Greetings to all the ‘Hookpoint’ readers from Panama! There is little to say about the disaster of a year that 2020 was that hasn’t already been said. Globally, everyone’s been affected in one way or another and it was no different out here for my wife and I. With the borders shut from March until just recently and global travel restrictions in place, it has totally killed our fishing/guiding business for now.
The government here imposed some of the strictest restrictions and quarantine laws found anywhere on the planet. From March until the end of June last year we were quite literally locked in our houses with a total quarantine. Men were allowed out of the house to buy food for an hour a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays only with women being allowed out for an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each person had an allocated time slot relating to your passport number and weekends were total confinement. Sale and consumption of alcohol was forbidden and the police patrolled the streets looking for anyone breaking the law!
Accustomed as I was to guiding and fishing daily with guests or for my own pleasure, the total confinement and loss of business came as a real shock. I was not made to be cooped up every day and it was a tough time. We were stockpiling food, eating a simple diet and trying to exercise around the garden to keep ourselves sane. In the early stages of the virus, I think we all went through some seriously mixed emotions as we came to terms with it in our own way. They were and still are unprecedented times.
I was starting to go crazy after a couple of months and then out of the blue got thrown a much needed lifeline by our local council. Fishing is integral to many people’s way of life here, we live in a community of artisanal fisherman that quite literally fish for their family’s survival. The local government announced that they would allow us permission to access the beaches and ocean to fish for the table from the end of May onwards.
This was music to my ears and once I had obtained the necessary paperwork, I was able to access my nearest local beach for the purposes of fishing from 5am to 5pm Monday to Friday. Weekends were still forbidden. It was an amazing feeling; I have to say. It felt like starting fishing all over again and I was so excited to get back on the water. Freedom!
After months of living on rice and beans with the occasional chicken thrown in for good measure, the thought of some fresh fish for the table was hugely motivating. The timing was also perfect. From May through to December is the green season here and we find flat seas, very little wind, lower temperatures and more comfortable overcast days….absolutely perfect for the kayak!
Having chained my yak up at the top of my local beach, I was just a five minute bike ride away and could go at a minutes notice if and when the tide or conditions were right. Fishing for the table became my job, my exercise, my reason for being, my purpose in life. There’s nothing quite like ‘having’ to catch for sustenance to sharpen your senses and skills, it adds a totally different dimension to the fishing. Much more deeply rooted compared to fishing for fun or sport. The plan was to try and eat fish every day if we could.
Being restricted to fishing within kayaking range of my local launch point also offered its challenges and gave me a good opportunity to really get to know my local patch. Many times, we speed past to further fishing grounds in the boat or launch the yaks from other places. Now I had the opportunity to get busy with the sonar and scan my local patch, looking for new spots all within my paddling range which is up to about 3 miles. A good education all round.
My first trip to the beach felt like I was coming home! Having not seen the ocean for nearly 3 months, just to take in the never-ending vista of the sea and smell the salty air was an incredible tonic. Getting afloat and paddling on the tide to some of my favourite reef marks felt incredible and the first time my rod hooped over as a feisty snapper smashed my jig was truly the icing on the cake. That first trip yielded several table sized Snappers and some huge Jack Crevalle that gave memorable battles on my light jigging tackle as they fought for their freedom.
I took 3 Snappers for the pot and released everything else. Dinner back at the house that evening was a wonderful occasion, I remember it well. We had sashimi of yellowtail snapper to start with pan fried, marinated fillets for mains accompanied with rice and salsa. It was incredible. Washed down with a black market rum and coke, life felt good again. It’s the simple things, right?
I soon got into a rhythm with the fishing. Up at 5.15, quick breakfast, ride down to the beach to prepare the kayak and get on the water by first light. The routine and the exercise felt great, giving a purpose to life and a diet of fresh fish never gets old.
With 7 Snapper species present here in Panama, I have to say that these are usually vying for top contender in the eating stakes and are normally fairly numerous. To complement the Snappers, other species of great eating quality that are to be found within my kayak range are Sierra Mackerel, the Corvina species and numerous members of the Grunt family.
Also in my range there are Roosterfish, big Cubera and Groupers but I view these as sport fish and in fact, the bread and butter of the business. These fish grow huge, fight hard and many of our guests travel from the far-flung corners of the planet to target them so I always return these species.
We also have all the pelagics such as the Tuna, Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo and Mahi Mahi but these are out of my kayak fishing range here. That said, I did hook (and later lose!) a 30 lb class Yellowfin Tuna while trolling a small lure back to the beach recently, which is not at all common that close in. We are truly blessed here in Panama with such a great biodiversity of fish species and plenty of them too. The name ‘Panama’ in the Native Indian language actually means ‘Plenty of fish’, which I rather like. I knew I’d picked the right country to settle in when I first heard that.
