Dreaming of a post-pandemic fishing trip? Fishing blogger Kenneth Reaves explains why Panama is the perfect destination for anglers of all abilities. In this article he covers where to go, where to stay, and more importantly, what to catch and how.
If you’re a serious fisherman, you haven’t lived until you’ve fished in Panama. You haven’t even fished until you’ve fished in Panama (or at least you might feel that way). Its waters hold an array of trophy fish that every angler dreams of reeling in.
Whether you’re fishing in the Panama Canal or in the open ocean, there’s a chance of fighting it out with monsters that would make the catch of a lifetime.
Here’s all you need to know about spending a fishing trip in Panama
The word Panama means “an abundance of fish, trees, and butterflies,” and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that’s true.
With some 1,550 miles of coastline, over 1,000 islands, and some of the biggest trophy catches in the world, Panama more than lives up to its name.
If you’re going to be in Panama, you can’t miss a chance to get out on the water with a rod and reel.
Where to fish
The Gulf of Chiriquí, on the Pacific coast, has a reputation for superb game fishing. Two specific spots stand out here, Hannibal Bank and Isla Montuosa, both about 50 miles offshore. It’s best to go with a charter boat, as they know the exact locations.
Hannibal Bank has a reputation of producing record-breaking fish, and August and September are the best times of year. This is when the “Hannibal Current” lifts the usually deep-set plankton closer to the surface, attracting all the big guns.
If you’re targeting marlin, Piñas Bay in the Darien is worth a visit. It’s one of the top marlin fishing spots on the planet, with over 300 IGFA records broken in its waters.
Lake Gatun on the Panama Canal is a prime spot for freshwater fishing, and it’s only 45 minutes out of Panama City. The drive there, through thick, stunning rainforest, is beautiful. Once you’re on the water, see if you can catch peacock bass, tarpon, or snook.
For anglers looking for a challenge, the cubera snapper is a must. To bag yourself one of these, head out to Hannibal Bank or Isla Montuosa. These fish will put up a tough fight, as they’ll take your bait and head for any rocks around them.
Cubera snappers can grow up to 100 pounds. When you have one on the hook, you’ll see your rod and line stretch, and they’ll stretch everything else, including your arms, while you’re trying to reel it in.
Thankfully, they don’t put up a fight for too long. But even experienced anglers would have to be quick to try and turn a cubera snapper before it makes it to the rocks. To catch one of these trophy fish, use whole live bait, cut bait or jigs.
The most popular bait for cubera snappers is live lobsters. You’d have to check the regulations first, as there could be a size limit for the lobster bait. Another common choice is shrimp or squid.
Don’t try to use a light tackle when fishing for these monsters. It’s best to use a braided line of at least 80 pounds, with a fluorocarbon leader which should also be at least 80 pounds. Big metal jigs will work wonders right off of the bottom and you could also have success with iron jigs.
The almaco jack is a strong fighting fish with stamina. If you find one on your line, you’ll have your fishing skills and your body put to the test. January, March, and April are the best months for these fish on the Pacific side of Panama.
You’ll find almaco jacks in deep water near rocky structures or an exposed reef. Try bottom bouncing, jigging, or drift fishing with live bait to get their attention.
You could also try luring them with large knife jigs, but once you’ve got one on the hook, you’ll need to fight them with a tight drag. They’ll grab the bait and head straight for the rocks, where they can break your line. Expect a challenging fight and you’ll feel their strength when they pull.
Anglers from all over the world always hope to catch a marlin. Hannibal Bank in Panama is excellent for marlin, and also Piñas Bay. Marlin can be caught year-round in Panama, but November, December, January, and February are the best months.
Marlins are difficult to catch, as they can destroy, tackle, or free themselves in seconds after they’ve taken the bait. The fight begins the minute the marlin is on the line, and they can display astounding aerial gymnastics when hooked.
There’s no rest when reeling a marlin in, and anglers will experience the power and speed of the fish as it fights to free itself. To catch a 500 to 1,000-pound marlin, use live bait like small yellowfin tuna, bonitos or skipjacks.
Anglers can still catch marlin using artificial lures and deadbaits to attract their attention while slow trolling. Use a short, strong rod that’s rated for 80 pounds.
Spool your reel with monofilament line, and make sure your knots are flawless.
You need patience to hook a yellowfin tuna, as they spend most of their time in deep waters. They’re fast and always on the move, which can leave yellowfin-chasing anglers feeling like they’re chasing their tails at times.
But they’re worth the wait, though. They have significant stamina and strength. Be prepared for them to make long runs, turn their bodies sideways and swim in a figure 8, and dive deep to put you through your paces.
A yellowfin can weigh up 400 pounds so anglers may want to use a 100-pound braided line to hook one. They also have excellent eyesight, so you look at using gear to reduce visibility, like a fluorocarbon leader.
Baitfish will work well to hook a yellowfin, or you can use poppers, stick bait or any other type of topwater lure. If you need to fish deep, then any type of metallic metal jig should attract the attention of the yellowfin tuna.
Anglers will find roosterfish in rocky shorelines, by nearshore reefs and in sandy bays. When you target this fish, you’re going to have to be creative and try different techniques, as they’re not easy to fool.
But when you do have a roosterfish hooked, get ready for long and fast runs in every direction. One relief is the knowledge that these fish won’t try to dive for cover in the rocks when hooked.
Roosterfish find live bait irresistible, and anglers should use bonitos, blue runners, or mullets to lure them. Live bait will attract monster roosterfish, while artificial bait like stick baits and poppers will attract the smaller ones.
Where to stay while fishing in Panama
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay when fishing the Gulf of Chiriquí, the Panama Nautical Club is a great choice.
If you’re here with the family, there’s plenty for them to do if they aren’t joining you catching trophies. Hiking, horseback riding, scuba diving, paddle boarding are all available. For the less energetic, hanging out on the beach is a must.
Those looking for true jungle-style accommodation will find the Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge on Isla Parida unrivaled in its beauty. You’ll have everything you need at your fingertips, including a superb charter team and world-class equipment.
Another option around here is the beautiful Isla Palenque, a 400-acre private island with eight casitas and seven beaches. Privacy and barefoot luxury doesn’t come better than here, and there are also plenty of shore fishing opportunities, too.
Hannibal Lodge is the closest accommodation to Hannibal Bank, and is more rustic than the Nautical Club. They have a private beach and amazing views. The lodge is more geared towards fishermen, so it’s perfect for solo travelers who want to spend sometime on the bank.
If you’re fishing for marlin down in Piñas Bay, there’s no better place to stay than Tropic Star Lodge. All those IFGA records we mentioned earlier? All broken here at this outstanding fishing lodge.
So what are you waiting for?
Panama fishing is an exciting, adrenaline-pumping experience waiting for the fish of your wildest dreams to take your bait.
If catching a trophy fish is on your post-pandemic fishing bucket list, then Panama is the place to be in 2021.
Kenneth Reaves has been a professional angler and fishing writer for over two decades. He shares his knowledge and passion for the sport of fishing at his Perfect Captain fishing blog.