Game Fish Diaries - Chic McSherry
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We weren’t here for dolphins so we hauled in and moved on.
Within 10 minutes we took another strike and this time Froilan got there first and set the hook into a very nice bull dorado which spent as much time airborne as it did in the water. Jamie was first up and he fought it well, surprised by its strength.
At 8.30am we took our first marlin hit and I free spooled until Maso called the strike, then I increased the drag and wound fast as he accelerated the boat to put even more pressure on the fish. The marlin was on and running hard. Line peeled off the reel as Froilan got the other lines in and Maso prepared to back down. I had just got into the chair when all went slack…it had come off.
This was a recurring theme for us. The big bonito baits demanded an extremely long drop back and as the trip progressed it became clear than on many occasions the fish weren’t cleanly hooked, in my opinion, and were merely holding the bait deep in their throats where the circle hook gained no purchase. But it was still a pretty exciting way to fish.
Lines in again and within 10minutes we took another strike. I free-spooled it and then set the hook but it went slack so I free spooled again and the fish took a second time, then a third and finally we got the hook-up: our first pacific sailfish of the trip went airborne. Scotty was in the chair right away and he made a real good job of hustling that fish in for a picture and a clean release in only 10 minutes. The fighting technique at Tropic Star is very different to most other places. They really back down on those fish hard and even huge marlin are brought alongside and tagged sometimes in only 15 minutes. This gives the less fit and very young anglers a chance to fight these monsters whereas if they’d been in, say, Mauritius where they typically fight fish from a dead boat they would have no chance. It does mean that the fish come to the boat very green indeed and so are almost always just cut off rather than take any risks unhooking such a lively and powerful fish. Mind you, they don’t always come quietly and quickly…
At 9.30am we hit payday. The left outrigger took a strike and I free-spooled it for the drop back and set the hook solid. The fish ran hard and then settled. I assumed that it was a sailfish as initially it came quietly so I got Jamie in the chair and he started to crank. The line was coming really easily and I soon saw why: the fish was coming up to the surface towards the boat, fast. “Es un marlin senor…es un marlin” sang Maso and suddenly there was an explosion of muscle onto the surface. “Up! Up and let go the rod!” I shouted to Jamie as I took his place in the chair. Ok – so I’m stealing the kid’s fish but 1) it was the only fish that I had come for and 2) it looked huge – easily 400lbs – and that’s a bit much to ask of a 12 year old on his first day. My story and I’m sticking with it. Ok?
The fish went wild. It ripped up the water about 100ft back from the boat and charged around in a welter of foam circles before diving like an express elevator for the depths. The pressure was incredible and I have to say that this was the strongest fish I have ever fought – even though I say that every time I hook a new species or a bigger fish - stronger than a big tuna although with less stamina over the long haul. We backed down on it for an hour and a half and each time I got her close she dived straight back into the depths. Each time I thought “I’ll show you” she showed me right back. Every inch I took she took right back. Until eventually she’d had enough and she came back to the surface and gave us another fantastic display of power and aggression. Soon after that she came to the boat, tired but not vanquished, where Froilan tagged her expertly and we got a few pictures before he cut her free.
What a moment. My first black marlin. I was exhausted and in real pain. I’d used my left arm a lot to hold and fight the fish and I knew I’d pulled something in there. The kidney harness hadn’t fit me too well (my fault – I should have set it up first) and it had dug grooves into my ribs and badly bruised at least one of them. My back was on fire and my shoulders and neck were full of solid lumps. I felt great.
Mercifully I got a bit of a rest as it was midday before we hooked another sailfish, this time for Jamie, and then at 2.30pm we lost one just after hook-up. What a start and Jamie summed it up perfectly when he said “I can’t see us getting bored here dad.”
