sport fishing with water splashing
Evan Kruger

Panama Black Marlin Fishing Action

Outstanding opportunities abound in this Central American nation

T

he Republic of Panama offers some of the most unique sport fishing in the world, thanks to its location, bordered by Costa Rica to the west and Colombia at the southeastern end. and while the Caribbean Sea laps the northern shores, it’s the placid Pacific to the south that holds the action we seek. There are a number of lodges and fishing operations throughout the country. One thing they share is the general ease of access. Most visitors arrive at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, departing for the lodges on the coast via regional airlines, charter carriers or private shuttles. Panama City is renowned as one of the most beautiful capitals in Central America, making for a terrific overnight destination in its own right. The dry season generally runs from January through April. From May to December, afternoon thunderstorms are frequent, but it usually doesn’t rain all day in most locations.

For fishing, the main draw in Panama is undoubtedly the black marlin. These pugnacious brawlers are typically found in good numbers here November through March, and they are usually caught on live bait. Big Pacific sailfish fill in the gaps throughout most of the year, and you shouldn't overlook the excellent blue marlin fishery. The yellowfin tuna show up in big numbers in Panama too, with some trophy-size tuna weighing over 150 pounds or more.

tropic star lodge
Tropic Star Lodge is the country’s oldest and best-known sport-fishing lodge, famous for its fleet of classic Bertrams as well as great fishing.Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Tropic Star Lodge

Piñas Bay
situated on the edge of the incredibly scenic Piñas Bay, roughly 150 miles southeast of Panama City, Tropic Star Lodge has been attracting anglers since it first opened as Club de Pesca in 1963. Over the years, more world records have been set here than in any other fishing lodge in the world — a testament to the amazing opportunities that await its visitors.

Guests arrive on a chartered flight from Panama City, landing near an Embera Indian village. A short ride through the jungle and a 10-minute boat ride later, you’re standing on the lodge’s main dock and an iconic fleet of 31-foot Bertrams await on their moorings in the bay. For those who might not have visited Tropic Star recently, there have been some considerable upgrades in the operation. The dining room has been remodeled, as well as one of the guest suites, with additional renovations currently underway. Also, under construction is a massage and spa area, among many other improvements on the land side. The fleet of Bertrams is also being upgraded. During our visit in July 2018, the prototype had already been put into service, with quieter, more fuel-efficient engines plus an air-conditioned salon.

The Fishing
The captains and crews at Tropic Star Lodge are among the best live-bait fishermen in the world, but are equally adept at pulling lures or rigging Panama strip baits, which are especially productive for sailfish. However, most days will nearly always start with bait-fishing and slow-trolling along the Zane Grey Reef at first light. The captains collectively work together to find the bite as they spread out in search of pelagics as the day wears on. Visiting sport-fishers are welcome to anchor in the bay, with fuel and guest dining available at the lodge.

The black marlin usually begin to arrive in the fall and bite well through January and February, depending on the conditions. The action for blue marlin usually begins a little earlier and runs a bit longer, and the tuna fishing can be excellent during this time as well. The sailfish bite picks up in the spring and is usually good all year, peaking in the summer months. The lodge is closed for maintenance from October through late November, but otherwise, expect reliably consistent offshore action plus five-star dining and service from one of the sport's most renowned fishing destinations.

sport fish panama island lodge
Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge hosts just one group of anglers at a time.Courtesy Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge

Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge

Isla Parida
lodge owner capt. shane jarvis originally moved to Panama from Miami in the late 1990s to help his father build a vacation house for the family's fishing adventures. The plan was to ship his boat down and stay for a year. During that time, he grabbed every available opportunity to fish and learn the area, earning his captain's license along the way.

Officially opened by Jarvis in 2005, Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge has one terrific advantage: its location. The lodge is on Isla Parida, inside Panama’s Gulf of Chiriqui National Park, which significantly shortens the run to the famed Hannibal Bank and nearby Isla Montuosa, where target species include both blue and black marlin as well as yellowfin tuna that can tip the scales at over 300 pounds.

two sport fishing boats at sunset
A pair of 33-foot World Cats allows them to fish throughout the Gulf of Chiriqui for black marlin.Courtesy Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge

Copa Airlines offers flights from Miami and Houston to Panama City, where anglers can opt to take a same-day connection to David, Panama, or stay overnight in Panama City as part of the lodge’s VIP package. Either way, guests need to make sure to arrive in David by early afternoon to make the lodge-provided transfer to Pedregal Marina for the hourlong boat ride out to Isla Parida.

Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge has two cabins that can accommodate a total of 14 guests. Despite the remote island location 12 miles from the mainland, the lodge offers all of the modern comforts, including free high-speed Wi-Fi and laundry service. Gourmet meals and all beverages, including alcohol, are covered in the all-inclusive package price.

The Fishing
Jarvis and crew operate a pair of 33-foot World Cats powered by twin Suzuki 300 hp outboards, and a 25-foot SeaCraft center-console with twin Suzuki 140 hp outboards. The boats are fast, maneuverable and comfortable. Conventional tackle consists of 30- and 50-pound-test Accurate reels paired with custom Blackfin rods. Shimano spinning reels are available for anglers interested in targeting tuna with large poppers, and guests are also welcome to bring their own gear.

dorado fish panama
Dorado are a bonus bycatch and a welcome addition to the fish box.Evan Kruger

Jarvis and his team cover the entire Gulf of Chiriqui, with a strong emphasis on Hannibal Bank and Isla Montuosa, a run of about 40 miles. From November through March, anglers can expect to see good numbers of black marlin, blue marlin and even a few striped marlin around the bait concentrated at Hannibal Bank. July through September are prime months for a shot at a big black marlin, from 500 to over 1,000 pounds, as this is the time of year when the large females show up to spawn.

Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge only works with one group of anglers at a time, so essentially, the lodge is your private getaway during your stay there.

Paradise Fishing Lodge

Quebrada de Piedra
paradise fishing lodge is located just south of David, Panama, in Quebrada de Piedra, Chiriqui. Once again, the location of the lodge is a key factor, and not too far from the renowned Coiba National Marine Park. The park consists of Coiba, the largest island in Central America, and 37 surrounding islands and islets, all of which are about 30 miles off the Panamanian coast.

Paradise Fishing Lodge sprawls over 25 acres, with 360 degrees of breathtaking views. Guests stay in private, air-conditioned cottages, with a large pool, swim-up bar, huge hot tub and more. The lodge’s all-inclusive packages are based on five full days of fishing and six nights’ accommodations, which includes food and beverages with an open bar. Also included are the spectacular ocean views from every cabin, pool and restaurant on the property. Lodge owner Chad Marquis relates that, even during the rainy season, the action offshore can still be off the charts on any given day.

The Fishing
Because of the large area to cover around Coiba, Paradise Fishing Lodge operates a lineup of high-quality center-consoles, which enable them to access different fishing areas throughout the day. The tackle is high-end, and kept in good shape by the professional captains and crews, many of whom have fished these waters for generations.

Black marlin season historically kicks off in January and runs well into late May and early June most years, with reliably solid fishing throughout that time frame. Blue marlin can be encountered in these waters year-round, and can be a great alternative if the blacks are not cooperating. The big yellowfin tuna invade the waters around Coiba from January through May as well, so be ready for a real fight should you encounter one of these giants. Casting big topwater poppers on spinning tackle at smaller yellowfins is also a blast.

Marquis says, “We pride ourselves in the extremely personal attention we give to every detail of every aspect of your vacation. That ranges from your room to the boat, from the dock to the dining and everything in between. Within five minutes of arriving here, we think you will understand why we named it Paradise Fishing Lodge.”

black marlin leaping from water
Black marlin are the number-one target species for offshore anglers in Panama, although trophy-sized yellowfin tuna are also abundant here.Evan Kruger

Cebaco Bay Sportfishing Club

Isla Cebaco
lodge owner jim weise first visited Cebaco Bay in 1989 while traveling back to Panama City from Hannibal Bank. He loved the area so much he set up the lodge as his base of fishing operations. Isla Cebaco's location near the mouth of the Gulf of Montijo means that, thanks to the remote location, fishing pressure is rarely an issue.

Visitors arrive by air and overnight in Panama City; the following day, a private shuttle departs for a three-hour drive to Puerto Mutis, followed by a two-hour ride out to the mothership aboard one of the lodge's two 33-foot World Cats. Guests live aboard the 110-foot mothership, Journey Bay, during their stay. The floating lodge was an oil-field supply boat in the Gulf of Mexico before being converted to a sport-fishing mothership in 2005. There are double- and triple-occupancy staterooms, plus a large, open entertainment deck complete with lounge chairs, hammocks and more, perfect for unwinding with friends after a long day fishing. Journey Bay's private chef ensures that no one goes hungry either.

The Fishing
Weise and his team have spent the past three decades exploring the region's hot spots. In fact, one of the best — Aguja Reef — is just 14 miles from the mothership. Rising to 120 feet from 300 feet of water, Aguja lies just 5 miles inside the 100-fathom line and holds vast numbers of bonito year-round. The bait attracts consistent numbers of black marlin.

Also accessible is the well-known Hannibal Bank, which is located west of Coiba and south of the Gulf of Chiriqui. The deepwater seamount produces current upwellings that attract and hold bait, as well as blue and black marlin and some seriously large tuna. Other game fish, such as sailfish, mahi, wahoo and all kinds of bottomfish, can be caught year-round at Hannibal Bank too.

The fleet of game boats includes four completely restored 31-foot Bertrams as well as two outboard-powered 33-foot World Cats, all outfitted with top-of-the-line tackle and electronics.

Marlin season at Cebaco Bay generally runs from December through April, where the northerly winter winds bring stronger currents and nutrient-rich upwellings to the seamounts and reefs. While conditions can be a bit windy, fishing in the lee of the islands offers protection on the sportiest days. Tuna fishing peaks from May through September, and while this is during the rainy season, Cebaco is one of the driest spots in the country, so it’s generally very fishable and calm. They also offer personalized service for each group.

pearl island private villas
With plans for a Ritz-Carlton plus private villas, an airstrip and a marina, Pearl Island is set to become one of Panama’s top destinations.Courtesy Pearl Islands

On the Horizon: Pearl Island

As the third-largest island in the Las Perlas archipelago, Pearl Island — geographically named Isla Pedro Gonzalez — is located 46 nautical miles south of Panama City. This project is destined to become one of the top sport-fishing destinations in Panama. A Ritz-Carlton Reserve, beach club, and home sites, residences and apartments — as well as a 1,000-yard runway — are just 20 minutes by air from Panama City, and certainly are key components to the project. The 48-slip marina accommodates vessels 60 to 240 feet, is protected by a large breakwater and provides easy access to the fishing grounds nearby. The marlin fishing is outstanding in this region, with good numbers of extra-large black marlin caught here recently. Expect to hear much more from Pearl Island as this project moves forward.