Just back from an adventure to Panama. Fly rods were taken and waved around. Here’s my report for others wondering about the DIY fly fishing down there…
Never really thinking much about Panama, I was intrigued when Jamie and our good friend Connie invited me to tag along on a beach adventure to Bocas Del Toro, Panama. We flew from Jackson, Wyoming to Panama City, spent the night and then took an hour flight to the island of Bocas Del Toro. The Bocas area is a series of islands located on the northeast side of Panama along the Caribbean. After landing and some food and drink, we got a water taxi to Bastimentos, a nearby island that would be our home for 8 days.
Despite a lot of research on the internet, I wasn’t able to find much in the way of fly fishing intel for the area. There were some whispers about bonefish, permit and tarpon, but most fishing-related content focused on the great offshore fishing there. So with rods, flies and quick dry clothing, we took the quick 10 minute panga ride from Bocas, the island hub of the region to Bastimentos where Palmer Beach Lodge was located. This small “lodge” catered to travelers from all over, offering a variety of jungle accommodations ranging from tents and screened cabanas to a few air-conditioned rooms. It also had a small bar/ restaurant for meals. Overall it was a good place to stay; clean, friendly staff and fairly small with a nice beach- front location. I would definitely recommend an air-conditioned room, an upgrade we happily paid for after a night in a cabana spent sweating in the jungle humidity. We spent our time lounging around the beach, exploring other beaches, both by walking and going on a boat with a guide for two days, and renting e-bikes one day to get to some beaches on Bocas. While I enjoyed Palmer a lot, I think if I was doing it again I would split the trip between there and a few nights on Bocas just to have access to more restaurants and beaches without having to travel by boat.
Now for the fishing report…. Fly fishing doesn’t seem to be done by anyone there, save a few anglers who travel a ways up the coast to fish for giant tarpon in the river systems. We went out two days with “guides”, a term I’ll use loosely since they didn’t have any fly fishing knowledge but were able to take use to some shallower reef areas where the girls could snorkel and I could wander around fishing. While these areas looked fishy, I failed to find much, save some needlefish and a Remora (a species that attaches itself to other larger fish). Another day we explored Polo Beach, a stunning beach about a 1.5 mile walk from where we were staying. Polo looked great; reef protecting the shore making for some good looking flats. There I caught a number of snappers and saw a couple barracuda, but nothing in the way of sight fishing. Rays and sharks were also lacking, something I notice everywhere I waded. An old local there told me to come back in the evening because the fish leave the area during the day because the water’s too hot. Unfortunately I never made it back in the evening so I don’t know if it would’ve been better.
In addition to Polo, I explored and fished the Red Frog beach area where we were staying. The beach here had pretty good size waves and strong currents making it tough to fish and best left to the surfers and swimmers. I did walk left (north i guess) to a small cove/coral area where I was told they’ve seen bonefish. Again, this area was pretty tough to fish with waves breaking and a lot of seaweed floating. I did however find a few cuts along the beach near this area and caught a lot of decent snappers (this was the most productive fishing water I found). Keep in mind though this was just blind casting. One sunny day there were some fish milling around along the beach but I couldn’t get them to show interest in anything I cast and I’m still not sure what they were.
A few other days of the trip were spent lounging around both because of the weather (it rains here often) and some disagreeable stomachs (finally got some Pepto and Diarrhea pills). I did get a tip about a cove a little ways down the beach that sometimes has tarpon hanging out in it. Unfortunately I never made it there. Our last day in the area we rented E-bikes on Bocas and rode the 17 or so KM to Boca Del Dragon, an amazing area on the northwest tip of the island. The ride took us through the jungle and countryside eventually landing us at Dragon, a protected reef area with beautiful beaches that apparently provided Columbus and his crew shelter during his forth voyage to the Americas. After having a nice lunch and drinks along the beach, I strung up my rod and wandered the shallows looking for fish. Again, no dice. We then hoped on a boat for a short run to Starfish beach, an area renowned for its starfish populations and snorkeling. I was excited but quickly discovered we weren’t the only ones hoping to enjoy this area. Upon arrival, there were tons of boats and other beach seekers enjoying the swimming with music, drink, etc. I wandered off to wade along the mangrove coastline hoping for a game changer. All I found though were a few small barracuda and mullet. We decided if we had to do it again, we would’ve just walked the path to starfish and hung on the beach about a half mile away from the action. It looked much calmer and more our style. No biggie though, still a cool area to see.
The following day after lunch on Bocas, we hoped a flight back to Panama City, spent the night and then took three more planes home to Wyoming.
I have mixed feeling about Bocas. I’m extremely happy and grateful I went there and enjoyed seeing the jungle, sloths, etc. but it didn’t knock my socks off. It is extremely hot and humid there and rain was pretty common. Often the humidity made for overcast days. The town of Bocas reminded me of Tulum, MX before it was ruined; a ton of young European backpackers and hippies, local poverty and foreigner owned restaurants, bars and hotels catering to a hippie disco scene. l was left with mixed feelings. While there are some beautiful beaches, etc, just about any one you go too will be filled with people and boats on day excursions.
Fly Fishing-wise, I found it difficult. I got the sense talking to some expats that the locals have fished out much of the shallow water species and that, combined with the extremely warm inshore water temps and lack of tide, don’t lend itself to much of a fishery. Keeping in mind though that I only was there a week. Maybe I hit it wrong or like many places, just need much more time to figure out the fishery. All that said, definitely take a fly rod along if you’re going. You’ll find some snapper to keep things interesting and maybe a bonefish, Permit or Tarpon. The surf here along the beaches is pretty tough for fishing. Waves and strong current turn up the sand and offer limited predicability on how the water moves and when rogue waves will hit. Plus, there isn’t much of a tide change here; maybe 6-12″. While I took a couple rods, a 9wt (or 8wt) is fine. I tied on some bonefish and permit flies but the old chartreuse and white clouser was really all i used. Wouldn’t hurt to carry some white baitfish type streamer patterns too.
Aside from walking the beach, flats boots are crucial to fishing the reef coral flats area. The “flats” are deeper (3-5 feet) than other places I fished and currents were stronger too. Partly to mostly cloudy skies were common for us do to the humidity. One place I saw but unfortunately didn’t get to fish was the Playa Pauch beach area on Bocas. We saw this while riding bikes but it was getting too late to fish. Out of all the areas that I saw for fly fishing, this area looked best. due to the inshore reefs and shallow water. This looked like the place to be looking for Permit, Jacks etc. We spent two days fishing out and snorkeling the Zapatilla islands. These were beautiful but by noon are filled with boats and day tours making wade fishing challenging.