Panama Fishing Report – May 2022: SOF Visits the Mothership

by | Jun 29, 2022 | Panama Blog | 0 comments

Stoked on Fishing
Visits the

May 21-28, 2022

We hosted the West Coast’s #1 rated fishing show, Stoked on Fishing, and boated over 160 fish in five days!

Last week I hosted our good friends, Shea & Ryan McIntee from Stoked on Fishing, for their second go around on our 78′ mothership in Panama.  Brothers and stars of the Fox Sports West #1 rated fishing show, we reunited for our fourth show after a two year hiatus thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shea loves doing this trip for his show because not only do we catch a ton of fish, we do so 50 miles offshore with no one else around. It’s one of the most unique trips we offer, the landscape in the Coiba Island National Park is stunning, and it’s a week full of exotic, monster fish. What more could you ask for?

The SOF crew traveled with a group of twelve very talented anglers from Southern California. Phil, Dale, and Spenny were all repeats from the original 2019 trip, but the other nine anglers were all on their first fishing adventure with Central America Fishing. Many of them were good friends from childhood, so between fishing from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day and drinks & dice games at night, there was hardly a dull moment all week!

As good as our first week was on the Panama mothership in 2019, this year might have been even better as we finished the week with over 160 fish caught in 4.5 days. Part of what made it so special was that it was a completely different fishery and conditions than what we had three years ago, plus nearly every angler brought their own rods, reels, and/or lures to the ultimate proving grounds. We battled rain, wind, big seas, and even red tide to have another epic week fishing in Panama with countless personal bests broken throughout the week.

Rigged & Ready to Fish!

Our first day of fishing was Monday, so all five boats left the friendly confines of Boca Chica’s giant estuary and headed offshore at 7:00 AM. While we headed for the Hannibal Bank in search of yellowfin tuna boils, barge captain Jaime started making his long 10-hr commute bringing the 78′ mothership out to Coiba Island where we would spend the rest of our week. This is of course one of the major perks of staying on the mothership as opposed to a traditional fishing lodge in Panama: instead of having to make the long 50-mile runs each day we’d be just a short 10-15 mile run from the fishing grounds. This gives us an extra 1.5-2 hrs of fishing each day, which anyone would prefer over running to and from the fishing spots.

Shea, Ryan and I headed out with Pesca Panama mainstays, Tomas and ChiChi. We were hoping that the yellowfin tuna and dorado action would be a fraction as good as what we saw in 2019 with multiple boils every single day of the week, but unfortunately we were dealt a different hand of cards this trip. While it was sunny and warm in the coastal town of Boca Chica where we started our day, as soon as we were 40 miles offshore the sky turned steel gray. Fresh off the heels of the season’s first tropical storm the week before, the normally calm Pacific was agitated with 5-6 ft seas and a steady 10 mph west wind. We started fishing just a few miles west of Coiba Island, but the storm system was so intense we couldn’t even see it at times. “Oh boy.” I thought. “Maybe we picked the wrong week…

It didn’t take long for us to find a pod of dolphins and birds, but you could tell that we missed the best action because the dolphins were swimming leisurely and the birds were sitting on the water as if they all just overindulged at the breakfast buffet. Captain Tomas could mark a giant school of tuna at about 100 ft, but after about an hour of waiting for them to come up we decided to investigate the various current lines in the area. Full of garbage and branches from the storms a week earlier, it looked like prime conditions for dorado or even wahoo. That never materialized either, so we decided to head over to Coiba Island, find a nice, protected cove and have our lunch.

I was first to finish and started casting my new Ranger lures, and on the second cast after lunch boated our first fish – a Pacific barracuda. That got the bros engine started, so we decided to focus on inshore fishing knowing that the other boats from the mothership were still hunting tuna so we were just a radio call and a few miles away if they came up. We hugged the island the rest of the afternoon and finished with a nice cubera snapper for Shea (his personal best), six bluefin trevallies, and two horse-eye jacks. A ten fish day, and all after lunch – not bad.

