Panama is well known for the incredible fishing on its Pacific Coast and anglers immediately think of species such as Roosterfish, Cubera Snapper and the huge Yellowfin Tuna associated with it. Very little is spoken of the Caribbean coast which in itself holds a good few secrets and treasures to be discovered. It is an altogether different vibe with regards to the fishing, the scenery and the culture.
Being the thin isthmus that Panama is, at certain places you could fish both the Pacific and the Caribbean in one day if you wanted to. At its narrowest, the country is just 30 miles wide which makes this totally feasible. There are very few places in the world that offer such diverse and varied saltwater fishing options as Panama. This really is a rather special country.
The Caribbean coast for the larger part is wild, inhospitable and undeveloped. There is very little infrastructure in place which makes access difficult, if not impossible in many areas. One of the least visited stretches of coastline is known as ‘The mosquito coast’ which really tells you all you need to know. Dense jungle and swamps make up a large part of it, intersected by virgin rivers, lagoons and mangroves. The rain and storms can be incessant for days on end with an average rainfall of over 135 inches per year. Combine that with epic swells that often pound the coastline and you start to get the picture. Only the hardiest of people can carve out a living in such a place.
The Caribbean is the stronghold of Panamas black and indigenous communities and much of the area is separated into ‘comarcas’. These are specific regions that have their own rules, laws and land rights according to the indigenous tribes in power. These are governed separately from the Hispanic controlled areas. Many of these indigenous tribes had to fight long and hard to get their land rights back.
All of these factors make for a unique and interesting fishing experience. There are less fish in the Caribbean, that’s for sure, but what it lacks in density of fish it more than makes up for in the adventure and experience. Offshore, you can try for sailfish, marlin, tuna and wahoo but the reality is that you’d be much better off spending your time on the Pacific for these species. However, it’s the inshore fishing that really excites me about the lesser fished Caribbean shores.
If you do your homework, are prepared to rough it a little and put up with some adverse weather at times then there is some very interesting fishing to be found. Tarpon, Snook and big tackle crunching Jack Crevalles are the species of most interest to the intrepid soul. It’s never easy on the Caribbean and always a challenge, but the rewards are there for the taking if you are an angler of the pioneering and adventurous kind. The thing about the fishing this side is that these fish are not really targeted by sport fishermen, they rarely see a lure or a fly because people just don’t go there much.
The ‘Bocas Del Toro’ archipelago in the north west of the country is a place of great interest to me and I have made three trips to this fantastic area over the years. Fortunately, my wife has an Aunty and Uncle that live off-the-grid on one of the islands there, making it a good all-round trip. There are 9 main inhabited islands, 52 cays and thousands of islets. Not only is there limited infrastructure making access possible, there are many different environments available to explore. Mangrove swamps, sand flats, huge tranquil lagoons, giant estuary systems and small tidal creeks are plentiful. It’s a veritable anglers paradise and of course home to the Tarpon, Snook and huge Jack Crevalles that hold so much appeal for the inshore fisherman.
Besides in the main town of Bocas itself which is accessed by a ferry, there are no roads in the archipelago and everyone gets around in their own private boat or by water taxi. It’s a really lovely way of life and the influence of the Caribbean culture, food and ways has a strong presence here. Finding a boat and a captain is never a problem, however they are mostly kitted out for transporting the locals and tourists around. They are largely fibreglass pangas full of bench seats, so not the ideal fishing platform, but seaworthy enough…beggars can’t be choosers!
I caught my first Tarpon in Bocas back in 2013 whilst on my honeymoon (my wife is very understanding!), so it was a trip I will remember for many reasons. These fish hold such great appeal as they grow to huge sizes, fight hard and the fact they are often willing to accept bait, lures and the fly makes fishing for them a versatile affair. It’s always challenging and these ‘Silver Kings’ are famous for their aerobatics and hook throwing ability, they are one of the world’s most exciting sport fish in my opinion. Their prehistoric looks and shimmering silver sides make them very easy on the eye too. They are awesome creatures!
My initial attempt at Tarpon fishing left me with a false sense of illusion, it was my first visit to Bocas and the weather was picture postcard perfect! I have since learnt that this is rarely the case, however on this occasion everything was spot on with twinkling blue seas, no swell, no wind and temperatures in the low 30’s. I had made contact with a Hawaiian expat that lived there with a passion for Tarpon and struck a deal for a few days of guided fishing with him on his boat.
Taking the settled conditions into account, we took the opportunity to venture out through the archipelago to the open ocean and make the trek North towards the Costa Rican border. Here, there were several estuary systems and lagoons that are the perfect habitat for Tarpon. With the settled seas the bait was shoaling up and as we motored our way up the coast, everything was looking very promising.
