CAF Week on the Mothership
March 11-18, 2022
CAF Week on the Mothership Was a Huge Success With Over 100 Fish in 4.5 Days!
Last week I had the great pleasure of spending another week on our Panama mothership as I hosted a wonderful group of anglers from across the US. I started “CAF Week on the Mothership” to be able to spend a week with some of our best repeat & referral guests and finally put faces to names after all these years. We spent the week 50 miles off of Panama’s Pacific Coast fishing, enjoying refreshing cocktails and delicious freshly-caught seafood dinners on the open-air fantail, and swapping stories and jokes until our eyes closed. We finished the week with over 100 fish caught in 4.5 days, so with as much fun as we had fishing in Panama we’ll definitely do another CAF Week in 2023!
KC Garner led a fun group of four fishing buddies from New Jersey, including Tom, Johnny, and Carl (who went by his alias ‘Carlitos’ for the week and provided nightly joke telling sessions after dinner). World travelers and big game hunters Larry & Stephanie joined us from Grand Haven, MI and amazed everyone by their boundless energy and ability to recharge their batteries each morning. Tom & Eric were skilled anglers from SoCal who came to chuck poppers all week. Repeat CAF anglers Sam & Rhonda made the long trek from Alaska. I convinced Sam to come on this trip because I told him that there was no better place in the world to accomplish his goal of catching a 50+lb cubera snapper than the mothership. Fortunately for him he trusted me, and fortunately for me the ‘diablo rojo’ didn’t disappoint! Last but not least was my cameraman and good buddy, Tyler, who came down to help take pics and videos of the week.
The mothership week starts with everyone arriving into Panama City on a Saturday night so that we can fly over to David in Western Panama on Sunday. Due to the domestic airline eliminating the mid-morning flight during the pandemic, everyone enjoyed a leisurely morning and took the afternoon flight. After an hour long run out of the river and mangroves, we caught up to our floating fishing lodge which was waiting for us near the small town of Boca Chica. Affectionately called “the barge”, everyone got settled into their air conditioned rooms and then made their way to the fantail for sunset cocktails and a delicious whole-fried snapper dinner.
Our first day of fishing was Monday, so all four boats headed offshore by 7:00 AM as the barge captain, Jaime, prepared to make his all day, 50-mile drive out to Coiba Island. After a full day of offshore fishing, we would meet the barge over at Coiba Island that evening instead of having to make the long run back to Boca Chica each day. Not only does this help us avoid long run times, it also gives us an extra 1.5-2 hrs of fishing each day.
I fished with Sam & Rhonda today, and we started trolling on the west side of Isla Montuosa where it quickly dropss from 300 ft of water to a couple thousand feet. Along with the famous Hannibal Bank, this is one of the best spots to fish for marlin in Panama. It wasn’t long before we actually saw a sailfish sunning herself at the surface and shortly after not one but TWO marlin swimming together just thirty feet from our boat, but unfortunately we couldn’t elicit bites from any of them. There as an uncharacteristically strong north wind in that spot, so we decided to leave the choppy waves and make our way over to Coiba Island. After all, Sam was here for his trophy cubera, not billfish.
We didn’t have any bait for cubera snapper, so as we made our way from Isla Montuosa to Isla Coiba we stopped to do some jigging for bonito. Here Sam made arguably the catch of the week at 10 AM as he landed a whopper 45 lb bull dorado on a light tackle jig. Rhonda and I each landed a few fortune jacks (small pink amberjack cousins), which was actually a new species for me. We managed a few bonitos and mackerel to fill the tuna tubes and we were set.
