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.
AnglersJournal Editor-in-Chief Bill Sisson travels to the Panamanian jungles to fish in paradise.
Visiting the Tropic Star on the Pacific in Panama 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 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.
Tropic Star 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.
It’s impossible to talk about the lodge without gushing about the fishing for marlin, sailfish, roosterfish, and Cubera snapper and without mentioning its well-maintained fleet of Bertrams.
The twin-diesel Bertram 31s are to this lodge what floatplanes are
to the fly-in operations in Canada and Alaska: rugged, dependable workhorses. They are not the fastest or largest fishboats on the water today, but they are strong, sure-footed, and nimble. And they can run safely through the snottiest seas.
“To me, the 31 is the most iconic sportfishing boat ever built,” says Capt. Richard White, the fishing director and manager at the lodge. “They’re so maneuverable and versatile. And the hulls are absolutely bulletproof.”
The lodge operates 13 of the Florida-built boats—which debuted in the early 1960s—with two operational spares on hand. Tropic Star also has the expertise and facilities to repair, replace or fabricate in glass, metal or wood just about anything on the boats, be it a steering or an electrical system, a shaft, strut, rudder or engine.
“Our boats fish 300 days a year,” says Tropic Star Capt. Zane Andrews, the son of the former owner, who started driving 31s when he was 13 years old. “They have to be easy to work on. We can change an engine between tides. And we always have more boats than we can run. Fishability is a big thing.” The lodge continues to tweak the boats to make them more functional. The fleet is in the early stages of being upgraded. The hulls will be repowered, the cabins enclosed and air-conditioned, the bridges and heads upgraded, and the helms graced with new Raymarine electronics.
Time to Fish
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, day-dreaming, 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.
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 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 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 Rainbow fleet of Bertram 31s make their way to the fishing grounds.