Back at the lodge the kids had a swim in the pool while I went for a massage to soothe the tired muscles. It worked too: the next day the only bits that hurt were my arms which I hadn’t had done – stupidly in retrospect. Afterwards I sat at the bar and listened to the fishing stories from my fellow anglers, each one recounting his personal battle with his big fish of the day. Fishermen are the same the world over. One young guy had caught a big tuna that he managed to get to the boat in only 40 minutes. I thought he was lucky and told him so; these big tuna can take forever and can hurt like hell. “You fight ‘em, that’s why you’re here isn’t it? I don’t give ‘em an inch!” he crowed. Ah the innocence of youth…Fish that are deep hooked or part choked always come easier. They’re all different. I’ve seen it with salmon in particular: you can get leviathans to the bank and tailed in minutes but 5lb fish keep you working for ages sometimes. The condition of the fish is also important: are they fit; are they already tired; are they up for a fight or prepared to give up; are they gut-hooked or hooked clean in the scissors; bait or lure…? It all changes the dynamic. So…fight ‘em by all means and feel like mucho hombre right up until you get a jaw-hooked-fit-as-a-flea yellowfin of around 200lbs. Then you can call it at the bar.
Before dinner I spent an hour with Scotty down on the jetty catching barracudas and jacks for the locals. It was great fun on the light spinning rods and we got a basketful for the local kids who were hanging about. After dinner, however, the sharks came out. Card sharks that is with the boys learning the intricacies of Pinas Bay Poker and losing all of $5 each. Then it was off to bed to dream of monsters.
The word “Panama”, so it is said, means “Plenty of fish” in some ancient native language. I can’t dispute that, neither linguistically nor factually, but it should also mean “Plenty of butterflies”. There are millions of these engaging insects in the place. Even in Panama City there were literally blizzards of them drifting along the roads. What were more surprising though were those we encountered twenty or more miles offshore. Huge broadwinged butterflies, smaller swallow-tails and hawk-moths of every hue and colour. Sadly many of them ran out of energy and simply dropped onto the ocean, dead. Why they were out there at all was a mystery to me as they seemed to be coming from even further out and the nearest landfall in that direction would have been Ecuador. Maybe they migrate. We also saw some of the bright electric-blue morphos around the forest edges near the Lodge. Indeed, the Lodge itself had a variety of interesting creatures around it. Believe it or not a pair of Harpy eagles were nesting in the vicinity and we saw them almost daily as well as numerous other raptors. There were fewer small birds around than we saw in Costa Rica which was surprising, although those we saw were very pretty including tanagers and hummingbirds.
We never saw any mammals but the boys new found friend, BJ, told us that he had found what he thought were jaguar pugs on the shore of the white beach just over the hill. That added a frisson of interest to the prospect of a forest hike. The most interesting non-avian animal was the small Jesus lizard which, when disturbed, would get up on its hind legs and sprint off across the water – hence the deification. Scotty, a veteran lizard hunter, was in his element although he never managed to catch one. He scored better with the little geckos that scuttled around the nightlight outside our cabin. For my part I spent most of the dawns on that cabin porch, watching the guys loading the boats with the backdrop of lightning storms offshore and listening as the birds awoke. Being able to do this in the tropics is a real luxury: Tropic Star has no mosquito problem. There were one or two, but they were mercifully rare and that makes the place doubly special.
On our second day we had action right from the start with Scotty getting a sailfish at 7.50am. The crew were great in that they encouraged me to handle the drop backs and the hook-ups myself which I absolutely loved. That is the really exciting bit: feeling that power as the fish runs then judging the moment to set the drag for the strike. It’s been a long time coming to me but I think that I have the hang of the technique now as Froilan missed as many fish as me and he fishes every day. So the unspoken deal developed between me and the kids: I got to set the hooks and they got to fight the fish. Worked for me.
The next fish we hooked was much stronger and I knew right away that it was a marlin. Jamie had been toying with the prospect of fighting one and as soon as I had the fish settled after hook-up I let him get in the chair and we harnessed him. The fish was coming up pretty smoothly as Maso backed down and, with me holding his harness, we kept Jamie in the seat and fighting. About 30ft behind the boat, just as Froilan was readying the tag stick, the fish surged upwards. Jamie shouted “Woah!” in alarm but I was holding on so he didn’t leave the chair. The fish leapt 6ft out of the water and threw the bait. She was a black marlin of about 350-400lbs and we were elated by how close we’d had her. In my book, if you hook-up and fight a fish to your feet – and 30ft after it has run 600 yards is “to your feet” – it’s caught. It went in the book as a long distance release anyway (LDR) even if we didn’t get credit for it at the dockside.
