Without going into too much detail, my mental health had been deteriorating in such a way that my work life was suffering immensely. In short, I had to get out of here for a while, I needed a break. Screw the money, to hell with the distance and try to override the anxious sweaty palpitations…..that’s what I kept telling myself anyway!
Damn it all, I was going on my own adventure. I’m usually a money worrier and this trip was by far the most expensive holiday I’d ever embarked upon, but I thought to myself, so what if it costs the best part of three grand? You literally can’t take money to your ultimate and very final destination. You never know, you might even catch a fish of a lifetime, and the best part is, I did!
Despite growing apprehensions pressing on my head like a cap fashioned from 6oz leads, the rest of the party on the trip did their best to allay my fears. I remember the words of Scott Gardner (associate editor of Outdoor Canada Magazine) describing trips like these as a get together of the “international freemasonry of angling”. It made me feel slightly better but my base fears of interacting with a new group of people remained, I was also the least experienced with no past record of big ocean kayak fishing.
The group consisted of five other anglers – Daniel Teague, Sam Tomlin, Michael Dodds, Don Willoughby and Scott Gardner. I need not have worried because as luck would have it, this group of gentle fisherfolk gave me support from the outset and were a fine bunch to be stranded with in one of the most gorgeous settings I’ve ever set foot.
Although I’ve been an angler for the best part of my earthly existence, I had never done anything like this before. Sure, I’d been around the world as a child, luckier than some you might argue, but that was mostly rooted securely on the coattails of my folks. This is in no way meant to belittle those wonderful experiences and memories but sometimes you’ve got to take the initiative and put yourself out of your comfort zone, which I’m generally reluctant to do but this was my trip, my adventure and it felt refreshing.
Once the drag of travelling 5 hours from Panama City down to our first stop had been set out of the way we could finally jump aboard our Super Panga water taxi for the one hour and thirty minute ride to the Fishing Lodge, located near the Cerro Hoya national park. The 80, 000 acre park was created in 1984 and is home to some of the last remaining primary forest on the Azuero Peninsula. The lodge sits nestled in lush vegetation set back from pristine dark sands. At night the ocean is alive, roaring in a relentless cacophony of wind and waves, bringing the scent of salt on spray all the way to our simple wooden accommodation.
This is my account of the fishing I had, spanning a six-day period.
As to be expected, the air temperature was a balmy 29˚C with the water in hot pursuit at 25 ˚C, so, bloody hot in other words. It certainly made the damp, squalid atmosphere of Edinburgh airport seem like a foggy memory. My headgear, although making a striking appearance on the water, was less than suitable for the conditions and I had to borrow what resembled a WWII Japanese field cap from Don (he kindly let me keep the cap).
Twilled from breezy synthetic fibres with a flowing neck shield, it was a welcome relief from my appalling choice of woollen flat cap, which left me dehydrated and my brains ever so slightly boiled. I felt like a rookie and should have known better as I’ve spent a good part of my childhood in south east Asia and the middle east. Coupled with a case of sea sickness I felt pretty awful after my first session on the open water but thankfully a couple of fish and some anti sickness pills saw me right again.
My first pacific fish was a bonito which hooked up to a Tackle House Feed Popper. Being new to this game, I thought it fought like a trojan, peeling line like I’d never experienced before from the bullet proof Penn Slammer III I’d rented from my guide, Sam Wadman. It was exhilarating and I was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. I thought there wasn’t any more room on my face for a grin, but my next fish dispelled that myth immediately. Using a Williamson SpeedPro Deep Diver to probe the pelagic, I was into a yellow fin tuna, and not being used to the power and turn of speed from crescent tailed ocean dwelling species, the run was amazing. Line was zipping from the reel as the drag fought to retain it from escape. I was both frantic and relieved to have the fish alongside my kayak. Not all the yellow fins are returned as they make for decent sashimi for the evening meal, expertly prepared by the live-in cook and her team, another first for me.
Raw fish is not something I would ordinarily seek out, but this trip was all about pushing personal boundaries for me, so down the hatch with it. And it was either that, or go hungry.
Although the highlight of the day was, of course, landing two new species and getting to grips with this novel experience, I came tantalisingly close to connecting with my target species, a cubera snapper. As I was popping a surface lure across the water close to a shoal of topping bonito, one of these orange leviathans headed to the surface, only to casually inspect my noisy synthetic offering, then lazily turn back to the deep. My heart had leapt from my chest and was lodged somewhere between by throat and my eyes but alas, I didn’t hook up with one on a lure. However, day four saw me land the fish of my dreams. I’ll get to that later.
