Contributed by: Don Winner
In Panama, time still works its magic, especially for the blue-water angler. Today this Central American nation remains a stunning land where rugged coastal mountains plunge through a tropical rainforest straight into the abyss of the Pacific. And it is in that deep ocean where sailfish, marlin and dorado roam the waters surrounding the renowned Zane Grey Reef just as they have done since the beginning of creation. Thanks to a rich supply of nutrients that flow between the reef's pinnacles, the great triangle of baitfish, giant billfish and enthusiastic anglers come together in a frantic, splashing frenzy. That's when host Tom Ackerman and actor Jason Priestley of "Beverly Hills 90210" fame venture to the renowned Tropic Star Lodge for some world-class billfishing.
Their journey to the rainforest filled with beautiful plants and colorful fish, butterflies and parrots took place just last week.
For New Englander Ackerman, the choice to trade the land of snow plows for a billfishing journey in a tropical paradise was a no-brainer.
"Coming from Maine, it wasn't a hard sale to get me to come down there in January," Ackerman said.
"I looked high and low, but there were no snow blowers or snow shovels there. Kind of made me wonder what those kids do down there when it snows."
Despite the obvious lack of snow shoveling in Panama, there's still plenty to do on a January visit as Ackerman and Priestley found out.
"The location, the Zane Grey Reef, is a veritable fish factory," Ackerman said.
"Plus, with the landscape of huge mountains that drop straight into the ocean, there is deep water right next to shore so that you don't have to make long runs to get into the good fishing that is so typical when you are fishing for marlins and sailfish."
The fishing is so good here because the Zane Grey Reef — whose famous namesake visited the area on his adventurous journeys to the South Pacific in the 1920s — sits squarely in a major migratory corridor for billfish, according to Raleigh Werking of Tropic Star Lodge.
"We call it the Zane Grey Reef, but it really is three pinnacles or columns that come up from the ocean floor in 350 feet of water to within 125 feet of the surface," Werking said.
"There's good upwelling there, which provides nutrients that holds an incredible amount of bait," he added. "As (the) billfish migrate through there, we hold them pretty well because it has an incredible smorgasbord of sushi there for them."
Priestley plays his quarry.
The result of this submerged buffet is epic blue-water angling action for black marlin, blue marlin, striped marlin, dorado and sailfish.
So good is the angling that more than 200 International Game Fish Association world records have been set by anglers fishing out of Tropic Star Lodge, according to Werking.
"It's a place where any day you can catch a grand slam … that is, three billfish species in a single day," Werking said.
And most of these fish are big — Pacific Ocean big.
"The average-size black marlin is about 400 pounds. The average blue marlin is 300 to 350 pounds. The striped marlin average 150 to 175 pounds. And the sailfish average 80 to 100 pounds, although it is not uncommon for one to exceed 100 pounds," Werking said.
Werking knows what he is talking about, having boated a 141½-pound Pacific sailfish that proved to be a line-class world record.
Those numbers are impressive enough to garner the lodge a lofty perch as the world's top sal*censored*er fishing destination in one well-known publication, according to Werking.
"It's truly National Geographic country," he said.
Ackerman and Priestley have no argument with that statement. Their adventure found them raising a number of big, feisty Pacific sails.
About half of those fish actually took the "Panama deli" bait — strips cut from the underbelly of bonito that are then attached to circle hooks.
According to the host of "The New American Sportsman," about half of those fish that actually took the bait were eventually brought to the boat.
If you're going …
Instituto Panameño de Turismo: Visit the Web site at www.visitpanama.com or call toll-free at (800) 231-0568.
Tom Ackerman's Classic Connections: Visit www.classic-connections.com or call toll-free at (888) 729-8645.
Tropic Star Lodge: Visit www.tropicstarlodge.com or call toll-free (800) 682-3424.
For those who have dreamed of billfishing the deep ocean blue as Zane Grey did — an audience that includes yours truly — but who have never actually been able to do it, a question is begged to be answered.
What is the experience like?
"It's like sticking your finger in a light socket, that's what I tell people," Ackerman chuckled. "They eat, you set the hook, the fish jumps at 250 yards and the mate says, 'Hey, that's your fish.'"
"Really, they're magnificent fish and are very strong and very powerful," he added. "It's an exciting game, especially when you get some jumps out of them."
It's not only an exciting game; it's also a timeless and magical one that to this day whispers its invitation to those who have dreamed mid-winter visions of powerful, blue-water fish and angling's ultimate big pull.
And such is the angling in Panama, the aquatic territory of the legendary Zane Grey.