The bite happens in a flash, so try not to blink. It’s easy to lose your focus to a wayward tuna grabbing some hang time, or to a marauding boobie dive-bombing the fray inches from the boat. Keep your eyes on that piece of plastic you flung into the madness. You don’t want to miss the bite.
The ambushes are both impressive and entertaining. The best bites occur when the tuna attacks from below — the explosion as a bullet-shaped fish as big as a 96-quart cooler launches clear out of the water. We were right in the thick of a riled stretch of water that frothed with all sorts of life. I wanted to ask my buddy if he felt as if he were standing in a Sir David Attenborough documentary, but I dared not look away.
It took but a few darts of the lure before a tuna flew in from the right, smashing the bait dead center. The fish took a treble hook to the jaw, and a rush of white water flew at me as the tuna kicked into hyperdrive. Then it disappeared. My instinct was to holler, but the pull took my breath away. Line flew off the spinning reel, and I was pinned against the gunwale.
Those first few seconds are the best. The fleeing baitballs scattering across the water like buckshot in a desperate attempt to outrun the predators. The bombing birds. The frenzied tuna. The rolling porpoises. The rush that migrates through your body like a shock wave.
The rest of it, to be honest, is hard-ass work. Triple-digit yellowfin make mincemeat of your lower back and shoulders. They fight up and down, so there’s no chasing them with the boat. This is mano a mano battle. I wedged my body against the leaning post, locked my right arm to the foregrip of the spinning rod and dug deep for what I knew was going to be a prolonged fight.
I had booked my trip — preapproved by my wife — almost a year earlier to fish the famed waters of Panama’s Hannibal Bank with Capt. Shane Jarvis. These days, work and family obligations mean that if I’m lucky, I plan one or two big fishing trips a year. My goal was to catch a 100-pound tuna on a popper, and Shane had assured me that mid-May would be the heart of the peak period. I’d emailed the dates to my wife, but she hadn’t responded. That’s always a bad sign. That night, I asked why.
“Oh, you mean the same week as Mother’s Day and our 10-year anniversary?”
With the dates altered, I was off. A buddy of mine, Matt Kleinstuber, signed on, and we had eight-plus months of anticipation to live through before finally getting to Panama.
Shane owns Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge on Isla Parida, a jungle-topped rocky island 12 miles off Panama’s Pacific coast in the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park. It’s accessible only by boat. We flew into David by way of Panama City and met up with Shane.
Originally from Indiana, the 47-year-old guide has an intensity about everything he does. His buzz cut, broad shoulders and thick arms give him the air of a Navy SEAL. He thrives at logistics and can bark orders in English or Spanish to keep things running like a Rolex, but he’s a lighthearted guy inside. He bobs his head to music at maximum volume and has a maniacal laugh that seems to eclipse all conversation. For a guy who’s been bouncing from tuna boil to tuna boil for the past 18 years, you’d think he might get bored or burned out, but his passion for fishing still runs strongly.
As we ran through mangrove creeks into the Gulf of Chiriquí on his 33-foot World Cat with twin 300-hp Suzukis, we chatted about the bite. Beers began to flow, and my blood pressure dropped. We pulled into the anchorage at Isla Parida just as the sun began to set, and a crew paddled a dinghy over to bring us ashore. We had only seen one or two small boats along the way, and the palm-lined beach before us had not a soul on it, except for a few of the lodge’s dogs. We walked up the hill to the lodge, dug out a cold one from the Yeti and watched the sun go down as the chef laid out a spread of sushi rolls made from fish caught that day.
I think I woke up every 45 minutes that night. I was so excited. In the morning, we gobbled down eggs and bacon and made our way to Sea Toy, Shane’s catamaran, where we learned that this is not your typical tuna fishery. You don’t pull naked ballyhoo and spreader bars around here. You find fish by spotting birds on the radar and scanning the horizon for bust-ups. If you time it right, you cast artificials into the melee. The visual technique is the most fun, but it doesn’t always produce. Sometimes you fish astern of the local longline boats. Other times you drop a live bait down to a big fish marked on the sounder.
