Tropical jungles and clear waters teaming with billfish were the furthest things from our minds as we fought driving sleet on our drive to Houston. This was not our plan, but Mother Nature had intervened.
Every year for the past six years, our ManTrip group of twelve has made a fishing trip. These have ranged from Port Sulphur, to Montana, to Costa Rica, and on to Panama. Our latest expedition was to Tropic Star Lodge in Panama which we had booked two years prior.
I had just finished packing for our departure the next morning when the first sign of trouble surfaced. John Hairston called to advise me that our flight had been cancelled due to an ice storm headed our way. He suggested we leave at midnight to drive to Houston to catch our 2 p.m. flight the next day.
Since the typical drive time to Houston is 6 hours, we thought this was a little crazy but figured worst case we would arrive a few hours before our flight. We were lucky we listened to him.
By midnight we were driving west with two-inch thick ice coating the running boards of the SUV. Periodically we stopped to chip ice off the windshield and wipers. Bumper-to-bumper interstate traffic caused by wrecks, detours, and endless iced-in bridges delayed us for hours. But at noon the next day, 12 hours later, we rolled into the airport in time for our flight.
The airport in Pinas Bay is a little less formal than the one in Houston. Village children play on the runway until a plane approaches at which time parents yell for them to clear off. As the plane made its landing approach, we saw one child pedaling furiously down the runway, moving to the side at the last possible moment.
Natives from the local village sell crafts beside the open air waiting area. Clay Blalack made an instant hit distributing Mardi Gras beads and t-shirts to the children. John Hairston was able to find many fine additions for his hand-carved turtle collection.
Located some 150 miles from Panama City, over 100 miles of jungle separate Tropic Star Lodge from any city. There are no roads so we loaded our gear into a panga which ferried us to the resort. Luckily, is was high tied and we were not forced to wade through the mud. Whereas typical Mississippi tides are in the 17 inch range, those in Panama range a full 17 feet!
Tropic Star was built by oil tycoon Ray Smith and opened for business in 1963. Numerous celebrities including John Wayne and Guy Harvey have fished there and over 250 world records have been set there.
Due to its remote location, the folks at Tropic Star have become quite self-sufficient. While the facilities are comfortable, the food and service rival many five star resorts.
By 6:30 a.m. the next morning, Eric Gill, John Hairston, and I were on the Darien, one of their sixteen 31-foot Bertram boats, headed offshore. We had only been fishing for ten minutes when Eric broke the ice with the first billfish of the trip. While several of us hoped to catch a black marlin for which that area is noted, after a brief fight, we released a Pacific sailfish.
While the fishing wasn't as hot as usual for this time of year, I can tell you that my pulse was racing the next day as my first black marlin leaped from the cobalt water. I fought it to the boat and we released it in three minutes. A quick but exhilarating fight. The captain on our boat estimated its weight at 350 pounds.
Each day, lines out was at 3:00 and we would be back at the lodge an hour later. Some of the team took advantage of the spa for massages while others explored the resort or just kicked back at the pool.
Local wildlife included a parrot which took delight in dive bombing the guests. On one occasion, it came swooping down the sidewalk toward me at four feet off the ground. When it refused to veer, I ducked and it grazed my back as it soared past.
We were also visited by two boa constrictors one of which decided to lay outside Clay Blalack's door. Knowing Clay's aversion to snakes, I was proud that I resisted the nearly overwhelming temptation to let it inside his room. Clay is good with guns and
Brent Gutierrez, Don Gaddy, and Rimmer Sr. also caught their first black marlin. And by the end of the week, we had released 5 black marlin up to 450 lbs, 3 blues up to 400 lbs, 3 striped marlin, 9 sailfish, and caught 136 mahi-mahi. A total of 4 tons of fish according to John Hairston's estimates!! The trip of a lifetime; quite an adventure.