Panama’s Tropic Star Lodge
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.
There are many unique features to Tropic Star, but from a boating standpoint, its fleet of fishing boats may be the most interesting. The Andrewses have assembled a fleet of 15 Bertram 31s. The 31 has earned an enviable and justifiable reputation as an offshore fishing workhorse, and the Tropic Star fleet runs 11 months of the year, rain or shine, a testament to the enduring practicality of this famous Bertram design. As you would expect, running a lodge in a remote jungle is like running a small city. When things break down out there, you also need to know how to fix it yourself. Toward that end, Andrews has built an impressive boatyard on site, complete with machine and carpentry shops, a marine railway and enough spare parts to rebuild an engine in a matter of hours.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Tropic Star several times and have experienced great fishing and superior service on each trip. Raleigh Werking serves as marketing director for the lodge and is also a partner in the operation. Werking is a skilled light-tackle angler and has set numerous world records fishing around Piñas Bay over the years.
On one of my trips with Werking, I discovered a whole new aspect of fishing possibilities at Tropic Star — incredible inshore action exists there as well. We spent several days next to shore, never venturing the few miles out to the reef at all, and we caught a tremendous variety of fish, including roosterfish, cubera snapper, bluefin trevally, crevalle jack and African pompano. We even took a yellowfin tuna less than 100 yards off the rocks!
Of course, I’ve also experienced fantastic offshore fishing. While Piñas Bay offers excellent action for Pacific sailfish, tuna and dorado, its claim to fame is marlin. There’s no better place in the eastern Pacific to catch a black marlin, one of the most highly prized big-game species in the world, and the fishing for big Pacific blue marlin is outstanding as well.
Captains at Tropic Star excel at marlin fishing and have perfected using live tuna for bait. To accommodate this technique, Andrews designed a custom livewell system. This unique setup combines a conventional center section for smaller baits like goggle-eyes, which can be used for sailfish, with six tuna tubes located around the perimeter of the center well.
Each morning, the 31s head for Zane Grey Reef to catch bait from the huge schools of tuna. The small tunas caught on the bait rigs are placed headfirst into the tubes, which force clean salt water over their gills, keeping them amazingly healthy for long periods of time. When the captain’s ready, the mate removes a tuna from its tube and fastens it to a large circle hook with a bridle. The tuna goes overboard and is slow-trolled alive, as the anglers wait impatiently.
It often doesn’t take long for a hungry marlin to appear in the bait spread. The panicked tuna usually alerts you to the fact that he has company, and the bite can be spectacular as the large billfish engulfs the bait. If all goes well, the circle hook finds the corner of the marlin’s mouth after a brief drop-back, and then the fight is on.
Watching a black or blue marlin greyhounding behind the boat as line dumps off the big-game reel at a furious pace ranks as one of the most exciting experiences in the world. Zane Grey may have found it first, but now you too can experience such a thrill, and at the end of the day return to a luxurious oasis carved out of the middle of the jungle. These things make Tropic Star Lodge truly unique.
Tropic Star Lodge, 800-682-3424; 407-423-9931 (outside of United States); tropicstar.com