One question I get asked all the time is where is my favorite place to fish? Without hesitation I reply Panama and, in particular, the Tropic Star Lodge. The next question is…why?
There’s a lot of incredible fishing in Central America, but my heart is at TSL because I’ve been going there since 1991, first with Raleigh Werking, who was chasing light tackle world records at the time. Since then, I have been twice per year, totaling over fifty different expeditions. In that time, my children spent many hours fighting big fish, and I shot at least a dozen different TV shows and documentaries from this one location. More IGFA world records have been set there than in any other fishing location on the planet. That’s how consistent the fishing has been all these years.
Recently, my wife Gillian noted that I had actually spent a year of my life there! I’ve had so many fantastic experiences and photos that I could write a book about TSL. And so I did. It is called Panama Paradise.
The emphasis here is on marlin fishing, as blue marlin and black marlin are there all year round, though the best time for blacks is December to April. Sailfish come and go and striped marlin show up in March and April. The hot spot is the Pinas Reef where one catches live bait and puts them out right away for a black marlin. Giant dolphinfish, called dorado, are there all year as well as yellowfin tuna, which often run with schools of spotted dolphins. I have been in the water with some amazing baitball experiences there filming the destruction of bait schools by tunas, dolphins and sharks. Then there is inshore fishing primarily for roosterfish, big almaco jacks, wahoo, cubera snapper and broomtail grouper. Anglers use poppers, fly or live bait with great results. And as you are doing all that, you are surrounded by the backdrop of lush, pristine Darien rainforest.
Like many small countries, Panama’s marine conservation record is complicated. Panama now protects billfish legally for recreational fishing only and they are not supposed to be landed. By presidential decree, there’s a 20-mile, no commercial fishing zone that stretches out from the lodge. However, there are 1,300 longline permits issued to local artisanal fishermen, and they are often apparent when you are fishing further offshore. I keep reminding successive Panamanian presidents that billfish are much more valuable to the Panamanian economy (and those of all Central America and Caribbean countries) as a living resource rather than as a fillet in the fish market. When they realize that tourism dollars have a more profound impact than killing fish, they may begin to limit longline fishing.
Of course, marine conservation was not even on the radar when TSL was founded In 1961 by Texas oil tycoon Ray Smith, who built the lodge to cater to his friends and clients. Two changes in ownership saw the Kittredge family take over in 1976 and they have been doing a great job ever since. Nowadays, Terri (Kittredge) and husband Mike Andrews own and run the lodge, and their commitment, both to conservation and to customers, is evident in everything they do. For those of you who don’t know, TSL is about 100 miles from the nearest road in the Darien jungle, so you have to get there by boat or plane. The accommodation, the gardens and pool and, above all, the staff are amazing. Fishing Director Albert Battoo runs a fleet of 31-ft. Bertrams with some of the best big game crews in the world dedicated to responsible catch and release fishing.
While the world constantly changes around us, one aspect that has not changed in the 23 years I’ve been going to TSL is the amazing fishing. If you haven’t been there yet, you should put it on your bucket list. It’s not only a fantastic fishing trip, but also inspires a passion for conserving all of our fishing resources.
Tight lines. Guy.