“This is gonna be probably the best trip of my lifetime. Just my guess. Shooting from the hip here. Could be wrong.”
Elias Vaisberg is a little green around the gills. He’s about to get onto the smallest plane of his life, fly across one of the most dangerous jungles in the world, then spend two nights camping in a hammock on a remote beach that’s one of the best places to spot a jaguar in Central America. It’s a little outside his comfort zone.
Elias is a YouTuber, a Brooklyn native who lives in North Carolina, where he’s figured out how to make a living by filming himself on the water. With us is Sean Lawless, a retired firefighter who lives in Pensacola and who also has a YouTube channel. Neither guy has ever fished outside of the USA. Myself and photographer-videographer Denes Szakacs round out the trip. We’re conducting an experiment. What happens when you take a couple of YouTube guys along on a magazine-style adventure?
Our destination is Tropic Star Lodge, where we’ll be spending four days in the finest accommodations for billfish anglers on the planet. But before we can get to the Marlin Bar, I’m making us all spend three days in the real world, hanging out with the locals, sleeping on the beach in a seasonal fish camp, and fishing next to their dugout canoes. I want us to see Tropic Star from the outside in, not just the inside out.
Our first stop is the village of Jaque, a small local port that’s the closest town on the west coast of Panama to its border with Columbia. Our guide is Hennie Marais, an experienced international operator (and Boy Scouts troop leader) who has been living in Panama for the past 22 years. Born in South Africa, Hennie built his career managing lodges in some of the best places to fish on the planet. His roots are deep at Tropic Star, whose operations he took over back in 1999. His baby these days is Paddle Panama, a kayak fishing shop he started in Panama City. Hennie speaks the language, has the trust of both the lodge and the locals, and he’s showing us this place from an angle very few people get to see.
Back in the plane, Hennie turns to me and shouts over the sound of the props. His eyes are bright with excitement. “You get to go to places where nobody’s done this before. In 60 years of fishing, nobody’s done what we’re going to do on this trip.” He chuckles. “Then you get to stay at Tropic Star Lodge.”
Sean gets to ride in the front seat. “Hey, Elias? You’re in safe hands,” he says. “I’m co-piloting.”
A Cottage on the Beach
“Good morning, everybody,” The pilot says as he warms up the engine. “The flight’s gonna be 55 minutes. We’ll level off at 7500, and we have good weather all the way.”
The Darien Jungle is a gap of thickly forested mountains that stoppers up land travel between North and South America like a lush green cork. Roads don’t get built between Panama and Columbia. You can’t drive from Mexico to Brazil on anything bigger than a motorcycle. The only way to get where we’re going is to fly there or take a 100-mile boat ride in from Panama City and land at high tide in a panga.
The flight is smooth, though, and we land on a surprisingly wide, flat airstrip that Hennie tells us was paved by the DEA in the early 2000s. A large, colorful sign greets us as we walk from the airport through the village. We pass the town hall, a low, green building with a tin roof and a clean-swept yard surrounded by a fence of brightly painted tires half-buried in the dirt.
Besides its port, Jaque’s main industry is small-scale commercial fishing, mostly hand-lining from small dugout canoes that launch through the surf. Hennie says there are three different kinds. “You’ve got the ones that you can pole, ones that you can paddle, and ones that you can use in the ocean.” Their ocean boats are surprisingly small, with very little freeboard, designed more to allow water out than to stop it from shipping in. While we won’t be fishing in dugouts, we are fishing from kayaks—three new Bonafide P127s that we had shipped down here specifically for this trip.
The cottage is Hennie’s and sits nestled on the edge of the village, just back from the beach behind a line of scrub. You can see waves crashing on the sand out the back door. He built it back in 2005, and he and his wife raised two children here. It’s got two big bedrooms, two showers, and an open floor plan with a big kitchen on one side and a comfortable living room on the other. Ceiling fans cool the main rooms, and there are air conditioners in the bedrooms.
We sit down out on the porch, shaking off the travel shock. Hennie takes the moment to give us a quick orientation.
“The most dangerous thing here? It’s the sun. Stay hydrated. OK? Stay hydrated, stay covered up. That’s our two key things for this week. Stay hydrated, stay hydrated, stay hydrated, especially if you guys are out in the sun all day long. Stay covered up, put sunscreen on. If we stick with those things, that’s basically it.”