The day’s action began with a 30-pound dorado nabbed off a floating log. That fish aired out 4 feet and put us all in the mood just as thick clouds began graying up the sky. I didn’t mind. With the heat index, it can feel like you’re fishing on the surface of the sun. The light rain was refreshing.
As we made it to the grounds, we came upon a pod of porpoises, tuna, birds and four or five other boats. We made a few casts into the feeding frenzy but didn’t score a hit. Shane made the call to keep motoring to Hannibal Bank, where the water quickly rises from several thousand feet to less than 200. The upwelling brings in cool, nutrient-rich water and stacks up bait. We made a few drifts but didn’t hook up, so Shane decided to head back inshore a bit.
As we motored around pods of porpoises, Shane spotted a nice mark on the sounder, and the mate tossed a few handfuls of cut bait over the side. Shane handed me a rod and threw over a small piece of cut bait with an 8/0 Mustad circle hook hidden in the flesh.
“Get ready, Chah-lee!” he yelled at me, like a college football coach who had shotgunned a few cans of Red Bull.
A tuna hammered that chunk bait and spun me like a top. The stout rod bowed into a taco shape. I wedged my knees against the side of the boat and begged for a harness. As soon as I clicked the harness straps to the lugs on top of the reel, Shane slid the drag up past strike, and I experienced what 35 pounds of drag does to your lower back. It took a good 40 minutes of teeth-grinding work to bring the fish alongside. The mate sunk the gaff into its cheek, and it took him two tries to pull it up and over the gunwale.
“That’s the sign of a big fish,” Shane said. “Johnny [the mate] can pull the smaller ones right in, but it takes him a couple shots with the big ones.”
We called it 150 pounds. I had landed my triple-digit tuna, though not on spinning gear.
Shane moved us when he spotted longliners working a school of tuna with a technique I’d never seen. As Shane explained it, the longliner finds floating logs holding bait inshore, and the crew ties the log off to the side of the boat. This keeps the bait under the boat as it chugs offshore like a movable, makeshift FAD. Once the boat gets to the tuna zone, the crew chum like crazy with chunks of sardines. All of that food in the water puts the tuna in a feeding mood.
The game played out right in front of us. Shane told us to hold on and slammed down the throttles. We motored ahead of the longliner and tossed a live bait forward of the boat just as the captain shifted into neutral. As the longliner went by, the bait got hammered. This fish belonged to Matt, and it was a battle of inches. Gain some line, lose some line and repeat until he finally turned the fish’s head.
With the clear Pacific waters and the bright silver and yellow flash that radiates off the tuna, you can see color when the fish is still deep, giving a false sense of accomplishment. Those last 50 feet are a back-breaker. We pulled Matt’s fish — a 100-pounder — over the rail and began working our way back toward home base. We ended the day spent, bruised and euphoric.
On day two, we fished with the lodge’s other captain, Juan Diego Gonzalez, a fresh-faced local with six years of experience who’s been running the lodge’s other World Cat, T.O.P. Cat, for the past two seasons. Juan is muy tranquilo, but also ultra competitive. The plan was to work the rocky ledges inshore for roosterfish and cubera snapper, then head offshore in the afternoon.
The Gulf of Chiriquí is littered with rocky outcroppings and jagged islands. Each one looks like it will hold fish. Many of them do, but catching roosters isn’t easy. We fished one of Juan’s secret spots but only managed a barracuda and a big bonito (too big to toss in the tuna tube as black marlin bait). We then ran 18 miles to an offshore island and much closer to the tuna. When we didn’t find anything at Coiba, our last spot, the siren song of popping tuna pulled us back into the fray.
Juan spoke to some other captains on the VHF, and we motored off. “There! There!” the mate yelled. It was the largest boil of ocean life I’ve ever seen. It was easily an acre or more, the size of a movie theater parking lot. Tuna tails flying. Birds crashing. Juan made a hard turn and gunned it.
