It’s an understatement to say that Panama is on most saltwater anglers’ radar. World renowned lodges like the Tropic Star Lodge and famous destinations like the Hannibal Bank and Montuosa Island attract the big game offshore anglers looking for blue and black marlin as well as yellow-fin tuna. As good as the offshore fishing in Panama can be, we get just as many anglers asking for strictly inshore fishing and light tackle fishing trips.
From the Zane Grey Reef in the far east to the over 200 islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui, inshore fishing in Panama is nothing short of paradise for the popper addicts and light tackle junkies. Any given week inshore fishing in Panama can produce over 40 different species of game fish, headlined of course by the famous roosterfish and mighty cubera snapper. Whether you are slow trolling live bait, jigging, casting crank baits & rapalas, or our personal favorite – chucking poppers – you are bound to have a day full of heavy-hitting action. Make sure your knots are tied well and the reels are spooled with heavy braid, because you going to get all you can handle doing battle with the five toughest fighters below.
1 – Roosterfish
The main prize for most anglers who go inshore fishing in Panama, or really anywhere in Central America for that matter, is the roosterfish. A linebacker of a fish, the ‘pez gallo’ as they are called here are true bruisers that don’t care who’s feelings they hurt. Known for their reel-screaming runs, a battle with a roosterfish will remind you what a burning bicep feels like as they are as stubborn as they are hard-fighting. Not normally known for their acrobatics, roosters do have a funny tendency to beat you up during the initial fight, tire out to the point you think you have them beat, and then as soon as they see the boat for the first time they scare and peel off all that line you worked so hard to get back. You will typically find roosterfish patrolling rocky islands and reefs, but they can also be found cruising behind the surf break.
Although not law, all roosterfish are catch and release in Panama because they are such a prized gamefish and a favorite among inshore anglers. It’s helps that their meat doesn’t taste very good either, but they do make for the picture (or replica mount from our friends at King Sailfish Mounts) of a lifetime. The best way to catch your first roosterfish is slow trolling with live bait like blue runners, look downs, sardines, or even small bonitos. If those aren’t available, or if you simply like a challenge, roosters can also be enticed to take spoons and other artificial baits like Yo-Zuri crystal minnows. Few things will get your hard pumping more than seeing the seven-finned dorsal rise up behind your popper right before they strike!
2 – Cubera Snapper
Talk about tough – the strike from cubera snapper can be downright frightening. The largest of the nine snapper species found in Panama, cuberas are easily recognizable by their four pronounced canine teeth and deep red color. They can grow up to 80 lbs, but anything over 50 lbs is considered a trophy. Cuberas are often found around reefs or hanging out in caves between 30-100 ft of water, but they can also be found in water hundreds of feet deep. Their broad tails make for powerful strokes, and the sheer size of their bodies means they are packed with muscle to provide you with a back burning fight. Cubera snappers are a very slow growing fish and take years to reach sexual maturity, so most fishing operations in Panama have adopted a strict catch-and-release policy on them. They are such a prized gamefish and can actually live to be over 50 years old, so every time you release one that means they’ll be even bigger for the next angler.
There is no doubt that the favorite way to catch a cubera snapper is on a top water lure because no matter how many times you’ve done it, seeing a big orange basketball rise up behind your popper and then crush it like it was their worst enemy gets your heart going every time. While top water strikes are common in Panama, especially near the rocky islands, cuberas are also caught trolling live bait, jigging, and even chunk baiting on the ocean floor. If you spend all day marlin fishing with live bonitos you may be surprised to see your crew use that same bonito to slowly troll for a cubera snapper at the end of the day. The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish, and they don’t get much bigger than what you’ll find in Panama. If you aren’t fishing with 60 or 80 lb braid best of luck, because if the line doesn’t break first if you aren’t able to pull the snapper out of the cave before he backs in there you’ll never see him.
