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March 14, 2011

Fishing Panama's Forgotten Coast

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

Panama snook

Snook in the Surf
Abundant snook, particularly larger fish, can be tough to find throughout their range. I think the species' susceptibility to netting often leaves populations made up mostly of small fish. That doesn't appear to be the case in many of the 50 or so coastal rivers between Bocas and Colon. Multiple strikes and multiple catches characterize most anglers' experiences out of Tranquilo Bay, either by casting from the boat or, often, wading the surf zone. Most of these snook run 7 or 8 to at least 15 pounds, but again, larger fish have been caught and certainly lurk in this habitat so favored by the species.

Viola's tackle box for snook contains mostly white ­bucktail jigs, as well as various soft plastics and some topwater plugs. He acknowledges that these snook are targeted rarely and only by Tranquilo Bay fishermen, and many lures remained untested. Indeed, I opted for a flashy Spanyid Maniac spoon in the turbid water (roiled by a rough ocean the day I waded the mouth of the Changuinola), and a 15-pound snook seemed to like it just fine. "When they're there and they're biting, I suspect it doesn't matter too much what you throw," says Viola.

For anglers targeting snook, river mouths are the place to go. Picking up snook in other habitats is rare.

Also inshore, around some of the windward islands, schools of small bonefish can spice up a morning, and while permit don't seem to be prevalent, Kimball has seen some monsters while snorkeling.

Speaking of monsters, the big bull and hammerhead sharks often common wherever schools of tarpon reside seem strangely - and thankfully - absent here. "We've never yet lost a tarpon to a shark," Kimball says.

However, snapper do frequent the river mouths at times. "In one day, fishing the same area of a beach, I caught a tarpon around the 100-pound mark, a 20-pound dogtooth snapper and a 30-pound snook," says Chris Dawson of Manhattan, Kansas, a repeat angler at Tranquilo Bay. Dawson has fished throughout the Caribbean, and says the variety of fishing options and species here make Tranquilo Bay his favorite.

Unexplored Reefs
While no huge banks - á la Zane Grey or Hannibal on the Pacific side - loom from the bottom of the Caribbean Sea off Bocas, there are many humps and bumps in 100 to 300 feet of water before the continental shelf slopes steeply away. And a glance at a nautical chart (28041, Approaches to Bocas Del Toro) reveals a stunning array of reefs and structure pockmarking the area just off Crusapin Point, 24 miles ­southwest of Tranquilo Bay.

These reefs remain mostly ­unexplored by anglers, Kimball says. Unseasonable north winds prevented us from making drifts there to try the substantial selection of metal jigs we'd brought. In fact, we made it offshore for about an hour one morning before the wind started howling, just long enough for me to miss a wahoo and land a 15-pound mutton snapper.

Kimball points out that "those reefs get zero pressure." Other than a few locals with hand lines, "no one fishes them," Kimball says. Though on occasion he takes Tranquilo Bay anglers out to fish the reefs, in fact, their potential has yet to be tapped. Besides muttons, anglers are likely to encounter such species as yellowtail, dog and cubera snapper, black grouper and some industrial-size kingfish.

Where these reefs drop off into deeper waters, blackfin and school-size yellowfin tuna, wahoo and dolphin (mahi) might lurk. Kimball and Viola have had some memorable catches pulling large Rapala CD Magnums well offshore.

The Atlantic coast of Panama is truly a place of many options, both on land and for those on the water with so many varied ­habitats. As noted previously, in one morning you can catch not only good-size tarpon, snook and snapper in the surf, you can then go offshore for grouper and pelagic game fish. No matter which direction you go, the odds of seeing any other recreational fishing boat will be slim to none. That's likely to change as more anglers discover the potential of Panama's Caribbean side, but for now it remains a largely forgotten coast.