The kayak is the drag, and other fishing lessons from Panama


Once the panga is loaded up with kayaks, it’s launched off the beach

Bobbing in my kayak on that first morning, I force my attention away from the dramatic tropical vista and pull a rod out the holder behind me. I start trolling a shallow-running crankbait, and get familiar with my craft. This is my first time in a pedal kayak, and I immediately love it. These 12-foot Hobie Outbacks are stable, fast and manoeuvrable, and they leave your hands free for fishing. It’s also comforting to have the lodge panga nearby, the crew ready to assist with big fish, put small ones on ice, refill our water bottles and generally offer support.Still, pedalling in the 25°C heat is tough, especially after arriving from a wintry December in Toronto. Less than an hour in, I’m thinking about a break when my rod jerks. Looking over my shoulder, I see the golden body of a bull dorado rocketing out of the water and wildly shaking its instantly recognizable blunt head. It jumps again, and is gone before I can even reel in the slack. “Nothing you could have done,” Sam said later. “They’re just insane.”

Lodge partner Sam Wadman holds a bait-sized bonito, shredded by a cubera snapper

The near miss is energizing, so when Sam waves me over to the panga around mid-morning, I’m ready for the big leagues: live bait. Casting a light spoon from the panga, Sam had landed a football-shaped 14-inch bonito, which he’s bridled onto a 12/0 circle hook—the top rig for big roosterfish. He hands it to me hanging from a broomstick of a rod and instructs me to let out 75 metres of line, then troll toward the headland, fast and steady. I feel the bonito tugging a little, almost pulling the lightly set drag. As I approach the shore, something takes the bait. I turn up the drag, the line goes tight, the stout rod bows and…nothing. I keep trolling, but something feels off, so I crank up and make a gruesome discovery. All the flesh behind the bonito’s dorsal fin is gone, leaving just a bloody spine and tail.


“Shark?” I ask, as I return the heavy outfit to the panga crew.

“Nope. Classic cubera strike,” says Sam, who explains that roosterfish slurp their prey in whole, but cuberas chomp at the middle, which is why they’re usually caught on lures. And even the toughest artificials rarely survive more than a few hits before being retired to decorate the lodge’s walls.

By mid-afternoon, only one of our group has caught fish. Bob Deane from Denver, Colorado, spent the day jigging in deeper water, landing a mess of pretty African pompanos, which will soon make excellent ceviche. Mentally and physically exhausted, all I can think about is a shower, a handful of ibuprofen and lying face down on my bed for a while.