4 Days in Panama profiles the incredible fishing and life experiences provided by Captain Shane Jarvis’ Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge.
There is much to like about the Gulf of Chiriqui. Situated in Panama’s western Pacific Coast, the Gulf is a national park that ranks among North America’s most remote and ruggedly beautiful places.
Home to Coiba Island—a United Nations World Heritage Site—and the famous Hannibal Bank, the Gulf of Chiriqui is populated by strings islands and underwater topography. An intensely productive area, the waters of the Gulf play host to some of the best sportfishing opportunities in the world.
From Hannibal Bank to islands like Montuosa, Jicaron and Ladrones, gigantism, adventure and legend define the fishing here. It is the kind of place that inhabits your dreams long after you leave it. In any case, this part of the world and its inhabitants regularly visit me while I’m trying to sleep.
The fish here are large and the type that are associated with adventure and wonder. If catching sailfish off of Palm Beach were like going to Augusta, Georgia to watch the Master’s, catching black marlin and refrigerator-sized cubera snapper off of Montousa Island would be like going on safari in Tanzania to throw sandwiches at cape buffalo.
Were it not enough that the fish that frequent this place are of the remote and mysterious type, the things also have a tendency to grow big. Roosterfish of 70 pounds, cubera upwards of 50, black marlin to 700 or 800, and yellowfin to 250 (and bigger) are not uncommon here. The other interesting thing about the fishing here is that you can target them all in the same day—in zones that are much closer to each other than in other places in the world.
Pete and Hanna Robbins: Half Past First Cast
This trip had been a year in the making. It involved a couple of friends of mine, Pete and Hanna Robbins. Pete and I had been corresponding over the phone and e-mail for a while.
Robbins is a senior writer at Bassmaster and writes for a pile of fishing and other magazines all over the place. Hanna and Pete recently started a fishing travel service—Half Past First Cast.
What started with the half joke, “Why don’t you invite some of your bass guys to come throw poppers at real fish?” (no matter what type of fish someone likes to catch, every fisherman likes talking shit to other types of fishermen), soon turned into a group heading to Panama intent to catch yellowfin tuna on top waters.
While the trip was our first meeting in person, the experience proved the thesis that fishing fast tracks friendships. After all, when you meet another person that is crazy/irrational/awesome enough to travel the world trying to catch big fish in exotic places it makes sense to become friends.
Pete and Hanna have fished all over the United States, travel yearly to Mexico’s Lake El Salto, catch salmon and halibut in Alaska, peacock bass in the Amazon. Pete’s Facebook profile picture is a photo of him holding a tigerfish that he caught in Africa.
When you have the hopes and dreams of a pile of bass fisherman at stake, there’s no time for half assing a trip. You have to call in the professionals. It was time to call my old buddy Captain Shane Jarvis, owner of the Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge.
Captain Shane Jarvis: Panama Sport Fish Island Lodge
Captain Shane Jarvis is a hell of a guy. We first met in 2012 when he fished a group for us when I was working on the West Coast Fishing Club’s mothership charter operation.
We’ve been buddies ever since. While we’ve talked more shit than I can remember—and even tried to plan a fishing trip or two, this would be my first visit to his lodge.
Shane first came down to Panama to help his father build out a vacation home on Isla Paridas in 2003. The company he worked for had recently sold and his plan was to build the house and fish for a year or so before returning to the States.
He never left. His first building—now a beautiful guest house for fishermen at the lodge—is now accompanied by several others that he and his general manager, Steve Folk, built themselves. In addition to his building, they lease a couple of other structures— including an awesome beach front bar and grill that sits a quarter of mile from the lodge.
Jarvis operates a fleet of three 31 World Cats. He lives full time in Panama and makes a living catching the beejezus out of big ass tuna, black marlin, and roosterfish. While he is in the hospitality industry, his occupation is perhaps more accurately described as the business of blowing people’s minds.
The Fishing in Panama
And so it was.
I met Pete and Hanna Robbins and three other wonderfully friendly bass fishermen—all of whose perspectives on what fishing can be and what fish can do would soon be altered. Joining us were Dale Steele from west Texas and Ray and Sandee Heredia from Maryland.
Our primary target was yellowfin tuna, but we’d try to catch all kinds of stuff.
The first day out I fished with Pete and Hanna. Theirs would be a thorough introduction to the wonderful world of run and gun tuna fishing.
