A Place Like No Other



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.

Juras­sic Park

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.

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