Jamie mused on his fight. “At first I didn’t feel anything Dad and then it just pulled so hard!” It was clear he wanted more so on the next strike I gave him the rod again on what I thought was another marlin as it had hooked up first time. It turned out to be a very strong and very big sailfish. All the sailfish had particular difficulty with the big bonito baits and I had begun to detect the difference between a marlin bite and a sailfish bite although as this one proved it wasn’t a foolproof system. Sails would generally hit the bait and then run a short way. They would then settle and, often as not, when you set the hook they would drop it or you would pull it out of their mouths. What did they then do? Did they swim off in terror? Nope. They chased after the bait and took it again…and again…and sometimes again! Until you eventually and inevitably got them hooked up. I was very surprised at this but it just goes to show that they are not the brightest of beasts, even if they are amongst the most beautiful.
Then we hit a slow patch and trolled for 4 hours without any action. Maso and Froilan tolerated my infantile Spanish conversation and we got along just fine. They asked me where else I fished in the world and wanted to know about techniques and stuff. We talked about the kids, who were sound asleep in the cabin, and Maso told me he had eleven children. Now that’s hard work. On the first afternoon we had visited the village where the crews and staff for Tropic Star lived. It was an eye-opener for the boys seeing just how dirt poor some people in the world actually are. And yet the village kids all looked healthy and happy enough. They had a small school and no fewer than four churches! Out of the 700 souls in the village, almost 60% were under 10 years old. This, I think, is a reflection of the improved nutrition and healthcare brought about by the money earned in the Lodge. Under normal circumstances these kids would have been born in the rainforest and many would have succumbed, like all tribal peoples, to the numerous hazards of childhood. Fishing dollars were making a huge difference to these people’s lives.
Mind you, I for one could have done without being part of the gawping parade of fat white folks wandering through their village. Who wants to use someone else’s misfortune as a tourist talking point? And, of course, we had to go to the headman’s hut and watch the “dance”. Several young bare-breasted women shuffling round doing the “monkey” the “parrot” and the “plantain” – each indistinguishable to the last both in musical cadence, in rhythm and in steps. Having been around a number of these places I’ve seen that dance. Indeed, I once stumbled into a private function for American tourists in a hotel in Scotland and I saw that dance accompanied by bagpipes and kilts…
I spent $50 on Indian carving junk. It’s the least you can do.
Back aboard the Miss Scotland, Maso took a call from another boat, the Miss Costa Rica, who told him that they were getting marlin strikes but not hooking up. We reeled in and went to find them. As we arrived, we saw a marlin jump and headed over but the Costa Rica beat us there and hooked up to a nice 400lb black. I got some good shots of the lady angler, Carol Hummer, fighting it and I was really glad I did because her husband Bob had missed all the action and this was her first marlin. We trolled around for a while and picked up a consolation sailfish for Scotty – the biggest and feistiest of the trip – just before lines out.
The folk you meet on a fishing trip often make the experience for you. I have to say that Tropic Star’s staff is just fabulous. Well trained, courteous, prompt and attentive. Everything that you want in a top rate fishing lodge. The other guests were also good company. The aforementioned Hummers were quiet and pleasant. Then there was Big Ed and his wife and son from Florida. Ed was an expert in just about whatever topic came up and was easy work provided you let him have his say. It was hard to stop him tell the truth. There were another bunch of guys from Florida that I didn’t really spend any time with as they were totally disinterested in me and the kids (life’s too short to work at first impressions) and a New York family with an autistic child who did very well at the fishing but we only really saw around the pool. Then there was Billy Crookshank, his son BJ and his friend Alex. Billy is a chain-smoking ER doctor from Louisiana and he is very proud of his Scots heritage. We hit it off right away, irrespective of the ancestral connections, and enjoyed many an evening conversation on just about everything under the sun from politics to religion to fishing, sometimes all in the same sentence. We found that, happily, we agreed on practically everything. The boys hooked up with BJ and Alex which was nice as there was a substantial age difference, but BJ and Alex were very patient listeners to my boy’s incessant chatter and were a credit to young America. Hopefully we can fish together again sometime – quality people like that are rare and when you find them you want to stay in touch.