“Alright, we’re going to do some river fishing now,” Elias is talking to his GoPro and looking a little haggard. The sun is getting low. “No idea what we’re gonna find, but I’ve got two rods and two reels.” He shrugs, a little stressed. We spent the heat of the day sneaking in a visit to the native village of Biroqiera, a 10-mile dugout ride up the Jaque River. After two days of travel and the midday tour, we’re all looking forward to a last night of air conditioning before heading to the jungle in the morning. But everyone rallies at the thought of finally getting some lines in the water. Now we’re hiking from the cottage to the mouth of the river.
It’s a 10-minute walk. The tide looks right. Elias grows excited as we start getting closer. “This looks good,” he says. “Got a little slough right there, fast water. Old-school readin’ the beach, right?”
The guys settle in at the tip, where the sand reaches farthest into the mouth. The tide is pushing in and stacking up against the water flowing out of the river. Elias casts a small swimbait, bounces it back through a slot, and gets thumped hard just as he’s swinging his jig out of the drift. “Gaaah, I’m on!” he gurgles as his line comes tight. The fish is solid weight. It makes a dash uptide before turning to run with the current. Elias’ drag is screaming. The fish leaps clear of the water, shaking its head. At first, Elias thinks it’s a tarpon, then starts changing his mind. “If it’s a snook, man, it’s gigantic!”
As the 40-inch fish finally gives up, a big swell washes her to the beach. “I wish I had a tape,” Sean says. It’s his turn to look a little green. “That is a fat snook.”
Hammocks in the Jungle
The next morning, we wake up early and trudge our gear through town to the waterfront. We’re jumping into a panga, running out the inlet, then heading 30 miles north to reach a remote cove that’s one of the few places you can land through the surf in these waters. It’s where we’ll be sleeping for the next two nights. Our hosts are traveling with us. “Right here next to us? Señor Carlito and his wife? They’re the local fishermen that live on the beach where we’re gonna go,” Hennie tells us. A family like this can pull in 400 pounds of fish a night but makes less than $400 a month this way, he says. Hennie thinks more kayak fishing in these waters will help these families out and might create enough demand that they’ll let a few more of the big fish go. “That’s the people that we want to impact with our kayak fishing, alright? So that’s the mission. Really, really nice people.”
Carlito’s family lives in a place called Caracoles, a tiny stretch of beach in the back of a cove that protects it from the surf when the winds blow from the south, generally from May to October. The rest of the coast is rock-bound, a wilderness landscape of sharp basalt carved into fantastic shapes by giant swells. The best harbor, of course, is Tropic Star’s, deep in the back of Piñas Bay, which Hennie tells me is one of only two anchorages on the Darien coastline protected from northerly and southerly winds.
“This is our basic camp, our kitchen over there, an open-fire kitchen,” Hennie says. “I’m going to show you where your hammocks are. Right next to the jaguar pens,” he laughs, then shows us a picture of tracks taken just 100 yards from where we’ll be sleeping. The only other Westerners to sleep in Caracoles are a team of researchers who camped out here a few weeks back so they could set out camera traps for the big cats. “There’s not a road within 100 miles of this beach,” Hennie says.
The spot he chose for our hammocks is hacked out of thick brush that grows along the base of a loose cliff. A small river winds down out of the mountains and pools into a lagoon just a few yards away. Hennie points up the river valley. There’s a gold miner that lives up in the headwaters, an Indian named Bruce Lee. Really, that’s his name,” Hennie laughs. Just before dark, though, he gets more serious. “Do not go wandering around at night,” he tells us. “This is not the place to go exploring.”
The hammocks take some getting used to. The ones we’re using have Velcro slits on their bottoms that you slide through and close after you lie back and bring in your feet. They also have a mesh top built into the fabric, woven tightly enough to keep out the sand fleas. They don’t let in much air, though, and when the sun goes down, the wind drops out completely, leaving a breathless humidity behind that has us immediately beaded in sweat.
At full dark, the land crabs come out, aggressive pinchers with black shells and bright blue claws. Millions of them live in the jungle along this coast, sleeping in the trees during the day. But at night during the rainy season, the females swarm the beach to lay their eggs. We hear them scuttling down the cliff behind us, big enough to start small rocks. Late that night, I have to piss and open my Velcro to find them carpeting the sand beneath our hammocks. I have to shoo them off before I can put my feet down, clearing out a circle with my headlamp. Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes? asks my tired brain.
