Photos by Richard Gibson
Visiting the Tropic Star on the Pacific in Panama is like traveling back in time. Guests land on a remote airstrip beside the tiny fishing village of Jaqué on a river that bears the same name. From there, a panga goes out the river mouth and around a point, revealing the lodge’s rainbow fleet of more than a dozen vintage Bertram 31s on moorings and at the end of a long pier. Buildings are set unobtrusively into the green hillside. The setting is spectacular, and the fishing is excellent.
Tropic Star is on the Pacific about 150 miles southeast of Panama City, on Piñas Bay in the Darién Gap, a dense jungle that runs to the Colombian border. The only way in is by boat or small chartered plane.
It’s impossible to talk about the lodge without gushing about the fishing for marlin, sailfish, roosterfish, and Cubera snapper and without mentioning its well-maintained fleet of Bertrams.
The twin-diesel Bertram 31s are to this lodge what floatplanes are to the fly-in operations in Canada and Alaska: rugged, dependable workhorses. They are not the fastest or largest fishboats on the water today, but they are strong, sure-footed, and nimble. And they can run safely through the snottiest seas.
“To me, the 31 is the most iconic sportfishing boat ever built,” says Capt. Richard White, the fishing director and manager at the lodge. “They’re so maneuverable and versatile. And the hulls are absolutely bulletproof.”
The lodge operates 13 of the Florida-built boats—which debuted in the early 1960s—with two operational spares on hand. Tropic Star also has the expertise and facilities to repair, replace or fabricate in glass, metal or wood just about anything on the boats, be it a steering or an electrical system, a shaft, strut, rudder or engine.
“Our boats fish 300 days a year,” says Tropic Star Capt. Zane Andrews, the son of the former owner, who started driving 31s when he was 13 years old. “They have to be easy to work on. We can change an engine between tides. And we always have more boats than we can run. Fishability is a big thing.”
The lodge continues to tweak the boats to make them more functional. The fleet is in the early stages of being upgraded. The hulls will be repowered, the cabins enclosed and air-conditioned, the bridges and heads upgraded, and the helms graced with new Raymarine electronics.
Gallery: Tropic Star Lodge
Time to Fish
The thrum of the diesels, a tropical sun and the boat’s gentle roll had worked me into a mild hypnotic state. I was sitting on the port engine box early that afternoon, sun-blasted, day-dreaming, brain on pause, when a blue marlin pushing 400 pounds surfaced in the spread and snared a 3-pound tuna bridled to an 18/0 circle hook as easily as a tall boy plucks an apple from a tree.
The line snapped from the rigger, and I rocketed into the glorious, chaotic here-and-now; the sleepy cockpit erupted in a chorus of indecipherable English and Spanish.
I was on my feet, rod in hand, pushing the drag lever forward on the 50-pound outfit. The next thing I remembered was standing in the port quarter of our Bertram 31, facing the fish and yelling, “Yeah, baby!” as it ripped off 400 yards of line.
The mate cleared the rest of the lines, I got into the chair, and 50 minutes later I was no longer in the mood to shout much of anything. We had settled into one of those prolonged tugs-of-war with a fish that had no intention of wearing itself out by performing showy acrobatics. My shouts became grunts as I tried to lift what felt like a chunk of the Panamanian seafloor.
“Don’t let up,” instructed John Brownlee, my comrade and host of the Anglers Journal TV show. “Keep the pressure on her. Remember, if you’re resting, she’s resting. You’re gaining.”
The last line, of course, was wishful thinking, but I kept cranking.
Brownlee didn’t have to work too hard to talk me into joining him at Tropic Star, where he was filming an episode of Anglers Journal TV. “It’s like Jurassic Park,” says the noted South Florida angler and television host. “Full-contact fishing.” All true.
The lodge is known for black, blue, and striped marlin, roosterfish, Pacific sails, Cubera snapper, yellowfin tuna, dorado, wahoo, amberjack, mackerel, and more. Captains and mates are experienced locals who are second to none when it comes to trolling live baits for blue and black marlin. They’re also experts at rigging an effective Panama strip bait, which we used to fool several sails.
“You can catch a black marlin every day of the year,” says White, a former charter skipper from South Africa who is the fishing director and manager at Tropic Star. More than 250 International Game Fish Association world records have been set at the lodge going back to its beginnings in the early 1960s. Dozens are still in place.
“It’s widely considered to be the best saltwater lodge in the world,” says Brownlee, who was visiting for the eighth time. “This is the whole package. There’s no place in the world quite like it.”
We were accompanied by offshore fishing photographer Richard “Gibby” Gibson, who has been shooting big-game photos in the far corners of the world for decades. It was his first trip back in 20 years, and even he was astounded. “This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever fished, bar none,” says Gibson, who lives in Homestead, Florida. “The Great Barrier Reef is great, but this is the jungle.”
He paused to give the word its proper heft.
“The real stuff,” he continues. “Very few places in the world make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. This is one of them.”
Tropic Star is about 25 miles from the Colombian border, on the edge of the lush, steep, and nearly impenetrable Darién jungle. The 60-mile stretch of marshland and rainforest is the only break in the Pan-American Highway—a roughly 19,000-mile network of roads stretching from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego.
