Words & Photos By Chris Holmes
"Fish on," ripped across the VHF. There was no doubt that it was Trevor Promnitz. The old man of the group was also the only one with a distinct South African accent.
Five heads snapped to attention. After days of travel to get off the grid and deep down the Azuero Peninsula's Tuna Coast, our remote trip with Panama Kayak Fishing Adventures was truly underway.
An experienced kayaker and trans-ocean mariner in his younger days, Trev whipped the beast after a short, but intense battle. "It's a jack," he yelled as he locked the plastic fish grip firmly on the lower jaw. Trev's son Morgan, a Hobie pro based in southern California, grinned almost as broadly as his old man. With Morgan's busy travel schedule, they don't get enough days like this.
That icebreaker was a 15-pound Pacific jack crevalle. Before the requisite grip and grin photos were finished, Brandon Cotton hooted as he sunk a big popper into a jack of his own. Brandon was the reason we'd come to Panama. He'd been here just eight months earlier and was already back for more. As a marketing manager for Okuma, fishing is part of Brandon's job. But this trip was strictly off the clock, and he too had brought his dad along to share the adventure. Now water splashed over Brandon's head as the fish went crazy just inches from the kayak. "Man these things fight," he said as hoisted it for a picture.
Everyone else was getting action, but I was only drowning a popper. Aurelien's voice rang out over the VHF in his hilarious ménage of French and English, "Chris, you must fish closer from the shore." What the hell? The guide was in the support panga, motioning me to move toward the boat. Ah, I've got it.
It worked. The next hour and a half was nonstop jack action. Some using poppers, others using jigs. Crevalles fight like semi-trucks, and beating them in a kayak is tough work. It was great fun, but since they're not good eating, it became apparent that we weren't going to have 'jack' for dinner. As the sun set, we loaded the kayaks aboard the panga for a ride back to the outpost.
This would be our home for the next five days. A rustic wooden sign adorned with crossed paddles, a cow skull and a retired fishing lure proclaimed "Kayak Fishing Camp." We hauled our gear up the short, rocky beach, directly into the jungle.
With the help of Tito, a retired Panamanian shark-finner who has moved on to more sustainable work, Panama Kayak Adventures owner and head guide Pascal Artieda chose this isolated cove for his primitive kayak fishing camp. The area is mostly uninhabited and minimally fished. It is pristine, with no electricity, plumbing or running water. No communication with the world outside.
Pascal's second in command Aurelien proved to be much more than a fishing guide. He was also a master French chef and all-around funny man. The other camp regulars were Aurelien's girlfriend Kahena and the camp dog, Princess. "She sometimes barks at night. Princess protects the camp from the animals, and the leaves, and the shadows," Pascal said.
Kahena was a striking French city girl reluctantly coaxed to the jungle. As she smashed a spider in the dining tent, she exclaimed how quickly she had transformed. "I now pick up bugs and kill them. I am, how you say, jungle woman." Brandon's dad Bleu dubbed her Jane. "I'm not sure if Aurelien qualifies as Tarzan or Cheetah," he quipped.
An open-air, thatched-roof hut served as command center, kitchen, living room and nightly tackle repair and re-rigging station. Five-gallon buckets filled with brisk river water and surrounded by a tarp for privacy served as our shower. A dozen pristine dome tents were scattered throughout the clearing. Inside each, a thick air mattress, sleeping bag and pillow.
This was definitely roughing it--smoothly. The table was set with fine Panamanian plastic plates. The first bottle of wine was uncorked. Bleu led a toast to the adventure and we tore into the most delicious smothered chicken you could imagine.
Pascal silenced the crowd. "Tonight we will have chicken and tonight is the only night, there is no more chicken." The chicken was for the rare days when the weather was bad or, as in our case, when you only catch jacks. It was an emergency precaution. "If you don't catch fish tomorrow, the meal will be vegetarian," he added. Exhausted, we made way to our tents.
That night, only the soothing sounds of the nearby surf interrupted the eerily quiet jungle nights. Howler monkeys loudly roared at day's light each morning as parrots screeched overhead, Jurassic Park's alarm clock.