The First Place I’m Headed” is a virus-free web series published exclusively on InTheBite.com. It profiles the first places that we’re headed to fish as soon as normalcy once again returns to this world of ours…
By Elliott Stark
Every year in the middle of May, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I get the itch to go to Panama. The yellowfin tuna and black marlin fishing surrounding the Coiba region of Panama that time of year is wonderful. The sight of big tuna stacking up bait on a floating tree, mashing as many blue runners as they can binge as fast as possible ranks among the most amazing thing you can see on the water.
I first became aware of the great fishing around Coiba Island in Panama while I was working at The Billfish Foundation. Of course, the great fishing here has been known to others for much longer than this, but things have a way of becoming important to you once you hear about them for yourself… My good buddies Captain Wade Richardson and his father John would take their operation—the Hooker, a 42’ Merritt the Picaflor and mothership to Coiba in April and May. That must have been 2010. Their stories– and pictures of the big ass blacks they turned loose– made quite an impression.
In March 2012 I left The Billfish Foundation to take a job running a mothership operation in Panama. It was a pretty big leap that came with a giant learning curve, but the next thing you know, Alex (we’re married now, but were engaged at the time) and I were living and working on a 164’ ship with four sportfishers and a panga in tow. While our base of operations was in the Pearl Islands for most of the year, we’d take the boats to Coiba to fish April and May. Once there, we’d anchor in a cove on the island that was about eight miles removed from the Hannibal Bank.
We’d take out mostly Canadian and American charter guests, who on the whole generally had little to moderate offshore fishing experience—even less if you excluded salmon fishing in British Columbia. We’d introduce clients to tropical ocean fishing by tying them into big tuna and if they were lucky, a marlin or two. Most of them would leave with the same feeling about Coiba that I had.
The first year the bosses brought down a film crew from Canada to document a trip fishing here. In three days’ fishing—a trip that spanned May 14, 15, and 16– we caught two blacks in the neighborhood of 600, a 500 or so pound blue, and pulled up to more than a couple frothing masses of tuna frenzying on the surface. Our other lodge boats caught a bunch of other fish too. Carlo Wein and his crew from Alterna Films had a front-row seat to just how incredible the place can be.
Our second year fishing in Coiba, Dale Wills came down with the 2012 Captain of the Year Rob Moore and Frank Rodriguez—owner of the Fa-La-Me. They had a captain of the year party on the boat and caught some really quality fish too. It was highlighted by Frank’s 700 or so pound black marlin.
During our second go-around in Coiba, I had the privilege of meeting Captain Shane Jarvis. We had a maintenance issue with one of the boats and Shane was nice enough to fill in and take a pair of clients fishing for us. It was a father and his son. The son was probably around 20 or so.
How well did Captain Shane produce? Upon returning to the ship for the evening after their first day of fishing, the father was quite mad at me. He claimed that because Shane had put them on so many big tuna, that he thought his son had torn his biceps. His son didn’t actually injure himself and by the end of their time the father was no longer mad (and the son had a bit better form fighting tuna).
And so it has been since returning to the states, Shane and I have remained friends. We see each other once or twice each year usually at ICAST or somewhere. Sometimes he comes to the house for dinner while in town for a boat show. We frequently talk about fishing and have been planning a trip for some time.
Shane and his father own a private island from which they have built their lodge from the ground up (www.fishpanamatoday.com). They host charter clients for most of the year. In January they took delivery of their third 33’ World Cat. A while back we published an article about the lodge and the story of its growth. Shane shared his story and about how the lodge came about.
He also told us about his favorite day fishing… Try this one for size, “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.
Shane put a trip together last year with our good buddy, and former contributor, Charlie Levine. Charlie went down in the middle of May. Shane put Charlie and his buddies on the meat—they mugged the tuna… mashed ‘em. Looking at Charlie’s nightly pictures from the trip made me a little sick that I wasn’t there (the guys invited me down, but I couldn’t make the dates work).
2020 was going to be different. Shane called me up and said he was putting together a trip in May… the 19th to the 23rd. The plan was to fly into Panama City, spend the night—enough time to grab a giant super colita (20 ounce tri-tip steak) and a half pitcher of Sangria from Gaucho’s Steakhouse—before heading to Shane’s island for a few days of tuna slaying.
I’m not exactly sure of the timing at this point, but there you have it. What’s the first thing I’m going to do once things open up? I’m going to kill some tuna… a bunch of them with Captain Shane Jarvis. We’ll spend a few days racing around between Jicaron, Montuosa, Ladrones and the many other small and fishy islands that dot this very special, uniquely wonderful part of the world. It’ll be a few days of fishing with a good buddy or two, telling stories of trips past and those to come, eating as much sashimi and yellowfin sushi as Shane’s chefs can make, and trying to remember which type of Panamanian domestic beer I like best.
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