As we approached the estuary, we noticed there were a couple of indigenous guys anchored up in their cayuco’s handlining for snapper, but other than that we were the only boat there. We slowly motored right into the mouth and as we did so a medium sized Tarpon breached and tail walked some 200 metres behind us. They were there, which was very encouraging and just the confidence boost we needed. We then cut the engine, allowing us to drift back out with the ebbing tide from the river and deployed a couple of live baits previously jigged up off some navigation buoys. These we free-lined to swim 40 meters astern of the boat as it drifted silently…we were set.
I got a bite on the second drift and the line tore through my fingers as a fish made off with the bait. As I tightened up, the circle hook did its job and immediately the water erupted as a nice Tarpon leapt high in the air doing its best to shake the hook. Everything held and after a couple of spirited runs with some more tail walking the fish was then under the boat. There was a lot of hopping over bench seats and running around to try and stay on top of the fish, they are so stubborn. It took a good while to tire it out but finally my prize came to the surface for unhooking, photo and the release. Estimated at around 30lb it was a small one, but a good start.
There was not so much as a twitch of the lines until much later in the afternoon with the sun low in the sky. When the braid started ripping through my fingers this time and I set the hook, all hell broke loose. The first run was mind-blowing, taking huge amounts of line before leaping way off in the distance. Again, the circle hook held but this time I was in for a fight of much greater proportions. This was a better fish.
We had to start the engine and chase this one, such was the distance between us and the fish. I had to crank like mad to get the line back on the reel. A good fifteen minutes passed with lots more hopping over the seats before it could be brought alongside for unhooking. This one appeared more or less twice as big as the previous one, estimated around 75lb. I unhooked it in the water allowing it to recover before lifting its head out for a quick photo. The fish then swam off strongly and I was left in awe of the power of the ‘Silver King’. It was a fitting end to the day and after that we made the run home before dark.
Having broken my duck with the Tarpon on live bait, the next few times I tried with the lures. This was an altogether different affair. Getting bites was not an issue and I was doing very well with my Bucktail Jigs. These lures have served me well everywhere. I find the combination of the profile, the pulsating action of the bucktail and the vibration of the curl-tail grub to be irresistible, it looks so lifelike in the water. It can be fished fast or slow, down deep, along the surface or bounced along the bottom. It really is the most versatile of lures.
The bites were delicate plucks, these fish had a knack of being able to inhale and reject a lure in a split second. I was getting the hook-ups and fighting the fish for a while but with their incredibly boney jaws and propensity to go airborne, they were ridding themselves of the hook nearly every time with their violent head shakes. This is a common problem; the weight of the lure really does not work in your favour when Tarpon fishing. The more you hook the more likely you are to actually get one to the boat, it’s a numbers game!
I tried other lures and experimented with single hooks, trebles and assist hooks but it seemed to make little difference. These fish were the ultimate Houdini’s! It was excellent fishing though with all the hook ups, the runs, the leaps and excitement; there was never a dull moment. It would seem that live bait and using a fly is a better way to actually get these incredible fighters to the boat.
The by-catch was pretty impressive though. There were huge Atlantic Jack Crevalles mixed in with the Tarpon and these critters would often sneak in and nail the lure before the Tarpon could get there. They run like a freight train and never give up until the end, there were some specimens well over 20lb that came to the boat on occasions. They get much bigger on the Caribbean side and are great fun to catch.
With Tarpon and Jacks successfully ticked off the list on my first visit to Bocas, I just needed to track down some Snook to complete the inshore trio. It wasn’t until my second trip that this became possible and to find them, we needed to head deep into the mangrove swamps. It was a long run out through a maze of narrow channels to a spot right at the back of a huge lagoon. Here, there were a series of small rivers and creeks that run deep into the jungle and are well populated by the Snook at the right time of year. I went with an American fella called Bob and his boatman, Rudi. They knew the waters well… It was proper back-country fishing.
We had success trolling small lures up and down the rivers and creeks but I didn’t really enjoy this style of fishing, it’s just a bit too sedentary for me. I asked if we could try drifting with the current quietly so I could stand up front and flick my Bucktail into all the likely looking spots. This proved to be just the ticket, and a whole lot more fun.
Fishing the lure ‘sink and draw’ style brought me several small Snook in quick succession and seemed to be just the presentation they wanted. The fourth fish proved to be an absolute belter and the specimen I was hoping for. The fight was spectacular with the fish leaping and thrashing its head about a couple of times before boring down under the boat. Thankfully, I managed to keep the line away from the hull and soon had my prize on board. Estimated around 17lbs I was made up with this fish, a very special creature. To catch it way up a tiny river in the jungle made it all the more special. The Caribbean had been good to me!
If you’re interested in coming out here to experience the fishing then don’t be afraid to get in touch with me for a chat or any advice. Much like the way I first experienced Panama, 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!
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