One of my dearest and longest standing repeat guests contacted me last summer saying he wanted to bring his group of friends to Panama to fish for big yellow-fin tuna. There certainly are no shortage of great fishing lodges in Panama to choose from, but without hesitation the first thing that jumped into my head was the mothership. As I wrote about last year, the week my dad and I spent on the mothership last June was one of the best fishing trips I’ve ever been on. We caught 21 species and over 50 fish in just five days, saw an incredible amount of marine life, and got to experience one of Central America’s most beautiful and remote destinations that very few tourists visit – Coiba Island.
My loyal repeat guest, Scott, thought the idea a private mothership for his group of eight would be a great fit for their next adventure together. Scott has been fishing with me for almost a decade now and while a very experienced angler many of his trips have been to the famous Los Suenos Resort or fishing from Quepos, Costa Rica so I knew this was going to be an entirely new experience for them. The mothership is extremely comfortable with four air conditioned rooms, two bathrooms with hot water, and some of the best food you’ll find at any hotel in Panama, but regardless the idea of staying on a floating hotel fifty miles out to sea isn’t for everyone. However this group of four well-traveled couples isn’t new to challengers or exotic experiences, collectively they’ve served as CEOs of large companies for decades, fished all over the US from Hawaii to Louisiana and Central America from Costa Rica to Belize, hunted big game in Africa, dove hunted in South America, and one couple even ran Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game for 30 years and became world renowned experts on walrus. Years ago I had an instant adoration for Kathy, who in her late 60’s continues to impress me and may be one of the toughest and most interesting women I’ve ever met. In addition to running Alaska’s fish & game for three decades, she is an 8-time dog sledding National Champion, she once served as the only woman on an all-male Russian fishing boat for months to inspect the stomach contents of walrus, and she’s got more stories than there are hours in a week. Best of all they are all incredibly nice and humble people, I think I was looking forward to this week as much as they were.
The week we picked was the last week of April to capitalize on the peak yellow-fin tuna season in Panama since Scott said his goal was to catch tuna on top water plugs. The group flew in on different days from Hawaii, Nashville, and New Orleans and then Monday morning we all flew together from Panama City to David in Western Panama. We were met right at the airport by the owner & host, big Mike Augat who is has been a guide himself for decades. After a short 15 minute drive to the Pedegral Marina we divided up between the four center console Ocean Masters and headed out to sea. The mother ship left the day before and was already waiting for us at Coiba Island, our job was to make the one hour run out of the mangroves, head to the general area of the Hannibal Bank and Montousa Island 50 miles offshore, and then make it to the mother ship by dark. Oh yeah, and try to catch some fish along the way. As we got within a few miles of Montousa Island we started to troll plastic squids for any pelagic species that may be out there, all the while looking for birds and monitoring the radio in case someone spotted spotted tuna. It didn’t take long for us to get the call that someone spotted a group of working birds, and as if the tuna had our itinerary printed out they just so happened to be within miles of Coiba Island. We quickly caught up to them and were instantly bombarding them with a steady cloud of poppers from various boats. Our boat alone landed five small footballs, Rick O’s boat next to us landed 11, and Kathy & Lloyd only caught one but there was a good reason – it was 130 lbs! It was just Day 1, really just an afternoon of fishing time, and we were already at about 20 fish – that’s what I call a hot start!
It was 4:30 PM by now so we headed towards Coiba Island and unfortunately what would come to be a sign of things to come – a VERY dark horizon with a rain storm waiting between us and the mothership as if to say “you gotta get through me first.” No problem, it’s Panama after all so it was 85 degrees and the rain felt refreshing, plus everyone was still on a high after landing several yellow-fin tuna on poppers within the first few hours of the trip. We made it to the mother ship soaking wet and I could tell there were a few faces among the group that were saying “What the heck are we doing here and where are we?” I couldn’t wait to show them the magic of Coiba Island that I experienced last year – beautiful sunsets over one of the world’s biggest and untouched islands, cloudless night skies filled with stars, incredible marine life, and of course some of the world’s best sport fishing. Like my dad and I did last year, I was confident that by Day 2 they would unplug from wifi, 4G cell service, and work emails and settle into the glorious mothership routine of eat-fish hard-eat & drink-sleep hard-repeat.