Once at Coiba, it didn’t take long for Sam & Rhonda to double up on cubera snappers using chunk bait on one of the many high points. Sam’s was a nice 40 lb fish, but Rhonda’s was bigger at about 50 lbs so we dropped the baits back down! As Rhonda rested from her battle, Sam and I doubled up again with a personal best almaco jack for me and another 40lb cubera for him. Rhonda was ready for more so she and Sam repeated an almaco jack & cubera double. Later we added a bluefin trevalley and a rooster inshore fishing. Three cuberas for Sam on Day 1, but it wasn’t quite “mission accomplished” because none of them reached the 50lb range – but we were off to a great start. On the other boats, the NJ boys landed the first tuna of the week (120 lbs), 2 big Pacific barracudas, 5 rainbow runners and 2 cuberas, and a mahi. The Michiganders added more snappers and a trophy roosterfish to end the day. Welcome to Coiba Island…
Monday: Day 1
Welcome to Isla Coiba...
Everyone was happy to have spent their first night anchored in a protected bay inside the Coiba Island National Park and ready to get after it on Day 2. The traditional peak yellowfin tuna season in Panama is March through July, but so far we haven’t seen them in huge numbers on a daily basis. The captains on the mothership, all local to the area, were on the radio talking to the commercial tuna boats and gathered the intel that there was a good sized school of tuna spotted about eight miles west of Isla Jicaron. That is significant because for us it would “only” about a twenty mile run to find them, but from the other land-based fishing lodges it would have been a 60 mile run each way and they likely would never have even known the tuna were out there. Knowing that, three of the four boats headed out Tuesday morning in search of tuna.
The one boat that didn’t head offshore was Sam & Rhonda. Sam was laser-focused on finally landing a 50lb cubera snapper and didn’t care about anything else until that was checked off his list. If you know Sam, he’s a guy that doesn’t back down from a challenge and, much more often than not, he’s going to come out on top. Sure he, Rhonda, and I already caught FOUR cubera snapper on Day 1, but the mission wasn’t complete. Not only did they catch five more cubera snappers on Day 2, Sam was able to catch and release a stunning 60 lb monster. That night back on the barge he had most definitely switched over to easy-going vacation mode and wore his smile the rest of the week.
Today Tyler and I shared a boat with Larry & Stephanie because we all wanted the same thing – tuna! Captain Hebert took the Californians straight to the commercial boats i the morning, but while they did that we decided to do a little more inshore fishing until we knew the tuna were actually out there. I don’t know of many places on Earth where you warm up with 50 lb cubera snapper before you go tuna fishing for the rest of the day, but that’s exactly what we did. On a whole live bonito, Captain Jonathan hooked Steph up with a monster 50 lb cubera within an hour of eating our breakfast. We continued to fish inshore until about midday and tallied three cubera snapper, two mullet snapper, a rock snapper, and a bluefin trevally. At about 11:30 AM we heard Hebert scream on the radio “Lavadora! Lavadora!” – and we zoomed off to meet him.
“Lavadora’ in Spanish means ‘washing machine’, when tuna fishing in Panama it’s what the local captains call a boil of frenzied tuna feeding at the surface. We found the spot and the only ones there were six commercial tuna boats and three of the four boats from the mothership – we had the tuna to ourselves. This school wouldn’t stay at the surface for long so poppers weren’t really working, but fortunately we had a livewell full of blue runners that they couldn’t resist. Larry started his battle with the first tuna at about noon and gave it a good fight for 30-40 minutes before he had to pass the rod to Steph. Steph gave all she could for another 30 minutes, then passed it back to Larry. Larry didn’t last more than a few minutes on his second go of it, so Warrior Steph strapped back in and finished the tuna off with help from the mate. Overall it was a one hour and fifteen minute fight – but well worth it for their first tuna of the trip! While they rested and ate lunch Tyler and I boated a nice 80 pounder, then with batteries recharged Larry & Steph were able to fight one more on conventional tackle so we ended our day with three tunas and nearly 300 lbs of meat. On the fourth boat, KC and the Jersey boys finished with four big tuna of their own, plus another cubera and almaco jack.
