Jim and Connie Elek won the highest bid on an expedition to Tropic Star Lodge in Panama at the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation auction last October at the IGFA headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale. We set the dates for the second week of August 2010, and I was going to fish with them for two of the six days of fishing. Both Jim and Connie are experienced boaters and have already collected some of my original art. I was looking forward to sharing a couple of days fishing with them in the best fishing spot in the western hemisphere.
Our trip to the lodge via Panama City was uneventful. There was some rain around, but it was summertime and to be expected. Also in our group was GHI staffer Jay Perez and his wife Dana, for whom this was her first visit to the lodge. The lodge was near full, doing some good business for this time of year, but then again the word was getting out about the good marlin fishing in August and September.
On our first morning, Sunday, August 15, I was on the Tropic Star with Captain Alberto and mate Donald, accompanied by the Eleks. It was pouring with rain, the sea was very lumpy, and on the way out I wondered what the Eleks were thinking about during their first day of fishing at Pinas Bay. We trolled live bonitos hoping for a marlin bite, but went 0/4 on sailfish. We were struggling, and the big dorados that ate our baits also got away. Jay and Dana who were fishing on South Africa with Captain Gilberto also drew a blank.
The second day was a lot better as the early morning clouds soon cleared for a beautiful sunrise as we ran offshore. Normally we would stop by the Pinas reef to collect fresh bait, but bait had been scarce there so Alberto opted to run out offshore. Near the 100 fathom line we found a big school of bonito and quickly loaded up the tuna tubes and put out a spread of three live bonito.
It was just a minute after that Alberto called out, as the bonito on the left rigger was inhaled by a hungry marlin. It was Connie’s turn and she jumped in the chair, came tight on the marlin and it took to the air right away, jumping toward the boat several times. The fish grey-hounded across the stern as I caught all the action on my Canon. After the first round of jumps the fish went down sulking, recovering as Connie worked on her first marlin. It was a black marlin around 300 pounds.
The marlin came up again, tail and dorsal out, and suddenly took off, tail-walking as I nailed the shots. I had a PSAT (Popup Satellite Archival Tag) on board, so I asked the mate to go easy on the marlin on the leader as I wanted to control the marlin before deploying the tag. The marlin had other ideas, as it started another round of incredible jumps. Connie was enjoying every second of this interaction, and was doing a great job on the rod, bringing the marlin to the boat in 20 minutes. Donald was firm on the leader and I planted the PSAT in the left shoulder, not as high as I would have liked but solidly planted in the muscle. Off she went. We hugged and high-fived on board. Jim and Connie were ecstatic. Soon after we put the baits back out, Alberto spotted another black marlin feeding among the bonito, but we did not get a bite. We spent the rest of the day having fun with some 40-pound dorado, and a few sails that came and went. Eight marlin were caught by the lodge boats for the day, plus Jay nailed a 450-pound blue marlin on the South Africa. Things were looking up.
Day three was looking bleak, with lots of rain early on. I had an afternoon flight into the city so I fished with Jay and Dana on the South Africa. We ran out to the same area on the 100 fathom line and found bait right away. It was threatening heavy rain when Gilberto nearly fell off the flying bridge in excitement as a big marlin pounced on the left rigger bonito. The bonito swerved, the marlin followed, head, shoulders and tail out kicking up spray, and Dana was in the chair. I was shaking with excitement…what a bite! The marlin did nothing for a few minutes then realized it was hooked, and started heading away and jumped across the stern, the bonito flying out of its mouth. It was a black – nice one, too!
