Kayak Fishing Panama

Panama's wild coast kayak adventure — a new wilderness outpost camp puts anglers in the middle of memorable action off Panama's remote Azuero Peninsula.

The subtle rise and fall of groundswells under the piece of yellow plastic that separated my butt from the deep blue Pacific Ocean was almost soporific. I drifted close to a mile offshore of Panama's Azuero Peninsula — a remote and rugged, jungle-covered stretch of coastline — appreciating the tranquility, as I finished tying a popper onto 80-pound fluoro leader with a loop knot.

That tranquility proved short-lived. Minutes later, one of the other five kayak anglers around me, each bobbing about on a brightly colored Hobie Outback in the muted late-afternoon light, shattered the peace.

“Fish on! Tuna!” one screamed.

I took in the hard bend of his live-bait rod as well as several yellowfin crashing the surface just beyond. As I pedaled toward the action like a maniac, I flipped the bail on an Okuma Raw II 80 spinner, filled with 80-pound braid, ready to cast.

Other _kayakeros _were hooking up. I made it a point to stay well clear of Kevin Nakada, fishing-team coordinator with Hobie, fighting a yellowfin on the popper he'd cast off his bow, while leaving his live blue runner trailing behind: He now had two crazily bent rods, each pointing off opposite ends his kayak!

Chaos Amid Busting Tuna

As I neared the area where I'd seen the commotion, nothing broke the surface. Had I missed a fast-moving school? I recalled that Pascal Artieda, who operated his "wild coast" kayak-fishing camp, had advised us to make casts with poppers even when tuna weren't busting.

I did, and halfway back to the kayak, a tuna burst from the surface 20 feet behind the Yo-Zuri Sashimi Bull. I gazed in awe as it chased down the lure and clobbered it.

A yee-haw! battle ensued that had the kayak variously sleigh-riding ahead and spinning, toplike, as I pedaled around the circling tuna in an effort to keep the rod pointing off a bow quadrant and never behind me.

Ultimately, I released a 40-pounder or so (that release made easier and safer since I’d replaced the treble hooks on most lures with strong singles).

Then I pedaled quickly over to Chris Russell of Denver, with my GoPro in hand and ready to shoot the 60-pounder he was easing into his kayak to disengage a popper.

In fact, all anglers were busy hooking, fighting or releasing yellowfin — the best sort of chaos.

Bad Place to Be a Live Bait

That tuna bite capped off quite a day. Early on, we’d pedaled out of the small, protected cove where Artieda and his associate, fellow Frenchman Aurelian Perez, have set up their remote camp. A small river flows into one corner of the picturesque cove.

One rule of thumb we found in the two-and-a-half days we fished here: A live bait isn’t safe anywhere at any time except in a livewell.

With that in mind, shortly after sunup, I had dropped a live runner over the side barely outside the bay, planning to slow-troll it out to deeper reefs. But I didn't get more than 200 feet or so before something slammed it, and right there in front of the camp, I had one hell of a fight on my hands. My adversary turned out to be a large roosterfish.

That day and the next, we caught more roosters, cubera snapper to 60 pounds, Colorado snapper, barred pargo, amberjack, African pompano, Pacific crevalle, bluefin trevally, Sierra and more. We caught fish while trolling live bait and lures, and while drifting — dropping jigs or tossing poppers. We caught 'em a mile offshore (where the water is very blue and very deep), over reefs closer to shore, and right along the surf-washed rocky headlands of the wild coast.

Wilderness Camp in Style

As the sun fell, everyone pedaled back to camp and carried kayaks well up on the beach for the night. In the clearing marking the outpost camp, showers were available, though I chose the cool, clear fresh water flowing out of the river for a welcome cleanup.

After sashimi appetizer and a great dinner (with the day's catch as the main dish), we sat and sipped our wine (hey, these guys are French; I liked their version of roughing it), and relived the day's many exciting moments. Even a half-hour torrential downpour couldn't dampen our heady spirits.

Before long, most were ready to get some shut-eye; each angler crawled into his own tent, where an air mattress, sheets and a towel waited. They were good tents, and the rain fly had kept mine dry inside. I slept amazingly well both nights we were there.

Yes, we had to contend with a few mosquitoes. And at times, we had to hunker down under a tarp to stay dry. But all participants agreed that they wouldn’t have traded the experience for a plush resort.

Over Land and Water to the Wild Coast

About eight years ago, Artieda opened his Panafishing Adventure Lodge near Pedasi. From 26-foot cats and 25-foot super pangas, anglers caught all the species mentioned above plus good numbers of sailfish, at times mahi and more.