Physically tired yet feeling proud from the day’s action, the group showered and were enjoying cocktails on the fantail as the sun began to set. I could have joined them, but instead I jumped on Captain Jonathan’s boat as my favorite troublemaker and I weren’t quite done fishing for the day. It’s well known that there are plenty of bull sharks in the bay where we anchor all week, and they in turn have learned that when the giant 78′ rectangle parks overhead there is a good chance it means free fish. Jonathan had one last live bonito in his tuna tube so he put a circle hook in it’s back and dropped it down. It couldn’t have been mroe than 2-3 minutes until they heard the dinner bell, so Jonathan handed me the reel and the battle was on! The shark quickly started towing the four of us on our 27′ center console out to sea, and I wasn’t sure how long this fight would last (or long I’d last in the fight!). Fortunately it was “only” about a 300-350 lb shark, so after about 15 minutes I had him up at the surface. A toothy smile from our friend let us cut the wire leader and we both went our separate ways. Kudos to Tyler for seeing all this from the barge and acting quickly to get his drone up into the air to get some epic footage of it.
Tuesday: Day 2
On Day 3, everyone who fished for tuna the day before had no interest in going through those grueling battles again so they all stayed inshore and focused on adding to their species list. The Jersey boys raked in a monster 60 lb almaco jack, three more cuberas, a rock snapper, yellowtail snapper, bluefin trevally, and a few mutton snapper. After catching over ten fish the day before, Larry and Steph’s hot hand took a breather as they “only” caught one roosterfish and one cubera snapper. The California guys finished with two roosters and a few more snappers of different species.
The night before, Sam asked me after dinner what I thought about them going offshore for tuna on Wednesday. I told him I think they should definitely do it, even though I knew they’d be in for a day of punishment. They came back to the barge around 4 PM and were all smiles. I asked how their day went, hoping they got at least one tuna. They replied that they caught FIVE tuna, all of them north of 100 lbs including one that was in the 130 lb range. After they got tired of catching tuna they moved inshore for the afternoon bite and boated another almaco jack, a mullet snapper, and a beautiful broomtail grouper. I kept thinking that these big fish and long days were going tire them out, but Sam & Rhonda seemed to be getting stronger as the week went on!
As for Tyler and I, we commandeered the mothership’s small panga and had barge captain, Jaime, take us out for a morning of light tackle fishing. We spent the morning exploring some new coastline in the bays just north of where the mothership was anchored. By and large, poppers were not effective this week (or the previous two weeks), but we did mange a couple of juvenile cubera and mutton snappers near the rocks. Once the sun got over the top of the trees on the island it felt 20 degrees hotter so we switched to sub-surface lures. It didn’t take me long to hook into a nice 25 lb cubera on a deep diving Yo-Zuri minnow, and I had a good battle on my hands. It was so good in fact that the feisty cubera turned my 3-piece Okuma travel rod into a 4-piece relic as he snapped the second section in half. Fortunately I was still able to land the fish and I made him pose for a picture with me before letting him go.
Late morning we left the coastline and started speed trolling around a pinnacle in hopes of landing a wahoo. We got one good bite, but as they often do it burned line off the reel and eventually had enough slack to spit the hook. It was high noon now and the Panamanian sun was not taking any prisoners aboard our panga, so we invited a nice sized yellow tail snapper back to the barge for lunch. Long-time chef and hide & go seek champion, Irina, was more than happy to fry it whole for us and we enjoyed a delicious lunch (and some rum) with the barge all to ourselves.
After doing a bit of filming for the YouTube video, once some of the boats got back to the barge at 4 PM Jaime, Tyler and I jumped on them and had Captain Jonathan take us out for another 1.5 hrs of inshore fishing. Of all the things I love about the mothership, one of my favorites is that the captains truly LOVE to fish. Most evenings they can be seen fishing from the boats tied up to the barge or filling up the livewell at the back of barge at night while the others get into heated FIFA soccer tournaments on the Play Station 4. Johnathan and Guicho had just fished from 7 AM to 4 PM with clients, but were more than happy to take us three clowns out for another hour and a half once their day could have been done. The five of us absolutely bombarded the coastline with a combination of poppers, mag darters, and rangers and were able to catch a pair of roosters and jack crevalle. The highlight was when a rooster followed Tyler’s ranger all the way to the boat with his comb in the air only to have it stolen by one of the two jacks that were in close pursuit along with it.
