Perlas Islands Fishing Paradise

New opportunities await to fish Panama’s famed Perlas Islands

fishing off Panama Perlas Islands
Head offshore for an incredible marlin bite in the Perlas Islands.Jessica Haydahl Richardson

As I donned an inflatable life jacket and took a seat in the helicopter, my excitement was paramount. It was not only my first ride in a helicopter, but my first time fishing in Panama. I wasn’t quite sure what the adventure would entail, but I liked it nonetheless.

Helicopter transport in Panama
The helicopter transport offers a stunning view of the Panama Canal and the skyline of Panama City.Andrew Cox

Taking off among the many hangars at the Marcos A. Gelabert Airport, just west of the city, I could see the skyline of Panama City break through the low-lying rain clouds as we slowly ascended above the hustle and bustle. Banking hard to the right, we could see the Panama Canal, and out in front of us was the calm Pacific, with countless cargo ships awaiting their transit through the canal en route to the Atlantic Ocean.

jumping blue marlin
The Perlas Islands have a long history of incredible marlin fishing.Jessica Haydahl Richardson

As the greenish-blue water turned to dark blue on our trip to Isla Pedro Gonzalez, now referred to primarily as Pearl Island, my thoughts were lost in fishing stories about the first anglers to fish these productive waters, including the one-armed, one-legged Louis Schmidt Jr., who caught the first grander ever recorded while fishing in the Perlas Islands, weighing 1,008 pounds. His father, Louis "Pop" Schmidt, worked for the Panama Canal Co. during the 1920s, and along with his brothers, Carl, John and Theodore, Louis Jr. began fishing the Perlas Islands and Piñas Bay in the 1930s. Having built two sport-fishing boats, Caiman I and Caiman II, the Schmidts became the pioneers of big-game fishing in Panama. Combine these facts with Guy Harvey's iconic photo of the estimated 1,200-plus-pound black marlin from Piñas Bay, and my thoughts were entirely consumed by what the next couple of days would bring.

overhead look of Perlas Islands
The Perlas Islands are comprised of 200 individual islands.Andrew Cox

Cruising at 1,200 feet, we began to see the outlines of several islands in the distance. Only 40 miles from Panama City, the Perlas Islands make up this wonderful Pacific paradise. An archipelago comprising more than 200 individual islands, it was first discovered by the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513 and soon became the epicenter of the Pacific pearl trade, hence the name. During his first trip to the islands, it is said that Balboa’s men collected 96 ounces of pearls in four days, leaving the local Indians confused about the explorer’s fascination with pearls. Little did they know that the pearl craze would continue in Panama until the Japanese created an artificially cultured pearl in the early 1900s. By the 1940s, the cultured pearl controlled more than 75 percent of the market, causing the Panama pearl trade to falter, and leaving the islands largely untouched except by local fishermen.

Pearl Island beach
The Pearl Island development looks in many ways like the setting of Jurassic World.Andrew Cox

Taking a sweeping loop around Isla Pedro Gonzalez, the home of the Pearl Island development, I marveled at the color of the water contrasting against the rocky shore and the lushness of the jungle in which we would be spending the next three days. If someone told me we were entering the set of the recently released Jurassic World movie I would have believed it, seeing a large hawk and imagining it to be a pterodactyl. Upon arriving at the island's private airstrip, our helicopter was greeted by Pearl Island's Land Rover, and we were soon on a tour of the island. The first phase of Pearl Island development, which began in 2011, is set to open later this year, and its eloquent balance of high-quality amenities and maintenance of the natural beauty of the island is meritorious. In addition to private residences tucked along the hillside and on tracts sprinkled throughout the island, a Ritz Carlton Reserve, one of only three in the world, will be built to make this destination highly competitive among the top-tier sport-fishing destinations.

Perlas Islands water
The Panama Yacht and Fishing Charters fleet includes three boats.Andrew Cox

Looking out across the beautiful landscape from one of the high ridges, I spotted Not Ms B Haven cruising from the marina for an afternoon fishing trip. This 37-foot Strike is one of three boats that make up the Panama Yacht and Fishing Charters fleet. During our helicopter ride earlier in the day, we flew over the operation's 66-foot Buddy Davis Cherin III. I could hardly wait to spend a day aboard this beautifully maintained serious fishing machine that is equipped to chase marlin and sailfish, or spend an afternoon fishing for inshore species.

mothership Ms B Haven at docks
Ms B Haven, the 98-foot mothership, waits at the docks.Andrew Cox

The final stop on our island tour was the world-class marina, where the 98-foot Ms B Haven, a Knight & Carver mothership, sat awaiting our arrival. As I was welcomed by the friendly staff, my thoughts were still consumed with the angling history this destination offered.

inshore fishing in Perlas Islands
The prime fishing in the area is around 40 miles from the marina.Andrew Cox

Panama lies east to west rather than north to south, and acts like a net as the current pushes up from Colombia and hits the bottom contours, forming the Bay of Panama.

“Upwellings bring nutrient-rich waters to the surface and kick off an amazing food chain that leads to one of the world’s best offshore fisheries,” says Hennie Marais, general manager of Panama Yacht and Fishing Charters. The Bay of Panama stretches 120 miles east to west; the world-famous Tropic Star Lodge is located along the eastern side of the bay, and the Perlas Islands lie right in the middle.

“Until recently there has not been the infrastructure to fish from the Perlas Islands, but with the new Pearl Island development and marina, there are now modern and luxurious facilities at the doorsteps to some of Panama’s best fishing grounds,” says Marais. “The prime fishing is 30 to 40 miles from the marina, and August and September have an amazing blue marlin bite when the currents and wind stack up artificial debris that become loaded with fish.”

offshore fishing from chair
The sound of the line popping out of an outrigger release clip is common around The Fingers, a popular spot along the San Jose Bank.Andrew Cox

In search of billfish on our first day of fishing, we headed to an area locally known as The Fingers, along the San Jose Bank, where the bottom contour changes quickly from less than 200 feet to over 2,000 feet. The week before our arrival, several local boats reported tons of life in the area as well as numerous billfish releases, including black marlin and sailfish. This is what we came to Panama for, and I was eager to deploy the spread. It was not long before we started seeing signs of life as the water changed from a blue-green color to a darker hue, with porpoises, birds and bait on the surface and free-jumping sailfish all around us. About 10 miles from our target, we were welcomed by the familiar whiplike sound created by the line popping out of the clip on the right-long rigger as it came tight to the rod tip, followed by the sound of a screaming drag.

billfish brought to boat
The crews are some of the most experienced in the world — they get lots of practice.Andrew Cox

The fish was pulling line as our angler hustled into the chair, and our hopes were high as I looked in front of the boat to see yet another free-jumping sailfish. Clearing the right side of the spread as Capt. Jacko began to make his wide-sweeping turn to the left, I saw the green-and-yellow color of a mahimahi jumping in the distance. Not our target species, but knowing the culinary prowess of the crew aboard Ms B Haven, I knew it would make a tasty treat that evening. Setting the spread back out, we continued to see signs of life all around us as we pressed onward to The Fingers. Unfortunately, the abundance of life reported from the week before had moved along, and after an hour of trolling around without a knockdown, we headed back to our previous location. Seeing several free-jumping sailfish, we switched over to ballyhoo baits on circle hooks, but the spread continued to go unnoticed.

Banner Days

Banner Days

World-record-chasing angler Gary Carter battles a Panamanian marlin.Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Although the bite was not what we had hoped for, Marais commented, "I've seen 58 sailfish caught by the Picaflor in one day just 15 miles from the Perlas Islands. Whether you want to stop on the way home from offshore or make a full day of it, the inshore fishing for snapper, amberjack and roosterfish is also very good." A weather system rolled in during our second day of fishing, and after giving an honest attempt at a nearby snapper hole, we tucked our tails between our legs and endured the sloppy ride back to the marina. Back within the calm water of the breakwater, my thoughts once again drifted to the potential of the offshore fishery, and I hoped that when I return to Panama's Perlas Islands our luck will be different. The area's rich history leads me to believe it will.

jet ski on water
There is plenty of non-fishing fun once you return to the docks.Courtesy Panama Yacht And Sportfishing Charters

Back at the mothership, after a day's fishing or bringing along family members who don't want to fish, you don't have to stay off the water for long. With two jet skis, several stand-up paddle boards and kayaks, a dinghy, and a flats boat, there is something for everyone to do or try. Being an adrenaline junkie, I of course opted for the jet ski and was pleasantly surprised at the viscera-flooring acceleration and speed when I took it around the island to explore the rocky shoreline and white-sand beaches. Others on the trip opted for the SUPs; the breakwater at the mouth of the cove creates an ideal place to learn to paddle, even if the wind is blowing. In addition to the above-water activities, Ms B Haven is fully loaded with snorkel and scuba equipment should you wish to explore some of the nearby reefs and rock structures.

Indian artifacts on Isla Pedro Gonzalez
It's possible to find artifacts dating back 500 years on Isla Pedro Gonzalez.Courtesy Pearl Island

Originally called Isla Churcha by the Cueva tribe, Isla Pedro Gonzalez is rich in history that has only recently been uncovered thanks to a partnership with the Smithsonian Institute. Anthropologists recently discovered burial artifacts, human remains, pots, fishing taps, and many other unique artifacts dating back 500 years that give perspective to what life was like before the Spanish conquistadors conquered the local Indians. One of the most unique findings was a petroglyph found on a large boulder from the Neolithic era that lives on as the logo for Pearl Island.

Panama Yacht and Fishing Charter
guyharveyoutpost.com/expeditions/pyfc

Pearl Island
pearlisland.com