With the rain came lightning and Dana took it all in her stride, mate Vicente guiding the chair, rain gear on. The lightning crashed around us, lighting up the gray sky with vivid streaks of pink. Several strikes were close and one was right on us…wow! The rain cleared once and a big marlin came jumping again, and I thought we would soon have this fish, but it went down again and fought hard. It is not easy to catch a 500-pound marlin on 50-pound line. After 150 minutes the fish broke off right near the boat. We ran in to the lodge as I had to skedaddle to Panama City that afternoon. It was somewhat surreal to be fighting a huge black marlin in pouring rain in the morning and then be in a bustling city that afternoon…
My daughter Jessica flew in to Panama City that evening to meet me and we were kindly hosted by the Sheraton Caesar Park Hotel. The occasion, I forgot to mention, was a most important one for me and my family. I was being awarded the Vasco Nunez de Balboa Grand Cross, the symbol of the highest recognition from the Panamanian government. The morning after our arrival we were collected by Dr. Marcos Ostrander and his wife Irene and taken to the Ministry of Tourism. The Panamanian government put on a wonderful ceremony, with many people from the Ministry of Tourism and Protocol, as well as many from the press and tourism industry present. The Minister of Tourism, His Excellency the Honorable Saloman Shamah and his wife Rachel were on hand to give the address and present the award, the highest given to a non-Panamanian. It was a huge honor. I must add the same honor was given to Ray Smith after he built Club de Pesca de Panama (now known as Tropic Star Lodge) in the early 1960s.
After the ceremony we headed back to the lodge, getting back in time for dinner to hear that the bite was good – Jay and Dana had converted a double-header blue marlin, and Jim Elek had got a 400-pound blue as well. They were rocking!
Jessica came out with us on the Thursday and we managed to catch a nice sailfish for Jay, his first, and jumped off a couple more. It rained quite a bit, but there was plenty of bait so we persisted with the marlin fishing. Then we heard that three lodge boats were in a school of spotted dolphins and tuna about 11 miles away, so we cranked it up and headed over. Sure enough, near a couple of Panamanian longline vessels we could see the lodge boats all fighting fish. The birds were working, the dolphins splashed and the bait was being corralled by predators near the surface.
We slowed down, Gilberto picked his spot and two big bonito baits went over. I was putting the line in the outrigger clip when an explosion engulfed the hapless bonito. It looked like a car had fallen in the water where the bait just was. The line was ripped out of my hand, but Jessica was up and got tight on the fish. It took 90 minutes to catch, and during all that time schools of rainbow chub and mackerel scads hung beneath the shadow of the boat. Dolphins came and went and I was hoping they would not swim into Jessica’s line. She toughed it out, and Vicente wired the big tuna and I gaffed, but it took four of us to lift it into the boat. “Grande!” exclaimed Gilberto. Enough tuna for the whole village! We headed in and weighed the tuna at 230 pounds, the heaviest caught this year at the Tropic Star. Big marlin, big sailfish, big dorado, big tuna…what more could you ask for on a fishing trip!
Our last day, the rain cleared, and we had a sunny day…bang! The right rigger went down, and Jay hooked up to a blue marlin that moved so fast through the air I couldn’t keep up with my camera, and I failed to get a single jump shot. We backed down pretty hard after 10 minutes and while I am juggling Jay’s video and my Canon, Gilberto did one of his machine gun bursts of excited commentary. I was momentarily confused. We were backing down on a marlin and then another blue was right beside the boat trying to eat one of the live bonito in the water whose leader was wrapped on the cleat by the outrigger! Wow! How often does that happen! Where was my professional cameraman when I needed him? (By the way, the girls decided to stay on the beach today so we were short handed, and I was on photo duty.) Vicente flipped the bait out away from the boat and the water lit up with iridescent blue as the marlin pounced on the bait. “Over to you Vicente… that is your fish!” I was hoping to get the jump shot. The blue exploded out behind the boat, going away in high leaps…double-header blue marlin…AGAIN!
It was a great finale to a wonderful trip. Jim and Connie Elek fulfilled their angling dreams, with a black for Connie and a blue for each of them. Connie said she would stand up and tell the audience at this year’s fundraiser all about her Tropic Star experience. In addition they are returning with friends in early February 2011, which is the height of black marlin season. As is the tradition at the Tropic Star Lodge, Albert Battoo, dock master and photographer at TSL, handed out the First Fish Award to Connie – she was presented with a collage of my photos of her black marlin jumping. It brought her close to tears.
It had been the trip of a lifetime. That is the magic of Tropic Star Lodge, a Panama Paradise.
The GHOF appreciates the very generous donation of a trip for two by Tropic Star Lodge. Please visit www.tropicstar.com to make your reservations. Tight lines and good luck, Guy.
The PSAT was provided to the staff and crews at Tropic Star Lodge under the auspices of the Offield Family Foundation for Billfish Studies, with whom the GHOF collaborates and provides funding for these PSATs in order to learn more about black marlin migrations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.