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September 15, 2009

Tropic Star's Black Marlin

Contributor Jon Schwartz finds monster black marlin in Panama

Jimmy picked up me, as well as the rest of this week's clients, and drove us in the TSL van to the small airport on the city's outskirts. Inside the van, a large sign read, "Marlin Lovers Please Have Passports Ready," and the palpable sense of anticipation at reaching our destination was stoked by a video of clients tussling with giant blacks.  

As is common with world-class fishing resorts, the clientele had a decidedly international mix, and as we began our hour-long flight toward the jungle, I did my best to converse with a father-son duo from Austria and a handsome French couple. Every passenger seemed to glow with the possibilities that lied ahead.

TSL literature mentions that the resort is located "in what can only be described as National Geographic country." By the time we'd been loaded on skiffs and began our short boat ride over to the resort's grounds, I'd been convinced of the validity of this claim.

We motored north. The banks of the river were lined with jagged cliffs and dense tropical forests, giving rise to a feeling that we were entering an area so untouched and remote that I had a hard time imagining we'd soon be pulling into an oasis of civilization. Within minutes, though, we'd made our way to the docks of TSL and found ourselves sipping drinks on the veranda overlooking exclusive Piñas Bay.

Later that evening, guests gathered for our first dinner at the open-air dining pavilion next to the pool. Though many of the guests were experienced anglers, they listened intently to dockmaster Albert Battoo's fishing and tackle tips that are unique to Tropic Star. While trolling lures works, slow-trolling three live skipjacks at once on Cape Fear rods with Shimano Tiagra reels spooled with Ande 50-pound line is the favored method. He whipped out a package of 15-foot-long leaders of 300-pound-test, which were attached to the biggest circle hooks I'd ever seen.

Good lord, I thought, whatever requires a hook that big is truly a monster!

 What really piqued my interest, though, was his description of the way the fights with blacks commonly play out: Though the fish average 400 pounds, these catch-and-release battles are usually over in 10 minutes. How was that possible, especially considering the relatively light tackle? This I had to see!

The next morning, I was so excited that it was all I could do to wolf down some coffee and perfectly cooked eggs before scampering down the dock with my gear. While the rest of the guests finished their breakfasts, I watched the mates and support crew ready the boats and tackle in a flurry of predawn activity. All 12 of the lodge's fleet of 31-foot Bertrams were being primed for battle. Deckhands eagerly lined up to receive their share of fresh bait that was being netted from the end of the pier.

Each boat in TSL's fleet is named after a country or state. Today I'd be riding on Scandia, captained by Gustavo. By the time Albert introduced us and we exchanged pleasantries, 6:30 had rolled around. As the morning light rose through the tropical forest, I made out the silhouettes of the anglers I would be accompanying that day ambling down the dock, and within minutes, the entire squadron of boats was racing out of the bay in formation, vying for first shot at the schools of skipjack bait that lay just beyond the reaches of the cove.