Many of the other boats decided to leave the choppy seas offshore and start inshore fishing along Coiba Island as well. Captains Hebert, Jonathan, and Henry put their anglers on two double cubera hook-ups in addition to rock snapper, one small dorado, and a couple white tip sharks. Stud captain Navas and his group were the only ones to brave the conditions offshore all day, and they were rewarded with four nice sized yellowfin tuna.

Everyone was super excited to have spent their first night anchored in a protected bay inside the beautiful Coiba Island National Park. International flights, a domestic flight, and a fifty mile run out into the Pacific – this is why we were all here. With the strong west winds we were not able to make it to our normal anchorage on the west side of Coiba Island, so instead we tucked in behind a series of small islands on the north side of the island by the ranger station. Everyone was thoroughly entertained on our first night by Coiba’s local celebrity – Tito, the 14 ft long American Crocodile. It’s easy to see by looking at him that Tito is a little long in the tooth and probably past his prime, but he’s still intimidating and certainly reinforces why I tell all the guests ‘No Swimming’ during my welcome speech. Over the past two decades the wily old dinosaur has learned that the mothership catches a lot of fish, so he’ll spend hours doing slow circles around the barge like a dog begging at the dinner table. The boys have their fun with him, tying up fish heads and making him snap out of the water for them, but he happily trades his pride for an easy dinner.

Monday: Day 1

Welcome to Isla Coiba...

After our first night at Coiba Island, everyone woke up on Tuesday ready to get after it and see if this place really lived up to the hype. I woke up at 5 AM with the crew, but I stayed in bed until 6:30 AM because I knew no one was going to head out fishing in the middle of the giant thunderstorm that was sitting right on top of us.  It was gray for as far as you could see, and the rain was constant. Eventually we all made it to breakfast and began to stare at the horizon as if trying to will a break from the storm. That never happened, but by 8:00 AM we had all gotten too squirrely sitting around and decided to brave the elements and do what we came to do – FISH. “It’s tropical rain, who cares?“, “I brought rain gear for a reason.” and  “I fish in the rain all the time, doesn’t bother me.” – were all comments I heard. Meanwhile I thought again to myself, “Oh boy…Maybe we picked the wrong week…

With the conditions the way they were, there was no way we could fish the west side of the island like we normally do. Shea, Ryan and I headed off to make bait at a few high points on the north side, and fortunately the baitfish were all over our sabiki rigs to take our mind off the incessant rain. We quickly filled the livewell when Tomas told us to start fishing jigs because he was marking good fish on these rock piles. Ryan was the first to get bit as he released a good sized jack crevalle. The next fish woke us all up as Shea got hit hard and had his rod in a full arch. Fifteen minutes later he boated a nice 30 lb amberjack, another PB for him. A few more jacks and we were off to the next spot, one I had been looking forward to for a long time.

Coiba Island is the largest island in Central America at over 194 sq miles. It has numerous rivers on it, which I’ve always been intrigued to explore as I know that the fish in there have rarely, if ever, seen humans. High tide was at 11 AM that day so it was perfect timing for Captain Tomas to expertly navigate our 27′ Ocean Master up into the river and lay eyes on primary rainforest and a mangrove system that perhaps only the islands’ former prisoners have ever seen. We switched to light tackle and started casting Yo Zuri crystal minnows, and on my fourth cast to the edge of the mangroves my lure was hammered. Whatever it was, most likely a big snapper, straightened one of the treble hooks and got away. It was still raining on us, but we didn’t care as we were blown away by the crystal clear water, incredible rainforest, and seemingly endless pockets and coves to cast into. We finally dialed in the right lures to catch a few small mangrove snapper, which in reality was our main target here. Ryan also managed to surprise everyone by catching a nice African pompano slow trolling a rapala on our way out of the mangroves.

