World Wide Fishing!

Panama's Gatun Lake:
Peacock bass on a budget

By Jorge J. Santiago-AvilÚs

Panama is one of the "jewels" Central and South America can offer the nature lover. The Canal Zone is number one in the "must see" list for the visitor to Panama in Central America. What the fly fisherman visitor might be missing is the wonderful, productive, and inexpensive Peacock bass fishing available nearby. Not far from the Miraflores lock lies the village of Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets Gatun Lake. It is a short 45 minutes taxi ride (about $15) from the center of Panama City. As one encounters the bridge over the Chagres River the new Gamboa Resort is visible in the far side of the river, they do offer fishing excursions. If you want to stay within a budget and experience a true cultural adventure, leave early in the morning with your fishing gear, as to be there by 7:00 am. I recommend that you stay in the near side of the river where you can see a boat ramp and platform.

The ramp at the village of Gamboa. At the left side and almost out of the picture one may note a tent used by the guides.

Tied to the platform one can see several aluminum workboats about the size of the typical bass boat in the U.S. There is a small community of Panamanians who live nearby and work exclusively taking people fishing in the lake. The cost per day trip can be arranged there, last year (2002) when I fished there last, it was in the neighborhood of $70 for eight hours. Mind you, most Panamanians speak "survival English" to some extend, so if you speak slowly, use your hands and whatever Spanish you might know, communicating with them is a piece of cake. This will be the time to pick up a couple of sandwiches and sodas from the vendors in Gamboa (or bring them from your hotel) for your lunch afloat. Perhaps sharing an extra sandwich with the pilot/guide will be greatly appreciated, as they tend to go all day with no food.
The last time I fished Gatun, the guide, a fellow of about 60 but immensely strong and muscular and with the most pleasant disposition you can find, surprised me several times. The first time, he drove the boat at full speed into the branch of a tree, jumps out and grabbed an Iguana. The reptile was about a meter long and did not take lightly the fact that was being coerced into a burlap sack. I asked him if he was going to eat the fellow, and he replied that he has a big family. The second time, he stopped by a beautiful tree full of purple round fruits about the size of a golf ball. He mentioned that it was dessert.

The guide eating his dessert, the "caimito del monte". It was a wonderfully delicious fruit. Note a fruit at the upper left side of the picture.

I tried several of the fruits (caimito de monte) and they were milky and delicious. The third event was as surprising, suddenly he slow down the boat. He took a canoe paddle obviously carved by hand out of a hardwood board, and passed by my side, very slowly toward the bow. The boat was heading by its own inertia towards a bunch of rocks in the shore when I noticed a very large turtle basking in the sun on top of one of the rocks. Very softly and quietly, he placed the blade of the canoe paddle on top of the turtle and flipped the turtle on its back, "tomorrow dinner" was his comment with the most beautiful grin of self satisfaction.

The trip from Gamboa to the fishing grounds, which usually is about half an hour boat ride away, is just beautiful. Part of it is going through the main ship channel, and seen the big container ships and Panamax bulk carriers is impressive.

The trip to the fishing grounds includes a half-hour trip through the Panama Canal where one can see seagoing freighters from all around the world.

Once you leave the main channel you are in the jungle. The lake is studded by a multiplicity of small islands all uninhabited and wild. The guide usually will point out wildlife such as caiman (alligators), howler monkeys, iguanas, and birds such as parrots, toucans, sea eagles and others. My favorite fishing grounds are close to the island of Barro Colorado, where the Smithsonian Institution has a tropical ecology research center. This island (definitely worth seeing, after making previous arrangement with the Smithsonian people) is out of limits to anyone not involved in recognized ecological research. You can only fish "near" the island, but listen there is plenty of "fishy" water, all full of structures and underwater vegetation.

For the Gatun peacocks I recommend streamers and sinking lines, perhaps an intermediate will be best. The peacocks are not large, but there are plenty of them. A day catch of fifty is not uncommon, all from one to seven or eight pounds.

There are so many small peacocks in this lake, fifty catches of this size are common.

An eight pounder is definitely a trophy and they usually strike near submerged vegetation rather than dead trees kind of structure. I use two seven weight rods, one rigged with a Clouser deep minnow on a 0/1 saltwater hook, and the other one with a floating line and a red or yellow popper on the same size hook for those places where the water is totally calm. I use a larger leader-tippet combination on the poppers (about 6 feet). The streamers should be colorful and about three inches long. The color combinations that produce the best for me are red and yellow, red and white and blue and white. Of course you must remember to strip briskly. When you see the fish, you should speed up the stripping, these fellows are aggressive predators and used to see the bait fleeing from them quickly. If you slow down as to allow them to reach the fly, they will recognize it as a fake and will dive immediately. So remember, strip FAST.

The peacock bass (cichla monoculus) was introduced in Panama from the Amazon Basin together with other species such as the "Oscar" (Astronotus Oscellaris). Being an aggressive and prolific predator, the peacock bass took over the place displacing the native species. The most common of the displaced specie is another cichlid called by the natives "vieja" (old lady). It is a fish common with the tropical aquarium fans, and it is unusual to see them in large sizes anymore. You can feel privileged if you can catch a fishable vieja. Treat them with a great deal of care and release them immediately.

A vieja of catchable size. It fell for a wooly worm.

There are many pleasant aspects of fishing Gatun Lake. Among them one can mention the proximity to the city, the good weather, the great disposition and skills of the guides/pilots, and how inexpensive the fishing experience can be. After my business there I checked in to one of Panama's mid-price hotels (my favorite in Cangrejos is called "Las Vegas." They charge $40 per day for a small apartment with kitchenette, so you can bring your family or a "fishing buddy"). The total for a three days fishing trip comes to less than $500. If there are two or more in the group, just divide the total cost by the numbers.

There are few unpleasant aspects. Among them, you must provide the food and drinks for the trip and that the boats are not prepared for fly-fishing. Knowing this, it is a good idea to take a beach towel from the hotel and place it in the boat floor to avoid tangles with the cleats, oar locks and other parts of the boat. Another source of potential unpleasantness can be the africanized honeybees. I know that through the years, the guides have always mentioned that potential hazard, although I have never encountered or seen any.

If you encountered the opportunity to visit Panama on business or pleasure, please do not leave your fly rods home; you will be missing a wonderful and inexpensive fishing experience. ~ Jorge J. Santiago-AvilÚs

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