PANAMA BLACK

Visit Han­ni­bal Bank to Notch a Black Mar­lin on Your Billfish-Slam Quest

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Mark MacKen­zie

Visit Han­ni­bal Bank to Notch a Black Mar­lin on Your Billfish-Slam Quest

Line ran off the reel on the right rig­ger at an alarm­ing rate as we jumped to our sta­tions and pre­pared for the fight. Capt. Bill “Wild Bill” Wichrowski grabbed the rod out of the gun­wale rod holder; the mate, Juan, ran to clear the other line; Ozzy Del­gado strapped Wichrowski into the har­ness; and I grabbed my cam­era and aimed it to­ward the point where the line dis­ap­peared into the an­gry gray waves.

“Hang on!” Capt. Shane Jarvis shouted while he goosed the throt­tles of the 33 World Cat to en­sure a solid hookup.

Be­hind the tran­som, an enor­mous black mar­lin rock­eted to the sur­face and be­gan grey­hound­ing to­ward the hori­zon. Jarvis barked in­struc­tions, jock­ey­ing the throt­tles to help Wichrowski get con­trol of the pow­er­ful fish.

We’d had a cou­ple of ear­lier bites come un­but­toned, and with this be­ing our fi­nal day of fish­ing Panama’s Han­ni­bal Bank, the whole crew was on pins and nee­dles. “This is a good fish,” Jarvis said. “Take your time, keep the line tight, but don’t force it.”

Fi­nally, af­ter a stress­ful 30-minute back-and­forth bat­tle, the mate grabbed the leader, and Wichrowski, known for his role on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s Dead­li­est Catch, got a close-up view of his first black mar­lin — a bruiser es­ti­mated at more than 400 pounds. The hook popped free just as the mar­lin eased up be­side the boat, but it was an of­fi­cial re­lease. Wichrowski could cross one more billfish species off the list on his quest for a royal slam.

Pri­vate Is­land Hide­away

I had trav­eled to Sport­fish Panama Is­land Lodge on re­mote Isla Pari­das, 12 miles off the main­land, in July 2017 be­cause of an in­vite from Del­gado af­ter a chance meet­ing at the Mi­ami Boat Show. Del­gado, who was the se­nior mar­ket­ing and com­mu­nity man­ager for Grundéns per­for­mance ap­parel at the time, was sched­uled to tar­pon fish af­ter the boat show one night with a co-worker of mine. Af­ter a last-minute change of plans, I stepped in as a sub­sti­tute host for the trip. Through the course of the evening, I learned that both Del­gado and I needed only two more species — black mar­lin and spearfish — to claim all nine billfish species re­quired for a royal billfish slam.

“You’ve got to come to my buddy Shane’s place in Panama to get your black,” Del­gado said. “The big fish are there in late July on Han­ni­bal Bank. It’s one of the most in­cred­i­ble places in the world to fish. I’m go­ing down with our spokesman, Capt. Wild Bill, and I want you to join us. It’ll be a trip of a life­time.”

How could I say no?

Jarvis orig­i­nally ar­rived in Panama in the late 1990s from Florida, af­ter his fa­ther bought prop­erty there to build a va­ca­tion home. He in­tended to ship his boat down and stay for a year while he helped his fa­ther. Dur­ing that year, he took the time to fish and learn the area, and even­tu­ally earned his cap­tain’s li­cense.

Jarvis of­fi­cially opened Sport­fish Panama Is­land Lodge in 2005. Ac­ces­si­ble only by boat, the fa­cil­ity on Isla Pari­das lies in­side Panama’s Gulf of Chiriqui Na­tional Ma­rine Park. Pari­das is the largest of the 25 na­tion­ally pro­tected trop­i­cal is­lands that make up the Pari­das Ar­chi­pel­ago and en­joys close prox­im­ity to some of the best fish­ing grounds in Panama, in­clud­ing our tar­get des­ti­na­tion: the no­to­ri­ous Han­ni­bal Bank.

