By Dave Ferrell
The first thing that pops into most people’s head when you mention Colombia is the question, “Is it safe?” The short answer is yes. A lot has changed in this country since the cocaine cowboy days of the 80s and 90s. Extra security and international co-operation with the United States dismantled most of the major drug cartels.
The Colombian government’s ratification of a negotiated peace with FARC rebels in 2016 has further laid the groundwork for record numbers of international tourists. Tourism is up over 300 percent since 2001 and last year over 4 million visitors flocked to this beautiful, culturally rich country that is eager to show itself off to the world once again.
The Lead Up
I first got wind of the fishing opportunities opening up down there with a phone call from Gavin Hodges who owns Flatsbag, a company that runs exotic flyfishing trips. Hodges wanted to run some trips out of Colombia and asked me if I’d be interested to host one myself out of a place called Bahia Solano. Of course, after I asked the “Is it safe?” question, I told him I would ask around and see what I could sniff out.
The first guy I called couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about Colombia. He hadn’t done any fishing there, but he had spent time in several of the major cities and said it was one of the most beautiful countries he’d ever visited, with great people and great food to boot.
I looked up Bahia Solano, Colombia on Google Earth and discovered that is was only about 60 miles or so south of Pinas Bay, Panama, home of the legendary Tropic Star Lodge and I started to giggle. Tropic Star is arguably the best place to catch a black marlin outside of Australia and is home to a myriad of IGFA world records of all kinds.
And while 60 miles can be a huge distance, the satellite images and charts showed that Bahia Solano sat right in the middle of a fishing wonderland. The area is marked by deepwater pushing right up close to a rugged, sparsely populated shoreline dotted with deep bays and river estuaries.
I was pretty much sold on the trip at that point, but amazingly I got another call about Colombia the following day! It was like karma or something. My buddy Capt. Jack Graham, from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina told me that he had just taken a job at Black Sands Lodge (www.blacksandsfishing.com) down in, you guessed it, Bahia Solano.
Graham wanted to know if I’d like to come down and take some pictures and write some stories about the fishing. Graham had been fishing the area for several weeks and said that the tuna bite was so off the chain that he really hadn’t done anything other than toss poppers at 100-pounders all day.
His boss, Felipe Morales, promised us 10-days’-worth of fuel and carte blanche use of the lodge’s brand new 35-foot Contender to explore the area and catch what we could catch. I immediately agreed to the springtime (March 2019) trip with Graham and then called Hodges to tell him that I’d checked the place out and couldn’t wait to host the trip later in October.
One of the many great things about Colombia is its relative proximity to the U.S. It’s only a 3-hour flight out of Miami to Medellin, the city where folks who are traveling to Bahia Solano overnight before jumping on a commuter flight to the coast the next morning.
Medellin is also a gateway for the many anglers who are heading inland to chase world-class peacock bass and other exotics in the country’s pristine jungle rivers. I met several of these anglers in the airport on my way into Colombia who were on return trips and their pictures of 20-pound plus peacock bass and huge arapaima made me vow to come back to the jungle to target these river monsters.
I arrived in Medellin, fairly late in the evening and was immediately struck by the modern airport and the quick, professional service from everyone I encountered. My ride was waiting for me right outside baggage claim and he told me that we had a short 40-minute ride over the mountain into Medellin (I found out later on the return that this trip can stretch to over an hour depending on the time of day you are traveling).
The air was cool and dry at this altitude, Medellin lies at a 4,900-foot elevation, and we were crossing over a mountain that towers above the city. Although I couldn’t see much of the ride in the dark, several jaguar-crossing signs along the road added a little extra chill and thrill to the night.
My hotel, the Sites, sat in a charming residential neighborhood in downtown Medellin. As we drove in, I noticed several fast-food stands about two blocks from the hotel that were still packed with people. As soon as I checked in, I decided to take a stroll and find something to eat.
I mention these little details because I know how sensitive some people are about the safety issue here. I’ve traveled around the world to all the best fishing spots, and there are several of them where I would never dream of going outside the hotel after dark. In contrast, I felt perfectly safe here, walking around, by myself, close to midnight. (I got a great double cheeseburger by the way, by far the best burger I’ve ever had in South America!)
The next morning at breakfast I met up with a couple of fellows that Graham had recruited from North Carolina to be our anglers and supermodels for the trip. Graham’s childhood friends, Capt. Daniel Burrus and Justin Stewart were our ringers. Burrus runs C-Salt charters and Stewart manages his family’s tackle business, TW’s Bait and Tackle in Nags Head, North Carolina. They also carried a cooler full of fresh ballyhoo.
We enjoyed a really good breakfast at the hotel and then piled back into our cab for a ride to the municipal airport only ten minutes away. Again, I was very impressed by the modern facilities and professionalism of the gate agents and security personnel, they were all very pleasant and welcoming. The flight from Medellin to Bahia Solano only took 45 minutes and I would swear that plane was brand new.
Black Sands Lodge
Once you step off the plane in Bahia Solano you finally realize that you are not in Kansas anymore. The small, yet busy, airstrip (three flights a day to and from Medellin alone) is cut right out of the jungle and the walkway to the customs hut is lined with whole yellowfin tuna, wrapped and frozen solid, silently steaming in tropical heat. Graham, a pretty big fellow, towered over the mass of locals and waved us over to pay our airport tax. (You need cash by the way…thanks Daniel!)
As soon as we got our bags together, we jumped into a three-wheeled taxi for the bumpy five-minute ride down to the fueling station where the Siroco, the lodge’s brand-new 35 Contender waited on a mooring ball. Since it was still before noon, Graham decided to start the trip early, so our luggage stayed in the panga to head for the lodge while we started offshore to locate the tuna schools.