We left the mangroves before the outgoing tide trapped us, and Tomas took us to yet another reef that he knew. We chucked poppers and Mag Darters for an hour, then finally decided to stop for lunch and a well earned beer. As we did that, the mate Chichi seized the opportunity of an open bow and started casting a popper. On his second cast a massive roosterfish left a big hole right behind his popper but missed the hooks, then a second time, before finally hitting the mark on the third bite. We could see a second roosterfish swimming with it so I jumped up and cast my Mag Darter, and almost instantly it crushed the lure. This one was just as big as the first one, but unfortunately the leader broke as it took me and my screaming drag over the rock pile. Shea meanwhile battled his trophy rooster to the boat, revived and released it. So much for a lunch break.

After lunch we continued to explore farther south along the east side of the island, which is not normally territory we fish. No matter, Tomas knew all the spots anyway. The swells were definitely a bit bigger out here, but we were refreshed after lunch and that near rooster-double so we began bombarding a new pinnacle that Tomas pointed out. I hooked into a nice bluefin trevally, but that was it so we moved even farther south to one last reef Tomas wanted to try. From this new spot we could see the very southern point of Coiba Island and the islands of Jicarita and Jicaron, so we had covered nearly half of the island in one day. We had spent the entire day inshore fishing so the last thing we expected to see were pelagics, especially because we were just a mile from shore, but sure Coiba Island had another surprise in store for us. Shea and I were casting in the bow when not one, but two, yellowfin tuna exploded after my popper. I yelled “TUNA! TUNA!” and Shea quickly made a perfect cast to the same spot and hooked the second one. Ryan was in the back of the boat, but ran up to the bow with his own rod, made a cast, and hooked into another one. We had a triple hookup on football tunas, which we all released. What an end to a fantastic day.

Except for that wasn’t the end. One of the many things I love about our mothership in Panama is that the crews love fishing every bit as much, if not more, than the anglers themselves. Tomas was talking to the other captains all day and heard reports of them catching a good amount of cubera snapper at the rock piles just north of where the barge was anchored. It was 5 PM and we’ve been soaking wet since 8 AM, but why quit now? Mate ChiChi sliced up the two remaining bonito we had and we began to drift chunk bait over a couple rock piles. It didn’t take long to get a bite, only it wasn’t exactly what we expected. Instead of a cubera, Ryan had a nice 5 ft long white tipped shark on the line. A good battle and another fish species added to the list, it was finally time to go home.

On the run back to the mothership I was thinking that we’d have to play it down what an amazing day we had – 17 fish, 8 species, and we got to explore the inside of the island via a jungle river. Considering we didn’t even SEE another boat all day, I figured they must have zigged where we zagged and had slow fishing, or they simply got sick of the rain and decided to spend the day at the bar. Wrong again. Captain Hebert’s crew of Phil, Ben, and Jess boated 21 fish over 11 species, the highlights being a 40 lb rooster and two nice bull sharks. Captain Navas had 16 fish over six species, including six white tip sharks and three cuberas. Capitan Henry put his anglers on 14 fish, including three amberjacks and multiple rock & yellowtail snappers for dinner.  Last but not least was Capitan Jonathan and his solo angler Rick who caught another 12+ fish.  As a team we caught over 80 fish in one day – in the rain, with red tide, and with less than ideal sea conditions. Even I was impressed.