The only problem is that Mike, his talented and tenured staff, and myself only have control over so many things in life and in fishing. Last year Coiba Island welcomed us with all her beauty in full display but this year she wasn’t going to make it that easy on us. Me playing the role of wide-eyed gringo and Isla Coiba playing the role of Latin American stunning beauty, this story has been played out many times before (literally for many metaphorically to others). Last year I laid eyes on her and instantly fell in love, we shared five magical days together, and I’ve been thinking about her ever since. I knew I would come back to see her, at times it was all I could think about, but I never called, never wrote, and didn’t visit her for another 11 months. As if she wanted me to know she was mad at me and fear the wrath she could unleash at any time, Isla Coiba played hard to get with that magic I so badly wanted my group to experience. That’s how she would be the entire week, she’d seductively look back at you over one shoulder and lock eyes with a stare that would make your knees weak, then hours later she’d look back at you over the other shoulder with fire in her eyes and a glare that made you want to run home and cuddle your dog. She wasn’t to be messed with or be taken for granted, but man she was beautiful, and she was going to be damn sure you knew both of those things by the end of the week. The rain didn’t let up the first night so we ate inside, which is far cry from the ambiance of outdoor seating with a sun-drenched beach as your backdrop. We made small chat as we ate a delicious tuna steak, then shortly after everyone headed to bed tired from a day of travel & fishing and still hanging onto a bit of trepidation.
The next morning was far from the cloudless blue skies I’ve come to expect after my 11 years in Central America, there were gray skies all around, a few big thunderheads floating by, and that strong easterly breeze from the night before didn’t completely lie down like I had hoped. Tuesday was our first full day at Coiba so everyone was jonesing to go offshore and get into the BIG yellow-fin tuna I had told them about last summer, so off we went. Three of us headed out to where we found the tuna the day before and it didn’t take us long to find them again. As the game goes, we’d spot the birds working from above, get close and see which way the dolphins were moving, and then wait for the tuna to come to the surface so we could chuck our poppers their way. Fishing from the 27′ Ocean Master center consoles each boat had an angler at the bow and one in the stern, both waiting for the captains word to unleash the popper fury on the frenzied tuna. All the ingredients were there for an amazing day – sunshine, gin-clear water, working birds, dolphins, even the tuna – the only issue is WHAT they were eating. I’ve never known tuna to be a particularly picky eater, typically when they get into a frenzy you can throw just about anything at them and they’ll inhale it. One of the most common tuna lures world-wide is a simple cedar plug, a far cry from the $60-$80 poppers you can find nowadays. We spent the morning casting poppers into feeding tuna only to see them refuse time and time again. I’ll never forget one of my retrieves had a 80+ lb tuna bust on the right side of my popper, then a 50 lb tuna bust on the left side of it, so I was left waiting for an inevitable bite that never came. Scott did hook into one large 90 pounder on a popper, but all the other tuna landed that day were taken on live bait or an 8″ diving minnow lure. Our boat managed to hook into arguably the biggest tuna of the day, a 120 pounder that took mysef, the mate, the captain, and Lois to finally get it into the boat on spinning gear. To give you an idea of how powerful these fish are look at the pick below. Our fish pulled apart and 8″ aluminum lure and was hanging on by a thread by the time we were able to gaff it…
Tuesday finished with another rain storm in the afternoon so everyone was unexpectedly soaked again, but overall in good spirits. One good thing about the rainy season in Panama starting early is that the wahoo showed up a month early as well, Kathy & Lloyd’s boat that didn’t follow us out to the Hannibal Bank finished with three good sized wahoo, rock snapper, amberjack, 8 jack crevalle, black grouper, and a 30lb roosterfish. It wasn’t quite the explosive top water day everyone wanted, but there were three tuna over 80 lbs taken with ours at 120 lbs being the biggest – all of them on live bait. The below creature was pulled from the mouth of one of our tunas and we began to put the puzzle together as to why they weren’t eating our poppers – they were gorging on shrimp!
