The rubber band I’d set up as a release clip snapped, and line poured out of my spinning reel. Yanking the rod out of the holder, I brought the tip to a 45-degree angle and closed the bail. The line immediately came taut, and our second Pacific sailfish of the morning exploded out of the water.
Like all anglers, I relish every opportunity to cross a dream angling destination off my bucket list. But I was downright giddy when the stars aligned and it was decided that this year, the Salt Water Sportsman annual editorial planning meeting would take place at the fabled Tropic Star Lodge in Piñas Bay, Panama.
Eight of us made the trip. Some had never been to the region, a few had not caught a billfish before, and one had been hoping to score his first marlin for more than 20 years. And while we’d all be working hard our first couple of days at the lodge, the promise of the three days of fishing to follow had us all eager to pack our bags and go.
Are We There Yet?
Some three hours after leaving U.S. soil, we landed in Panama City, the country’s capital, where Tropic Star Lodge representatives met our group, accompanied us as we cleared immigration and customs, and whisked us to a top hotel to spend the night. The same folks fetched us the next morning for the 40-minute flight along Panama’s Pacific coast, destined for a landing strip on the edge of the dense Darien jungle. The 10-minute boat ride into Piñas Bay that came next brought us to the lodge at last.
TSL guest relations manager Adrienne Reeve welcomed us graciously and treated us to a cocktail and the lay of the land. Soon after, we unloaded in our rooms our maximum allowed weight in computers, camera gear and — for the couple of us who won’t leave home without it — fishing tackle, then turned our attention to the striking scenery enveloping the lodge before enjoying the first of many succulent dinners.
Hard at Work
Two days of reviews, critiques, pitched ideas and discussions followed, the fruits of which we hope will enhance Salt Water Sportsman going forward, in print and online. But then the moment finally came to get unplugged. Everyone put away laptops and printouts and reconvened at the bar to cement our fishing plans.
Canada, England and Miss Alaska, all single-screw Bertram 31s, were the boats assigned to us, and we decided editor-in-chief Glenn Law would stay on the first, publisher Scott Salyers on the second, and yours truly — senior editor Alex Suescun — on the third, while the rest of the group rotated between the three boats each day. That way, the more experienced anglers could offer some coaching, if needed, and help the others make the most of the terrific big-game angling opportunity.
The wake-up knock on our doors came promptly at 5:30 a.m., with Patterson, the lodge restaurant’s hardworking maitre d’, handing out cups of coffee to clear the cobwebs. By 7 a.m., the boats started pulling away from the dock, and as is customary in that part of the world, procuring live bait was the first task for all. Using tiny feathers and spoons, digital editor Devin Golden and I caught small bonito and tuna to later bridle and troll for billfish.
Come 9 a.m., Flaco, our captain, had Miss Alaska 14 miles offshore, towing baits along a well-defined color change. Just 20 minutes after, a big sail pounced on one of them and Golden was hooked up to his first billfish, a magnificent acrobat that rewarded us with seven wild jumps. Not an hour later, I recorded our second sailfish release. Golden then caught a nice dorado, and each of us added one more sail to our scorecard in the afternoon.
Aboard Canada, managing editor Megan Williams released a gorgeous blue marlin after an hourlong tug of war, and marketplace manager Bill “The Winch” Simkins caught a pair of sails, earning his new nickname by cranking in both fish in record time.
Meanwhile, on England, SWS designer Keilani Rodriguez won her battles with a sail and a powerful blue marlin that, estimated at 300 pounds, came really close to tripling her weight. Editorial director Shawn Bean added a sailfish and a dorado to the daily total.
The bite came earlier the next day, when Bean and Simkins joined me aboard Miss Alaska. Despite missing a couple of shots, each brought a sailfish to the boat by 9:30 a.m., and a third came unbuttoned after a brief series of jumps.
VHF reports revealed the other two boats with members of the SWS crew also did well. Aboard Canada, Rodriguez bested her second blue marlin, another 300-pounder. And on England, Williams amassed two sailfish releases and boated a gargantuan 50-pound dorado. Golden also did well with the colorful pelagics, catching an impressive pair of 40 and 50 pounds, later tacking on yet another blue marlin.
Day three was “Ladies Day” aboard Miss Alaska, as Rodriguez and Williams hopped into the cockpit and settled in for the run to the fishing grounds. With one day to go, they were second and third in our group’s “fish-for-bragging-rights” tourney, trailing Golden by a scant few points. Bait, however, was hard to come by, and we didn’t get our spread in the water until almost 10 a.m., so we missed the morning bite.
We finally raised the first sail right around noon. Rock, paper and scissors determined Rodriguez would get first shot, and she wasn’t about to squander the opportunity. The fish struck and went airborne more than a dozen times. But the spinning outfit in Rodriguez’s hands was lighter than the conventional she’d used before, making it easy for her to counter the fish’s moves.
Soon Elio, our mate, leadered the sail, estimated at 110 pounds. That’s when we realized the hook wasn’t in the fish’s mouth; it snared the leader, forming a lasso around the bill. No wonder the sail was such a jumper. That bit of luck helped Rodriguez nose ahead of Golden on the leader board.
A downpour blanketed the area in early afternoon, but Flaco kept us right on the color change. We’d just passed a bird perched on a refrigerator when the port rigger line went off. Williams was in business. And with the chance to make the race even tighter, she fought a sail in the rain and brought it in for release in short order.
The sky cleared in time for our run back to port, and we eagerly watched for other boats with release flags flapping on their riggers. One to starboard flew eight and another had five, but neither was carrying members of our group.
At the dock, we learned Bean caught two sailfish, our editor-in-chief had finally grabbed a rod and got himself one, and Golden had caught another, sewing up the championship.
Our final tally was 20 sails, four blue marlin, five big dorado, one small yellowfin tuna and another dozen shots at billfish.
Unfortunately, Scott Salyers, who gave up three chances at blue marlin to younger members of our staff, will have to keep waiting for his first. But Richie White, Tropic Star’s fishing director, says Neptune rewards such acts of selflessness, so it shouldn’t be long before a proud Salyers poses for a snapshot with the marlin of a lifetime.