Captain Shane Jarvis’ story is one of the meeting of opportunity, passion and hard work. Jarvis and his father have transformed a remote island in Panama into a first-class fishing operation – from the ground up. Here is his story.
Think running a charter boat in Miami or the Outer Banks is a tough way to make a buck on the water? Try operating a completely self-sufficient fishing lodge on a private island 12 miles off the coast of Panama. Were the need for self-sufficiency not enough, now consider that the island was bare when you bought it. Captain Shane Jarvis and his father may have undertaken the fishing equivalent of “Field of Dreams” – if you build it, they will come.
While overseeing such an operation comes with a long list of challenges, there is an equally long list of advantages. For Shane Jarvis, who owns Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge and captains one of the boats, the easy access to the famed waters of Hannibal Bank and Isla Montuosa represent the ultimate payoff for all of the hard work.
The variety of big fish, both inshore and off, found right out his front door keeps on delivering year after year and he’s created a very unique fishing lodge experience. When asked about his best fishing day off Panama, he had to think about it for a minute.
“There have been a lot over the years,” he says, “but if I had to pick one, I’d say the day we got a 50-pound dorado, a 50-pound cubera snapper, caught a bunch of tunas up to 100-pounds or so and released two black marlin.” Yes, that was all in the same day.
The now 47-year-old fisherman took his first trip to Panama with his father in 2001, and they got a taste of the fishing in the Gulf of Chiriqui. “I was amazed with all of the different species, the size of the fish and the amount of life we saw,” he recalls.
A few years later, Shane and his father worked a deal to build on some land located on Isla Paridas – a private, lush-as-a-jungle piece of land off the coast of Boca Chica. “My dad made a ‘will build to suit’ deal with a guy on the island who was a carpenter and had realized that the dream house he was building was something he couldn’t swing financially.
At the time, I was taking a year off down in Key West fishing because the company I was working for had just been bought out,” Shane says. “My dad called me up and asked me if I wanted to send my boat down to Panama to help build the new vacation house. I jumped right on it.” They shipped down a 25-foot Sea Craft and Shane packed a bag, planning to stay for six months. After a few months exploring the area, the idea of creating an upscale boutique fishing lodge with plush amenities, solid fishing boats and top-of-the-line equipment came to life.
“The fishing is off the charts, and the outfits that I had seen were not doing justice to what I thought could be done,” he says. “I started running day charters out of Boca Chica in 2004/2005 and we enlarged the plans of the houses we were building on the island. My dad sent his 33-foot World Cat down, we put up a website and I started to host clients on the island a couple of years later. We have been growing and growing every year to where we are now.”
But learning how to run a lodge and fishing operation off the grid came with a steep learning curve. The two houses on the island are totally self-reliant. Electricity comes from generators and solar panels. “There’s a lot of things that you can take for granted. Septic tanks, digging wells, pumping and storing water,” Jarvis says, describing all that goes into creating a remote lodge from the ground up. The lodge must provision itself with water, fuel, food, drinks and tackle, and be able to fix whatever breaks.
“The logistics are a bitch,” Shane admits. “Our team works hard maintaining everything and keeping all of the systems in order. Everything has to be brought out by boat, so planning is key. We have learned mostly from our mistakes over the years and have a pretty good system down now that flows relatively smoothly.”
They customized a small barge that holds 800 gallons of gas for the fishing boats and 200 gallons of diesel for generators. The barge is powered by twin 90-hp outboards and makes the 12-mile run to Boca Chica in about 45 minutes. To make things even more challenging, there’s an 18-foot tide swing in town.
So, they have to meet the fuel truck at just the right time because the tanks in the boat are gravity fed. Shane keeps a staff of six or seven guys to help him run the operation. While there are some nuances to operating the barge, the story of its creation speaks for itself.
“We bought it in Asheville, North Carolina. We had it specially made by an aluminum fabricator that does a lot of workboats. It’s basically a 30’ by 12’ x 3’ deep box that is reinforced all over. We didn’t want to install any tanks internally because they would be hard to work on if something broke, so we mounted bolt-on tanks that can be removed if we haul anything big,” Jarvis recalls.
“We modified a trailer for it. It was one of those catamaran trailers with the two platforms and the stanchion in the middle – we removed the stanchion. We had to get wide load permits in four states when we trailered it from North Carolina to Port Everglades in Florida. We shipped it down to Colon (the Caribbean entry of the Panama Canal).
I then pulled the trailer on my truck from Colon to David.” The lodge offers two guest houses — one sleeps five and the other sleeps eight. Most groups take up the entire lodge. Sometimes there may be two small groups on the property at the same time. A big group is eight anglers, though the lodge can accommodate up to 12.
The lodge runs two 33-foot World Cat center consoles and the 25-foot Sea Craft. The fishing season kicks off in November and runs through August, but the prime fishing time is from January through May. The marlin and dorado fishing is great from November to February and the tuna bite is best from March to July.
Black marlin action peaks from June through August. And the inshore fishing is good all year long. With so much variety, it’s not hard to find something biting. “The great thing about the fishery here is that there are so many different looks,” Shane says.
On a normal fishing day, he’ll run 40 to 50 miles out unless the client wants to fish inshore. Most days they’ll fish offshore and hit some inshore spots on the way in. Shane prefers to fish live bait, cast poppers and swim baits on big spinners or live-line and chunk for tuna.
“I’ll slow-troll if we want to focus on marlin, generally live-baiting with bonito,” he says. “Sometimes that doesn’t work, or bait isn’t available, and we will troll plastic if that’s what the client wants.” On the way back in, they’ll stop at one of the rocks by the island and end the day with a few rooster fish and cubera snapper. It’s a very personalized fishing experience.
When you head to Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge, you pretty much own the place. It’s just you and your group, the boats and the Pacific Ocean as your playground. Given how smoothly it flows now, it may be easy to forget that the fishing and the logistics are in many ways the result of Jarvis mastering the learning curve.