As the Bertram 31 came off plane and settled into trolling speed, I automatically stepped over to the cooler and lifted the lid. The empty icebox caught me completely off guard. I had expected to see neat rows of prerigged ballyhoo stacked several layers deep.
"Where's the bait?" I asked Alexi, the mate. He gave me a quizzical look.
Thinking quickly, I dredged up a word from my Spanish-for-the-traveling-angler vocabulary and asked, "Carnada?"
Alexi's face brightened. "Si, hay mucha carnada," he said while making a sweeping gesture toward the water beyond our transom. Finally I understood: The Zane Grey Reef held all the bait we needed.
On this trip to Tropic Star Lodge in Piñas Bay, Panama, I planned to spend mornings in pursuit of black marlin and then switch tactics to target sailfish each afternoon. When Alexi set out several small tuna feathers on bait-catching outfits, I realized we would use liveys for black marlin. A couple of Pacific skipjacks (called bonito by locals) came aboard in short order, and Alexi dunked them in tuna tubes for safekeeping. Those 5-pound skippies would make perfect marlin baits but seemed like much more than a mouthful for any sailfish - even the brawny Pacific variety that patrol these waters.
Before I could ask the deckhand what kind of carnada we'd use for sailfish, he hauled in a deeply hooked skipjack that bled from the gills. Alexi promptly smacked the fish on the head and set about cutting away its belly section. Of course! When in Panama, we use the Panama strip bait.
Tough and Tasty
The lessons at Tropic Star taught me that no matter where you may fish, Panama strip baits deserve a spot in the trolling spread. These offerings prove nearly indestructible when properly prepared. How often have you dropped back a ballyhoo only to have a billfish clip it off neatly behind the head and ruin your chances at a quick follow-up shot? A belly bait's skin makes it tough enough to endure repeated attacks (or flubbed hookup attempts) without going to pieces. And rigging these baits on circle hooks - standard procedure at Tropic Star - means you'll score on a high percentage of drop-backs while promoting the healthy release of jaw-hooked billfish.
Raleigh Werking, a vastly experienced big-game angler who happens to work as vice president of sales and marketing for the lodge, can't hide his enthusiasm for the belly strip. "It's probably the best damn bait in the world," he says. "The silvery bonito belly gives off an attractive shine, and the split-tail shape shows lifelike action."
The abundant supply of bonito on Zane Grey Reef makes it unnecessary to import ballyhoo, but visiting anglers sometimes bring their own supply of the traditional baits. According to Werking, that's wasted effort. "Ballyhoo never seem to work as well as strip baits here," he says. Predators must relish the taste of the strip's layer of exposed flesh, presented like a delectable slice of sashimi, because they rarely release their grip after clamping down on one. During my all-too-brief stay in Panama, I witnessed the belly strip's effectiveness and appeal to a variety of fish. Besides accounting for several sailfish each afternoon,
they proved irresistible to numerous yellowfin tuna and a handful of jacks.
Werking has seen roosterfish eat these tough, tasty treats and says big dorado gobble them like candy. Our second morning on the reef failed to generate any action after two hours of live baiting, so we decided to start trolling for sails earlier than usual. Within 10 minutes a 300-pound black marlin came up and wolfed a bonito belly!
The skipjacks ran unusually scarce on our last morning at Tropic Star, and Alexi jealously guarded the few we caught to use as marlin baits. No problem: This time the bait cooler held several belly strips from the previous day. With no need for salt or preservatives, the strips had overnighted very well on ice - and we noticed no sailfish turning up their pointy noses at the "old" baits. Anglers who have no steady, reliable source of fish bellies can make the most of opportunities and guarantee a future supply of ammo by bagging and freezing strip baits.
Rigging the Panama Belly Strip
Although he speaks little English, Alexi certainly knows fishing. He begins each day on the water by trolling up a supply of Pacific skipjacks; some serve as live baits, while others provide the raw material for making strip baits. Here's how Alexi prepares the Panama belly strip. You'll need a sharp knife, rigging needle and floss. For Pacific sailfish, which average 80 to 100 pounds, he uses Mustad 8/0 circle hooks.
First, the hard part: Catch a skipjack (or other small tuna, dorado or mackerel).
1. Cut out the belly section by slicing from the throat latch (under the gill plate) to a point just ahead of the vent. The throat latch must remain connected to the strip because the tough tissue makes a durable pull point for the bait.
2. Cut the strip to shape. Carve a V in the trailing end to form two "wings" that will flutter when trolled.
3. Tie a small loop in one end of a 16-inch piece of floss. Beginning on the flesh side, push the needle out the skin near the base of the pectoral fins and pull the tag end through. Take a wrap around the fins and push the needle through the skin to send the floss back to the flesh side. Pass the tag through the end loop (which is on the flesh side, or "inside" the strip) to anchor the floss without having to tie a knot. Take another pass around the pectoral fins to hold them tightly against the belly skin. Pull the floss back through the flesh side.
4. Begin sewing the strip closed. The first stitch in this series starts from the flesh side and goes out through the skin. Bring the floss across the strip's top edge and push the needle through the skin on the opposite side. Subsequent stitches should penetrate the skin, pass all the way through the flesh and come out the skin at the other side.
5. Spacing stitches about 1¼2 inch apart, sew the strip shut. Stop about an inch from the tip of the throat latch.
6. Hold a small loop of floss with your thumb and make one more stitch around the strip.
7. Tie a series of overhand knots around the tip, but behind the loop, to hold the floss in place.
8. Trim the tag end of the floss and cut off the tip of the belly strip just ahead of the final wraps. If this leading tip remains on the strip, it could catch water and make the bait spin. Stitched and looped belly strips store well in the bait cooler.
9. Secure the strip to a circle hook the same way you'd bridle a bait. Pass the hook point once through the loop, twirl the hook to tighten up slack, then push the point back through the loop.
10. You can also use the floss loop to attach the Panama strip to a teaser.