Then Artieda tried kayak fishing and was hooked — so much so that he bought a fleet of Hobies (five Outbacks and two Pro Anglers) and started offering kayak fishing around Pedasi (where it usually remains calm when the ocean gets breezy) for roosterfish, in particular. (Artieda had fished Hobies and said he recognized the almost-effortless and hands-free pedal system as the only way to go for serious fishing.)

Soon he was taking anglers to multiday adventures based out of his secret cove on the wild coast.

To get there requires about a five-hour drive (some of that smooth and easy, some w-w-w-washboard) from Pedasi to Cambutal, where the road ends at a large bay rimmed with an immense sand beach, on the southernmost Azuero Peninsula. From there, anglers transfer with their gear to pangas for another hour-and-a-half scenic cruise west along this “tuna coast” — as remote as any you’ll find in Panama — to the outpost camp. As to why it’s called the tuna coast, and why it’s so productive, search Google Earth for “Azuero Peninsula” and note the precipitous drop to abyssal depths almost at the shoreline!

Waiting at the camp: a central cooking/lounging tent, a large patio tent with mosquito netting for dining and tents. (At press time, a new and improved base camp is under construction, which will feature huts on wooden platforms with showers, a bar, tables and other amenities.)

And of course, there were the kayaks, ready for us to hop onto and go. Sometimes Artieda and Perez will load kayaks onto skiffs to travel up or down the coast to specific reefs or areas where they’ll find feeding tuna and other pelagics, but the grounds just in front of the camp are hard to beat, and one need only jump into a kayak and pedal a few minutes to start fishing.

Return Trip

We ended up spending only a couple of full days off the Azuero Peninsula, with Artieda deciding we should head back just before the groundswell was predicted to grow considerably. (Though running through some squall lines still made for an exhilarating ride back to Cambutal.)

That was in late May, when things can (as they did) get wet at times, though Artieda cites spring as a good time for big yellowfin. Most of the season, winds and seas are light here, but if a wind does blow in spring or summer, it will be from a southerly quadrant and can rough things up. In that case, it’s a fine time to fish for big roosters in the calm waters around Pedasi.

On the other hand, in winter, if a wind comes up, it generally blows from the north, Artieda says. That means the high cliffs of the wild coast offer great protection, so most of the time, kayakeros pedal out onto a flat sea.

And as long as the weather remains cooperative, Artieda will schedule wild coast adventures for five days and nights — or longer or shorter per a group’s wishes.

For anyone who appreciates the unique pleasures of fishing from a kayak, I’d have to call this ultimate adventure a must, based on our trip this past spring. In fact, I already scheduled a return trip for this winter.

Planning a Kayak-Fishing Trip to Panama's Wild Coast

Who: Experienced kayak anglers. These are big fish, and this is not a place for novices to try their hand. (Experience notwithstanding, Artieda keeps one skiff, with VHF, out on the grounds for every two or three kayaks, for both support and safety reasons. Also, skiffs may be used to run kayaks and anglers to spots farther up the coast.)

When: December through May (seasonality discussed in text of feature)

Travel: A number of major airlines fly into Panama City. Copa offers direct flights from several U.S. cities, and I've generally flown Copa. (However, while I've had no problems thus far, I must point out that the airline's contradictory baggage rules for fishing gear allow a "container" up to 115 total linear inches but then specify that no gear may exceed 80 inches; my efforts for some clarification have gone unanswered. For those who travel with 7-foot rods, note that United, American and Delta — all of which fly into Panama City — allow for up to 115 linear inches.)

Once your group arrives at Tocumen International Airport, you can overnight in Panama City, or you can arrange to leave for the wild coast right away (especially if you can arrive before midday). Artieda will have a van waiting — and a truck as well, if all anglers have a load of gear, as we did. It’s a bit more than five hours (with a lunch stop), a ride I didn’t mind since it meant we didn’t face the severe gear restrictions that flying in via a small, regional, in-country airline would have meant.

Depending on timing and logistics you’ll arrange with Artieda, you might overnight at the lodge or head right out to the wild coast.

What to bring: Your favorite rods/reels. The resort has limited gear. A range of 30- to 80-pound braid should serve you well. We used conventionals (Okuma's Andros for jigging and Makaira for slow-trolling live bait), and big spinners for throwing poppers. Pack a selection of poppers, deep-diving and shallow minnow lures, and metal jigs, as well as various hooks (see "Hook Swap") including large live-bait circle hooks (we had good results with Eagle Claw Lazer Sharps) and fluoro leader. Definitely bring a camera. Something compact and waterproof, such as a GoPro, will serve you best for shooting from a kayak. I'd also recommend good, open-fingered fishing gloves and pliers you can attach to yourself or to your kayak with a lanyard. A heavy-duty lip-gripper is a must; for some fish, a lip gaff might be useful. I consider a small waterproof VHF essential. A PLB (personal locator beacon) such as ACR's compact Res-Q-Link is worth packing with your tackle. For camp, a flashlight comes in quite handy (or a headlamp even handier). Of course a couple of dry bags are essential.

