Peacock Bass Fishing in Panama
Even though Panama is home to giant black and blue marlin and one of the best yellow-fin tuna bites in the entire world, one of the species we get asked about the most remains the peacock bass. This freshwater game fish is as colorful as it is aggressive, and a day fishing for peacock bass is only made more interesting by the fact you are fishing in the Panama Canal itself. Peacock Bass Fishing in Panama allows you to cast poppers, crank baits, or live minnows until you lose track of how many fish you catch in a full day. Trust our decades of experience to custom design a dream fishing vacation to Panama.
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Peacock Bass Fishing in Panama
Peacock bass are one of the most popular freshwater game fish in the world. From the South American giants lurking in the Amazon to Southern Florida, they are considered one of the most colorful and hardest fighting freshwater fish in the world. Part of the reason they are so highly regarded across the globe is because they aren’t actually bass but rather cichlids. There are over 1,300 species of cichlids found on four different continents, which include well-known fish like anglefish, oscars, and tilapia. Up until 2006 there were believed to be just five species of peacock bass in the entire world, but today there are actually 15 different species that are recognized. Only one of them is found in Panama, Cichla Pleiozona, which is unique for having a distinguished fourth vertical bar.
The peacock bass we fish for today aren’t actually native to Panama, but rather were introduced in the 1950’s and 60’s. Known locally as “sargento“, there are two theories as to how they got here. One is that they escaped from a nearby fish farm during a flood after heavy rains, the other scenario is that they were planted by bored United States G.I’s who were stationed here while the Panama Canal was under US control from it’s inauguration in 1914 until 1999. The nickname “sargento” comes from the fact that in the early decades it was mainly US military members who were fishing for them and/or for the four vertical stripes on their sides resembling a military uniform. Whatever happened, peacock bass have taken over Lake Gatun and are now without doubt the preeminent freshwater species.
Lake Gatun: Fishing on the Panama Canal
As part of the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900’s, the Chagres River was dammed and formed Lake Gatun. The Panama Canal runs north and south across the skinny isthmus of Panama, and the 23-mile long Lake Gatun is a crucial part of the canal which is just 50 miles wide in total. Every time a ship passes through the canal is uses on average 52,000,000 gallons of freshwater to complete it’s transit, water which comes from Lake Gatun. The lake is actually 85 feet above sea level, so the three sets of locks on the Panama Canal (Gatun, Pedro Miguel, Miraflores) are operated by gravity as water from the lake raises and lowers ships through these locks as they pass from one ocean to the other.
Today Lake Gatun is massive and covers 166 sq miles. The lake itself is fed by the Chagres River and acts as a water basin collecting all the rainfall from the surrounding hillsides. During the flooding of the area, acres and acres of rainforest were submerged and today form the perfect habitat for the aggressive peacock bass. The underwater vegetation and sunken tree trunks serve as perfect cover for the aggressive ambush predators. The main shipping channel in the lake varies between 40-85 ft deep, but the various hilltops that were flooded now serve as islands and there are countless grassy banks and outcroppings that hold fish as well.
Peacock Bass Fishing Techniques
Part of the reasons these cichlids were given their ‘bass’ moniker is because they are fished the same way that we fish for large mouth and small mouth bass. In Panama, the peacock bass don’t reach the size of their South American relatives as the vast majority will be in the 1-4 lb range. We consider trophy fish to be in the 5 lb – 10 lb range, which do get caught with regularity. Part of the reason why we don’t catch more trophy-sized bass is because the smaller fish simply get to your lure or live minnow first. If you want to specifically target the larger, mature adults it can be done with an experienced angler and our expert local guides, but you will be trading quality for quantity.
Conventional & Spinning Tackle
A typical bass set up is what we use for peacock bass fishing in Panama. A 6’5″ to 7’6″ rod is idea, with an emphasis on casting accuracy rather than distance. Most days we can get right up to the cover where the fish are hiding, so placement is key to lure them out. Spinning reels or bait casters, 10-12 lb mono will get the job done on most fish.
Peacock bass are so aggressive you can use try almost any type of artificial bait you have in your tackle box. Buzz baits and poppers work early in the morning before the sun gets too high, then once things heat up the fish tend to go deeper so crank baits and deep divers elicit more bites. If you want to lose count of how many fish you catch in a day the best way to rack up big numbers is to drop down a live minnow and see how long it lasts.
