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Fishing Panama's Tropic Star Lodge

Fishing Panama's Zane Grey Reef
Populated by Marlin, Sailfish, Rooster, Spanish Mackerel and Red Snapper.

Barely a stone'a throw from the wake of the Columbian drug boats smuggling cocaine to the west coast of Panama are fishing grounds populated by so many Marlin and Sail you can walk ashore on their dorsal fins. And not surprisingly there is a fishing lodge squatting smack in the middle of the jungle that takes good advantage of that sport fishing. Barely 3 miles north of the Columbian border The Tropic Star holds more IFGA records than Kona and Cairns combined.

Be forewarned: getting there is half the adventure. Once in The Republic of Panama catch a commuter flight out of Paitilla airport to the dirt airstrip at Jaque an outpost built by the U.S. Army Air Corp to defend the Canal Zone against Japanese Attack. After World War Two the squadron of fighter planes were sold to scrap yards. Nowadays with the flat-bellied aces gone paunchy and closing fast with a pension, all that's left is a dirt strip flanked by jungle, river and ocean.

Part of the Darien Gap, this lush terrain boasts some of the toughest terrain in the world. How tough? In the 60's a General Motors expedition bound for Antarctica rumbled out of the North Pole in a fleet of Chevrolet Corvairs. They gave up the ghost amidst the sky tall trees. Their rusting hulks are still there, the merely metal bodies ravaged by tropical palm, wait-a-minute vines and black thorn trees sprouting up through the floorboards. And they say Ralph Nader was death on Corvairs.

Another attempt to dominate the jungle came in the early 70's when a cocky British commando team tried to rough house their way through with a pack of Land Rovers. They succeeded. But Not without helicopters, winches and slings to yank loose the four-wheelers every time the thick red mud snapped the axles in two. The logistics drain roughly equaled the Falklands island expedition.

On your flight into the Darien and when you start to feel the altitude slipping away keep an eye peeled for the sun sparkling off the fleet of ten Bertrams moored in the calm waters.

Once on the ground at Jaque, (pronounced Hah-Kay) you're as likely as not to have some time to kill owing to the fact that the next link to the lodge is via the Bertram fleet. One of the boats shoots the inlet from the pacific Ocean and motors a half mile or so up river to the Jaque dock. Passage is no problem so long as it's high tide. If not you wait for the waves to cover the sand bar. Until the moon and sea co-operate most visitors walk the dirt pathway to the village's general store where there's an ample stock of Balboa beer Carta Viejo rum and iced pineapple soda. Name your pleasure.

Are you a people watcher? While you sip cold liquid in the shade villagers pursue the job of living, breastfeeding babies, hanging wet clothes out in the sun buying black beans and rice. Some will pester, some dawdle at the check-out counter surreptitiously watching you out of the corner of their eye. Others seemingly unimpressed by overfed Americans simply ignore. Sadly a small number of the kids are used to tourists scattering handfuls of quarters dimes and nickels at their feet just to see the Youngsters scramble in the dust for the loose change.

One of the most interesting character studies is Chito a Short-legged malformed creature with a touch of lunacy. Sane for long periods of time he occasionally goes daffy howling and prancing under the full moon. He is however best known for his flawless impression of the late, great karate fighter Bruce Lee. Seems they show outdoor movies in Jaque and the venerable dragon flicks are quite popular. With no other show in town Chito found inspiration with Bruce Lee.

During my layover I swapped stories with Tulio the village heavy owner of the general store the indoor toilet and the rice mill. Slightly built fitted with black rimmed glasses. Tulio looks to be in his forties I was sipping pineapple soda and nodding politely as Tulio related why he discouraged his workers from chasing Boa Constrictors away from his rice factory. Tulio smiled, "Because snakes eat rats "

Then Chito walked in. Tulio called out "Eh, Chito Karate No?"

Tulio delicately brushed his thumb to his nose in a classic Bruce Lee gesture signaling imminent fisticuffs. Chito's dull gray eyes flickered to life he snapped into a Karate pose. Hands held rigily like deadly weapons he slowly sliced the air. Without warning he leaped into the air feet kicking knife hand striking an imaginary enemy. All the while he performed his ballet clicking tongue and teeth.

