Panama is one of the "jewels" Central and South
America can offer the nature lover. The Canal Zone
is number one in the "must see" list for the visitor
to Panama in Central America. What the fly fisherman
visitor might be missing is the wonderful, productive,
and inexpensive Peacock bass fishing available nearby.
Not far from the Miraflores lock lies the village of
Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets Gatun Lake. It
is a short 45 minutes taxi ride (about $15) from the
center of Panama City. As one encounters the bridge
over the Chagres River the new Gamboa Resort is visible
in the far side of the river, they do offer fishing
excursions. If you want to stay within a budget and
experience a true cultural adventure, leave early in
the morning with your fishing gear, as to be there by
7:00 am. I recommend that you stay in the near side of the
river where you can see a boat ramp and platform.
The ramp at the village of Gamboa. At the left side
and almost out of the picture one may note a tent used
by the guides.
Tied to the platform one can see several aluminum workboats
about the size of the typical bass boat in the U.S. There
is a small community of Panamanians who live nearby and
work exclusively taking people fishing in the lake. The
cost per day trip can be arranged there, last year
(2002) when I fished there last, it was in the
neighborhood of $70 for eight hours. Mind you, most
Panamanians speak "survival English" to some extend,
so if you speak slowly, use your hands and whatever
Spanish you might know, communicating with them is
a piece of cake. This will be the time to pick up
a couple of sandwiches and sodas from the vendors in
Gamboa (or bring them from your hotel) for your lunch
afloat. Perhaps sharing an extra sandwich with the
pilot/guide will be greatly appreciated, as they tend
to go all day with no food.
The last time I fished Gatun, the guide, a fellow of about
60 but immensely strong and muscular and with the most
pleasant disposition you can find, surprised me several
times. The first time, he drove the boat at full speed
into the branch of a tree, jumps out and grabbed an
Iguana. The reptile was about a meter long and did not
take lightly the fact that was being coerced into a
burlap sack. I asked him if he was going to eat the
fellow, and he replied that he has a big family. The
second time, he stopped by a beautiful tree full of
purple round fruits about the size of a golf ball. He
mentioned that it was dessert.
The guide eating his dessert, the "caimito del monte". It was a wonderfully delicious fruit. Note a fruit at the upper left side of the picture.
I tried several of the fruits (caimito de monte) and
they were milky and delicious. The third event was as
surprising, suddenly he slow down the boat. He took a
canoe paddle obviously carved by hand out of a hardwood
board, and passed by my side, very slowly toward the
bow. The boat was heading by its own inertia towards
a bunch of rocks in the shore when I noticed a very
large turtle basking in the sun on top of one of the
rocks. Very softly and quietly, he placed the blade
of the canoe paddle on top of the turtle and flipped
the turtle on its back, "tomorrow dinner" was his
comment with the most beautiful grin of self
The trip from Gamboa to the fishing grounds, which
usually is about half an hour boat ride away, is just
beautiful. Part of it is going through the main ship
channel, and seen the big container ships and Panamax
bulk carriers is impressive.
The trip to the fishing grounds includes
a half-hour trip through the Panama Canal where one
can see seagoing freighters from all around the world.
Once you leave the main channel you are in the jungle.
The lake is studded by a multiplicity of small islands
all uninhabited and wild. The guide usually will point
out wildlife such as caiman (alligators), howler
monkeys, iguanas, and birds such as parrots, toucans,
sea eagles and others. My favorite fishing grounds
are close to the island of Barro Colorado, where the
Smithsonian Institution has a tropical ecology research
center. This island (definitely worth seeing, after
making previous arrangement with the Smithsonian people)
is out of limits to anyone not involved in recognized
ecological research. You can only fish "near" the island,
but listen there is plenty of "fishy" water, all full
of structures and underwater vegetation.
For the Gatun peacocks I recommend streamers and sinking
lines, perhaps an intermediate will be best. The peacocks
are not large, but there are plenty of them. A day catch
of fifty is not uncommon, all from one to seven or eight
There are so many small peacocks in this lake, fifty catches
of this size are common.
An eight pounder is definitely a trophy and they
usually strike near submerged vegetation rather
than dead trees kind of structure. I use two seven
weight rods, one rigged with a Clouser deep minnow
on a 0/1 saltwater hook, and the other one with a
floating line and a red or yellow popper on the same
size hook for those places where the water is totally
calm. I use a larger leader-tippet combination on the
poppers (about 6 feet). The streamers should be colorful
and about three inches long. The color combinations
that produce the best for me are red and yellow, red
and white and blue and white. Of course you must
remember to strip briskly. When you see the fish,
you should speed up the stripping, these fellows
are aggressive predators and used to see the bait
fleeing from them quickly. If you slow down as to
allow them to reach the fly, they will recognize it
as a fake and will dive immediately. So remember,
The peacock bass (cichla monoculus) was introduced
in Panama from the Amazon Basin together with other
species such as the "Oscar" (Astronotus Oscellaris).
Being an aggressive and prolific predator, the peacock
bass took over the place displacing the native species.
The most common of the displaced specie is another cichlid
called by the natives "vieja" (old lady). It is a fish
common with the tropical aquarium fans, and it is unusual
to see them in large sizes anymore. You can feel
privileged if you can catch a fishable vieja. Treat
them with a great deal of care and release them immediately.
A vieja of catchable size. It fell for a wooly worm.
There are many pleasant aspects of fishing Gatun Lake.
Among them one can mention the proximity to the city,
the good weather, the great disposition and skills of
the guides/pilots, and how inexpensive the fishing
experience can be. After my business there I checked in
to one of Panama's mid-price hotels (my favorite in Cangrejos
is called "Las Vegas." They charge $40 per day for a small
apartment with kitchenette, so you can bring your family or
a "fishing buddy"). The total for a three days fishing trip
comes to less than $500. If there are two or more in the
group, just divide the total cost by the numbers.
There are few unpleasant aspects. Among them, you must
provide the food and drinks for the trip and that the
boats are not prepared for fly-fishing. Knowing this,
it is a good idea to take a beach towel from the hotel
and place it in the boat floor to avoid tangles with
the cleats, oar locks and other parts of the boat.
Another source of potential unpleasantness can be
the africanized honeybees. I know that through the
years, the guides have always mentioned that potential
hazard, although I have never encountered or seen any.
If you encountered the opportunity to visit Panama on
business or pleasure, please do not leave your fly rods
home; you will be missing a wonderful and inexpensive
~ Jorge J. Santiago-AvilÚs