World famous Tropic Star Lodge at Pinas Bay, Panama, held its Annual Billfish Conservation Tournament in November 2021. Prior to the torneo, team members from the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation were part of a research group tagging black marlin, blue marlin, sailfish and dorado (dolphin fish or mahi) at the lodge. This is part of a long-term study to better track these ecologically important species of game fish in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Sustainable catch-and-release sportfishing is a major player in the region’s ecotourism sector and is a driving force behind protecting these majestic fish.
Ryan Logan, a Ph.D. student at Nova Southeastern University, who has been leading the billfish tagging project, brought 32 PATs (Pop-Off Archival Tags) to go on billfish and six SPOT tags for silky sharks — SPOT tags send a signal to a satellite each time a fish breaks the surface. My daughter Jessica, Steve Roden, Chris Gough and I were all assisting with catching, tagging, data recording and filming released fish.
Leading the dorado tagging project was Wessley Merten of the Dolphinfish Research Project (BeyondOurShoresFoundation.org) in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. The program is responsible for tagging more than 30,000 dolphinfish in this citizen science-based project with over 4,000 anglers registered in many countries. In Panama, 560 dorado have been tagged with conventional tags, and Wess has tagged 15 with electronic archival tags.
As the research work continued, Jessica remained with the tagging team, and Palm Beach angler Gina Zeitlin joined Chris and me on team Los Bamofos to take part in the torneo. There were three private boats, and 10 TSL vessels fishing with teams from Canada, the U.S., the Cayman Islands and Panama.
Day one, Sunday, Nov. 21, began with fishing director Richard White launching a Bimini start out of the bay. The boats spread out to the south and west to search for billfish. On Miss Scandia with Captain Gavilan and marinero (mate) Ricardo, Gina and I each bagged sailfish while fishing around flotsam to get points on the board. Several other boats caught sails for 100 points, and three boats hooked big Pacific blue marlin for 300 points while trolling lures. Sea Weez, a 75-foot Scarborough captained by legendary Aussie skipper Ross Finlayson, hooked a really big marlin, judging from the amount of spray it kicked up each time it jumped. They fought the marlin on 50-pound line for 80 minutes before getting the leader, calling it 800 pounds, tagging and releasing with a PAT.
In the early afternoon, the Los Bamofos team was checking out big floating logs and trees that usually hold bait fish such as green jacks and bonitos. A pair of billfish came up on the teasers, and I hooked a blue marlin, on 30-pound line, jumping all over the calm ocean. Ricardo had the leader in 20 minutes, gaining 300 points to put our team in second place at the end of the day. Team Against All Odds on Miss Island Star was in first place with 600 points for three sailfish and a blue marlin release.
On the second day, the teams switched boats, putting Gina and me on Miss Tropic Star with Captain Jacob and ace marinero Hermel. Jacob ran south until he found a trash line 18 miles out loaded with big logs, a floating freezer and lots of birds and bait in blue water. Everything looked good, so we fished live bonito baits. At 8:05 a.m., a blue marlin ate the right rigger bait. Gina hooked it, and it started gray-hounding right across the spread, cutting the line off on the stinger! Not the best start for our team when we’re chasing points. The next two bites were both big Pacific sailfish of 110 pounds both caught by Gina.
At 9:15 a.m., a blue marlin crashed the stinger bait, and Gina caught her first blue marlin of 300 pounds, which I tagged with a PAT. Then, Chris pulled the hook on a jumping sailfish, but not to worry, as two minutes later, a blue marlin terrorized the left rigger bait before jumping all over the stinger bait. Chris was up, and Jacob was on the radio screaming, “Marlin on the line, angler No. 31!” This fish was a lot bigger than the one Gina had just caught, doing lolipop jumps around in a wide circle. It was a big fish and heavy, not clearing the surface. I was getting a few jump shots with my camera as the fish came closer to the boat. Hermel had the leader in 30 minutes, and we tried to get a PAT in, but we broke the marlin off. We called it 400 pounds.
In the background of the photo I shot with the jumping marlin was the floating freezer. We had all the bites within a quarter mile of this spot along the trash line. Chris made a joke in Spanish to Jacob, “The marlin are here because the freezer is full of beer — a Marlin bar!” No sooner were the words said than another big marlin crashed the live bonito on the stinger. Gina was up and fought this marlin for nearly an hour. It had done a magnificent series of jumps like a Jet Ski on steroids. Videographer Keishmer Hermoso was on the TSL chase boat filming the action close by and leapt aboard our boat to film the tagging action. Hermel wired a strong fish; I got the PAT firmly in the left shoulder, and the 475-pound marlin was released. I asked Keishmer to stay on board with us, and Jessica’s boat came to give us more PATs.
They had not been gone five minutes when Chris hooked up another blue marlin. This one jumped at an angle across the stern going to port but always coming at the boat, so I was getting some good jump shots. It stopped and shook its head at the surface, foaming up the water all around for a minute, then Hermel had the leader, a five-minute fish. It went ballistic jumping close to the boat and then overtook the boat on the starboard side. No chance to tag this green fish, so Hermel cut it off.
We ended up with four blue marlin and two more sailfish on day two for a total of five blue marlin and four sailfish reaching 1,900 points. Second place boat, the Beatrix, had 900 points. Captain Jacob and Hermel were the top crew. Team Los Bamofos qualified to enter the prestigious Offshore World Championship, which will be held in April 2022 in Costa Rica. This is the fourth time a Cayman Islands team has won this prestigious angling event.
Maybe we will see you at the tournament next year. Viva Panama!