“We’re 100 miles from the nearest road,” says White, who is 33 and has dreamed of fishing and working at Tropic Star since he was a boy. “The British, Spanish and Americans tried to build a road through the Darién Gap, and they all failed.”
And like all good fishing lodges, Tropic Star is about more than just fish. It’s about the friends you make, the camaraderie and laughter with staff, the memorable moments with captains and mates and other guests. The place is rife with the excitement that accompanies fishing new waters.
“We don’t lock our doors here,” White tells new arrivals. “It’s all family.”
“We do, unfortunately, have Wi-Fi,” he adds. “No cellphones at dinner, please.”
The service and food are excellent, and the kitchen is always open. From travel logistics to finding fish, the Tropic Star operation is well-organized and efficient—no easy feat in a jungle setting. The biggest challenge, White says, is “fighting back the jungle, and the salt and the rain. It’s a constant battle.”
The lodge’s 80-foot cargo ship brings supplies and diesel fuel from Panama City, a 14-hour run to Piñas Bay.
These behind-the-scenes logistics are hidden from guests, who are exhilarated to know that, at any moment, the waters behind a Bertram can part, and a giant black or blue marlin can engulf a skipjack. That feeling of anticipation ran through my entire stay like stray electrical current. It was that whiff of ozone before the thunder, lightning, and all hell breaks loose.
Our second day offshore started with rain and ended with sun, not atypical for the tropics. Around 9:30, Brownlee and I took back-to-back Pacific sails weighing 120 to 135 pounds. Brownlee’s put on a good show, jumping a half-dozen times. We released four sails in all.
Around 11:30, Brownlee jumped a nice blue marlin, which disappeared after one leap.
Things slowed a bit, the wind fell out, and the sea flattened; we trolled through the afternoon under enormous cloud pastures, accompanied by scores of porpoises and seabirds. A whale spouted in the distance.
At one point, Brownlee quoted an old offshore captain: “We’re going to catch a 2-foot marlin,” he declared. “Two foot between the eyes.”
That became my mantra for the rest of the afternoon. Not long afterward, a blue marlin came up for the tuna on the port outrigger, and I was on.
After about an hour and 20 minutes, with the boat and captain doing their part, the mate had the leader in hand and guided the fish, estimated to be between 350 and 400 pounds, to the surface. It lay alongside the transom as we took a couple of photos. Then the fish rolled over, the circle hook dropped out, and down it swam.
There are plenty of bigger marlin in these waters, but this one took most of what I had in the tank. The next day my butt hurt; my right forearm, hand, and wrist were a little creaky; and my right thumb throbbed from a good case of road rash.
“We’re 100 miles from the nearest road. The British, Spanish and Americans tried to build a road through the Darién Gap, and they all failed.” —Capt. Richard White
I felt wrung out, in a great way, and was looking forward to more.
The following day we fished inshore for roosters, Cubera snapper, and whatever else might pounce on a blue runner or popper. Clouds hung beneath the peaks of the formidable coastal mountain range and spilled down the steep slopes into the valleys. A flock of pelicans strung like charms on a bracelet rose and fell with the contours of land and swell.
“Spectacular, isn’t it?” Brownlee said.
After a night of rain, a waterfall cascaded down a slick ledge and fell into the salt. Sea caves dotted the shoreline, and mist shot out of blowholes in the rocks with each good wave that came ashore. Numerous small slides marked the vertical faces of the hills, where trees rose three and four stories high.
The shore was craggy, surf-blasted, and fishy as hell. The water surging around the ledges was greenish-white and oxygenated. Brownlee tossed a popper in the lacey backwash, and a fish jumped all over it. How it missed the trebles is anyone’s guess.
For me, the roosters were one of the biggest draws. I’ve wanted to catch a big roosterfish since I was about 14 or 15. That’s when I first saw black-and-white photos of the bizarre-looking gamefish in a magazine. Someday, I thought, I’ll catch one of those critters.
“They’re like a pissed-off teenager with an attitude and a mohawk,” White says. “They’re not intelligent, but they’re very aggressive.”
We’d already caught plenty of smaller fish inshore, and on our final day we were hoping for one that was trophy size. Brownlee got things started with a nice rooster of about 30 pounds that ate a live blue runner fished on a downrigger. A half-hour later, another rooster picked up our live bait in 35 feet of water, and I was fast to a good fish. It fought well on the 30-pound outfit: steady, bulldoggish, and strong. At one point, it made a short-lived diversion toward a beach a couple hundred yards away.
The fish was broad and healthy, and it weighed an estimated 55 pounds. We were all pretty pumped, high-fiving the captain and mate and one another after releasing it.
Brownlee and I had a really good trip. In four days of fishing (two inshore, two offshore) we caught a blue marlin, Pacific sails, a bunch of roosterfish, mahi-mahi, and more—and Brownlee got enough footage for two episodes of Anglers Journal TV.
There’s a reason the lodge has so many repeat guests. “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Gibson said.
“It’s like no other place I’ve ever been,” added Brownlee.
Beautiful and fishy as all get out.