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


Jaime Nelson edges into casting range around a point

The next day, Pascal deems us competent enough to venture closer to the rocks, and cast toward shore. This alone says a lot about modern fishing kayaks. My fishing buddy, Kitchener, Ontario’s Rob Dankowsky, and I are experienced yak anglers. Bob and his friend Jaime Nelson, also from Denver, are good fishermen, but they’ve never kayaked before. It doesn’t matter.

It’s hard for the uninitiated to believe, but pedal-powered kayaks are a practical, effective and even elegant way to fish this coast. For one thing, transporting gas out here is very difficult and expensive, so it’s more economical to run just a couple of pangas to ferry anglers and their kayaks out to the fishing grounds. Plus, many of the prime gamefish live around shallow, rocky structures where no sensible skipper would take a big boat. But a kayak can handily navigate those spots.


That said, the rugged coastline is intimidating, and it takes a while to get the hang of edging in close enough to drop a lure among the rocks. Still, we all land a few small fish, except for Rob—he lands the fish of a lifetime. A serious weightlifter and huge slab of a guy, Rob is a muskie expert and big-fish enthusiast who has long dreamt of catching a monster cubera. I’m a half-click away when it happens, but I later get the story from an excited Rob and an awed Jaime, who’d been close by.

Rob Dankowsky with a trophy cubera snapper

Rob had dropped his five-inch-long popper into a quiet spot between boulders, prompting a surprisingly gentle take. But from the orange flash, he knew instantly it was a cubera. In tight cover, this spelled trouble, so he pulled—hard. Almost before the fish knew it was hooked, Rob had the 40-pound cubera by his kayak. Then his hours in the gym and experience handling big muskies paid off. “I was looking at that giant fish on his line, and wondering how the heck he was going to land it,” Jaime says. “Then he reached one arm down and just heaved the whole thing onto his lap. Amazing.”

Contented anglers speeding back to the lodge, (front left to right) Rob Dankowsky, Bob Deane, the author, Jaime Nelson

After lunch, we ferry the kayaks into deeper water, where we cast poppers over a sunken plateau. But it’s not gentle freshwater popping. Instead, we make long, sharp pulls with our rods so the lures throw sheets of spray. This commotion suggests baitfish activity, which brings in the predators. I struggle with the technique, but the other guys hammer 14- to 20-inch yellowfin tuna—beautiful ovoids of pure muscle that would soon become the most succulent sushi imaginable.


Speeding back to the lodge at day’s end, Sam looks at our group of four contented anglers. “You guys look a lot better today,” he shouts over the roar of the outboard. “Yesterday afternoon, you just looked broken.”