic Star is about more than just fish. It’s about the friends you make, the ca­ma­raderie and laugh­ter with staff, the mem­o­rable mo­ments with cap­tains and mates and other guests. The place is rife with the ex­cite­ment that ac­com­pa­nies fish­ing new waters.

“We don’t lock our doors here,” White tells new ar­rivals.

“It’s all fam­ily.

“We do, un­for­tu­nately, have Wi-fi,” he adds. “No cellphones at din­ner, please.”

The ser­vice and food are ex­cel­lent, and the kitchen is al­ways open. From travel lo­gis­tics to find­ing fish, the Tropic Star

op­er­a­tion is well-or­ga­nized and ef­fi­cient — no easy feat in a jun­gle set­ting. The big­gest chal­lenge, White says, is “fight­ing back the jun­gle, and the salt and the rain. It’s a con­stant bat­tle.”

The lodge’s 80-foot cargo ship brings sup­plies and diesel fuel from Panama City, a 14-hour run to Piñas Bay.

Th­ese be­hind-the-scenes lo­gis­tics are hid­den from guests, who are fired up to know that, at any mo­ment, the waters be­hind a Ber­tram can part and a giant black or blue mar­lin can en­gulf their skip­jack. That feel­ing of an­tic­i­pa­tion ran through my en­tire stay like stray elec­tri­cal cur­rent. It was that whiff of ozone be­fore the thun­der, light­ning and all hell breaks loose.

2-Foot Mar­lin

Our sec­ond day off­shore started with rain and ended with sun, not atyp­i­cal for the trop­ics. Around 9:30, Brown­lee and I took back-to-back Pa­cific sails weigh­ing 120 to 135 pounds. Brown­lee’s fish has put on a good show, jump­ing a half-dozen times. We re­leased four sails.

Around 11:30, Brown­lee jumped a nice blue mar­lin, which dis­ap­peared after one leap.

Things slowed a bit, the wind fell out and the sea flat­tened; we trolled through the af­ter­noon un­der enor­mous cloud pas­tures, ac­com­pa­nied by scores of por­poises and seabirds. A whale spouted in the dis­tance.

At one point, Brown­lee quoted an old off­shore cap­tain: “We’re go­ing to catch a 2-foot mar­lin,” he de­clared. “Two foot be­tween the eyes.”

That be­came my mantra for the rest of the af­ter­noon. Not long af­ter­ward, a blue mar­lin came up for the tuna on the port out­rig­ger, and I was on.

After about an hour and 20 min­utes, with the boat and cap­tain do­ing their part, the mate had the leader in hand and guided the fish, es­ti­mated to be be­tween 350 and 400 pounds, to the sur­face. It lay along­side the tran­som as we took a cou­ple of pho­tos. Then the fish rolled over, the cir­cle hook dropped out and down it swam.

There are plenty of big­ger mar­lin in th­ese waters, but this one took most of what I had in the tank. The next day my butt hurt; my right fore­arm, hand and wrist were

a lit­tle creaky; and my right thumb throbbed from a good case of road rash.

I felt wrung out, in a great way, and was look­ing for­ward to more.

The fol­low­ing day we fished in­shore for roost­ers, Cu­bera snap­per and what­ever else might pounce on a blue run­ner or popper. Clouds hung be­neath the peaks of the for­mi­da­ble coastal moun­tain range and spilled down the steep slopes into the val­leys. A flock of pel­i­cans strung like charms on a bracelet rose and fell with the con­tours of land and swell. “Spec­tac­u­lar, isn’t it?” Brown­lee says.

After a night of rain, a wa­ter­fall cas­caded down a slick ledge and fell into the salt. Sea caves dot­ted the shore­line, and mist shot out of blow­holes in the rocks with each good wave that came ashore. Nu­mer­ous small slides marked the ver­ti­cal faces of the hills, where trees rose three and four sto­ries high.

The shore was craggy, surf-blasted and fishy as hell. The wa­ter surg­ing around the ledges was green­ish-white and oxy­genated. Brown­lee tossed a popper into the lacey back­wash, and a fish jumped all over it. How it missed the tre­bles is any­one’s guess.

For me, the roost­ers were one of the big­gest draws. I’ve wanted to catch a big roosterfish since I was about 14 or 15. That’s when I first saw black-and-white pho­tos of the bizarrelook­ing game fish in a magazine. Some­day, I thought, I’ll catch one of those crit­ters.

“They’re like a pissed-off teenager with an at­ti­tude and a mo­hawk,” White says. “They’re not in­tel­li­gent, but they’re very ag­gres­sive.”

We’d al­ready caught plenty of smaller fish in­shore, and on our fi­nal day we were hop­ing for one that was tro­phy-size. Brown­lee got things started with a nice rooster of about 30 pounds that ate a live blue run­ner fished on a down­rig­ger. A half-hour later, an­other rooster picked up our live bait

in 35 feet of wa­ter, and I was fast to a good fish. It fought well on the 30-pound out­fit: steady, bull­dog­gish and strong. At one point, it made a short-lived di­ver­sion to­ward a beach a cou­ple hun­dred yards away.

The fish was broad and healthy, and it weighed an es­ti­mated 55 pounds. We were all pretty pumped, high-fiv­ing the cap­tain and mate and one an­other after re­leas­ing it.

Brown­lee and I had a re­ally good trip. In four days of fish­ing (two in­shore, two off­shore) we caught a blue mar­lin, Pa­cific sails, a bunch of roosterfish, mahi-mahi and more — and Brown­lee got enough footage for two episodes of An­glers Jour­nal TV.

There’s a rea­son the lodge has so many re­peat guests. “This is the most beau­ti­ful place I’ve ever seen,” Gib­son says.

“It’s like no other place I’ve ever been,” Brown­lee adds.

Beau­ti­ful and fishy as all get out.

A work­horse Ber­tram 31. (Clock­wise, right) Tropic Star is known for big roosterfish (this one went about 55 pounds); a Pa­cific sail re­lease; a big cir­cle hook for a big live bait; the crews are ex­pert at trolling live baits, and each cus­tom live well is fit­ted with six tuna tubes.

The in­dige­nous fish­er­men (left) work han­d­lines from dugout pan­gas; Tropic Star’s rain­bow fleet of Ber­tram 31s.

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