Tuesday: Day 2


On Wednesday we awoke to something we hadn’t seen all week – clear skies and sunshine. After an 80 fish day and now sunshine on Wednesday morning, it looked like things were finally starting to align for us. This morning we headed north to fish Islas Canales, which was a new spot for me. In all my time spent at Coiba Island, I’ve never fished in a spot where you could actually see the mainland. Granted it was still 20+ miles away, but it still somehow felt a little less exotic knowing that the mainland was actually in sight from the very northern region of the national park. Tomas wanted to try for cuberas in a new spot that the other boats didn’t fish the day before, so we spent the first hour of the day speed trolling Yo Zuri crystal minnows to hook up eight bonitos. Since Shea already caught a nice cubera on Monday, he let Ryan and I take the main spots at the stern and slow troll some very fresh and feisty live bonitos. We were in about 95 ft of water trolling over a rock pile, and Tomas was marking fish, so I felt good about our chances. A few moments later I got a big bite, let it take my bait for five seconds, then set the drag. “Missed it!” – I yelled. “Drop it back again! Leave it!” – yelled Tomas. My bait was alive but clearly not in good shape, so I could only hope whatever it was would come back to finish the job. It did, and I didn’t miss it a second time as my rod bent and the real screamed. Both Tomas and ChiChi let out some whoops, so they knew it was a good fish. I could too as my arms quickly started to burn as it was a battle for position as this fish swam down to get back to the rocks and I pulled up trying to keep him out of there. I started winning the battle, and in this rare patch of perfect blue water it wasn’t long before we saw that classic burnt orange color – Cubera, and a good one!  I got it close to the boat and Chichi was ready with the net, which barely fit the head and dorsal fins of this beast. Back in 2019 I caught my personal best cubera with Shea & Ryan, but this one had that one beat by ten pounds easy. Tomas guessed it was 60-65 pounds, so it was a clear personal best for me and a heckuva way to start our day.

Safely released, I needed a breather (and a celebratory beer) so Shea & Ryan dropped down fresh live baits. Shortly after that we just missed a BIG bite from another monster cubera. It T-boned our live bonito and nearly bit it in half, but sadly it missed the hook. I’ve never seen anything do that to a 4 lb bonito, so that was a heckuva fish that we just missed. Moments later Shea hooked into another nice cubera in the 20-25 lb range, photographed and released it. Ho hum. In 2019 his goal of the trip was to catch ONE cubera snapper, which he did, but now apparently he has grown accustomed to catching so many of them in Panama they don’t excite him like they used to… After catching two more white tip sharks, it was 10 AM so we decided to change spots and go fish the west side of the island, which is where we fish the majority of the time when the weather cooperates.

Unfortunately the skies had cleared but the seas hadn’t had enough time to calm down, so as soon as we rounded the corner we were hit with the swells and chop coming from the west. We slugged our way through the waves to get about mid-way down the west side of Isla Coiba where we started to fish. Ryan nabbed a small mullet snapper and I another jack crevalle, but nothing special. We tried several rocky islands that looked perfect for roosters, but no luck. After about 90 minutes of fishing in sloppy water without much action, one of us was starting to turn green and all of us wanted to find better water. We could turn back around and fish the northern side of the island again, but Tomas suggested we dip into Hermosa Bay and try for snook. This is where the mothership spends the week 90% of the time, so we all knew this bay well. There is another river that empties out in the corner of the bay, so most weeks there are clouds of baitfish and usually one or two healthy looking 10’+ long crocodiles patrolling the coast. I’ve fished for snook here and I’ve seen them with my own eyes, but I’ve never actually seen anyone catch one. My trophy cubera from the morning seemed like a day ago and I didn’t have high hopes for this next spot, so once again I began to worry “Oh no, maybe we have the wrong week with this bad weather and red tide.”….

Before the trip, Shea asked me to put together a list of recommended lures for the group. After his first visit in 2019, he was determined to come more prepared in 2022. He had two gorgeous, holographic white Yo Zuri crystal minnows that I noticed when he stepped on the mothership on Sunday. Now was the time to use them in the cloudy, brackish water. We all started casting Crystal Minnows of different colors, but it didn’t take long at all to figure out which one was the preferred color of the day. Ryan hooked the first snook, which gave us a few great jumps to get everyone excited. Unfortunately it was barely hooked in it’s soft mouth, so by the time he got it boatside it shook the hook just moments before ChiChi could net it. Dang, so close – and it was a good sized fish. Oh well, we kept casting at a small rock pile and – BOOM! – another snook hit. This one was even bigger, and Ryan wasn’t going to let this one get away. ChiChi was ready with the net, and all of us – including Captain Tomas – were stunned by a giant 20 lb snook. Since we were inside the national park we released it, but that fish definitely got our juices flowing again. For the next hour we fished about 200 yds of coastline back and forth, the entire time no deeper than five feet. It was one snook bite after another, I’ve never experienced anything like it. Each fish would put on an aerial display trying to toss our hooks, which they did successfully many times. Once the action finally cooled, most likely with the change in tides, we finished 6 for 12 on snook in the same spot. What an unexpectedly fun afternoon.