Wednesday: Day 3
HERE’S THE FISH THAT TURNED MY 3-PIECE TRAVEL ROD INTO A 4-PIECE!
Day 4, Thursday, is when we leave Coiba Island and make our way back to Boca Chica. Jaime got the barge started early, so we enjoyed a bit of a breakfast cruise as the anglers didn’t quite have the same bounce in their step after three big days of fishing. The option today was to go inshore fishing north along the coastline of Coiba Island, slowly making your way back to land, or head offshore for billfish, tuna and dorado. I think everyone had already caught their fill of trophy cubera snapper and other inshore species, so soon enough everyone jumped on their boats and we headed over to Montuosa Island in search of something we hadn’t caught yet – billfish.
Panamanians don’t fish for billfish the same way we do in Costa Rica or Guatemala, instead of trolling teasers and ballyhoo they typically just troll plastic lures or live bonito. As such, they don’t typically never see the gaudy sailfish numbers that their Central American neighbors do. On top of that, we were a day away from the full moon, so we were doomed – right? Sam, Rhonda and I released our first sailfish by 10 AM caught on a belly bait made from an expired bonito. Shortly after that the Michiganders and Jersey boys each got their first. For the next couple of hours it was nonstop action with free jumpers left and right and sailfish swimming through our spreads. We finished 1 for 5, the NJ boat released two, and Larry and Steph regained their hot hand going 2 for 7 along with two mullet snapper. Ending the trip with a few quality billfish was the cherry on top of this productive week.
Friday, Day 5, is traditionally an easy half day of light tackle inshore fishing around the first few sets of islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui before we fly back to Panama City in the afternoon. With the mothership anchored back in Boca Chica, this meant we’d fish around Islas Paridas and Isla Palenque. This is also the day that at least 50% of anglers tend to skip as they are tired, sore, and ‘fished-out’ after four full days of nonstop action. The NJ team along with Sam & Rhonda were out – they enjoyed a well deserved late breakfast and easy river cruise as Jaime drove the barge back to the marina near David. Larry was dressed to fish but his partner in crime, Steph, wasn’t. I asked if he was going to go fishing even if she wasn’t, he looked at me, smiled and posed a rhetorical question about a bear needing to use the bathroom in the woods. Every trip on the mothership needs a personality like Larry.
Larry headed out with Captain Jonathan while Tyler and I set out with Captain Tomas in search of just a few more fish. I’ve been fishing here a long time and have caught plenty of roosterfish, but I have never seen a rooster actively hunting at the surface before. As I was recording a bit of extra audio for the video, in that beautiful golden morning light we saw a good sized rooster with him comb out of the water spinning in tight circles trying to catch a needlefish that was frantically porpoising away from his mouth to his tail. It went on long enough that Tyler was able to grab a rod and cast a Ranger lure at it while I was quick enough to get the follow recorded on video. Fun stuff to see. We only fished for two hours as I had to catch an early flight back to Costa Rica, but we managed to boat one more roosterfish, two jack crevalle, and our first sierra mackerel.
After showering and changing back on the barge, I was saying my good-byes to everyone as Larry came back in. I asked how it went, he said “Oh you know, 15 mackerel. That’s it.” and he walked back to his room with a bounce in his step. It’s hard to know if a guy like Larry is joking or telling the truth, so before leaving I went back to Jonathan’s boat and asked how they did. He gave me a big toothy smile and opened the hold in the back of the boat – full of mackerel, just like Larry said.
Thursday: Day 4