By Elliott Stark
Since 1963, Tropic Star Lodge has been attracting anglers from around the world to one of the most remote, beautiful and inaccessible places in the New World. The ﬁshing out of Piñas Bay, Panama is good enough to justify travel here. It has been drawing anglers since Zane Grey came here under sail power in the 1920s. No matter how many marlin and tuna there may be, describing Tropic Star Lodge simply in terms of ﬁshing somehow misses the point.
Located in the Darien region of Panama, Tropic Star is completely inaccessible by road. The InterAmerican Highway – the thorough-fare that runs from Canada, through the United States (as Interstate 35 it traverses the Central time zone from Minnesota to Texas), into Mexico and Central America – stops in the Darien province. The nearest road is about 100 miles from the Lodge. This is an incredible attribute especially when you consider that most every other place in the world that is totally inaccessible by road is on an island or someplace in Mongolia.
When viewing the coastline of other places, change is measured in years or decades. “This place has really grown since the first time I came here in 2005…” Looking at the dense, old growth rainforest that extends to the waterline in every direction you look, it is evident that the Darien is different. With the exception of the Lodge itself, a handful of villages and cellphone towers, the coast line looks very much the same today as it would have when the fi rst Spanish conquistadors sailed by in the 1500s. The trees and landscape look the same way they always have.
More than simply an assemblage of trees, the landscape is a wild. The rainforests are cloud machines. When looking at the shore-line, the emergent streams of water vapor seem as though they could be emitted from the chimneys of gnome or fairy houses hid-den beneath the canopy. The physical setting of the place is as magical as it is awe inspiring. It is the type of place that is hard to describe without comparing it to itself. It is even more magical when you consider that there could be lurking 80-pound roosterfish or refrigerator-sized cubera snapper in the waves that break on the rocks just beneath the trees.
A Lot Goes into A World Class Fishing Experience
Everyone has heard of the IGFA world re-cords produced by those fishing out of Tropic Star Lodge (over 300 to date). Equally as impressive, especially given the setting and the remoteness of where it is located, is the scale of its operation. When running at it’s peak, the Lodge will employ up to 120 workers. Much of its workforce hails from the neigh-boring village of Piñas. Managers and other specialist employees come from other places and live on premises.
Because the Lodge is so remote, the options for bringing in supplies and people are either by boat, plane or from the village of Piñas. For the majority of guests, it is air travel – a 45 minute flight from the regional airport in Panama City – that gets them to Tropic Star. The Lodge operates a large red steel hulled vessel to bring in supplies from the city. The majority of the work – from construction and property maintenance to vessel up-keep – is performed in house. Tropic Star operates a fleet of 17 Bertram 31s. The iconic boats have been at it for a long time and have caught a lot of fish. Some of the Bertrams were purchased in the early 1960s and have fished here for more than five decades. The Lodge is currently undertaking a major fleet renovation.
The boats will be repowered with Volvo engines. The cockpits will be reconfigured, with the cabins enclosable in eisenglass and with additional insulation over the engines. The bridge will be reconfigured as well to allow comfortable seating and viewing from the top. The boats are also fully repainted and made to shine as brightly as when they were new. The goal for completion is two and a half years for the entire fleet. Currently three 31s have been upgraded.
The haul outs and refits are done in house. The Lodge’s fleet normally moors in Piñas Bay on balls placed apart from the fuel dock. The haulouts take place in a covered ware-house complete with a track that runs lifts to and from the water line. During our trip in December 2018, the woodshop was crafting fighting chairs from locally sourced hard-woods. This same wood shop and carpentry skill are also on full display in the upgrades taking place in the guest accommodations.
With a fleet of upwards of 20 vessels – the 31s and a number of upgrade options and a charter operation that fishes most of the calendar year, the Lodge’s tackle needs are immense. Tropic Star operates what may be one of the largest private sportfishing tackle facilities in the world. Each boat is provided with a daily allotment of leaders of assorted sizes. Marlin rigs (for use with large bonito) are 18/0 circles on 400-pound mono. Medium bonito (hook and leader size are paired with bait size) are 16/0 on 300-pound. Sailfish and tuna leaders (for live runners or belly baits) are either 12/0 or 8/0 snelled onto 150-pound leader. Each morning, each boat is provided ten of each of these leaders. Between the leaders and respooling the reels, the Lodge goes through more than one million yards of line per year.
A Sportfishing University Town
Like many of the workers at the Lodge generally, all of Tropic Star’s captains and mates are from the village of Piñas. This homegrown talent is brought to the Lodge each morning on a panga. Prospective mates go through a serious two-year learning process before ever fishing with a client. After acceptance into the training program, a mate applicant’s career at Tropic Star begins with six months of working in the tackle shop. It is here that he learns tackle maintenance, leader tying (lots and lots of leader tying), reel spooling, smelting lead head bonito feathers and the like.
The next step in the process is working on the dock – filleting fish, cleaning and tying boats, etc. From there, it’s training aboard boats without clients. Mates learn on board skills under the tutelage of captains, mates and management. When they progress from this point, it is to serve as a second mate to work alongside an established captain/mate tandem. After a period of this service, they can be nominated for serving as first mate with their own captain. The idea behind the rigorousness of the process is quality control, with an eye for guest experience.
The vast majority of the captains at the Lodge were groomed through this system as well. Living in Piñas, captains enjoy a high profile and bring in a healthy living. Over the course of Tropic Star’s 55-year history, this atmosphere has produced a footprint of fishing talent and skill that far exceeds what you would expect from a remote jungle village. In fact, relative to population density, it would be difficult to imagine that any place in the world has produced more fishing talent than Piñas.