We poked around in a few more bays as we headed north up the coast back towards the mothership, and while we didn’t catch any trophies we did land a few more exotic smaller species like lady fish, rainbow runner, a hawkfish, and our first yellowtail snapper of the week. Despite a lull for three hours mid-morning, we still had ourselves another 20-fish day. Unfortunately the other boats experienced a pullback from the hot action on Tuesday, but all finished with 6-8 fish ranging from jacks, roosters, and more snapper variety. Even though I caught my personal best cubera snapper in the morning and a few other smaller fish throughout the day, I was unsatisfied with the “lack of action” so I decided to fish from the barge after dinner while the boys enjoyed dice games and plenty of libations. There was a 20 ft arc of light out of the front of the mothership, and that attracted ballyhoo which in turn would be ambushed by horse-eye jack hiding in the dark. I had a pencil popper that looked just like a ballyhoo on a fast retrieve, and soon I was catching little horse-eye jacks at the bar while everyone else played dice ten ft away. It didn’t take long for some of them to want to try, so we boated another ten jacks from the barge itself before we closed down the bar and headed off to sleep..


Wednesday: Day 3

Fishing from the bar at night!

Thursday was our day to head back to the giant mangrove of Boca Chica where we would spend our final night on the mothership. Most weeks this is used as an offshore day to target billfish, dorado, and tuna. Apart from a few hours in bad conditions on Monday, no one really spent any time chasing tuna this week due to the west wind and waves. It was sunny again today and the seas were slightly calmer, but not by much. Tomas said that the commercial boats were catching tuna about six miles west of Isla Montuosa the day before, so Shea, Ryan and I decided to head offshore and look for them because that was the one thing we didn’t really have for his show yet. Unfortunately that meant a plodding, 25-mile run west – right into the strong wind & waves that had battered us all week. About halfway there Ryan started to lose his breakfast and Shea was asking what other options we had, but halfway between Isla Coiba and Isla Montousa, some 55 miles offshore, the only option really was to keep going. Close to Isla Montuosa we found a FAD set up by the long liners, and that served as a much needed break from the waves as we caught 20+ blue runners there on sabiki rigs to fill our livewell. Captain Navas met us there, but we left him and ran the final eight miles to where the commercial boats and Captain Hebert were saying the magic word – “lavadora”.

‘Lavadora’ in Spanish means ‘washing machine’, but in this setting it means a frenzied ball of yellowfin tuna feeding at the surface. It was the beautiful chaos that we were waiting for all week – diving birds, hundreds of spinner dolphins, and yellowfin tuna leaping out of the water. I made one cast with a giant 8″ popper, and on my second cast it was destroyed by what looked like an 80+ lb tuna. I was fishing on a Shimano Stella with 60lb braid and it ran nonstop for about 45 seconds. Shea was next to me with the camera, letting me know in this chaotic moment that if it didn’t stop I was going to get spooled. He wasn’t joking, I was running out of line fast and had no way of stopping this thing, then POOF – nothing. The tuna on the other end of my line had ran so far it crossed the long line set out by the commercial fishermen and snapped the leader. I lost a heckuva fish, but if I’m honest I was only 50/50 mad about that because it for sure would have taken me at least 45 minutes to get that monster to the boat.

