A Memorable Catch: Fishing Panama's Tuna Coast
I’ve never been an avid fisherman and neither has my friend Dave. But after being offered a chance to fish Panama's renown Tuna Coast, we would have been foolish to turn down the opportunity. Little did I know, this was going to be the most memorable fishing trip of my life.
The Tuna Coast as seen from Destilideros, a small community outside of Pedasi, Panama
Dave and I set out with my buddy Craig on his twenty foot Contender on a calm morning with particularly placid seas. We launched at six thirty am on the high tide out of the mouth of the Pedasi river, flowing past the gnarled branches of the red mangrove trees that surrounded us on all sides. Moving slowly out of the river into the ocean, we picked up speed and made a direct shot to a fishing area around ten miles off the coast of Pedasi known as “Pargo Grande.” Craig set up four outriggers, each with two lines and we began to slowly troll the waters as the tropical sun raced high into the sky.
This area is known not only for its namesake pargo, or red snapper (Lutjanus cyanopterus), but also for massive runs of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), bonito (Sarda lineolata), dorado (Coryphaena hippurus) and broomtail grouper (Mycteroperca xenarcha). The past few times I had been fishing with Craig resulted in a few small Pacific mackerel (Scomberomorus sierra) and dorado, one of which was big enough to keep. Today I expected something similar.
Watching the frenzy of a Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares) run is mesmerizing (Painting by Carey Chen)
After about an hour and a half of trolling without the slightest nibble, we were surprised by an explosive splash about fifty meters off stern and Craig’s voice shouting excitedly “Marlin! Marlin!” The fish leaped up out of the water once again, audibly smacking the rubber squid lure with its bill. It was a fleeting moment however, as the fish disappeared into the blue. It ran with the line and the situation immediately intensified.
Trying not to get pulled overboard by what was an absolute beast of a fish
Craig had equipped both Dave and I with rod belts, complete with a plastic pocket for the butt of the rod. He passed me the rod and implored me to start reeling, as a fish this size could easily take one hundred meters of line within half a minute. The Black Marlin (Istiompax indica) is one of the fastest fishes in the ocean, able to swim over eighty miles per hour. The only way I can explain the feeling I had at that moment was an adrenaline and cortisol rush that urged me to fight. It was also a feeling of unpreparedness, as I had never done anything like this or even imagined that I would get so lucky. I could almost feel the desperation of the fish on the other side of the line and the profound struggle it was enduring.
As I reeled, I was instructed how to effectively gain on the fish: slowly and steadily pull the rod upwards to a vertical position, then swiftly lower the rod while reeling. After nearly ten minutes of this, my arms, back, and legs began to burn and my breath grew heavy. After all, we had no seat and the fishing was done standing up, with legs bent, which put a lot of pressure on the lower back. I needed to pass the rod to Dave.
I watched Dave in his first few reels and was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of cruelness. It was unfair. There were two of us – three to be truthful with Cholo, the boathand, stepping in as well – and one fish. I thought about how in a perfect world, this battle would be man against beast, not three men against beast. It was simply not fair.
As I took the rod again, I began to hope that the mighty fish would continue to struggle as we pulled it to the side of the boat. Black Marlin are a catch and release only species in Panama, and it was our full intention to return this fish and all its grace back to the Pacific alive. We reeled and reeled and reeled, passing the rod back and forth every five minutes each time fatigue set in. This lasted for close to two hours. Towards the end, the fish began to feel like a sunken ship – a dead weight on the end of the line. My fear was confirmed when we pulled the exhausted creature to the surface. Its vibrant turquoise hues had faded to an opaque blue and the body remained motionless. Part of the gill filament had been pushed out of the operculum, an indication that it had exhausted itself to the point of death trying to escape.
Although the brilliant blue colors of the skin had quickly faded, the Marlin's eye remained ice blue
Never in my life had I been responsible for killing anything so big and beautiful. This was the marine equivalent to a leopard – a giant masterpiece of the seas. I quickly began to justify what I had done in my head: this is a big fish, over nine feet long, and it has had plentiful time to reproduce; we will feed half the town with its meat; if it had not succumbed to the fight we most certainly would have released it.
After trying to revive it by flipping it right-side up and running water over the gills, we bobbled with it awkwardly trying to get it up into the boat. We never weighed it because our scale was too small, but locals guessed that it was between 350 to 400 pounds. Getting this beast of a fish onto the boat was a cumbersome job for the four of us. Cholo gaffed the tail, Craig had the bill, and Dave and I both lifted the body. Perhaps the most stunning thing about the fish was its turquoise blue eyes, that didn’t fade one bit in color.
The Black Marlin (Istiompax indica) is a catch and release fish in Panama. Unfortunately, the fish had died before we got it to the side of the boat. It was our intention to release it had it survived the fight. Getting the giant Marlin into the boat was a struggle I will not forget
Knowing that we had a lot of work ahead of us, we pulled in the lines, packed ice on the fish, and set off for a brief stop at Isla Iguana. On our way over, we watched a number of Galapagos Shearwaters (Puffinus subalaris) flying low over the water. This species is an endemic breeder on the Galapagos Islands, but can make its way as far north as Oaxaca, Mexico.
Galapagos Shearwaters (Puffinus subalaris) flew close to our boat. Picture by William Hull.
Once behind the island, two humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) breached simultaneously way out in the distance and we raced over to get a better look at them. Two adults and a calf continued to loll about on the surface, occasionally passing under our boat and surfacing for air only meters off the bow.
We moved in closer to the island and came into a pod of Pacific Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata), who leaped energetically out of the water into our wake for some time. Their entire bodies could be seen through the crystalline blue waters.
As clouds billowed on the horizon threatening rain, we made for the mainland. On the beach, a friend greeted us with a tarp, which we used to unload the Marlin and transfer it to the back of a pickup. I remember the walk across the hot sand and the muscles aching in my calves as six of us hauled the fish across the beach.
Record length and weight for the Black Marlin (Istiompax indica) is 15.3 feet and 1,650 pounds, respectively. We guessed that this fish weighed between 350 and 400 pounds.
Once back at Craig’s place, we used the torque of his truck to hoist the fish up to hang on the rafter of his garage. The fish was simply too heavy for us to manage pulling it up with brute strength. Photos were taken and we transferred the fish to a local butcher, Niato, who artfully sliced the Marlin into giant chunks of steak that we bagged individually. The majority of the meat was gifted to people in town and Dave and I kept a few filets for ourselves.
This was a day I will never forget. In fact, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had out on the ocean. I never imagined I would get to experience the thrill of catching a Black Marlin – something sport fisherman will pay thousands of dollars to do. I consider myself lucky and only hope that these magnificent animals continue to thrive in these waters into the future to provide other lucky anglers with the same thrill.