Earlier this month I had former college roommate and good friend of mine visit me after I told him it was peak season for tuna fishing in Panama. I showed him pictures of 200-300 lb yellow-fin tuna from past seasons and shared with him the latest Panama fishing reports, so one day at work it took him about two hours to get a hall pass from his wife, clear vacation time with his bosses, and book his plane ticket. The great Panama fishing trip was on! After spending a couple nights in Panama City to show him around – Casco Viejo, the famous fish market, Trump Tower, the new Caribbean Canal expansion, and of course a little betting on the Kentucky Derby – we headed to the Chiriqui region of western Panama to fish. We traveled to the small beach town of Boca Chica and stayed with our good friends at the Seagull Cove Lodge, one of the top boutique hotels in the area with great views, good food, and even better people. We arrived at about 4 PM but weren’t going our tuna fishing until the next day, but we were jonesing to get out on the water so instead of relaxing in the pool with drinks we grabbed my Okuma travel rods and did some light tackle kayak fishing near the hotel. The trip got off to a good start as we landed a yellow-tail snapper and a red snapper, the latter of which came back to the hotel with us so they could make it into a deliciously fresh ceviche.
The next morning we got up early for the main event – tuna fishing at the Hannibal Bank! Our local crew, Captain Jose and his mate Chuey, were waiting for us at the dock right at 7:00 AM so we jumped onto the 29′ Pursuit and headed offshore. As is typical for a day offshore fishing in Panama, you run out to a set of islands – usually Isla Parida, where you fish for live bait like blue runners or small bonito using sabiki rigs or small jigs. Once the live wells and tuna tubes are full you then continue your run out to the Hannibal Bank or Isla Montousa where the offshore fishing begins. Since these big game hot spots are 50+ miles offshore the stop to catch baitfish serves as a nice way to break up the 90-minute run. We skipped this part however because our captain heard on the radio that the tuna bite was going off at the Hannibal Bank so we were making a beeline for it.
Once we got close we started to see birds working the water, which of course is almost always a sure sign that they are feeding on bait which means the tuna won’t be far behind. More interestingly we found what essentially looked like a giant, four foot diameter chain-link donut which a commercial fishing boat must have put out a night or two before. There was one bird sitting on it looking quite full and lazy, and before our fish finder even marked the bait we could see the flashes of scared bait everywhere under this
artificial FAD. We proceeded to rake in 4-5 blue runners at a time on the sabiki rig and catch perfect live-bait sized bonito on small iron jigs until just about every tuna tube and live well was full. As I was reeling in one last bonito about eight feet from the boat I saw a flash of iridescent blue come in and demolish my bonito, my reel screamed, and then it jumped and spit the jig – there were dorado here too! About 60 seconds later Captain Jose hooked into a nice one using live bait we had just caught and my buddy William quickly got that into the boat – dinner was secured before 9:00 AM! We had another dorado follow a hooked bonito all the way to the boat so I quickly grabbed my Okuma Nomad Inshore rod, rigged with the brand new Okuma Azores 65Z-S spinning reel, 50# braid, and launched a Savage Gear Salty Freestyler off the bow of the boat. On the retrieve about 20 feet in front of that boat I saw that blue again and a beautiful 40 lb dorado take my lure. Two dorado in the box, not a bad start to the day!
With all the bait in the area we could easily stayed there and caught more dorado, but we were here for tuna and they were here for the taking so with a boat full of live bait and two dorado on ice we finished our run to the Hannibal Bank. Surely we didn’t expect to be the only ones fishing the Hannibal Bank for tuna in May, but this scene was crazy. There were two big commercial boats zipping around with clouds of small black birds following their near-constant chumming, about 12-15 other charter boats criss-crossing each other, and three spear fishing boats which had divers in the water right in the mix of all of this. We rigged circle hooks to a few of the small bonito and dropped them behind the boat, then we just waited for the 50W Shimano reels to scream. Much to our surprise, only one did but the tuna bit just behind the hook and we missed him. According to the radio reports from the other boats they weren’t having much luck with live bait either, and with this much commotion going on with twenty boats fishing the same area and divers in the water there wasn’t much of a chance the tuna were going to come up and start feeding at the surface to be able to throw a popper into them. We needed another way, it’s tuna season and we were at the Hannibal Bank, there was just no way we were going to go home empty handed. I’ve fished a lot over my past 11 years in Central America, but I am most certainly able and willing to learn new things every time I’m on the water. Every tuna I’ve ever caught in the past has been on poppers, cedar plugs, or live bait – that’s all there was to it. When Jose & Chuey started cutting up our small blue runner and using them as chunk bait I was interested but skeptical, I didn’t think a 100+ lb tuna would worry about a 6 oz chunk of sinking baitfish. But I was wrong, the chunk bait worked and our Shimano reel was screaming. I let William take it since he’d never caught a tuna before, plus after spending a week on the mothership the week prior I wasn’t exactly dying to fight another huge tuna. He did great, fought it standup and had it to the boat within 30 minutes – a beautiful 120 pounder!
For another 45 minutes we tried for more tuna without much luck, but we did see schools of big mullet snapper feeding at the surface so we cast lures into them and dropped them chunk bait, boating two of them. We had so much meat with the two dorado and the giant tuna we weren’t interested in and didn’t have space for the snapper so we released them for another day. We also landed two of the biggest rainbow runners I’ve ever seen, which are always a good fight even if you don’t want to catch one. Last but not least, we had a school of SEVEN giant Pacific manta-rays under our boat for about 60 seconds – what an amazing sight that was. Alas it was time to head home, it was 2:00 PM and we were 50 miles offshore at the famed Hannibal Bank, the tuna were feeding, and it was a beautiful sunny day so it was painful to leave. We had to get back to shore, drive back to David and catch the last Copa flight of the day back to Panama City that night as the real world was waiting for us, but there is no doubt we’ll fish the Hannibal Bank again soon.