Keep It Sim­ple

Known for re­li­ably hold­ing big tuna, Han­ni­bal Bank also of­fers spec­tac­u­lar mar­lin fish­ing us­ing live bonito bri­dled to large cir­cle hooks. On av­er­age, an­glers can ex­pect two to three shots per day at big blacks off Han­ni­bal. A re­spectable num­ber of fish to 800 pounds are landed each sum­mer, with a few over that mark on oc­ca­sion.

“We nor­mally fish for black mar­lin with live bait, es­pe­cially this time of year,” Jarvis told me. “Han­ni­bal Bank is a cou­ple of miles wide by about 5 miles long. On the west side of the bank, there are a cou­ple of high spots within a few hun­dred yards of each other. This one lit­tle area is al­most al­ways where all the ac­tion is. That’s where the bait stacks up and the fish are com­ing in to feed.”

While we got lucky one day and were able to throw jigs to a school of bonito in open wa­ter on the way out, the most pro­duc­tive method to quickly fill the tuna tubes in­volves run­ning to the high spots and trolling bonito rigs — half a dozen pearl dusters or small squid heads at­tached to a cigar weight and a planer. Once you fill the tuna tubes, it’s time to fish.

Af­ter se­cur­ing the live baits, Jarvis sets up a slow-trolled spread with two boni­tos on the rig­gers and one off a flat line. He uses Ac­cu­rate 80 reels spooled with 100-pound mono and 300-pound wind-on lead­ers, ter­mi­nat­ing with a 12/0 Mus­tad de­mon per­fect cir­cle hook. To bri­dle the bonito to the cir­cle hook, Jarvis takes a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach than other cap­tains in the area.

“Back when I started fish­ing here, a lot of the guys liked to use floss,” he says. “I like to use 20-pound mono in­stead be­cause some­times we have prob­lems with th­ese black por­poises that come and rob our baits.

“The floss is so tight that the bait won’t pop off. The por­poises grab the bait be­hind the hook. They’re smart; they see the hook and they’ll pull, and you’ll waste a bunch of time. If you use the mono like I do, it’ll pop off real quick so you don’t have to mess around with them and can move to an­other spot to keep fish­ing.”

While we trolled with only live bonito for blacks dur­ing my trip, Jarvis does break out lures or dead baits when tar­get­ing other species. July through Septem­ber sig­nals peak black mar­lin time, but Novem­ber through Fe­bru­ary brings more blue mar­lin and sail­fish into the re­gion. Chang­ing tac­tics al­lows him to cover more wa­ter.

“We get just as many bites on the plas­tics as we do on the live baits, but we get a lot more hookups on the live bait,” Jarvis says. “I also think fish­ing with live bait is a lit­tle more ex­cit­ing and unique for most clients be­cause they’re not used to catch­ing mar­lin on live bait.”

More than Mar­lin

Dur­ing our time in Panama, we stayed laser­fo­cused on tar­get­ing big blacks, but there are other pe­lagic pun­ish­ers avail­able to bend an an­gler’s fish­ing rod. From April through June, big yel­lowfin tuna in the 100- to 200-pound

That’s why you come to Panama and fish with this guy. The last day, the last two baits, and we crush back-to-back blacks over 400 pounds.

range fre­quent the same ar­eas as the mar­lin. An­glers look­ing for a phys­i­cal chal­lenge can try their hand with th­ese beasts on spin­ning tackle, but be warned: It re­quires a strong lower back to tan­gle with a 200-pound tuna in deep wa­ter. Jarvis prefers to use a 30-pound con­ven­tional reel spooled with 80-pound mono and Dacron back­ing.

“I like the mono over braid be­cause a lot of times, we’re hook­ing th­ese big tu­nas in the mid­dle of a frenzy or near a pod of dol­phins,” Jarvis says. “There’s a lot of ten­sion on the line, and if an­other tuna or a por­poise hits that line, braid will break un­der the pres­sure be­cause it doesn’t stretch.”