A slightly longer day with an extra hours fishing. The previous day had knocked me for six and I developed a horrid case of land sickness during dinner. It’s never pleasant to experience the world tilting and rolling when you’re sat on perfectly solid ground. The species tally for this session was again two for me, successfully hooking up with a trigger fish and another bonito. Seeing as my upper body had taken a pounding from surface popping for most of the first day, I decided to try my hand at vertical jigging, following Sam’s guidance to the best of my abilities. My skills turned out to be less than sufficient, as I didn’t land a single fish on this method for the duration of the trip. I noticed that the line would ‘hang’ occasionally, pooling on the water surface as I let the flat fall jigs descend.
I later discovered that this was the moment a fish had taken the lure and then successfully managed to spit it out again unbeknown to me. My fish count may have been higher had I paid attention to this detail slightly earlier.
A note to all potential kayak anglers with limited experience, pay attention to your guide, ask questions, and follow instructions to get the most out of your trip. It’s a long way to go for a skunk. Another point of interest on day two for non-kayak aficionados, you will feel like you have been bent in half and run over repeatedly after spending eight hours jigging and popping from a small boat. You will however have a smile on your face that you can’t wash off.
Another day on the water was putting me in good stead for entering and exiting the kayak from our support vessel, I hadn’t fallen in once yet so all was good on that front, the seasick tablets were also working like a mermaid’s charm so good sleep and eating were permitted by my brain. Getting sick in such a remote place would not only be less than clever from a physical aspect, it would have ruined the trip in its entirety. The fish count was up on the previous day to a total of five. Two jack crevalle, one hammer head shark, a bluefin trevally and what I think was a small starry grouper (flag cabrilla). I remember the day being tough going as we fished some of the most dangerous areas for capsizing according to our chaperone. Large pacific rollers were sneaking in behind us and would be easily capable of flipping a vessel if caught off guard so anyone venturing too close to the breaking shore waves would be hailed over the radios to back off a bit.
I distinctly remember working a pink Molix Jerkbait up and down the rocky shoreline until my arm was on fire, hoping to tag a roosterfish that our guide Sam was encouraging us to target but it wasn’t to be on this occasion.
Although the pedaling of our Hobie kayaks was a source of near constant exhaustion, there were good spirits all round with some enjoyable quips coming over the airwaves via our walkie talkies. I remember Sam Tomlin, getting a good-tempered roasting from our high-spirited guide for his choice of relatively ‘light’ tackle, only to be met with a quickfire response of ‘don’t be a hater!’ over the radio. I found a wonderful moment of hilarity at this retort as I sat there on a piece of plastic with fins, gliding around chasing monsters on the Pacific Ocean, life was once again good and my once ceaselessly chattering brain had been silenced.
Little did I know it, but this was the day to smash all my previous angling personal bests. I’ll not lie, the tackle was cumbersome and alien to me, consisting of a stout one-piece rod coupled to a right-hand wind multiplier that I really did find challenging to use. However, this was the kit that lit me up in my own personal angler’s hall of fame.
Sam worked tirelessly on the support Pangas, in a constant chase for bonito live bait, frantically working small casting jigs from the boat. He is an excellent guide, working with the boat captains always putting us on the fish and moving us on to keep things interesting when the fishing was slow.
I can’t rate him and his crew highly enough and will be forever obliged for advice, help and keeping us safe on the water. There had been some cracking rooster fish caught by Daniel and Scott during the weeks angling but thus far the cubera’s (apart from the one that took an interest in my popper) had remained elusive. Sam’s voice crackled over the radio exclaiming it was my turn for a bash on the live bait rod, and would I be kind enough to pedal over and meet the boat. I was in the middle of perfecting my FG knot (the first one I tied onboard a kayak) after losing a tuna that expertly guided my Yo Zuri Bull Popper onto a buoy line and cut me off, but rather than miss the opportunity, I dropped my lines and was on my way.
I remembered Sam’s instructions earlier, that if I got a take, let the fish run, calmly counting to ten before setting the drag to ‘strike’ and winding into the fish rather than hitting it in a traditional ‘strike’ fashion. We were rigged up with large circle hooks, the aim being that reeling into a fish rather than striking would offer a greater chance of a hooking up with one of these deep sea monsters, as the hook would migrate neatly to the corner of the mouth rather than being pulled clean out. Apparently, cubera snapper are notoriously fickle and seeing the unlucky bonito returned to the surface with the tail end missing is more common than not. Keeping constant tension would hopefully ensure a good battle and some epic photographs. I wasn’t disappointed with either.
