Promptly at 5:30 am, before the sun had even thought to rise, there was a knock on the door followed by “coffee, coffee”. The day had begun, and after a 6:00 am breakfast, we were on the boat and off and running, with the first stop for bait. Every fishing day at Tropic Star Lodge starts with a bait stop for bonita. During the black marlin season which is mainly from December through March the baits are stored in tuna tubes to be used live.

    However, we were there in May which is sailfish time, so in our case the bonita were sliced out and rigged as the famed “Panama strip bait”.Then it was off to fishing, and after a fifteen minute run the baits were out, The day was not a spectacular one, unless you call ten sailfish approaching a hundred pounds a spectacular day. The fishing was spread out throughout the day, with all only singles raised, about 15-16 in all. My wife fished with twenty pound Shimanos and I used my trusty 15 pound test bait casting rod.  

     Day two we opted to fish along the rocks for rootserfish, and after a fifteen mile or so run to the west we dropped our lines in, one on a downrigger fifty feet below and one on top about a hundred feet back. A couple of other boats from the lodge were there as well, but I was the first to hook up. We were using circle hooks on the live jacks, and after the line popped from the release clip I waited for a five count before easing the drag lever up. Then it was hang on as line screamed off the reel for what seemed like forever, but was in reality about fifteen seconds or so. Then it was pump and gain line a half a dozen times, while the quarry caught his breath before taking it back. After about fifteen minutes of give and take, I started to gain line steadily until a sixty-five pound rooster (my largest) was grabbed by the tail and held up for admiring.

     A short while later I got bit again and after a similar but shorter struggle a thirty pounder was released. My wife started to look at me like I was cheating or something, since both fish were taken on the downrigger while her bait was unmolested, so we switched rods, which I assumed would also give me a break. Sure enough twenty minutes later she was hanging on as line disappeared from her reel. Another rooster, this time one about forty pounds. But, that seemed to be it. Whatever the reason, the fish turned off there, so we started trolling east looking for another hot spot, but for the next hour or more it was dead.

     We kept slow trolling back towards the lodge, with the only excitement being when I got stung by a bee. Here we were a quarter mile offshore and a bee stings me. It turned out that we were fishing just offshore of a small farming community that raised bees for the honey, and apparently my sun block smelled like a flower. When I felt something crawling on me I went to knock it off resulting in the sting. After having the mate flick a couple more off of me, we pulled in the rigs and ran down the coast a mile or so to the next point and dropped them in there. A short distance past the point was a short stretch of beach about a hundred yards long or so and just as we got to it I got bit again. The fish ran straight in towards the beach, and then ran some more, and some more. Based on the first rooster’s fight I figured I had a really big one this time, because he had easily taken twice the line the first one had taken. Just as he was slowing down I saw a splash right up against the beach, but it was too far away to be seen as anything more than white water.

      This fish was a bear. He had about two hundred yards of line out, and I was getting it back barely a foot at a time, and every once in a while he’d go on another run. Finally after an eternity I was able to make some serious line, and the mates started to glove up. About fifty feet out the fish made a pass on the surface, and that’s when all hell broke loose. The captain screamed out “robalo, robalo, robalo”. In Spanish robalo means snook, and three robalos loosely translates into snookasaurus. All I had seen was about three feet of green back, but the captain because of his elevation, could see the whole fish.

     Now the gaffs were coming out, and it wasn’t going to be much longer. The fish was plainly whipped and was coming in fairly easily when everything went slack. The hundred pound leader had been cut by the fish’s gillplate, and it was all over. Lots of Spanish was flowing between the captain and the mates, but when everybody calmed down, the captain told us that he thought that the fish was about five feet long, what might have been a world record. But, now it was just another fish story.

     Another hour of uneventful trolling convinced us to head for what in Montauk is called the “Punishment Grounds”. You won’t find it on any chart, but it is where Montauk’s charter boats head when the clients get antsy and bored waiting for a shark to show up, a place they can count on to troll up some stripers or bluefish. In this case, we headed to a spot about five miles from the lodge to catch some sailfish, winding up with three or four for the afternoon.

     Day three found us trolling around on a oil slick calm ocean under a cloudless sky, the first (and last) time we had seen the sun since arriving in Panama. All of the other days were very pleasant with temperatures in the lower eighties or so. But this day was hot. And, very quiet on the fishing scene. We raised eight or ten sailfish and got five to the boat, not a bad days fishing in most places, but for Panama at that time of the year not very good. The captain and I both agreed that the fishing was off because of the unusual conditions.