I would have said hunt for the tuna schools, but there’s really no “hunting” here…as soon as we cleared the mouth of the bay, maybe ten minutes from the lodge, schools of big yellowfin began busting bait all around us.
Out came the spinning rods and big poppers and Burris and Stewart both hooked up immediately. Stewart got his 20-pounder into the boat and we all started thinking of the fresh sashimi we’d enjoy later on that evening. Burrus lost his first one right at the boat, but after a quick regroup, the boys were back up on the bow tossing poppers back into the schools of frothing tuna. Burrus got one to stick and after quickly dispatching this bigger fish, we decided to leave the tunas alone and go see what other mischief we could get into.
As we swept back close to shore, I immediately recognized this topography. The rugged, rocky shoreline and deep, black water looked just like Panama. As we slowly motored through the rocks the boys started throwing their poppers up into the surge, trying to entice a big cubera snapper to come up and smash it. Instead, a school of marauding jack cravalle crashed the party and a double hook up of big jacks put a hurting on our anglers.
After a few quick pictures, we decided to head back to get our first looks at the lodge before it started to get dark. As we ran back home at 50-plus mph in the flat calm water, we spotted several sails, lazily tailing on the surface, all traveling from the north to south. A good omen for the coming days.
Felipe Morales, manager of Black Sands Fishing (www.blacksandsfishing.com), comes from a long line of fishermen; his family owns and operates a string of high-end flyfishing lodges in Argentina. Morales was raised fishing and guiding on some of the best trout rivers in the world. He grew accustomed to providing the very best service, accommodations and fishing experiences to his guests.
“I had some jungle-exploring friends that first told me about this place,” says Morales. “When I came on my first trip we didn’t catch much, but I was very impressed with the landscape. I came back later on during the summer and we caught a few sails and absolutely destroyed the tunas.”
Morales was convinced that the fishing could support a lodge and several other fishing businesses already seemed to be thriving in the area, mostly targeting inshore anglers that wanted to throw poppers to snappers or target roosterfish and groupers. Morales wanted to target the offshore anglers, while still offering the inshore variety and providing lodge-style accommodations and service.
“We found a local partner here with a house that didn’t require much work to bring up to our international standards,” says Morales. “We want your experience here to be more than what you would get at a rough fishing camp…we want to have that lodge vibe…bring some comfort to the clients. There’s nothing quite like this here now.”
The lodge sits perched on a steep hillside, just a couple hundred feet from the surf line, offering spectacular views of the bay from large verandas on both floors. My room had a king-sized bed and a private bath. Although there’s no air conditioning at the lodge, I never missed it. I was there in March and the cool temperatures and absence of biting insects was striking. The rooms had all been recently, tightly screened so you open the large shutters and let the sea breeze blow through the room each night.
Aside from all travel-related niceties, of which there are many, the real reason to visit Colombia really is the fishing. You really can’t begin to beat the tuna fishing. While Graham sometimes turned to his radar to locate birds and tuna schools at the start of each day, more often than not that’s the only time he had to look at it. With little pressure, the schools stayed up on the bait and it was easy to catch as many as you wanted all day every day ranging in size from 20 to 100-pounds.
I saw several that easily went 250 but we never got one that big to hit a popper. Graham, who has now spent more than seven months fishing out of the lodge, says that “If you want a trophy tuna on topwater, come down anytime from January through March. We’ve caught one weighing 200-pounds and several over 150. There’s big tuna offshore and big snook inshore at the same time.”
Fishing is good year around says Graham, but come April, when the sardines come pouring through on their annual migration, the fishing just gets sick. “We had 43 teaser bites on May 29 while flyfishing for sails,” says Graham.
That’s totally on par with what I experienced two weeks before the sardines arrived. All those sails we saw traveling from north to south just kept multiplying over the course of my 10-day trip. Unfortunately, the water was unseasonable cold, we had to look hard to find 72-degree water, and the sails seemed to have lock jaw. After not getting any bites with trolled dead baits—with tailing sails everywhere—we cheated a bit and threw the net on some live baits on the beach. Made the short run back out the sails and caught nine (all really big ones) on live baits before calling it day.
The next day, I told the boys we were done cheating and were going to target the sails dead bait only to see what we could do. They agreed and we set out to get these tight-lipped jokers to bite. We rarely got a blind strike throughout the entire day. Graham had to put the baits right on the nose of the tailing schools to get them to fire off, but fire off they did once we got the routine down and the fellows got their thumbs under control. The boys caught 21 out of 30 bites on dead ballyhoo. I’ve never seen that many sails up on the surface like that… anywhere.
Graham hasn’t been able to do much marlin fishing, he’s caught two after targeting them with lures for only four or five days. I know that there are some big ones there. Just 30 miles from the lodge there’s a point of rocky land called Cabo Marzo, that stretches out across the mouth of a bay. On one side of this huge rock that comes out of the water a good five stories, the water is around 400-feet deep, on the other it’s about 2,000. It’s pretty much a Zane Grey reef that comes out of the water!
What’s more, this rock is covered up in all kinds of bait. The first run of sardines had just started showing up so giant schools of yellowfin tuna, jack crevalle and whale sharks all converged at the mouth of the bay to feast on the sardines. I know that anyone soaking a live tuna on that rock is going to get bit.
“This place is a legitimate world-class destination for all-around anglers,” says Graham. “You can bait-and-switch for sails, throw poppers or jigs for giant snappers and tunas, or troll the beaches for roosterfish or snook. All that stuff is available here in a very small space.”
If you’ve fished in all the good Central and South American hotspots but have steered clear of Colombia for one reason or another, now’s the time to explore a great newly rediscovered destination in safety and comfort.