The Man in the Black Suit
There is a category of fishing action that only happens in Panama. One-hundred-pound tuna stacking up blue runners (ku-jinua as they are called) on logs, jumping completely out of the water – creating acres of carnage as they eat as many as they can as quickly as possible… The sight of dozens of 30-50-pound dorado behind the boat at once, with the realistic chance to see a 70-pounder – that happens here, too. Pulling a live bonito, you can catch anything from stud roosterfish, jumbo cubera snapper, sailfish, big dorado and of course the black and blue marlin that headline the fishing. In short, there is something for everyone in Panama. The fish run large and the action can be epic.
While there are options for most anyone here, it is the black marlin that is the headliner. This region of Panama is perhaps the most reliable place in the northern hemisphere to target blacks. The season for the man in the black suit begins to heat up in late November, building into December. Its recognized peak is the January full moon. There are large female blacks around, with the possibility of running across the fish of a lifetime. The black marlin fishing will remain good here until the water turns over. The timing of the event is variable (a consequence of northerly winds that blow consistently enough to create upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water), but it generally happens between sometime after the middle of February. While the offshore scene turns off a bit, the Lodge switches over to a booming inshore bite full of big snapper, grouper and all kinds of things.
The story of the black marlin fishing here has been told before. While nobody has ever complained about running across one while trolling offshore in Costa Rica or Mexico or somewhere, there is something about deploying a spread of live bait with the intent of catching one. Many people come to Panama with the hope of ticking the black marlin off of their Royal Slam list, but fishing for these brutes can put a spell on you. There is something in the savagery of the way they attack live baits and their measured, almost thoughtful ferocity while on the leader that brings people back to this part of the world over and over again.
Tradition and a New Trajectory
Tropic Star Lodge is currently at a very interesting point in its development. A recent change in ownership has brought investment in infrastructure and the fleet – along with a number of modifications that maintain the Lodge’s many traditions while providing an even better experience. Chief among these is the formation of a new private boat membership program that allows registered private boats to purchase fuel, meals and accommodation at the Lodge. For vessels staying longer than seven days, Tropic Star can bring in provisions from Panama City. Private boats are even invited to participate in the Lodge’s annual billfish tournament each November. Teams of three anglers pay $300 per person. The tab includes their tournament registrations and dinners at the Lodge. All of this is designed to make Piñas Bay as inviting as it is remote.
Beyond creating programs designed to make the private boat fishing experience at the Lodge more inviting, it has invested in capital improvements to the same end. Tropic Star has expanded its waterfront dining room – complete with wrap around windows that make breakfast or dinner a scenic experience – and increased dining capacity by 25%. Not only can the culinary department handle more dining guests, but the Lodge has added a door between the bar and dining room. Segmenting the bar makes it easier and less formal for traveling boat crews and anglers to grab a beer and relax, while being a side from the more formal dinner service.
A waterfront bar is also currently under construction. Located between the entry way to dock and the restaurant, it is an inviting place for private crews to decompress after a day of fishing and enjoy a cold beer or two – with their feet planted on solid ground. The waterfront bar, much like the outdoor dinners cooked on the grill three nights per week, is designed to provide casual, inclusive experiences for charter guests and the traveling boat alike.
Why would Tropic Star make such a commitment to provide fuel, lodging, mooring and provisions to traveling boats? The answer is very simple. The target market for drawing private boats is largely three demographics – the Panamanian fishing scene, sportfishers in Central America and boats traveling to and from the Canal. Unlike places in the Bahamas, Costa Rica and the United States, the Pacific Coast of Panama has relatively few reliable sources of diesel. The coastline between Panama City and the Lodge is covered in either rainforest or mangrove – with only a handful of small villages (that do not have marinas).
Aside from a couple of marinas in the Pearl Islands or traveling with a mothership, there are not many options for fueling in the region. By inviting private boats to register – with the promise of reserved fuel and lodging, Tropic Star opens the waters surrounding Piñas Bay in a way that is otherwise not possible. The result of this hospitality and ease of doing business has been an increase in the number of private boats (and an increase in repeat customers). A number of boats make an annual pilgrimage from Costa Rica to the Darien region of Panama for the black marlin season each year.
Beyond boats that are already in Central America, the prospect of fishing the Lodge becomes easy and doable to boats transiting the Panama Canal. Why not incorporate two or three weeks of black marlin fi shing on the front and back end of an extended Central American campaign. The Lodge, after all, sits within 120 or so miles of the Bridge of the Americas and the Pacific mouth of the Canal. If you have a bunch of buddies who want to share the experience, they can charter a Bertram from the Lodge and fish alongside you.
The Fishing in Context
When fishing Tropic Star, it is readily apparent why it is a bucket list experience. Our first day of fishing we caught a grand slam – highlighted by a 400-pound black marlin. This was great… but you can catch grand slams in a lot of places, right? How about the dolphin fishing? One night at dinner, another group reported going “31 for 34” on dorado. These were big ass fish – 25 to 50 pounders. They were so prolific that we decided to run teasers to stop hooking them. Sometimes there would be a swarm of 40 dorado behind the boat at the same time. If a big one came up, we’d feed it a bonito or sling it a popper.
Then there is the history. There is a photo John Wayne at the Lodge in the dining room. Any place that is good enough for the Duke is good enough for me… Were that not enough, the food is really is also really good and the pool makes a great place to go for your personal best Piña Colada record. It is a wonderful place.