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September 15, 2009

Tropic Star's Black Marlin

Contributor Jon Schwartz finds monster black marlin in Panama

VIEW GALLERY >> A Week at Tropic Star

In the winter of 2008, I had the great fortune of photographing some of the world's greatest fishing spots running at full steam. Swarms of surface-breaking striped marlin provided Cabo anglers with nonstop action. The pristine paradise of Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula served up a tropical mix of billfish, roosters and bull dolphin. To top it all, the annual run of sailfish in Guatemala, where anglers released an average of 20 per day's charter, eclipsed even my wildest fishing fantasies. I returned to the States in January, flush with a wealth of images and adventure that would surely quench my traveling jones for a good while.

Just when I'd started to acclimate to my normal stateside routine, I got an e-mail from Raleigh Werking, manager of the Tropic Star Lodge. Turns out that they'd just experienced their best month ever of marlin fishing: 97 released in a single week! Had this report been from any other place in the world, I would have been able to brush off this incredible news, satisfied that I'd recently seen enough similar action. The problem was that this wasn't any old spot.

Panama's Tropic Star Lodge (TSL) is home to a great many species and boasts one of the most productive inshore fisheries in the world. Huge cubera snapper, grouper and roosterfish are landed on a regular basis within yards of the coastline. TSL's all-tackle record roosterfish tipped the scales at 96 pounds, and many are caught in the 50- to 70-pound range. Incredibly, this top-notch nearshore bite rates a distant second to the international contingent of anglers who flock to TSL for one reason alone: close and personal encounters with Makaira indica, the majestic black marlin.

We've all seen Guy Harvey's pictures of brutish blacks rocketing skyward within feet of TSL's fleet of 31-foot Bertrams, deckhands' arms fearlessly reaching for the leader while the angler sits with mouth agape. Always the skeptic, I'd assumed that these incredible scenarios were fairly rare. If they weren't, one thing was for sure - I was missing out on some of the most dramatic displays of man versus beast to be found on the planet.

A confluence of events: Raleigh's report, a whole week off from my day job and payday succeeded in rendering me utterly incapable of resisting the temptation to see for myself. In addition, black marlin were one of the few species that I'd been unable to get on film (compact flash card, really). The potential to plop myself into the middle of some big-game madness and score some epic photos of my own sealed the deal.

TSL usually books out a year in advance, so it was only with some great luck that I was able to book a room during the peak season for black marlin. Bonnie Karp at the lodge's office in Orlando, Florida, helped me find a flight from LAX to Panama City's Tocumen Airport. Arriving guests usually spend the night in one of the deluxe hotels near the airport and take a transfer plane to the remote airport near the lodge the next morning.

To my delight, a well-dressed representative from TSL was waiting for me as I exited the plane. She whisked me through customs and brought me to the VIP lounge, where I sipped espresso and caught up on e-mails via wireless until Jimmy Owens, the larger-than-life valet, showed up and brought me to a deluxe hotel, smack-dab in the middle of Panama City.

One of the things I enjoy most about fishing travel is exploring the host countries. Although I'd soon be on a plane bound for one of the most remote fishing lodges on earth, I had a full day to tour Panama City, a thriving modern metropolis. Jimmy hooked me up with a classic old Panamanian gentleman named Luis Singh who took me on one of the most enjoyable half-day tours I've ever experienced. Winding through the districts in Luis' prized Crown Vic, I got the lowdown on the country's history: the building of the Panama Canal, the international flavor the city enjoyed as a result of the constant influx of trade and tourism, and the structural and political stability that grew from the decades-long partnership with the United States.

After witnessing a massive cruise ship squeak through the Miraflores locks of the canal, we passed by the nearly finished phalanx of skyscraping luxury condos that line the city's waterfront. This area of the city is as sophisticated and metropolitan as any that I've see in the States. In visiting a modern mall to get some last-minute electronic goodies for my cameras, I noticed that the quality of goods was high, but the prices were reasonable. The U.S. dollar is the country's official currency, which makes transactions effortless. International Living magazine ranked Panama City as one of the world's top five places to retire, and it's no wonder. Between the low cost of living, the surge in development and its central location, Panama City is clearly blossoming.

From January to March, TSL only offers weeklong bookings; that amounts to six days of fishing and seven nights. Half-week packages are available in December and from April to September. The stay is all-inclusive, except for extras like massages, drinks and tips.