A quick bite, I jerk back to set the hook, and an immediate fight ensues. It’s an out-of-the-ordinary feeling, like an exotic tropical drug sending electrical impulses up and down my arms, pumping adrenaline through my system.
I’m reeling in another beautiful peacock bass into our smallish lancha on Gatun Lake, Panama. I’m watching the world’s commerce chug by in one of the planet’s largest man-made lakes in one of the earth’s great ecosystems. I’m fishing in the Panama Canal.
Fishing in out-of-the-way places has always intrigued me.
I have hauled in marlins off the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica, but I’m no longer a fan of offshore fishing and the long rides to and from the fishing spots bore me. I now look for less obvious and more exotic locales to wet my line.
Which is why I love fishing in Central America. What could be better than chasing for game fish like tarpon in the jungle rivers of Nicaragua or off the Tortuguero sandbar of Costa Rica? So it was time to check out the Panama Canal, long regarded as a Mecca for freshwater game fishing.
I first traversed the canal as a baby in the arms of my mother on a tramp steamer embarking from Valparaiso, Chile and navigating up the west coast of South America towards New York.
As an adult, I learned of canal fishing when a friend of mine, a guide on Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico, mentioned fishing in the Panama Canal for peacock bass.
“They’re so aggressive you don’t even need to bait the hook,” he said with typical fishing guide optimism.
Peacock bass, a cousin of the guapote found in lakes in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, are not native to Panama. They are native to South America and are also a distant relative to the largemouth bass, which means they are smart and aggressive.
Peacock bass came to Gatun Lake, the enormous man-made lake that keeps the Panama Canal running, in the middle of the twentieth century.
So off I went to spend a few days in Panama City and hit the waters of the Panama Canal.
One thing about Panama City is you’re close to most everything the country has to offer, including world-class fishing inshore and offshore. I was excited to know I’d be wetting my line about an hour from rolling out of bed in my hotel.
My guide Juan, an avid naturalist, picked me up at my hotel bright and early. We were off to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort marina where our fully stocked craft complete with captain awaited.
Tackle, live bait, beer, soft drinks, waters, snacks, and a picnic lunch provisioned us for serious business. I had booked a half-day and was eager to get started.
It was soon clear that fishing in the Panama Canal was more than a mere outing.
Panama has an unusual geography. Once an appendix of Colombia, its rainforests are unique, populated by animals endemic to South, Central, and North America. From tamarin monkeys, denizens of the Amazon basin, to the scarlet tanagers often found in backyards of Kansas or Illinois.
The beautiful flowers and trees, and the silky movement of water in and around the islets of Gatun Lake hypnotized me. There were myriads of birds, including a magnificent frigatebird sitting on a canal marker, a rare site as these ocean flyers spend weeks or months aloft, seldom landing.
Green clouds of parrots, ospreys seeking prey, caracaras, egrets, herons, hawks, terns, flycatchers, kingfishers all visible even to my non-trained birding eye.
Forget the fish – the lake and its islands offered views of wildlife in every direction and that didn’t stop with the birds. Howler monkeys, bats, snakes, lizards, and caymans watched us cast our lines and quaff our ice-cold Balboa beers.
What I didn’t expect – and I don’t know why, because it’s an interoceanic canal – was seeing the big ships, some of the largest in the world.
Ships like the Cosco Development, the world’s largest container ship, which cruised past us at glacial speed. This ship, according to Atlas Obscura, measures 366 meters (1,200 feet) and can haul up to 13,000 containers. It loomed large and fearsome as we motored past in our nine-meter lancha.
Cruise ships, tankers, yachts, dredgers, and freighters from all over the world all made their way through the Panama Canal.
And then there was the fishing.
Slow going at first, and since I had only booked a half-day trip, I was concerned we wouldn’t get anything worth noting. We snagged a few mojarras, a fish found in most any lake in Central America.
But where were the peacock bass?
We kept moving, our guide Juan suggesting new places for the captain to try. Discussions ensued. Should we try by La Isla del Viejo? Should we fish in shallower water? Deeper water? Should we have lunch? Crack open another beer? All these questions plagued us.
It was approaching 11 am. Since neither the guide nor the captain seemed concerned, and since they hadn’t begun the usual litany of excuses fishing guides everywhere carry in their back pockets, I wasn’t concerned either.
There was no, “full moon last night, they’re not hungry”, or “the tide is going out”, “the tide is coming in”, or “you should have been here yesterday.” I have heard them all and was waiting for them to blame the lack of fishing on force majeure.
Then a flurry of activity at the surface about twenty meters away caught their attention.
We approached, and I froze in apprehension. A lot of yelling at me to start casting ensued. I started casting, missing the first one. I felt it, but I didn’t set the hook. It was very quick.
I tried again.
At last, I got one to the boat, but I hadn’t set the hook well enough and it slashed away. I was getting frustrated and embarrassed because these aren’t big fish, just aggressive. My reputation was at stake.
I began to expect the bite, then caught one. A couple of casts later, another. Small, around a pound or two, but enough muscle to bend a 6 1/2 foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik almost to the gunwale.
I then entered a state of fishing nirvana I never experienced before as cast after cast resulted in a boated peacock.
I stopped counting after 15 or 16 successive casts resulted with a fish.
It’s possible I made some 25 casts in a row with a fish on the line. Exhilarating indeed. Mission accomplished.
That wasn’t all though. My Panama Canal fishing experience did not stop there. There was an exclamation point still to come.
As I pulled in my 30th or so catch there appeared on the water a series of small waves in a “V” formation. Small rivulets, coming towards the boat, almost like someone else was reeling in another fish.
I saw the formation stop, close to where I was dragging my peacock to the boat, and then a tremendous splash, an open maw bristling with yellowed teeth, an instantaneous snap and my fish had gone.
And so was the four-foot cayman that stole it. It happened in less than a second and left me agape.
Fishing in the Panama Canal – you have to be there to believe it.
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David Flynn is a cultural photographer from Austin, Texas with degrees in Latin American studies and journalism. He lives in Leon, Nicaragua and his work can be discovered on his Flynn’s Fotos site.