Fly Fishing on the Panama Canal
Fishing for peacock bass in the Panama Canal is also ideal for fly anglers. While it is mostly blind casting, the dense population of highly aggressive fish won’t have you waiting too long for a bite. The ideal rod is a 7 wt for most of the 3-6 lb bass we catch here. You may have to play a bigger fish more carefully, but that’ll be a good problem to have. An intermediate sinking line is ideal so your fly sinks into the strike zone of the bigger fish more quickly. Streamers and other fly patterns that mimic baitfish and minnows are ideal, but you can also try larger surface flies like frogs, mice, and bugs.
When is the Best Time to Fish on the Panama Canal?
The population of peacock bass is so strong in Lake Gatun there is never a bad time to come fish for them. The peacock bass in the Panama Canal of course are not migratory and their population is so dense the fishing isn’t affected too much by higher or lower water levels like in other freshwater destinations. Some months feature better weather patterns than others, for example it may be more enjoyable to fish in our dry season of Dec-May versus October which is the rainiest month of the year, but no matter when you visit you will most likely get into plenty of fish. Even in the rainy season most mornings are hot and sunny, so there is never a bad time for peacock bass fishing in Panama!
Other Available Species on the Panama Canal
Panama Canal Fishing trips are always a bit of an adventure because you never know what you’ll have on the end of your line. The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are only 50 miles apart and every ship that transits the canal uses 52,000,000 gallons of water to do so, so sometimes we get surprised by fish that you don’t see in a typical freshwater lake. Peacock bass are the main target for most anglers on Lake Gatun, but they are fare from the only game in town. Snook are native to these waters and are still found in healthy numbers. The real prize are tarpon, who have made their way into the Panama Canal with the passing of the ships through the locks. We call our “Panama Canal Grand Slam” any day when you can catch all three. It’s rare, but it does happen. In recent years we have also seen jack crevalle, which are bound to make things interesting on light tackle and tight cover.
Panama Canal Species
Panama City Accommodations
Unlike fishing for peacock bass in the Amazon where you need to spend two days of travel just to get to your remote jungle lodge, peacock bass fishing in Panama couldn’t be easier or more convenient. Lake Gatun is just 30-40 minutes north of Panama City, which means you can spend all day fishing on the Panama Canal in the middle of the rainforest and still stay in the metropolitan capital city and enjoy it’s nightlife and international cuisine when you are done. Our peacock bass fishing trips will pick you up at your hotel by 6:30 AM and have you fish until 12-1 PM, so the rest of the afternoon is yours to relax and explore on your own. You’ll have the option to stay downtown in luxury business hotels or in the trendy old part of town called Casco Viejo where you’ll find historic boutique hotels.
Panama City Day Tours & Non-Fishing Activities
When you are peacock bass fishing on the Panama Canal you will be in Panama City so you’ll have the ability to experience all that the capital city has to offer as well as easily branch out to other parts of the country. The vast majority of our peacock bass fishing trips are combined with several days of inshore and offshore fishing on the Pacific. Panama however has so much more to offer than just sport fishing including great colonial history, lush rain forest with incredible wildlife, beaches, islands, and of course the Panama Canal itself. Whether it’s an off day from fishing or for the non-anglers in your group, there are several great eco and adventure tours available. Some ideas are:
- Canopy zip-line tour
- White Water Rafting
- Horseback Riding
- Guided tours of national parks
- Island Hopping Tour
- Coffee plantation tour
- Bird Watching
- Cultural & Historical Tour of Panama City
- Panama Canal Tours
All packages for Peacock Bass Fishing in Panama with Central America Fishing include the following:
- Free Vacation Planning (no fees + direct rates)
- VIP Airport Meet & Greet upon arrival into PTY
- Private, air-conditioned transfers with English speaking driver.
- All in-country domestic flights
- Luxury accommodations in your choice of all inclusive fishing lodge, luxury beach resort, or a boutique hotel.
- Private fishing charters
- All Panama taxes
- Free quotes on travel insurance
- Pre-arrival assistance with dinner reservations, tee times, pre-stocking your condo or villa, hiring a private chef, and special requests.
- 24/7 support once you are here in country