Morning came and it was time to fish. Each panga carried three anglers and their Hobies in opposite directions. Morgan, Trevor and I spread across the coast hurling giant poppers in hopes of hooking giant fish. In short order, we realized that none of us was prepared for the tremendous effort needed to continuously cast and work these heavy lures from a kayak.
Morgan was the first to hook up. It was another jack crevalle and things picked up where they had left off the evening before. "I don't like vegetables," I reminded Morgan as he released the fat jack. It was time to catch something edible. Trevor quickly obliged. "I've got a tuna," he yelled as a football-sized yellowfin circled beneath.
We were in tight to the rocks with current ripping and waves crashing high in the air. Morgan launched a big popper into a crack between two large boulders. Waves pummeled the rocks. Morgan's popper landed in the whitewater and instantly disappeared. "I'm on," he yelled.
Dangerously close to the rocks and tossed by six-foot swells, he battled a neon-hued bluefin trevally to the kayak.
"We will keep the trevally and release everything else," Pascal advised over the radio. We keep what we eat, and nothing else.
Snapper and pesky houndfish regularly took a slice at the poppers. We all wanted a cubera, a bulldog-tough snapper weighing as much as 50 pounds. They have a nose for the rocks. "Cast into the white water, that's where the cubera will be," advised Pascal. We edged dangerously close to the rocks, popping every crease in hopes of fooling one of the crimson behemoths. Our arms grew heavy from slinging the heavy lures. No luck.
Pascal warned us to be careful. "Make sure the barbs on your hooks are mashed. Big fish and big hooks are dangerous. We are far from any medical assistance," he stressed. Recounting how a prior guest passed out, he reminded everyone to drink enough water. "Take your water bottle every day and refill it often. Hydration on 11-hour fishing days is not optional." PFD's and VHF's were mandatory. "Do not stray from sight of the panga. It is too dangerous to fish on your own," he added.
Morgan's first shot at a cubera didn't go well. "I could see him rise from the rocks and my popper vanished like someone just flushed the toilet. There was no doubt what it was," he said. After a brief tug-o-war, the stout braid suddenly went limp and the big popper bobbed to the surface. "No," was all he could say. "The hook is straightened. Man, that's a 4X giant treble," he said in disbelief.
More determined than ever, we continued to wear out the rocks. "My arm hurts so bad, I had to keep changing sides," Morgan said, laughing. Interspersed with a trevally here and a jack there, he never gave up. "My popper bounced off a rock and almost immediately I could see a big red glow coming for it. Like a submarine breaching, it stole the lure and quickly descended," he said. The war was on, part frustration, part adrenaline. "I burned up the pedals dragging the snapper out," he said.
The elation was fleeting. "Shaaaaaark!" shouted Morgan, reeling furiously. Before he could land the big cubera, a nine-foot bull darted from under the kayak and swallowed the fish in one gulp.
I arrived in time to see the dangling, blood-dripping stump. Even with a Buff covering Morgan's face, I could make out his dejected look. "I had the GoPro on, so maybe it's all on film," he said hopefully. He threw the partial trophy into the tank well, and back to work he went.
The shoreline action slowed. We experimented with casts to the open water. At a slight current break all hell broke loose. Double combs slashed the water as two roosterfish surfed the wave and fought over Morgan's popper. "For a second or two, both of them were hooked. Roosters are one of my favorites. They fight like a jack on steroids," he said.
The rooster made several runs and then settled in to test the strength of the braid and every knot. Soon, the exotic beast was ready for a cameo.
Trevor fished a lone outcropping nearby and beat up on the trevallys and had a near miss with a rooster. When we returned to the panga, Pascal had a shark story of his own. "The biggest shark I've ever seen swallowed my jack. Twenty-pound jack gone. One gulp—pouf!" The even-keeled Frenchman was noticeably rattled. "It was thirteen feet long," he exclaimed.
Large underwater rock formations rose from the depths near camp. "There is a big stone in this area, you can fish the speed jig or you can use a popper over the stone," advised Aurelien. It never failed to produce a variety of fish including snappers, groupers, amberjack, yellowfin tuna, jack crevalle, bonito, bluefin trevally, almaco jack and african pompano. That stone yielded a smorgasbord.
Nights were filled with delicious meals and capped off with stories of the day's adventures. Looking at the rustic kitchen and limited supplies, one would never dream of the five-star meals that hit our plates each night. The fresh fish dishes were simply outstanding. The side dishes were equally impressive. Close your eyes, take a bite and you would think you were in downtown Paris.
There were cold beers every evening and all meals came with a bottle or two of vin, but there was no heavy drinking or late night jungle parties. Most nights saw everyone tucked in their tents no later than 10:30. "We fished so hard during the day, we couldn't party at night," Trev summed up.
As the trip wore on, we figured out patterns and tuned up techniques. Trevor noted that long casts and strong popping action produced the best results.
Success came with a price. "I switched reel handles several times a day to give my arm a rest. It really just shifted the agony," Morgan said somewhat jokingly. Arm and hand fatigue was a killer. In addition to fish, fresh Ibuprofren was on the menu each night. "My wrist was swollen and two weeks later, I still have pain in my arm," he added.
As with popping, speed jigging also required honing the technique. It was more than simply dropping to the bottom and randomly jerking it back to the surface. "A smooth, rhythmic pump and wind would almost guarantee a fish," Brandon coached. He was the amberjack whisperer. He couldn't drop a jig without hooking onto an AJ. I watched as he hauled one after the other and was tired just looking at him. "Jigging while sitting in a kayak is not easy. Once you find how they want it, you simply repeat the pattern on every drop," he added.
Late in the afternoon of our last day in Panama, Morgan finally got his big cubera. "I missed six, got one head and then finally got a big one to the boat," he said. "I'm stoked." Nobody bothered to weigh the monster, but 50-plus was Pascal's conservative guess.
The roosters eluded Trevor. "I didn't get my big rooster, but a fat cubera on the last day took some of the sting out of it," said Trevor. "I borrowed the Cubera 80 from Morgan, who had borrowed it from Pascal. That popper had some good mojo on it."
One night, over yet another exquisite meal of fish and wine, Trevor told the story of a bike race he'd done in South Africa. In the middle of a long, grueling climb, just at the point when he had really started to hurt, a smart-aleck spectator shouted to him: "You should smile, you're doing this for fun."
As Trevor was locked in a brutal battle with his big cubera, Morgan neared to take in the action. "I could tell Trev was breathing heavy and that the toothy critter was kicking his ass, so I reminded him, 'Hey dad, remember you're doing this for fun!'" Trevor smiled, then regrouped and landed the beast.