As we got closer, I worked my way to the bow. I got into position with a spinning rod, and as Juan slid the boat into neutral, I made a perfect cast, a good 20 feet into the action. The lure didn’t swim. An earlier fish must have damaged the lure’s lip. No action, no fish.
Matt hooked one. The mate hooked one.
It took Matt 30 minutes to land his 65-pounder on spinning gear with 65-pound-test braid. The school had disappeared. Disheartened, I reeled in the fish the mate had hooked. We had two beautiful fish in the boat, but I was not feeling the good vibrations. Juan assured me we’d get another chance.
“This is Panama,” he said, laughing.
“Was that what you’d consider a big boil?” I asked.
“No, not really. That was pretty regular,” he said. “A big one is a half-mile around your boat. Sometimes it’s so crazy, you lose a lot of fish and a lot of lures because other tuna will break you off by jumping on your line.”
The preferred course of action is to get ahead of the boil, work the edges and let the tuna come to you. Obviously, you don’t want to motor right into the middle because you’ll lose fish, or break them up and push them down.
Juan spotted birds on the horizon. We were on the move again, and this time I was ready: camera in one hand, rod in the other. This blitz was even bigger. We pulled up in front of the fish and hooked a triple: Matt and I each registered bites on plugs, and the mate hooked one on live bait. Then a crazy tangle. The three fish somehow turned the braid and fluorocarbon into a ball of yarn, but the school of tuna stayed right off the stern. I handed off my rod and fired away with the camera while the other guys worked to free the tangle. We boated all three fish. Another successful day. That evening, we discussed our upcoming final day on the water over fresh tuna steaks and mahi piccata with rice and beans. We decided we’d make the run to the tuna grounds and fish offshore all day.
Shane blared tunes on the way out as we ran through a light rain. Two cups of Panamanian coffee coursed through me. Matt and I compared bruises. We were ragged but not worn out. We found a few blitzes early on, but the fish weren’t cooperating. The tuna were feeding on small squid, and our perfectly darting lures and live blue runners didn’t get a nudge. Shane suggested we stick with the porpoise schools and fish live bait and chunks. His knowledge of the fishery is uncanny. We hooked a double-header before lunch.
In the afternoon, the boils became bigger and more lively. The tuna were now keyed in on small mackerel, the perfect color and size for our Yo-Zuri Mag Darters. We ran up on a school of blitzing fish, and I made a cast from the bow. My cast ballooned and fell into the thick of it, with a lot of slack line on the surface. I reeled like mad, and as soon as the lure moved, it was devoured. The initial contact felt like a slap to my face. This was not a 60-pounder. The fight was brutal. My back burned from my shoulders to my butt. Shane’s coaching — 50 percent encouragement, 50 percent stone-breaking — made me laugh when my body wanted to cry. When the tuna finally came over the rail, I was relieved. And we still had a couple of hours to fish.
On the next boil, Matt hooked his biggest tuna yet on the popper. This one worked him over and demoralized him. He put on a harness and wrapped a strap around the stem of the spinning reel to give his back a reprieve. Juan and his crew came over to snap some photos and shoot video of us. I cracked a beer.
“I think I see color,” Matt said. “It’s coming up.”
The wind-on leader was just 12 feet or so off the rod tip when Matt called for the mate to get the gaff. The fight was almost over.
“Dorado!” Shane yelled. “Starboard side, two of them! Bulls!”
“Guys, wait,” Matt said, “my fish is almost in.”
It was too late. Shane cast and hooked one of the dorados.
“Got him!” Shane cried. The fish backflipped and cartwheeled. “Oh man, that was awesome!”
Matt’s big tuna, which he eventually landed, made another run, color disappearing in a flash. He let out a grunt and turned to me. “I think I just ruptured my spleen,” he said. We all laughed.
“Sorry,” Shane said, “I couldn’t resist.”