The next two days become a bit of a blur. We work hard under the tropical sun, waking up in the dark and launching at first light. No coffee, no breakfast, just pounding water and Gatorade by the gallon until we call it quits at 3. The heat seems to peak around 11. Sweat stings my eyes, soaking through my hat and Buff, and dripping into my mouth. “It’s hotter than anything, ever,” say my notes from the trip.
The locals fish here with hand lines, longlines and spears, launching their dugouts with willow-bladed paddles and dropping their catch into the bottoms of their boats. They splash water in there too to keep the fish alive, turning these tree-trunk canoes into floating livewells. They use small feathered weights above simple bare hooks on their hand lines, jigging as they drag them over reefs. It feels a little strange, fishing near them in chunks of brightly colored plastic that cost more than their families will make in a year.
Sean does well with bait, catching multiple roosterfish and a bunch of big pargo. Elias and I both catch roosterfish, snapper, mackerel and bonito, and he catches some African pompano and a few small cuberas. Around the headland to the north of the cove, he runs into a whale shark, which grows curious about his kayak and swims up until it’s nose to nose with his bow. The water is crystal-clear, and we see packs of jacks and schools of spadefish swim beneath our kayaks.
In the evenings, we soak in the lagoon, blessedly cooled by runoff from the river, then sit under a canvas awning stretched out on driftwood poles, sipping Coke and telling stories while featherless chickens chase each other around our feet. Our dinners are fish. We eat a small amberjack I caught on a 30-gram jig, which they coat with chicken bouillon powder before frying in oil over an open fire.
By the end of day three, though, we are glad to see a Bertram round the headland. It’s our mothership, Miss Scandia, our ticket back to civilization. Denes points the camera at my face a few minutes after we drag the kayaks aboard. “A couple of points down is where Tropic Star Lodge is,” I tell him. “I cannot wait. We’ve been sleeping in the jungle, roughing it, sleeping in hammocks, dealing with land crabs, sand on our feet.” I’m clearly thrilled at the thought of fresh, clean sheets. “It’s been amazing, it’s been super fun, but I’m really excited for an air conditioner and a nice cocktail at the bar.”
In the Lap of Luxury
“A hot shower. That’s all I’ve gotta say,” Sean says to his camera as he steps off the boat and onto the dock. “And if you could smell me, you would agree.”
Tropic Star Lodge is one of the most famous fishing resorts in the world for a reason. “There have been more world records caught here than in any other place in the world,” Hennie tells us. It’s known primarily as a billfish hotspot, one of the best places to catch a black marlin on the planet, pioneered in the early 20th century by legendary anglers including Zane Grey, who gave his name to a famous reef that sits just 5 miles offshore of the headland.
The lodge itself was built by a Texas oil man named Ray Smith back in 1961 and accommodates just 40 guests at a time. You arrive there by boat, landing at the end of a long pier patrolled by roosterfish, grouper and snapper, dock pets that feed on scraps the mates toss when they’re cleaning clients’ fish.
We’re probably the dirtiest, sweatiest and smelliest guests to ever belly up to its Marlin Bar, an elegant open-air lounge that sits at the head of the dock. They wait for you there with trays of chilled white washcloths that you use to wipe your face before you head inside. Mine is black when I hand it back to the attendant, who deposits it carefully on his tray with a pair of tongs.
Cleaned up, sunburned, tired and happy, that night we eat a private four-course meal in the main restaurant. We’re here a day ahead of the first group of anglers to arrive this season, and we have the whole place to ourselves. Patterson, our maitre d’, keeps the wine flowing. The conversation follows. Hennie tells us the story of the machaca bug (IYKYK). I tell everyone about the stingray I caught, how it was the size of a Volkswagen. “I knew it was a ray,” I tell them, “but I wanted to catch it anyway. And it was heading toward the camp. Why pedal when you can get a tow?”
We’re in for four more days of epic fishing, guided by the finest captains and the finest mates in some of the most productive waters on the planet. The topwater tuna bite is on fire. One of our boats will catch 10 Pacific sails in one day, true monsters, one of them pushing 140 pounds. Another boat catches a tarpon. We’ll raise marlin, land roosters, cuberas, Pacific red snapper, and more weird fish than I’m able to identify.
But that story has been told before. “Anybody can buy a trip to Tropic Star,” Hennie tells us as we’re wrapping up our meal. He’s glowing, the face of a Scout leader who just took his kids on the best trip of their lives. “You guys earned it.”