After nearly two decades of observing tuna patterns and weather seasons in Panama, I thought we were primed to have the tuna trip of a lifetime. What I didn’t predict last year was that 2023 would be the start of an El Niño cycle. While weather patterns in Panama by late May should have had us well into the rainy season with afternoon showers, conditions felt more like March and the middle of the dry season. Everyday offered sunshine, calm seas, little to no wind – which sounds ideal for tuna fishing fifty miles from shore. Unfortunately for us, the large schools of yellowfin tuna weren’t on top of the Hannibal Bank like they should have been, instead they were hanging around Punta Burica, which is 50 miles to the west near the border of Costa Rica. Once we arrived to Coiba Island on Monday afternoon, we were all blown away by how beautiful it was. I’ve spent countless days fishing at Coiba Island, but I have personally never seen it look the way it did that week. The skies were bright blue, the white-sand beaches on the islands were shining bright, and the water was as clear as I’ve ever seen the Pacific Ocean in Central America. Being a diver myself, there was no doubt the visibility was 60-80 ft most of the week. The barge captain, Jaime, and I were spotting sharks swimming over reefs while we were jigging in 80-100 ft of water one day. If there is one truth about hosting weeks out at Coiba Island, it’s that every week is different.
Being a sport fishing outfitter for the past 18 years, there are a lot of things I love about my job. Near the top of the list is being able to offer hosted weeks so that I can personally meet and fish with my clients. This year I was fortunate enough to host the second annual ‘CAF Week’ on our Panama mothership, which took place from May 20-27. I hand-selected this week over 10 months in advance as I hoped to line up an epic week of fishing for my clients in the heart of peak tuna season in Panama, but without hesitation I would classify the fishing last week as challenging.
Joining me this week were 3x repeat guests from New York, Amanda and her dad Ed, who always seem to have great luck with us. They also brought down Ed’s younger brother, Scott, and his son Jason. Four-time repeat guest and fly fishing wizard, Michael, from Alaska brought down his good friends Bert & Christina, who were a perfect fit for a week on the mothership. Branden and his dad Brad joined us from FL, along with their friends Eric & Jonathan. Last but not least was the father/son combo of Cory & Cody from Colorado. While Cory was an avid ultra marathoner, his recent graduate son Cody was every bit the fishing fanatic and fished with me from the barge every night after fishing all day with his dad.
On our first day of fishing on Monday morning, everyone was given the choice to make the extremely long run over to the tuna, but each boat decided to take our chances at the Hannibal Bank and said variety & action was more important than one particular species. I joined Cory & Cody to make sure they were up to speed and got off to a great start. Captain Hebert took us straight to Montuosa Island, where we drove around for an hour trying to spot tuna. We couldn’t find any, so he threw out a couple of plastic marlin baits and we began to troll. The hot Panamanian sun hadn’t burned off the morning clouds yet, so it felt gray and overcast – ‘perfect for a marlin bite‘ – I thought to myself. Sure enough, within fifteen minutes of trolling we had a blue marlin hooked and jumping as Cody settled in for the fight. Unfortunately the fish was easily 500 ft away from the boat, so with too much slack in the line he was gone after three jumps. We trolled a bit more without luck, then pulled the plastics, set up the spinning rods, and headed closer to the Hannibal Bank to look for tuna. Shortly after making our run we spotted a fin, and it was a lone blue marlin all lit up at the surface. Painfully, we didn’t have any live bait on board so we did all we could do by throwing a few poppers and one swim bait at it, but after two follows close to the boat, it lost interest and swam off. Even though we didn’t get it to bite, being able to sight-cast to a marlin was a pretty surreal experience. We did manage to find a small school of “local” tuna near the Hannibal Bank, but they weren’t feeding well and were under a lot of pressure from multiple boats so we only managed to boat one of the three bites we got that day. We spent the final hour of the day fishing some high spots closer to Coiba Island, and Cody managed to catch his first cubera snapper (25 lbs). Captain Jonathan and the NY crew had a surprisingly slow day with just one cubera snapper (35 lbs). Captain Tomas and the Alaska crew fared better with four dorados, a bluefin trevally, and a horse eye jack. The FL guys booked a slightly shorter trip, so instead of fishing offshore with the rest of us, they ran from David out to Cobia Island and fished along the way for a total of three dorado. We all met the barge anchored in La Rancheria, close to the ranger station, and were blown away by the beautiful setting we were in. It was slower than we would have liked and we only totaled thirteen fish on our first day, but none of us were too worried about it knowing that we had another 3.5 days of fishing ahead of us.
On Tuesday the four boats split up and went their different ways to fish around the 38 islands that comprise the Coiba Island National Park. Captain Navas and the FL guys took care of dinner for everyone by catching over 20 rock snappers. Michael, Burt, and Christina had a good day with five cuberas, three white-tipped sharks, a jack crevalle, and three rock snappers themselves. The NY crew with Captain Jonathan did better today as well with three cuberas, a yellowtail snapper, one grouper, and 7 rock snapper. But it was Cory & Cody with Captain Hebert who had the big day as they finished with seven cubera snappers, multiple white-tip sharks, a rock snapper, a rare triple tail, two yellowtail snapper, a Pacific barracuda, and the week’s first roosterfish. While Cody caught more fish, dad Cory had the bragging rights as his rooster was not only close to 50 lbs, he also caught it on a popper. Jaime and I also played around in the panga for a few hours and managed to catch two rainbow runners, two small tuna, a horse-eye jack, and a bluefin trevally. While we didn’t see any monster cuberas and only one roosterfish, this was more of the type of action the anglers were expecting to see out there.
