A PLACE LIKE NO OTHER
THE TROPIC STAR LODGE IN PANAMA HAS A REPUTATION FOR WHISKING YOU OFF THE GRID IN STYLE AND PUTTING YOU INTO BIG FISH
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.”
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.
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.