If there’s one Golden Rule for destination kayak fishing, it would be “”Have a Good Plan,” followed closely by “Be Flexible.” Lucky for us the recent KFM/Paddle Panama expedition proved again that sticking to these rules results in “Having Fun!”
The plan was carefully calculated by Hennie Marais from Paddle Panama. Hailing originally from South Africa, Hennie is Panama’s premier promoter and retailer for the paddlesport industry. And, after 17 years managing world-class fishing resorts like the Tropic Star lodge, he knows the country, the people, and above all is a master of outfitting. Hennie’s original itinerary had us at Cebaco Island in a beautiful four-bedroom house with world-class fishing at the doorstep and panga support for more far-flung forays. Hennie’s partner, Tim Hetherington, is a kiwi from the North Island of New Zealand, and has spent the past 30 years as a skipper and fishing master all across the tropical Pacific. With their combined history, experience and exuberance, we knew we were in the best of hands.
Of course, Murphy’s Law has to contribute on every trip. This time, Mr. Murphy gifted us with a “ten-year” swell event. Giant waves were marching up the Western Pacific from the Antarctic, and forecasts were for 15-20 foot waves to hit the south-facing Panama coastline just as we arrived in country. OK, plan “B,” then. After loading up the two pangas from the beach at Santa Catalina, we moved our base of operations to Bahia Honda, 30 miles up coast. Bahia Honda is a gorgeous deep-water bay and the area is protected from south swells by the wave shadow of nearby Coiba Island.
Our ride up the coast in two 24-foot pangas was exciting to say the least. Deviating from the normal course between numerous offshore islands and the coastline, we swung wide, outside the islands, and observed the huge waves battering the rocky jungled coast, and crashing the hidden reefs and rockpiles. My surfer’s eye told me these were not 15-20 foot waves, but they were easily 10-12 foot with a 24-second interval, and an occasional 15-footer. Serious stuff. We learned the next day two people had capsized and drowned in the area in separate incidents. They were traveling inside the islands and got caught by the sneaker sets.
By contrast, when we arrived at Bahia Honda the water was calm and glassy. A madera-decked palm-thatched bohio, our home for the week, nestled into jungled hills above a gentle sand and gravel beach. A panga and a couple cayucos (dugout canoes) were anchored just offshore and we were excited to see bait breaking the surface as we glided in for a landing. The property is a working farm owned by an indigenous family. Domingo Castillo, the Abuello (grandfather) was on the beach to meet us, trailed by his wife, daughter, grandkids and the hired hand. Domingo presents a wizened and weathered appearance that is belied by his non-stop energy and good humor. Later in the trip we were lucky to watch and assist him constructing hand-made platas, wooden tableware created from local wood from the mango tree, The woodcraft are created entirely by hand using a heavy hand-adze and broken bottle-glass for final smoothing. The wood and techniques Domingo employs is the same used for creating the beautiful dugout canoes (cayucos) traditionally used by the locals for travel and hand-line fishing.
The next morning it was hot coffee in the dark, and a scramble to choose which rods and what tackle to bring for the morning’s fishing. Our primary targets this trip were roosterfish and the giant cubera (dogtooth) snapper, with a steady stream of groupers, african pompano, and many other species keeping us occupied. We launched at first light with spinning rods for popping and conventionals for jigging and bait. Eric Berg from Seattle WA and Paul Willet from Santa Cruz CA paddled sleek Stealth Kayaks provided by Paddle Panama. Allen Sansano and I headed out in Trident 13’s provided to us this trip by Ocean Kayaks. We made a long paddle out of the bay and up the coast to Isla Pacora. While Paul and Eric worked the deeper reefs west of Pacora, Sansano and I began tossing poppers at the washrocks in hopes of a rooster or cubera snapper.
Sansano yelped when his first cast at Pacora resulted in a hook-up. I watched his rod go bendo and his Trident was pulled towards the surging whitewater on the cliffs. I reeled up as fast as I could, planning my move to quickly hook my bowline to his stern and back paddle, keeping him off the rocks for the fight. The cubera was too tough though. Before I got my lure to the boat, Sansano’s fish wrapped a rock and broke the line. Disappointing, but a good start! We spent the remainder of the morning fishing the rocks and deeper reefs of Pacora. Paul Willet pulled in a nice African Pompano on an iron, while Eric Berg opted for a swimbait deployed from his Shimano Trevala spooled with 50-pound braid on a Shimano Baitrunner reel to pull up a succession of snapper and groupers. We did our best to release all fish, and the few expired by barotrauma went in the cooler for dinner.
The following days assumed a pattern of sorts. We worked the area around Isla Pacora, as well as a beautiful 65-foot "snapper reef" just outside the entrance to Bahia Honda, and a few spots to the south around the many small islands and rockpiles. The giant swell had its effect on fishing. There was an ever-present surge and fairly wicked currents, especially around the wash rocks and islands. The water clarity varied as things settled down, with streaks of red tide permeating the water. We knew the big fish were there, but not always willing to bite. And when they did, it often resulted in a mad rush to the rocks where we would inevitably get broken off. Cubera are strong fish!