On Wednesday the fishing continued to challenge us. The weather was great, the water was crystal clear – yet we simply couldn’t find live bait. Cory & Cody’s hot hand from the day before cooled off as they managed just one amberjack, one African pompano, another shark, and a couple of jacks. Captain Jonathan and the New Yorkers had an OK day with five dorados, a barracuda, and a nice sized silk snapper. Captain Tommy and the Alaskans fared slightly better with another cubera, they also found an African pompano, three jacks, two rock snapper, and one shark. Since it was slow and they were close to the deep water, they popped offshore for a bit and had hauntingly bad luck – missing a marlin bite and losing a 60 lb dorado boatside.
Up to now, this sounds like another slow day for what is shaping up to be a surprisingly slow week for the mothership. But as I always say, if you just keep at it, keep plugging – eventually she (Coiba Island) will give you something. Jaime and I poked around a bit on the panga, trying to find which spot was holding the fish this week and what lures would work. Unfortunately it was one of those weeks where you can literally go through your entire tackle box because no artificials were working. Jaime had a 300 lb bull shark charge his popper, which was super cool to see, but alas didn’t result in any fish. Nothing was working and we were cooking in the panga beneath this scorching El Niño sun, so we decided to troll for a little bit. We caught a tuna mackerel and a bonito, which we kept to at least serve as chunk bait for the cuberas & AJs, but then it finally happened. The reel screamed and we knew we had what we were hoping for – wahoo. It took Jaime and a day and a half to crack the code, but we had done it – there were wahoo around. We managed two of them before noon and then headed back to the barge to eat our lunch and get out of the sun. On our way back we ran into Captain Navas and the FL guys, who were a bit frustrated by only catching a few small dorado, jacks, and rock snapper in two days. We gave them the bonito we caught and told them about the wahoo and where we found ours, which made their eyes light up. Sure enough, they finished the day as the top boat with six dorado, five jacks, and a beautiful 50 lb wahoo. They lost an even bigger one right next to the boat as well.
At dinner on Wednesday night, news of the wahoo spread like wildfire and now everyone wanted one. Thursday morning the captains heard from all their anglers that they wanted wahoo, so that was the mandate for the day. Captain Navas and the Florida guys managed to land another one, along with their first cubera of the week and a shark. Captain Thomas and the Alaskans had the big day with four wahoo, a roosterfish, two jacks, and a couple of trophy 50 lb dorados. The action was slower for Captain Hebert & Jonathan as they only managed some smaller tunas, jacks, and snappers.
Friday morning is our half day of fishing before we fly back to Panama City in the afternoon. These days are spent inshore fishing around the first set of islands off the coast, and while the main catch tends to be mackerel and jacks, this also serves as the last chance for roosterfish. So far in four days of fishing our four boats had only caught two, which was pretty remarkable. But sure enough, we found them today as the Alaskans released four and Scott released one. All boats caught several mackerel and jacks as well.
Fortunately a strong dorado bite kept everyone busy all week (18 total). The inshore bite was good, but not great. We managed to boat 13 cuberas and 7 roosters, which isn’t great by our lofty standards, but those fish did fill a lot of trophy requests and personal bests. This week was many things. It was stunningly beautiful with sunny skies and clear water, yet flabbergasting with a lack of baitfish and very slow action on the prized sport fish we were after. What kept spirits high, once again, was the incredible diversity of the fishery at Coiba Island. While the tuna and roosterfish bite was about as slow as it gets, the bottom fishing for rock snapper was the best I’ve ever seen. The three jack species were available as always, but special treats were African Pompano and two beautiful Leather Groupers. While we didn’t see any trophy 50-70 lb cubera snappers, we did manage to catch 13 of them throughout the week. Our group finished with 18 dorado, many of them around or over 50 lbs, as well as 8 wahoo and had three marlin bites.
As always with these trips, it’s as much about the fish you catch as the experience itself. Spending a week 50 miles offshore in a marine national park, all while enjoying an air conditioned room, full bar, and great food on a floating fishing lodge that is surrounded by 13 nurse sharks, isn’t exactly something you can do just anywhere. Coiba Island is a special place, and even if it takes some people one or two days to unwind and realize that, just about everyone does in the end. Ed & Scott mentioned that they can’t remember the last time they were able to spend quality time with each other and their kids. At dinner one night, Cory said he was appreciative to spend a week with his son before he went off to college doing what he loves to do, and without him being on his phone all day texting his friends and girlfriend. Cody quickly chirped back “Yeah, and without you taking work calls.” Touche! The Florida guys took a day or two to forget their obligations on the home and work fronts, but by Wednesday night they were playing poker as competitively as the rest of us. Of course CAF legend Michael didn’t need any help getting into the zone, he had his Hawaiin shirts and saltwater flies packed and ready for weeks, he was born for an adventure like this. And there you have it – a “slow” week featured 140+ fish, beautiful water conditions, four types of sharks, a giant manta ray, dolphins, and even a few humpback whale sightings.