Wednesday’s weather started off where Tuesday night ended, gray skies in all directions, a strong east wind, and rain. The guests were asking me at breakfast “Is this typical weather for the rainy season?” NO! First of all April isn’t the rainy season, it almost never rains in the morning as most days in the green season feature afternoon showers and clear nights, and it almost never rains all night. It’s hard to convince people who have just seen three straight days of rain that what I’m saying is true, and fortunately they weren’t scared of some tropical rain and seemed to be happy as long as they were catching fish. Wednesday morning we all headed towards that bay that is home to the famous but now-closed Coiba Island penitentiary, which for about a century was Panama’s most feared prison. Without going into details, needless to say former inmates at the prison surely do not view Isla Coiba with the same rose colored lenses that I do… The fishing was red hot this morning as there were tons of bait balls being marked and every boat was raking in bonito, sierra mackerel, lane snapper, golden jacks, houndfish, the rare African pompano, and even a few smaller cubera snappers. We headed back to the barge for lunch as some people wanted to see how the afternoon’s weather would turn out and others wanted to spend the afternoon swimming and walking on one of the many secluded beaches in Coiba Island National Park. We did just that, and I think it was a welcome midweek respite for many and did wonders to re-energize the crowd. After a few hours of that Rick F. and I tried to head out to the Hannibal Bank so he could finally get his top-water tuna, but the waves were too big so we pulled into a bay and fished light tackle gear for snook and jack crevalle. You know you are fishing in a good spot when you can see bait busting up on the beach and four 10ft+ crocodiles swimming nearby. Back at the boat at night we finally had a clear evening to enjoy happy hour & dinner outside, and Irene knocked it out of the park again with seared ahi tuna for the appetizer round and whole fried snapper we caught that morning for the main course. Everyone shared stories of the fish they caught that day – another big wahoo, cuberas, amberjacks finally made the list, and even black tip sharks were caught today.
Thursday was our last full day at Coiba Island, so it typically tends to be an offshore deepwater day. Kathy & Lloyd, Scott & his wife Dee, and Rick F. and I all headed out to the Hannibal Bank as we heard on the radio the bite was going off. Upon arrival you could see it was true, two commercial boats were flying around, birds were everywhere, and there was constantly at least one captain shouting in Spanish on the radio about the tuna. All morning looking at the other boats I could see bent rods, and I mean full archs with a grimace on the angler’s face. Scott & Dee caught the most fish landing six BIG yellow-fins all over 80lbs, Kathy landed the biggest of the trip at about 130lbs, and my guy Rick F. finally got his tuna on the top water plug – a nice 80 pounder! The fourth boat decided they had had enough tuna for the week so they went a different route and were rewarded for their boldness with EIGHT wahoo. Rick O’s wife, Amy, who was perhaps the most nervous at the beginning of the week was now boasting an ear-to-ear smile, telling everyone how soar her biceps are from reeling in fish, and showing everyone the wahoo SHE caught. This evening was sunny & warm, full of libations, picture sharing, and chatter and of course another delicious wahoo dinner from Chef Irene. THIS is the magic I wanted my group to experience, and it was finally upon us.
Friday was another beautifully sunny day and a half day of inshore fishing around some local islands as our group had a 3:00 PM flight back to Panama City. This group had a hot hand all week so we finished with more jacks, rock snapper, and even another roosterfish for Lloyd. We caught up to the mothership halfway on it’s run back through the mangrove rivers, ate one last delicious lunch, and had a few drinks as we said goodbye to the crew and our home for the week.
Mike and I spoke each night about the tough luck we were having this week with the finicky tuna and unseasonably bad weather, and while I would have loved to have had a week of nonstop sunshine in the end it was kind of perfect for this group of good-hearted anglers. They were always willing to try new things, follow the captains’ suggestions, and weren’t bothered too much by some unwanted tropical rain storms. While they are experienced anglers and travelers, none of them have taken a fishing vacation like this mothership so as predicted the fear and trepidation from Day 1 had turned to adoration and fondness by Day 5 as we said good-bye to the wonderful staff. The non-anglers had become anglers, the guys chasing big tuna scratched their itch, and most everyone caught species they had never seen before. I can’t help but feel proud for the way they battled through adversity this week, and I’m so glad that the damsel Isla Coiba finally showed them her pretty side because it is like few things on this Earth.
Mike and I agreed that this was a tough week of fishing in Panama, especially for late April. That being the case, where else do ‘tough’ weeks of fishing look like this: 8 anglers landed over 100 fish, 20 different species, boated over thirty yellow-fin tuna, including FOUR over 120 lbs, 11 wahoo, 2 roosterfish, and 4 cubera snappers? Isla Coiba, I’m as in love with you as ever and I promise to come back and fish again soon.