The mouth of the bay is about two miles from the camp. The snapper reef was around four miles. Isla Pacora is about five miles from camp. While we made the Pacora paddle on the first day, having support pangas for transport was very effective and we consider that support as a necessity. Otherwise, we'd be tired of paddling all day just to get to/from the spots. Fish caught on the trip included various snappers and groupers (we caught at least three different species of each), bonito (black skipjack), african pompano, yellowfin tuna, sierra mackerel, barracuda, jack crevalle, roosterfish, rainbow runner, and a 5 foot moray eel. We had a number of bluefin trevally follows, but no hookups. And a lot of little reef fish and triggerfish were caught on the sabikis while trying for bait.
Night times were spent eating big dinners, chatting, cleaning gear and prepping equipment for the next day's fishing. It gets dark early in the tropics, and the darkness was often split by the unearthly sound of howler monkeys in the hills nearby. Other interesting fauna that made nightly appearances were fireflies, cane toads, land crabs, flying rhinoceros beetles the size of a baby's fist and six-inch moths that looked like bats flapping around the thatched roof of our bohio. During the daytime one might glimpse a howler monkey or sloth in the treetops, hear the distinctive call from toucans or laugh at the absurd fiddler crabs waving one giant pincher in the mangrove mudflats. On the water were daily displays by spinner dolphins, humpback whales, sea turtles and of course the variety of bait and target fish that break the surface of the crystal-clear water.
When we first arrived, there were cojinua (green jacks) and bonita schooling in the bay. The cojinua are the bait of choice for most local fishing, with bonitas supposedly good as bait for larger fish, as the smaller fish typically don't harass them. The cojinua are rigged with 8/0 circle hooks bridled to the bait using a needle and rigging floss. They can be fly-lined, or fished with an egg sinker to get them down deeper. Catching cojinua is fairly easy with sabiki rigs. Each day our pangueros would catch up 10-20 pieces of bait or we'd jig them up on the fishing grounds.
Where there is bait, there are fish. The inner bay fishery has great potential, with roosters, sierra mackerel, and bonito working the bait schools. The bay also held some smaller "mangrove" snappers. Sansano caught one nice sierra on a sabiki, and watched a trio of roosters herding the bait right up on shore. Working the bay proved to be a welcome relief in the afternoon. The quiet sunset paddles were very enjoyable, joining locals while they hand lined from their trim cayucus. Yes, they caught more fish than we did, mostly green jacks, though a few small mackerel and unknown varietas put up good fights on light spinning set up. The best part of the solo paddles was feeling the wind die down as darkness fell quickly across the glassy bay. The jungle edges got darker, while the howler monkeys started calling out to each other from their respective hilltops. The days ended with the nearby sounds of bonito crashing sardinas while beaching our kayaks at the bohio, ready for another good dinner complete with healthy locally grown crops such as avacado and yuca.
We spent a lot of time jigging irons and swimbaits. Jigging caught a variety of snappers and grouper. African pompano, jack crevalle, bonito, and one yellowfin tuna were also caught on the iron. We either worked the jigs on the bottom or yo-yo'd them up on a speed retrieve. We tried every color we had and found best success with jigs with a green color scheme. A green/yellow butterfly type jig and green/white SoCal style iron were especially successful. Not too suprising as they matched the cojinuas! Big Hammer swimbaits drew a number of bites as well with the fish often times leaving interesting dental molds that were almost human like. Snappers have big teeth.
A big effort went into tossing poppers into the washrocks. Medium (two-three ounce) to large (four-plus ounces) poppers were used. According to the locals, red/white poppers are a good color choice. We used red/white Roberts Rangers with good success. They are not floating lures, more like a weighted subsurface swimmer. Hennie and Tim were tossing more conventional poppers with a blue/white color scheme. The target fish species when popping are roosters, cuberas, and bluefin trevally. We had a lot of follows, but not a lot of follow through. Perhaps it was the swell or perhaps it was the technique of our retrieve, but the fish just weren't taking the lures. We never did establish a good pattern, but the crimson flash of a cubera or the blue streak of a trevally kept us coming back for more.
Roosterfish were at the top of our list. One day we had a brief flurry of them come through resulting in smashed baits and broken hearts as none were landed. When targeting roosters we'd free line the bait, either drifting with it or slow trolling, often times jigging or popping with a second rod to maximize our chances. By the last day we still hadn't managed to land a roosterfish. On the last evening, we decided to return to where we encountered the roosters earlier in the week. Sansano set a bait out along a beautiful rip curling around the end of Isla Secora. He drifted along as he cast poppers at the wash rocks. Having two rods out can result in a fire drill, as he was soon to discover.
"My bait started getting nervous. I laid my popper rod in my lap as I grabbed the bait rod and put it in freespool. The line immediately speed up and I counted to 10, engaged the reel and fish on! In my haste, my popper was still 50 feet out. This rooster proceeded to take me in circles wrapping everything up. The fire drill ended once I grabbed my safety knife and cut the popper free. Ten minutes later and I had a nice 40 inch rooster to the boat. The sun was setting. A perfect end to the trip."
In general the fishing is usually much more active, though in retrospect everyone enjoyed multiple hookups and a few good fights every day. Because of the swell and current conditions, it’s clear we only scratched the surface of kayak fishing Panama. The potential there is enormous for reef fish as well as blue-water species. As is typical for a one-week trip, it felt like we were just getting things dialed in and it was already time to go home. A quick return trip is mandatory. Paul Willett summed it up best.
“A trip like this is about fishing, but it is equally about the experience of being somewhere far away and entirely different from home. It's about being captivated by the sights and sounds and smells of a place, and by the people you encounter, and being appreciative of the chance to drink it all in. In that sense, Panama seduced us all.”