On our first day out, the mar­lin wouldn’t co­op­er­ate, so we took a break from trolling to track down a large school of por­poises ru­mored to be in the vicin­ity. The tu­nas and por­poises often

swim to­gether in the Pa­cific Ocean, with schools of both species num­ber­ing in the hun­dreds.

If he doesn’t see tu­nas ac­tively bust­ing bait on the sur­face, Jarvis keys in on the be­hav­ior of the por­poises to de­ter­mine if there are tuna be­low and how to best ap­proach them. “If the por­poises are mov­ing re­ally fast, shoul­der to shoul­der, that’s the be­hav­ior you look for be­cause it means they’re feed­ing,” Jarvis says. “Nine times out of 10 when they’re do­ing that, you can pitch a bait in front of them, and the tu­nas will hit it.”

The tim­ing of our mid­sum­mer trip had us fish­ing past the peak sea­son for the re­ally big tuna, but we did man­age to land three feisty fish in the 65-pound range, pro­vid­ing plenty of tasty sushi and sashimi back at the lodge.

Whis­tle Fish

With day­light dim­ming on our fi­nal fish­ing day, and only one live bait left, we were about to call it quits when 20 yards off the port­side tran­som cor­ner, a bonito broke the sur­face as it was si­mul­ta­ne­ously sliced in half by a large bill.

Jarvis cor­rected our course, and mo­ments later, chaos en­sued when an­other hefty black crashed the last bait. Del­gado held tight to the rod while the fish put on an im­pres­sive aerial dis­play be­fore set­tling in for an all-out slugfest.

“Keep crank­ing,” Jarvis in­structed. “Don’t rest. If you’re rest­ing, the fish is rest­ing, and it’s just go­ing to take that much longer to get him in.”

Af­ter 45 min­utes, Del­gado be­gan to tire, but he dug deep and ratch­eted up an­other level of heat on the stub­born mar­lin. “Stay smooth and steady,” Jarvis warned, as the fish slowly came into view be­low the sur­face. “What a beauty!” he ex­claimed. “This one has got to be close to 500 pounds!”

The mate lead­ered and tagged the fish. An ex­hausted Del­gado posed for some pic­tures, and the mar­lin was re­leased back to the depths. “Amaz­ing! That’s why you come to Panama and fish with this guy,” he said, as he high-fived Jarvis. “The last day, the last two baits, and we crush back-to-back blacks over 400 pounds. Un­be­liev­able!”

By week’s end, we had raised eight black mar­lin in the 400-plus-pound range, get­ting our hooks into five and re­leas­ing two. The hand­ful of other boats fish­ing the bank re­ported sim­i­lar num­bers, with one lucky boat re­leas­ing a black es­ti­mated at 800 pounds.

While I came up short in my quest to land a black on this trip, I was happy for Bill and Ozzy, who moved one step closer to com­plet­ing their slams. Be­sides, it just gave me an­other ex­cuse to re­turn to this stun­ning des­ti­na­tion and try again.

Larger fe­male black mar­lin move into the area around Han­ni­bal Bank and Isla Mon­tu­osa (in the back­ground) dur­ing the rainy sea­son, of­fer­ing an­glers yearly chances at fish in the 800-plus-pound range.

Above: Af­ter a day of fish­ing, an­glers can re­lax with a fully stocked bar, gourmet meals and an amaz­ing view back at the lodge. Be­low: Yel­lowfin tuna pro­vide a change of pace from trolling, as well as a tasty sup­ply of sashimi.

Left: Late sum­mer is prime time to tar­get black mar­lin like this 400-plus-pounder landed by Ozzy Del­gado. Be­low left: The choice bait is a live bonito bri­dled with a 12/0 cir­cle hook. Be­low: Fight­ing a black on stand-up gear re­quires en­durance and ex­cel­lent boat-han­dling skills.

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