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March 14, 2011

Fishing Panama's Forgotten Coast

A vast Caribbean wonderland of rivers and reefs invites exploration by anglers

Fishing Panama is mostly a very one-sided affair, that being its Pacific side. A number of fine fishing resorts on that coast offer world-class action, as is well known internationally.

Not surprisingly, few anglers who fly to Panama to fish these productive waters give the country's Atlantic coast, to the north, a second thought. After several trips to fish Panama, its northern coast wasn't on my radar screen either - until I happened to find Seeing aerial photographs of the Caribbean Sea's southernmost pocket, around Bocas del Toro, changed everything.

Back in Time
Months after that discovery, I found myself on an Aeroperlas ATR commuter plane that had departed Panama City an hour earlier. Now, as it neared Bocas del Toro, I looked down to see what those aerial images on my monitor had promised: mile after mile of untouched mangrove islets interlaced with channels and bays, and interspersed with many sprawling river mouths. Around each, the muddy outflow created a patch of brown water flowing into the clear Atlantic. Beyond and nearby, reefs sparkled in transparent Caribbean waters.

Seeing so much varied habitat all within an hour or so run of Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge, located about an hour west/northwest of Panama City on Isla Bastimentos, speaks volumes about the varied game fish along with fishing options and opportunities that await anglers here. Also, there's what you don't see: anyone else, at least fishing recreationally. It's easy to feel that you have the whole coast to yourself.

View Fishing Panama's Forgotten Coast in a larger map

Then too there's precious little commercial activity in the area, save for small artisanal fishermen, mostly fishing from cayucos (wooden canoes) or wooden skiffs with small outboards. All this makes for the sense, when fishing out of Tranquilo Bay, of a separation not merely geographic but also temporal - like stepping back in time to fish a coast as it had been a century before.

Lures and Liveys for Tarpon
The biggest draw here for many anglers is sure to be the outstanding tarpon and snook fishing. Any angler who knows these prized game fish of inshore tropical waters is sure to equate their availability with the all-too-rare phrase "unspoiled river mouths."

"We fish several river mouths," says Jim Kimball who, along with partner and fellow Texan Jay Viola, spent the years from 2000 to 2006 building with their own initiative, persistence and sweat the remarkable lodge at Tranquilo Bay. Some rivers in the area don't empty directly into the Caribbean, but into the expansive Laguna de Chiriqui. While these "inside" river mouths can be productive at times, as long as the weather and seas are favorable for fishing outside, Kimball and Viola prefer to work the outside river mouths that surge directly into the ocean since that's where tarpon typically stack up.

"Just up the coast, we can fish three different river mouths, starting with the closest, the Changuinola," Kimball says, which is where he usually starts. Both Kimball and Viola, keen anglers themselves, enjoy being the resort's fishing guides in a 25-foot SeaVee with 200 hp Yamaha. Their usual modus operandi involves drifting outside the river mouth, putting live baits on circle hooks beneath balloons on a couple of rods while anglers cast artificials (plugs or soft plastics) from the bow.

The live bait are small grunts - hardy, effective and always available. That availability is ensured by a local woman who comes by the net pen at the resort's dock daily to feed the 100 or so lively grunts she keeps stocked in the pen.

Kimball says it's not unusual to see hundreds of tarpon rolling at times, "but even when you don't see them, they're here. They're here all year. And these aren't small fish, either," averaging 75 pounds or so. They've released tarpon well over the 150 mark and have hooked much larger.