Consistently fishing the same area enabled me to discover some rather interesting new features and led to the capture of some special fish. Especially important during the lockdown was an area I now call ‘Corvina Rock’. The Corvina species are prized for their eating quality, but they are also rather enigmatic in their nature. They can appear for a few days and give some good sport but then disappear just as quickly. They are not at all predictable in their nature and always very welcome when they do show up.
Previously, I had never caught a Corvina fishing out of my local beach and it was only through rigorous searching that I one day came across a huge school of fish a little way outside one of the reefs I regularly fish. Marking the spot on the GPS was a wise move as the first drop with a jig produced a smashing bite that was indeed my first Corvina. As is usually the case with these schooling fish, a couple of more quality fish followed before the shoal realised something was amiss and moved on.
The Corvina are a member of the croaker family and make a deep croaking noise when panicked or troubled to communicate among the shoal. Once this happens, they spook and bites dry up. ‘Corvina Rock’ proved to be a valuable asset as the fish were often there. It’s clearly one of their favoured holding points through the green season and it regularly provided for us. Where they go when not holding up there is anyone’s guess and all part of the puzzle. The Corvina fishing was very kind to us and kept us well fed.
I’d try and get the freezer stocked with fish so we had food for a week or so ahead. At this point, I was able to relax and enjoy having a go for some of the big old Roosterfish, Cubera and Groupers that lurk on the reefs here. By far the most selective way to try for the really big ones is to use a good size live bait. Blue Runners are plentiful here during the green season and make fantastic baits, everything loves to eat them and they are hardy as hell, making them my number one choice.
Being out on the ocean most days meant I was putting in a lot of hours, there was nothing else to do after all! There’s truth in the fact that the more you go, the luckier you get. Hours on the water equals success and I had a great season with the Roosterfish. My location has world class Roosterfish action and I was very lucky to catch some truly magnificent fish. One in particular was probably the biggest I’ve ever caught. It was a fish of huge proportions that gave the most incredible fight. I always release these delicate giants as quickly as I possibly can and having held it for a quick photo, I would estimate it at well over 80 lbs. It blew my mind, what a fish!
I also discovered another new pinnacle with the sonar and this produced a big Broomtail Grouper the first time I dropped a live bait down next to it. This mark has since produced another 3 Broomtails and also a small Goliath Grouper. These fish are under immense pressure commercially and very slow growing so it was a real treat to catch these stunningly beautiful fish for me. Again, a first fishing out of my local beach in the kayak. These fish are just so beautiful, I can’t get enough of them.
Cubera Snapper are even rarer within a couple of miles of my beach and the most difficult to catch of all the fish. They have an annoying habit of biting baits in the belly section, meaning they often miss the hook. If you are lucky enough to actually hook one then they are so adept at getting straight back in to their lair that they often break you off. Tricky customers at the best of times.
As we moved into August/September I had a few close encounters with these big Snappers. They smashed my baits and ran me ragged in the rocks several times. Clearly, they had moved in close and were feeding on the nearshore reef system. I stuck at it, covering the same marks where I was getting hit hoping that I would have a turn in fortune with the big, red angry fish!
Finally, on a perfectly calm morning I had a little luck on my side and must have drawn one of these big Cubera out away from its lair before it struck. The first run was epic, it ran hard for its bolt hole but I was prepared with the drag screwed down tight and never gave it an inch. It towed the kayak at a fair speed as I pumped and gained line all the time. In the end, my dogged determination was too much for the fish and it started to slowly come up in the water. It was a beast, a true leviathan of a Snapper and easily the biggest I have ever caught. These fish are a real treat, an amazing sight to behold and a proper handful in a kayak. I was buzzing for days after that capture!
The last 6 months have provided some incredible fishing. Looking back over it all and the photos it amazes me what was possible. Not bad considering all of it was within an hours paddle of the shore. It just goes to show what is possible, we truly have some world class fishing right on my doorstep here….literally!
Right now, we have entered our summer season and with that comes the North wind which makes kayak fishing tricky on this coast. I am focusing my time fishing the local mangroves, estuaries and backwaters for the Pacific Snook and heading around the corner of the peninsula with my kayak in the lee of the wind now that our movement restrictions are more relaxed. The cold water will arrive soon on the back of the North wind and bring with it the sardine shoals, followed by the predators and usually some excellent shore fishing too. Never a dull moment here in Panama!
If you would like to find out more about the fishing available here or fancy planning a trip yourself once the virus situation calms down then don’t hesitate to drop me a line. We run boat, kayak and shore fishing charters. I can offer you an adventure and experience that will get you in touch with the amazing fishing, the local culture and some of the magic Panama has to offer at a sensible price. I have so much passion for the fishing and the way of life here; I’d love to share it with you!
I will be looking at my kayak fishing set-up, tackle and techniques in more detail next month. Until then, stay safe and socially distanced back home. Cheers!