The kids were suffering from tiredness. All the early morning rises were taking their toll so I decided that day three would be an easy day. We’d leave at 8am giving them extra time in bed and we’d fish inshore for a few hours and then head for the beach to have lunch. To make that possible, we went out the night before to catch bait but it was real slow and we spent hours to get maybe 20 goggle-eyes and blue runners. The tedium of a slow bait bite was relieved by watching the bats sweep across the surface of the bay. They were pretty large and very powerful flyers but I could not see what they fed on. They may even have been fish-eating bats as I have read of these but never seen them, although my understanding is that they feed in freshwater, not saltwater.
Of course, in the morning all the other boats had nicked our bait and we were left with only three blue runners. Lesson learned. All was not lost though as we found a school of small bonitos on our way out and filled the tuna tubes with prime predator fodder. I wanted a wahoo or a roosterfish for the boys but Scotty was intent on a cubera snapper. The first stop didn’t give us any strikes but we did see a family of whales – two adults and a calf – in the bay. They were extremely close to shore – within a couple of hundred yards – but they dived down and slipped past us when we went closer.
Being close inshore we got to appreciate the extraordinary beauty of the Panamanian rainforest. The trees grew right out of the bare rock, it seemed, and tumbled down wild mountainsides right onto the very shore line. The overpowering greenness of the place contrasted beautifully with the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean and is something that will stay with me forever. Panama has a population of just under 3 million, more than half of whom live in the often seedy Panama City, which leaves vast tracts of land completely devoid of human life. To say Tropic Star is remote is an understatement: there is no road anywhere near the place and I mean for hundreds of miles. To get there you either fly or sail. It is totally surrounded by wild, mountainous, virgin rainforest. Getting lost in there would be pretty much a death sentence. A party of guests from the lodge decided to take the trail over the hill to the white beach. When they returned (much) later, they were in pretty poor shape and they had even resorted to drinking from the stream they were so thirsty. Soft white folks should not underestimate the power and unforgiving nature of wild places.
Our next stop was more productive and we took a strike almost immediately. I free-spooled, set the hook solid and cranked that fish hard to keep it out of the rocks. Scotty was in the chair and I gave him the rod on what was a very strong fish. I had to help him work the rod and I felt something in my left arm give as I did so. It hurt. But we got the fish to the surface and it was a very nice 45lb cubera snapper, known as a pargo locally. One very happy boy and one very happy crew as they are delicious fish to eat.
We took another strike and hooked up to a big jack for Jamie but it was beaten by the time he got the rod and he was disappointed at the fight. After that we had three other strikes that we either missed or were cut off – probably from wahoo. A good morning’s effort. I was hurting badly though and rubbing ice onto my left bicep constantly. The cold brought out the internal bruising and it made an interesting colour pattern. Time for the beach – vamos a la playa…
The white beach is so-called because of…wait for it…its white sand. This is only unusual because all of the other little beaches and coves were of a dark browny gray colour. Why white coral sand should collect here and here alone was a puzzle but it was a very pretty little cove nonetheless. Maso backed the boat in as close as he could and the boys launched themselves over the transom and swum to shore. I finished my lunch and decided to join them. Once over the side of the boat I knew I’d made a mistake. I can swim pretty good – best ever was 46 lengths of the pool on my 46th birthday – but in a pool I can always stand up. Here in the bay I knew I was well out of my depth and it was a deceptively long swim to shore. I panicked. No other word for it. I had to use a lot of self-talk to calm down and start to swim rhythmically. Jamie came out to meet me but that didn’t help one bit to be honest and only heightened my disquiet. Funny thing that kind of irrational fear. I’m the same with heights….