    For our fourth and last day we decided to fish along the shore again.. As I figured, we didn’t travel quite as far as we did on our first inshore foray. Rather the captain stopped short, right where we lost the big snook, but he wasn’t home. Or, maybe he was still hurting from our previous meeting. So, on we trolled. We raised about a dozen fish, but couldn’t hook a single one. I think that the fish we raised were two small for our baits, and since they had to get them all the way into their mouths for the circle hooks to work,

    it just didn’t happen. I kept busy casting a popper in at rocks that we passed close enough to reach, and was rewarded with a few small snapper, but nothing very exciting. Around noon the skipper told us that the sailfish were biting pretty good, but being a little on the stubborn side I decided to give it another half hour or so, which wound up being a waste of time, so off we were to the “Punishment Grounds”.

    All the other days we used strip baits, but this time we had some nice lively jacks for bait. One mate rigged a bait for my fifteen pound outfit and I dropped it back, while the second mate did the same for my wife’s rig. Then the first mate started to rig a third bait, but before he could get it in the water we had a double on. What followed for the next hour or so was the hottest sailfish bite I had ever seen. We were never able to get a third bait in the water, and we never had only one fish on at a time. We wound up releasing eleven sails out of about fifteen that we raised. Near the end my wife remarked that she was glad that this was our last day and we wouldn’t have to work that hard again. There were sailfish all over the place. It seemed like none of the boats around us were fishing, just catching. Rarely would we troll for five minutes before hooking up, and I never did put my rod in the holder after the bait was set.  

      The one fish that we hooked solidly and lost was on my spinning rod. Have you ever honestly had a fish spool you right down to the knot and break off? It was my first time. I dropped my bait back and a sail grabbed it. While I was giving it time to get the bait down, the mate was dropping back my wife’s bait. I engaged the bail and came tight for a second or two, but he dropped it, then grabbed it again. My wife’s fish did the same. On the second try I got a solid hook up and the fish took off. Meanwhile my wife’s fish was being fussy and didn’t get hooked until the third try. All this time my fish was running and the boat was slowly trolling along. While my fish was running and jumping I was watching my wife’s attempts to hook up. Then when she finally came tight I looked down at my reel and saw I was getting pretty low on string, but by then it was too late.  

     The captain knocked it out of gear and started backing down, but by then it had gotten to the knot resulting in that .22 caliber crack and was gone.

Coincidentally, the bite stopped when we ran out of baits, so out went the belly strips, but that was it for the day. And, shortly after that, a tropical shower came through to help cool us off. We had been having heavy rain every night, but this was the first we had seen while we were on the water, so we called it a day and headed back for a cold Panama beer.

    Tropic Star Lodge in Panama is a one-of-a-kind place. It is located close to the Colombian border, a hundred and fifty miles from Panama City and a hundred miles from the nearest paved road. It’s easy to say those numbers, but you really don’t appreciate what they mean until the flight there from Panama City. After fifteen minutes into the nearly hour long flight, you see nothing but ocean, a few islands and then green jungle. Not a sign of human habitation. The twin engine plane lands on a paved runway carved out of the jungle terminating a hundred yards or so from the ocean. At the end of it is a small hut that serves as the terminal. No walls, just a raised concrete platform with a roof and an enclosed bathroom, with a couple of benches. A couple of hundred yards away on the other side of the runway is the village of Bahis Pinas, which supplies all of the over one hundred employees of the lodge.

    It is not cheap. But if you can afford it and want the ultimate saltwater fishing experience, it is the place to go. But, you have to plan in advance, a long way in advance. The most popular time of year for fishing there is January - March, prime time for the big black marlin. I’m writing this in January of 2008, and right now there is limited availability for that time frame in 2010. In 2009, there is no availability until mid May. And, they accept bookings as much as five years in advance. However, there is a bright spot in all of this. The summer fishing is great for a variety of fish including all of the billfish species and because it doesn’t snow in the states at that time of year there is usually some availability.


by Capt Gene Kelly













(mostly true)



THE PATCHMEN                                          by Capt Gene Kelly

GUATEMALA LIGHT                                     by Capt Gene Kelly

PARADISE ON EARTH                                   by Capt Bob Koliner

GUATEMALA GUY'S TRIP                             by Capt Gene Kelly

FOUR DAYS IN PANAMA                                by Capt Gene Kelly

ONE MAGIC NIGHT                                         by Capt Bob Koliner

THE GREAT WHITE SHARK ROBBERY          by Capt Gene Kelly

THE RAGING QUEEN                                       by Capt Gene Kelly


COSTA RICA TARPON - CIRCA 1972                 by Capt Gene Kelly

JUST ANOTHER FISH STORY                            by Capt Gene Kelly

RETURN TO COSTA RICA                                 by Capt Gene Kelly

MONTAUK                         Artcle in Marlin magazine September 2011