Cost: For three or more anglers, $1,600 each covers five nights and five days of fishing on the wild coast. Add just $220 per person, and you'll have van service from and to the airport. You may also opt for one or more overnights at the Panafishing Lodge in Pedasi, either en route to the wild coast or just to fish that (very different) area/fishery, for $100 per night.

For more information, visit panamakayakadventure.com and panafishing.com.

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Trophy Colorado Snapper

Slow-troll a live bait, drop down a speed jig or throw out a popper along Panama's remote Azuero Peninsula, and there's no telling what you'll hook — yellowfin tuna, cubera snapper, sailfish, bluefin trevally, African pompano, roosterfish or a massive Colorado snapper like this one caught by Hobie's Kevin Nakada of Oceanside, California.Doug Olander
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Kayakeros' Arsenal

Panafishing Adventures owner and kayak outfitter/enthusiast Pascal Artieda (left) helps Okuma's Brandon Cotton free up rods and reels for a day of kayak fishing off Pedasi, before the group heads south to the "wild coast" on the Azuero Peninsula.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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The Journey West

The steep, jungle-covered Panama Coast, shrouded in mist, makes a striking backdrop for this group of kayakeros headed out from the "wild coast" outpost camp. Some mornings, anglers will simply pedal out from the camp and start fishing; other days, kayaks and anglers will be loaded onto pangas to find surface-feeding tuna or to fish specific rocky reefs.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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Big Fish for a Little Boat

Chris Russell, marketing director for Eagle Claw when this photo was taken, just before releasing a 50-plus pound yellowfin that struck his popper and sent him off on a real Pacific thrill ride.Doug Olander
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Tuna Below the Kayak

Another yellowfin struggles against the pull of a kayak angler (the Mirage Drive of a Hobie Outback clearly visible above the fish's dorsal). Likely time to see some grey suits but in fact, no fish were taken by sharks this trip.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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The Outpost Camp

Home sweet home for anglers, guides and assistants. This pleasant, generally quiet (except for early morning howls of howler monkeys) clearing offered each kayakero his own tent with heavy-duty air mattress, light sleeping bag, pillow and towel. Our French guides were also the chefs and did amazing things for meals working in the very rustic kitchen under the thatch outbuilding on right.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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Old Man of the Trees

We heard but didn't see monkeys at the outpost camp; this fellow sat just above our heads on a tree over the road back to Pedasi.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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The Wild Coast Boys — wanted in 36 countries and sought by Interpol — pose for a rare photo. Okay, I made that up. This group of wild coast boys consists of (from left to right), yours truly, Pascal Artieda (who owns the operation), Chris Russell (now with Shimano), Keeton Eoff with Hobie, Brandon Cotton with Okuma, Kevin Nakada with Hobie and Aurelien Perez (chief guide for the kayak outpost operation).Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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Beware-a the Cubera!

Muscling 60 pounds or so of irate cubera snapper from its rocky lair is tricky even from a power boat, so it's a real feat from a kayak, but Keeton Eoff managed it after the monster struck a slow-trolled live blue runner.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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The Junkyard Dog of Eastern Pacific Reefs

This big cubera looks nothing but mean, but it's probably more confused immediately after its release at the kayak.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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An Abundance of Roosters

Roosterfish are a common nearshore game fish in this part of Panama. On the first morning I pedaled out from the outpost camp, I caught a rooster 30-plus just in front of the camp.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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Mighty Big Rooster

My personal best for roosterfish was this 60-pounder that I fought for nearly 45 minutes on one of the days we fished out of the lodge at Pedasi, a very different sort of area than the wild coast at the bottom of the Azuero Peninsula.Jason Arnold (jasonarnoldphoto.com)
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Hook Swap

Since I knew we'd be releasing most of the fish we caught, I swapped out the treble hooks that come standard on large poppers, minnow plugs and deep divers with single hooks — and was glad I had. For that, I used Eagle Claw's Lazer Sharp and Trokar short-shank live-bait hook, rigged as shown. (By summer of 2015, VMC should have available its No. 7266 strong inline hooks that will make it a snap to simply slide the hook right onto the lure's split rings.) Dealing with one or two hook points on a thrashing fish next to a kayak is a whole lot less problematic than contending with six points on two treble hooks.Zach Stovall
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One Last Yellowfin

Last tuna of the day — I caught this one on a Yo-Zuri Sashimi Bull a short pedal out from the camp. A glance at Google Earth for the Azuero Peninsula shows the depths dropping steeply away almost at the shoreline here, so blue-water pelagics aren't far off.Doug Olander