One world class bill fishing-on-a-thread aficionado is a slight blond with braided hair. Lisa Miller rubbed suntan oil on her already burned nose and then pulled the long billed cap low over her eyes. But still her eyes glow in the shadows when she talks about the 63 pound marlin she caught on 10 pound line. Or the 8 pound sailfish she caught on 6 pound line Both qualified for International Game Fish Association (IGFA) records.

True to the nature of the beast the bill fishing is sometimes slow starting. It's during these quiet moments that you stretch out in a fighting chair and read that espionage thriller garnered from the lodge's unofficial library dozens of paperbacks lugged south from Miami and Houston airports. Others pass the time gazing upon the schools of dolphin or marauding spinner sharks. Seems the latter don't have a mouth they ram their prey and spin their beak into the flesh like a cookie cutter slicing out chunk of meat. You may have seen fish with mysterious holes cut in their flanks as a result of spinner shark assaults.

One afternoon during one such lull in the action we spotted a low riding boat off our starboard bow Nearly thirty feet long with about a four foot beam twin Japanese outboards easily pushed through the swells. Amidships squatting inside a hut two men waved.

Our skipper waved back "Columbianos, he said working the Bertram alongside We were only a few miles from the border The mate threw them a line The Panamanians and the Columbians jabbered across the gunwales pointed at the cool green water talking about how the Pacific had seemingly inverted to renew herself. Our skipper handed them one of the box lunches.

Since the Tropic Star's boats are out all day the lodge stuffs wicker baskets to overflowing with bowls of chilled shrimp salad chicken sandwiches, bananas, apples, grapes, pineapple, yellow cheese, crackers, cake and cookies The Columbianos also got a six pack of cold Panama beer. Much thanks expressed, they castoff gunned the engines and roared on their way North.

"Cocaine boat?" I asked. He stared back "Yo no se nada de eso" I don't know anything about that.

Once the fishing is done and the fleet comes in flags a flying red faced comrades slump back in rattan patio furniture and tell war stories about the height of the waves how the sea turned red when there'd snapper schooled past or what it was like when the captain threw the stern against the wall of water to follow the giant marlin into battle.

Munching on deep fried fingers of fish and plantain comrades troop over to the bulletin board drink in hand to ooh and ah the color snapshots of trophy fish hanging from the scales. Watch for Yolanda the wild parrot who winged in from the jungle uninvited and adopted the clubhouse as her eminent domain. She has the look in her eye of a bird who will mess with you for the pure sport of it. But should she take a liking to you she will perch on your finger and beg a few morsels of fried plantain and "fish fingers". However if she doesn't like you, and she barely tolerates most women, she will dive-bomb your table until one of you spill a drink.

The Tropic Star manager, Terri Kitteridge is soft spoken and at home in the fighting chair as in her office. Her latest record is a 360 pound black marlin on 1-pound test. During the recap of the day's adventure she nodded at the appropriate times. Then it was he return "We talked with a boat from Columbia that pulled aside this afternoon They say the Marlin are two hours south. We'll head down toward Columbia tomorrow and check it out."

In the middle of the dialog someone noticed Midnight the black kitten staring dully at a jungle rat. Then we noticed the watchman silently standing in the shadows wetih a .22 caliber pistol in-hand. After a few moments the rat whirled around and scurried outside. The watchman disappeared into the darkness. A shot rang out. The watchman reappeared smiling proudly swinging the dead rat by its tail Midnight the cat yawned and put her head down onto her paws and went to sleep.

After the bull sessions break up dark and on your way back to your room don't be intimidated by the night toads big fat blobs as big as your feet and stubborn about making way on the cement sidewalk. Keep off the grass. Poisonous snakes Fer deLance and Bushmaster have been known to wander.

To keep those slithering creatures away from the base camp barefooted workmen slash the blades of grass with machetes. One old man of indeterminate age has-been bitten by Fer-de-Lance vipers number of times. The first time he fell deathly ill and nearly died. The next attack left him deathly ill. The third bite he was sick for a few of days. The fourth time only slightly nauseous. Four bite later the locals are joking that the next time he's bitten the snake will certainly curl up and die.

So if these tales of killer snakes sharks et al haven't dissuaded you, then contact the Tropic Star Lodge.