Each year in October and November, the world famous Tropic Star Lodge in Panama closes for a few weeks of renovations and rest for the staff that typically have worked a 300 day season. The next season opens around Thanksgiving week with an international tournament, or torneo and teams come from all over the western hemisphere to participate. It is also a qualifying event for the International Tournament of Champions in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico next year.
In addition to getting ready for the tournament I was acquiring more footage for my documentary about billfish in Panama so award winning producer George Schellenger was on the expedition with me. In an earlier visit I had interviewed the President of Panama Ricardo Martinelli about his two new decrees aimed at conserving game fish in Panama’s 200 mile EEZ.
Three teams from Cayman participated again this year including the reigning champs and they arrived a few days early to enjoy the fishing before all the teams arrived. I was joined by Cayman restaurant owner Andi Marcher and friend Jason Ward. We jumped aboard the “Australia” with captain Gavilan Cordoba and mate Ermel Sousa and headed out to the 100 fathom curve. Our first afternoon can be described as a classic….leaving with no bait we pulled lures and carved a path through the attacking dorado.
Within minutes a 300# blue marlin jumped on the right teaser and I pitched a softhead to it and she grabbed it and went off to the horizon, unzipping the ocean, jumping all the way. Cameraman George Schellenger was all smiles. Ermel got the marlin on the leader after Andi worked the fish back to the boat and I planted a 6 month duration satellite tag in the marlin’s right shoulder before the marlin swam off, brilliant blue stripes showing vividly. We were off to a good start. Some more big dorado were caught and then we caught bonito bait along a trash line and fished live baits which is the way the Panamanian crews like to fish for marlin. But our next bite was a 130# yellowfin tuna landed by Andi, and Jason was casting poppers to the tunas as they mingled with a large school of spotted dolphins. The other Cayman team of Troy Burke, Tony Berkman and Derrin Ebanks also released a blue marlin and barely survived the dorado attack with Troy landing a 60# dorado. In Cayman we work hard for a dorado (dolphin fish) in Panama we drive away from them. Just crazy!
Day 2 was a blank for all Cayman teams on the marlin but a couple of sailfish flags were flying in the riggers at the end of the day. The third Cayman team of Sebastien Guilbard and Buster McLean went without a billfish for their second day. A team from Spain released a black marlin of around 400#. On the way in we stopped at the Pinas Reef so George and I could dive and film the vast schools of fish. Andi and Jason had some fun deep jigging for amberjacks. The reef is a small seamount and is loaded with big schools of mullet snapper, crevalle jacks, amberjacks, rainbow runners and yellowfin tuna and we acquired some excellent footage.
Then the heavens opened and it poured for the next 48 hours. In spite of high winds and the rain two black marlin were caught, one by Jason Ward and the other by Tony Berkman, each around 400#. Jason Ward also landed a 62# Dorado, a monster by any standards.
The weather finally cleared and as bait was scarce we pulled lures at the start of the official tournament practice day. I was watching the lures on the bridge with captain Gavilan when a fine blue marlin darted in and ate the green and orange softhead on the right rigger. Angler Andi Marcher caught the 450# blue in 30 minutes and I placed a satellite tag in its left shoulder. Before we released the marlin George and I dived with marlin to get some footage then I cut her off and she swam off strongly carrying the 6 month tag. The remaining tournament anglers arrived at the lodge that morning and all fished through the afternoon.
At the tournament kickoff event director Eleanor Armstrong and dockmaster Albert Battoo welcomed nine teams from Canada, three teams from the Cayman Islands, one from Jamaica and one from Guyana. The boat draw always creates a lot of hype…who is going to fish with who? But to me all the crews are so good at Tropic Star things are very even for all teams.
Everyone left the dock promptly at 6.30 a.m for the first day of fishing. It was a scramble to get bait at the reef, the water was dirty from all the rain but we managed to catch four bonitos on board the “Puerto Rico”, with captain Armando Mona and mate Levin Grajales. We than ran out to the shelf and starting fishing with three live baits on a flat calm day. After 90 minutes of no action Armando wanted to move and so instructed us to wind in our baits; mine came in first, then Andi’s and just then a big dark shadow loomed behind Jason’s livey. From the amount of colour in the water it was a big fish for sure. I jumped up on the bridge to see the marlin better as it crossed the wake looking at Andi’s live bait then went back to Jason’s checking everything out …but agonizing for us watching all this. Then its tail turned florescent blue and I knew it was really focused now, but it faded back and disappeared. George was shooting…I felt disappointment that the marlin had not eaten….suddenly it rocketed up from deep below all lit up blue and bronze and pounces on Jason’s bait. Only a short dropback was necessary and Jason was hooked up to one of the most exciting blue marlin I have ever seen. The marlin went crazy, doing a big circle on its tail behind the boat and then charged towards us and overtook the boat on the port side barreling along like a jet ski throwing up sheets of foam. Armando did some exotic moves with the boat to keep Jason in touch with the marlin while George captured the action on film.
My shots were not that great, blue marlin throw out so much water when skating along the surface you generally have a lot of white water with a bill sticking out front. On the other hand black marlin make high graceful leaps and are much more photogenic. The big blue did another series of jumps and was at the leader after 45 minutes as mate Levin got us on the board with a technical release. I wanted to deploy a satellite tag on this marlin so Jason worked it for another hour before we got her back up and the tag was placed perfectly in her back. She was the biggest blue marlin I have seen caught at Tropic Star which we estimated around 650#. On release she rolled upright and swam off strongly. A good week had just become a GREAT week.
Out went our two remaining live baits. We had not finished a celebratory Panama beer when Levin calls out sharply as another marlin strikes the right rigger bait and Andi is hooked up. He makes short work of this 300# blue and brought it back to the boat after more wild jumps on a placid ocean. The electronic tag went in and the marlin swam off strongly. By 11.30 we were in the lead with two marlin. Several other boats had caught and released marlin, and by the end of the day, 6 marlin and a couple of sails were scored by teams from Canada and Guyana. On the way back in we found a Ridley turtle tangled in fishing rope and buoys and lifted him into the boat to cut all the rope off and set it free. One happy turtle later… it was high fives all around.
Only one of Cayman’s other teams the “Cayman Brac Down” with anglers Alistair Walters, Sebastian Guilbard and Stuart Sybersma (who were reigning champions) scored with a sailfish and some big tuna and dorado. “Cayman Hard Buoys” (Derrin Ebanks, Tony Berkman and Troy Burke) hard some bad luck losing a black marlin and a handful of sails on day 1. They then lost a blue but scored with a sailfish on day 2 and also got amongst the tuna and big dorado.
George and I had to head back to the USA the following day for appearance commitments so Andi and Jason carried the Cayman flag…and carried it high. Their boat draw was the “Tropic Star” with captain Jacob Panzeo and mate Enot Mecha. I was sitting in the departure lounge at Tocumen waiting to board my flight when I got a BBM from Eleanor that Jason had caught another blue marlin. Tremendous! It was going to be close though as the Guyanese team also caught a blue and a couple of sailfish so were right behind on points. Time ran out at 3 p.m. and the final scores were Cayman Islands “Los Bamofos” 900 points, Guyana 800 points, and Canada “Bush rats” got 600 points.
In consecutive years a team from the Cayman Islands has won this prestigious event and will be represent the Cayman Islands in the International Tournament of Champions in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico next November.
Please visit www.tropicstar.com if you wish to learn more about this amazing fishing destination.