The bite was weird. Sam handed me the rod from his elevated position on the Panga and that was it, almost immediately the rod tip twitched as the live bait bonito went berserk at the terminal end, line began slipping off the reel and then nothing. All stop. Gutted. Then again, a twitch, and as my kayak turned away from the boat, line began dumping off the spool with what appeared to be a large streamlined tank like object attached to the end of it. Sam appeared to be very animated at this point ushering me to take up the strain and reel in. My mind was in overload, count to ten he said, what do I do? Taking my guide up on this newly offered advice, I hit the ‘strike’ button and started reeling. Bang! The orange tank was on! I want to say that I played the fish expertly using an innate anglers knowledge to bring it to the surface but I made several mistakes, often ‘high sticking’ the rod and being perilously close to losing contact which would have meant game over.
But the fish was a beast, I’d never experienced anything like this before and it had me bent over double in my tiny vessel, the reel merrily zinging as the fish went on a series of powerful dives trying to shake it’s barbed circle dinner on the structure below. I couldn’t let it, this was the fish that I had come over five thousand miles for, and it wasn’t getting away that easily. Pump, reel, pump, reel. Come on up! Up she came inch by inch, every now and again allowing me a brief interval to lay the rod across my knees with all my limbs aching at once. In the background I could faintly hear Sam shouting encouragement from the boat, dancing and whooping like a schoolboy. Our team were radioing messages over the air and I felt alive despite my dishevelled appearance. Then the next moment of disbelief came, a flash of golden orange in the water, almost there. Slowly I reeled my prize closer and closer before finally she breached. I was in awe. Breathless. Speechless.
The job of unhooking the snapper was in Sam’s expert hands, you definitely don’t want to try this at home folks, and with absolutely no experience with fish this size, I was more than happy to let the crew do their job. All that remained was to plop this huge fish (estimated to be somewhere in the 60-70lb range) in my lap, instruct me to hold on tight for a few trophy shots and then release the magnificent lump of teeth and fins back to its home. A truly exhilarating experience that I hope to repeat someday.
I had two other fish that day, one being a crocodile needle fish that kindly unhooked itself right at the kayak, and a yellow fin tuna. I think you can guess which one I liked the most!
After Sunday’s effort I would have been quite happy to call it quits after a hardcore week on the water. Sam congratulated everyone for what was a tough trip and said every fish caught was very well earned by everyone. The last day of the trip saw me land three fish, two yellow fin tuna, caught on a Savage Gear Panic Popper and Williamson SpeedPro respectively and a well-earned pristine rock snapper that put my FG knot to the test. I was casting my favourite lure of the trip, a pink Molix Jerkbait to the shore, captivated by its distinctive erratic movement, easily recognisable through my polarised lenses.
A bite came and it was a solid thump, and as the rock snapper’s name would suggest, the fish headed straight for cover. I could feel every tweak and plink as it dragged my 80lb copolymer leader over the rough bedrock, but the slammer and I had other ideas. Using the kayak to pedal away from the looming rocks the fish was successfully subdued out into deeper water. My FG knot held fast but the leader was utterly shredded. Another magical experience completed.
I’ve got to mention Mr Don Willoughby as a mark of respect somewhere in this tale. Seventy-five years young and still having a blast out on the ocean. I only hope that when I reach his age, I can put in such a good account of myself. I take my borrowed hat off to you sir. Thanks too, go to Daniel Teague for helping me through the airport and sharing a taxi to our hotel. My anxiety was through the roof as my Spanish is extraordinarily poor, but he got me there. Scott Gardner, thanks for sickness relief tablets, you saved my bacon. Sam Tomlin not only provided me with my favourite quote of the trip but was also a great guy to bunk with, great presence on the water. Finally, our team was complete with Michael Dodds, who provided us with the most interesting catch of the trip, a guitar fish. I would gladly fish with any one of these chaps again and they all made the trip both a pleasant and very memorable experience. Until the next time Panama, tight lines!
If you want to experience the thrill of kayak or panga fishing in Panama then contact Sam Wadman who can help you arrange it all, you won’t be disappointed!
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