We messed around on the shore for a while and tried to dam the small stream running down through it. The water would come in pulses as the frequent torrential showers up in the hills dropped constant mini-floods which found their way down through the stream. The interesting thing for me was the clarity of these rainforest streams. Most tropical rivers and streams are mud brown but here the local water sources were gin clear – almost like highland trout streams. Party over I swam back to the boat with Scotty and then the second problem arose: how the blazes would I get back in? I got up half-way onto the side but could get no further. Froilan eventually roped my leg and hauled me up in a most undignified manner to leave me gasping like a fish on the edge. It would have been kinder to use the gaff…
Jamie messed about on his own for a little while and eventually came back sharpish, swearing he’d seen a shark on the bottom whilst he snorkelled. Every chance he did as there were certainly plenty about. We set up some rapalas and trolled round the nearby island – Las Sentinales – where we took two hookups from, of all things, yellowfin tunas. They were football sized so were absolutely perfect for the boys to fight. Their first yellowfins. Jamie declared this his best day…ever. No argument from me.
The crew sent the pargo’s head up to the Lodge where they boiled the flesh off and gave Scotty the very impressive teeth and jaws. When reconstructed they looked like a dinosaur find, but boy they smelled bad in our backpacks on the way home.
The poker was intense that night and the boys won $23 between them. I can’t abide gambling but there’s no need for me to impose my idiosyncrasies on them: let them find out for themselves just how pointless it all is.
Last day. It always has to come around but it never feels good. We set off at about 7.00am and we had heard on the radio by then that bait was tough. If the bait is tough, so will the fishing be and it was 9.00am before we caught a sailfish for Scotty after it had dropped the bait several times and even been hooked up briefly. I’ll never understand why they keep coming back for more, but I am sure glad that they do. We picked up another in the prop-wash that came a-snapping and a-surging after the strip bait. I did a perfect drop-back, though I say so myself, and set the hook beautifully into our most acrobatic fish of the week. Jamie handled the fight and did a sterling job. After that we tempted two nice dorados but they both threw the hook.
The crew were determined to get a marlin for Jamie, let’s be clear about this. They had talked of nothing else the day before and all that morning so they were generating all the pressure. Things were slow, however, marlin-wise. Only one had been hooked up between all the boats so we decided on a tactic change, rigged up the spread to pull lures and teasers and set off on a mission. I like lure fishing if only for what happened next…
At 12.30 I was watching the spread whilst the kids messed around up top with Maso and I heard Froilan shout just as I saw the shape. A marlin had come screaming into the spread and was batting the left daisy chain teaser with its bill. Froilan grabbed the big dorado strip bait and tried to work it over to the fish as I cranked in the other small strip bait. The marlin, however chased my bait and then switched to the right daisy chain. Froilan shouted to me to get the live bait out but to be honest it involved too many complicated changes of tackle so I grabbed the rod he had and indicated that he should do it. Just then the marlin took my bait and ran. I free spooled and then set the drag. The hook pulled. The bait was tumbling back and Froilan was telling me not to touch the spool but I wanted to feel the fish when it took. I looked up and saw the marlin turn on the bait and hit it again. Line whipped off the spool and again I counted the drop back and set the hook. The hook pulled again. Damn.
Meanwhile Froilan free spooled the bonito live-bait and Maso killed the engine. A few seconds passed and then the reel started to sing. I wound in my strip bait and got Jamie in the chair. Froilan set the hook perfectly and handed the rod off to Jamie as I clipped his harness on. He was attached to his marlin at last: we reckoned it was a 300lb blue. Well he worked that fish hard for 20 minutes and Maso backed it down in concert with his effort. At 20ft from the transom it started to come fast and we all yelled at him to try keep it tight…but it threw the bait. Maso said “Senor! En escosia lo cogido, si?” In other words – in Scotland that would be a catch, yes?
As often happens, what started as a hobby website grew arms and
legs until it eventually became a full-blown book. In February 2004
it was published under the slightly enhanced title Game Fishing Diaries: Details from Fishing in Life and is now available from most outlets from as little a $2.99
on Amazon Kindle. In November 2011 Volume 2 made an appearance also
available on Kindle