We ran out of Montuosa Island and found schools of porpoise. Shane would position the boat at the head of the porpoise and we’d throw giant Yozuri poppers into the mix to entice yellowfin. We found willing participants.
We whacked a pile of tuna… more than 20—mostly on poppers. We had a couple nice ones—in the range of 80 pounds whiff on the lures. The 20 to 45 pounders that we managed to catch showed their pedigree—creating white water explosions upon hook up before running like scolded cats.
Pete and Hanna were proselytized. Believers in the magical wonder that is slinging topwater baits to yellowfin tuna.
We ran closer to the island and found a bait ball corralled on the ocean’s surface. A herd of frigate birds took turns snagging little blue runners. Little yellowfin were joined by a hand full of eight or 10-foot bull sharks that piled up from underneath. The hapless baits were given two miserable choices—winged death from above or being chomped from below.
Panama Fishing: Days Two to Four
The second day I fished with Hanna and Dale with Captain Juan aboard the Top Cat. We caught a couple nice cubera snapper on live bonito, an amberjack and a sierra mackerel. We had another snapper chomped cubera that didn’t connect.
The same day, Pete, Ray and Sandee triple teamed a 130 pound yellowfin. It was to be the largest tuna we caught on the trip. The big tuna delivered an ass kicking—as big tuna are known to do. The pictures are wonderful.
The third day, Pete and Dale and I ran after the tuna with Shane. We got em pretty good. In the afternoon we found a couple of acres of bonito swimming offshore of Montuosa and live baited there to end the day. The animal we were after didn’t show up, but that is that is the type of place where that animal (the black marlin) lives.
The other boat caught a couple nice roosterfish and an assortment of other interesting inshore dwellers. In the morning, they saw a boat hook a double header of black marlin 200 yards away while fishing on the Hannibal Bank.
The last day, Ray, Sandee and I did more of the same. Tuna fishing offshore with Shane. The other boat fished inshore and got Hanna her roosterfish.
It was a wonderful trip. Lots of tuna. Big ass cubera snapper and a hand full of nice roosterfish. We pulled off a black marlin, saw three others caught nearby.
We witnessed many natural wonders—spinner dolphins flinging themselves airborne, sharks on bait balls, giant mother lodes of frigates, boobies and shearwaters. All the while immersed in the rugged, natural beauty of the region’s land and seascapes.
It is not possible to express the sum total of experiences such as this in terms of fishing alone. That was central to the genesis of FishTravelEat.
While catching tuna on topwater is a wonderful thing to do, the feeling of being recharged and refreshed after leaving the place results just as much from other non-fishing related aspects of the experience.
To start with, Panama is a land full of happy, life-loving people. There is no pretense on the boats here. The small trivial nonsense that preoccupies so much of the modern world seems not to have made its way here yet.
In a world where every key stroke and sentence is sometimes moderated by fear of how others might interpret it, the shit talk through the VHF radios on the fishing boats was wonderfully refreshing.
There is a captain of a local long line boat who has a big nose. His nick name? Bufeo Malo… or bad dolphin (the type of large porpoise that will steal your live baits (the bad part) and has a particularly large snout).
The food is another wonderful aspect of the experience. Chef Eddie Arrue makes appetizers every night before dinner. They are hellacious portions of incredible food.
The most remarkable is his tuna, seven ways. Sashimi, seared tuna, tuna poke, tuna cakes, and three types of sushi roll. The offerings cover the entire dining room table.
And then, of course there are the friendships. Fishing fast tracks them.
Spending five nights on a tropical island—surrounded by some of the best fishing in the world, with piles of great food (and cold beers) everywhere you look—most commonly results in one thing. Friendships with those around you.
The Take Aways
As we all returned to the office—intent to pay the piper from six days away—we exchanged pictures and video over email.
I edited a few of the good ones (like those in this article). Pete’s response? “You’re like a crack dealer!”
While his allusion to introducing an experience to which others might want to repeatedly enjoy was a very logical one, the “crack” part may have been a bit off. I think that introducing bass fishermen to topwater tuna fishing is probably more along the lines of what a PCP dealer might do.
After all, both PCP and topwater tuna bites both cause hallucinations. The next time Pete and Hanna are walking the dog with a chug bug or skitterwalk, they may well see that 130-pound yellowfin pile on top of it.