3 – Jack Crevalle
They may not be sexy, they may not even be what you were trying to fish for, but there is no denying that the jack crevalle is one of the most exciting species to tangle with when inshore fishing in Panama. The jack crevalle is the most common of the jack species found in Panama, which also includes the horse-eye jack, bluefin trevally, and African pompano. Jacks can tolerate a wide range of water salinity and depth, so they can be found in brackish water and mangroves, shallow flats and islands, or even around offshore reefs and wrecks. They are easily identifiable by the black spot at the base of their pectoral fin, which no other jacks have.
Voracious feeders, typically when you find one jack you find many. Jacks mainly feed on other small fish, so they are easily caught on crank baits, poppers, and trolling lures which makes them very popular among light tackle enthusiasts. Since they typically travel and hunt in big schools, often times chasing bait up into the shore or against rock walls, once you find them they can also be taken with large streamers when fly fishing. Jacks are not considered table fare for most anglers, but they are prized for their spirited fights on light tackle gear. When your reel screams and you aren’t sure what is on the other end, often times jacks give themselves away by their trademark head shaking. Often underappreciated and considered a “by-catch” when fishing for roosterfish, there is no doubt that jacks put up one of the best per-pound fights of any inshore species in Panama!
4 – African Pompano
One of the oddest looking inshore species in Panama, the African pompano is also one of the hardest fighting. Another member of the larger Carangidae family which includes jacks, trevallys, and amberjack, the African pompano does it’s part to hold up the family’s reputation as a bruiser. Like the jack crevalle it tears off line with blistering runs, and with it’s deep body it can feel like you are pulling in an old tire when it goes sideways on you. Typically found in shallow water around the various rocky islands, the African pompano is also the rarest of the jacks caught in Panama. Unlike the jack crevalle however it is valued as table fare due to it’s white meat.
When fully grown as adults, African pompano are typically much bigger than jack crevalle as the world record stands at 50 lbs 8 oz. Like it’s cousins, the African pompano feeds on crustaceans and other small fish so the same methods of casting poppers, crank baits, and minnows works well. They can also take a slowly trolled live bait, which is often times how they are caught when anglers are targeting roosterfish inshore. Because big adult pompano are so rare some anglers confuse them for giant trevallys, which they are not, but they should be considered a trophy nonetheless.
5 – Tarpon
In case you thought this list only pertained to inshore fishing along Panama’s Pacific Coast, it doesn’t – but it could have. Confused? Tarpon are such a prized game fish they should be on almost every list of top species to catch, and fortunately in Panama there are a lot of places you can do that! As their Latin name implies, megalops atlanticus, tarpon are found in the warm tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean from the Americas all the way to Africa. Their lofty reputation has grown to legendary status in Panama because tarpon are not only found all along the Caribbean Coastline, but also on in the Panama Canal and the fresh water Lake Gatun, and more yet have been caught on the Pacific Coast! These “Pacific tarpon” aren’t actually a new species, they are just well traveled fish that have made their way through the Panama Canal and have take up residence on the Pacific Ocean. Tarpon on the Pacific Coast have been found as far south as Columbia, 50 miles offshore at Coiba Island, and as far north as Costa Rica.
Adult tarpon can eat just about whatever they want, but typical menu items include shrimp, crabs, baby turtles, and any fish that can fit into their giant mouths – which are plenty. The best way to hook and actually land a tarpon would be drifting fresh sardines on a circle hook or jigging with a buck tail as that allows you to better set the hook. Often times tarpon are hooked by surprise, or by accident, when slow trolling rapalas for other inshore species like jacks or snapper. With their bony mouths it’s difficult to get a good hook placement with a treble hook, and then even if you do chances are the treble hook is no match for a triple-digit sized adult tarpon when they take to the sky with their epic leaps. Although they are occasionally caught along the Pacific Coast in Panama, if you really want to target the silver king you should still head to Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean Coast or fish the Panama Canal and Lake Gatun.