A few moments later we hooked our first tuna on live bait, and after we all took a turn on it ChiChi brought it aboard and invited it for dinner. We had finally found the feeding tuna we were waiting all week for, or in reality since our last trip in May 2019, and then the unthinkable happened. A huge patch of red tide moved in and shut everything down. The baitfish can’t survive in that low-oxygen environment so they scattered and went down deeper, and the tuna followed. The birds stopped diving and the dolphins stopped hunting. Man, did we really run 25+ miles in the wind & waves for one tuna? Red tide 55 miles offshore?  ‘Maybe this wasn’t the right week, I thought again…’

Just then Tomas got on the radio and said that Hebert found another school of tuna six miles away – and it was bigger and they were biting. He said they already caught four, so at the same time Captain Navas and our boat pushed the throttle down and started running to meet him. Hebert wasn’t lying, there was a massive pod of spinner dolphins here and the tuna to go with it. Surprisingly we couldn’t get much action on poppers or stick baits, but we did manage to catch another 50 lb tuna on dead sardines. I could tell the enthusiasm on our boat was waning, and then I saw about twelve brown boobies sitting side by side out of the water. Finally, a huge tree I was waiting to find all week. I pointed it out to Tomas, so we ran over to take a look. As soon as we arrived you could see the bright flashes of neon blue and green – there were juvenile dorado everywhere! It didn’t really matter what you cast, it would get hit within five seconds of hitting the water. Granted these were all peanut dorado and they were all released, but it was still good visual fun. They were so aggressive it even happened twice that one fish would grab my stick bait, jump out of the water and spit the hook, then a second dorado would smash the lure as soon as it the water so we were catching two fish on one cast. Suddenly we saw one dorado that was about ten times bigger than the others: a big bull and he seemed to be trying to eat the smaller dorado. Shea tossed out a live blue runner out of the back of the boat and waited, and his patience paid off big time. It took his bait and then skied out of the water four times right between two of our boats so everyone could see it. It gave Shea a great battle for twenty minutes, but eventually it was gaffed and brought on the deck for yet another personal best for Shea.


Thursday: Day 4

Finally, Friday morning – our last day. Every time I’ve spent a week on the mothership about half of the anglers fish this day while the other half sleeps in and rests tired muscles and sore backs. Since we were back in Boca Chica now, Friday is a half day of inshore fishing around the first set of islands so while it doesn’t usually produce trophies, it can produce more species and a last minute roosterfish. I shared a boat today with Rick, who was lucky enough to fish solo with Captain Jonathan for the past three days. Rick caught so many fish all week he didn’t really keep track, so we may have caught even more fish than I accounted for. After no action on the Ranger lures or poppers, Jonathan had us switch to hydro minnows and speed retrieves in hopes of catching sierra mackerel. Jonathan may be the fishiest captain out of all of the great captains on the mothership, so when he speaks it’s wise to listen. We did, and soon Rick, the mate Luis, and I had raked in 8 small mackerels.  We moved spots and put out some live bait and managed another nice rooster for Rick and a small cubera for me. We headed back to the mothership by 11 AM for a shower and lunch before the group flew back to Panama City.

This group of friends put up with a lot of rain, wind, waves, and red tide, but still managed to catch a staggering 160 fish in 4.5 days. With the conditions we faced, I had my doubts all week if we were going to have any success or just chalk up a slow week to bad luck and the standard “That’s fishing for ya” excuse. Avid anglers themselves, they were all blown away that we caught 25 different species throughout the week. I think the only regular species that we didn’t catch were marlin, sailfish and wahoo – and that’s because none of the five boats spent any time trying to target them!  It wasn’t an easy week, but the lesson learned is that if you give Isla Coiba enough time, eventually she’ll share some of her magic with you in one way or another.

In summary, during our week we caught over 160 fish and 25 different species in 4.5 days. Inshore, offshore, bottom fishing – even mangrove fishing this time! Live bait, dead bait, chunk bait. Poppers, stick baits, swim baits and jigs. Our list includes:

Yellowfin tuna
Pacific Snook
Cubera Snapper
Rock Snapper
Lane Snapper
Yellowtail Snapper
Mullet Snapper
Mangrove Snapper
Jack Crevalle
Bluefin Trevally
Horse-Eye Jack
African Pompano
Fortune Jack
Pacific Barracuda
Sierra Mackerel
Rainbow Runner
White Tip Sharks
Bull Sharks

If there is a corner of this world that offers more variety and more action please let me know about it!

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