Panama’s Big Game Fishing Camp
Text and photographs by Mary L. Peachin
Rich green plankton, microscopic organisms that inhabit pelagic zones, is dense surrounding Panama’s underwater seamounts. Rising from the Continental Shelf to a 120 beneath the surface, upwellings carry bait-rich nutrients. These strong plankton-filled currents attract fish—big fish, those record-breaking billfish and tuna of angler’s dreams, to Panama’s Pacific coast.
The U.S. Navy survey ship, USS Hannibal, performed depth soundings and surveys prior to the 1914 Panama Canal opening and gave the renowned fishing grounds its name. Along with Isla Montuosa, these two prime locations are only several hours from Panama’s Big Game Fishing Camp. Located atop Isla Boca Brava, it is a ten minute boat ride from Chirquí Province’s village of Boca Chica.
Big Game boats drop their lines nineteen miles into the Pacific where they fish a 3,000 foot drop off with a 600 foot platform than runs forty six miles to Hannibal Bank. It is perfect underwater structure for pelagic fish
Carlos Patiño met me on the dock in Veraguas Province’s small fishing village of Puerto Mutis. Following a week of diving Coiba Island on the M/V Yemaya, it would be a two hour drive to Panama’s Big Game Fishing Camp.
Along the road, Guaymi Indians sold colorful dresses and beaded jewelry from roadside stalls. The Chiriquí rain forest was edged by fields of pineapples ready for harvest. A finca or ranch advertised Brahma cattle.
My introduction to Panama’s Big Game Fishing Camp was a tram ride up a steep hill through the rainforest. Birds of Paradise bloomed, howler monkeys growled. I was greeted at the top by manager Captain Lee Campbell.
A former client, John Beck, who use to fish with Lee in Florida, and a local partner, Robert Trowbridge, selected the site of secluded Boca Brava, because of its availability of water. Built in 2002, its proximity to Boca Chica provided them with power. In addition to Boca Brava camp, they also built a fuel and ice dock on the mainland.
While Panama’s Big Game Fishing Camp caters almost exclusively to anglers chasing billfish and tuna, there are days when the weather conditions prevent access to the open ocean’s world class fishing grounds. Occasionally a day off from fighting monster fish might be a welcomed relief for aching muscles.
Few anglers are aware of the quality of bottom fishing in the mangrove between Boca Chica’s Tres Hermanos Bay and Panama’s city of Pedregal. Yellow mouth corvina may be elusive, but multiple species of sizable snapper: red, yellow, mangrove, mutton, and the prized cubera are basically unfished.
Captain Lee Campbell invited some expert anglers to join me. Vance Licata, an ex-pat Californian, but currently a Panama resident, Uruguayan Claudio Iglesias, and his nephew Costa Rican Federico Hampl, whose family holds 100 IGFA world fishing records.
In Bahia Tres Hermanos, about ten minutes from camp, by six in the morning, we were jigging for large yellow-mouth corvina, and various species of snapper. But first, mate Narcisso tirelessly threw a casting net to capture live sardines for bait.
Captain Alejandro then throttled towards the ocean mouth for the typically more productive incoming tide. We caught various species ranging between six to ten pounds. We released the Cubera, a slow maturing fish that might be 75-years old. Similar to red, the yellow snapper is named for the coloration of its tail.
Afternoons tended to less productive. Casting Yo-zuri poppers, we jigged, casted unweighted sardines, and trolled, and popped lures for pargo, red snapper, snook, corvina, and a variety of jacks. We trolled rapalas and dropped live sardines using a 4-6 ounce weight. We fished in tidal waters at depths between twenty to sixty feet.
Our third and final day, after netting bait, we caught about half a dozen red and a mangrove snapper. We also caught and quickly released the same number of catfish. Surrounded by four species of mangroves, it was a peaceful alternative to the adrenaline rush of billfishing.
About the Camp:
At the top of the tram is the main lodge with a bar overlooking the Pacific Ocean and rainforest. After a long day of fishing, a cold beer and tasty salsa is a good time to share fishing tales. In a former life, Captain Lee Campbell was a chef. He does the cooking and his freshly caught fish is excellent. An angler won’t go hungry.
Breakfast is served at 5:30 and anglers are on the water with a packed lunch by 6:00.
Accommodations are cabins with two large bedrooms, a bath with walk-in shower, and a small sitting area. Each of the four cabins has a patio overlooking the rainforest.
If you go: