There’s something uniquely special about awakening before daybreak in a Central American jungle, more than a hundred miles from the closest road, knowing that a gourmet breakfast awaits you. Even better, you rise with the knowledge that just offshore of this beautiful oasis in which you find yourself, in the calm waters of the Pacific, huge game fish prowl the reef just a few miles from where you sit enjoying your morning coffee. This combination of isolation, impeccable service and great fishing opportunities can be found in very few corners of the world, but it’s something many of us seek. And for a growing number of people, the place offering the most complete combination of all of these things is the world-famous Tropic Star Lodge in Piñas Bay, Panama.
Piñas Bay lies at the southeastern corner of Panama, just a few miles from the Colombian border. This natural, protected harbor has served as a stopover for seafarers for hundreds of years, providing shelter to everything from pirate ships to merchant vessels plying the waters of the central Pacific Ocean.
Adventurous American fishermen soon discovered another attribute of the Piñas Bay area — spectacular fishing. Pioneering anglers such as S. Kip Farrington and the Schmidt brothers first visited the region in search of black marlin in the late 1930s and ’40s and noticed a specific spot that held an unbelievable amount of marine life. A military survey conducted after World War II identified the spot as a prominent section of reef just off Piñas.
Currents from all over the Pacific Ocean converge offshore of the bay over that natural reef, later mistakenly referred to by some as the Zane Grey Reef after its alleged discoverer, though Grey never actually fished there. The reef attracts large schools of Pacific bonito and skipjack tuna, and this abundance of bait attracts large predators, namely black and blue marlin, Pacific sailfish, dorado and yellowfin tuna.
Texas oil tycoon Ray Smith built a lodge on the shores of Piñas Bay in 1961, and in 1965 opened its doors to the public as Club de Pesca. It wasn’t long before world records began to fall as anglers flocked to this pristine area, previously accessible only to a privileged few.
Piñas Bay’s notoriety grew rapidly — Sports Illustrated magazine did a feature on the lodge in 1963, showcasing the area’s tremendous fishing opportunities to an entirely new international audience. Then, in the mid-1960s, a Hollywood film producer shot a short documentary on the lodge and its fishing, attracting the attention of even more people.
Ray Smith died of a heart attack at the lodge in 1969, and it was later purchased by Edwin Kennedy, who renamed it Tropic Star Lodge. Then, in 1976, Conway Kittredge of Orlando, Florida, purchased the lodge, and his family operates it to this day. Kittredge’s daughter Terri and her husband, Mike Andrews, have continually developed Tropic Star, maintaining the resort as a first-class hotel in the middle of nowhere — not an easy task.