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How to fish Gatun – Destination Gamboa!!

So, you’re bored to tears and freezing your buns off in the middle of a snowstorm. Tired of ice fishing? Well, in Panama, the sun is shining and the fish are biting. This is the part where you do the smart thing and book tickets to the Tocumen International Airport here in Panama. What do you do now? Who do you call, where do you stay?

HOTELS

Once you get to the Tocumen International Airport, take a cab to one of several hotels in Panama City. You can choose from any of the top of the line hotels like the ever popular Ma…, the Hotel Pa…, Mir… Int…, etc (what, free advertising, are you kidding me?). Or, you could stay at any one of the many 3-star hotels or hostals in Panama. For a list of these options, click here on this Updated Hotel List in Spanish.  Yep, thanks to the Panamanian Tourism Authority (ATP in Spanish), you can now read through this incredibly huge list of hotels located throughout the entire country of Panama.  It’s listed by province and not just entirely alphabetical which will save you a lot of time reading through it.  (This is the part where the hotel sponsors come breaking down our doors…  …we hope…)

RENTAL VEHICLES

Gatun lake is accessible from one of 3 basic locations. Gamboa, Arenosa and Colon. In this article we’re going to focus on Gamboa as it’s the easiest and quickest to access from Panama City. You’re still going to need a car. Rentals in Panama City are cheap and as long as you have a credit card and valid driver’s license, you’ll be able to get a compact car for around $30-$40 per day. For some options on rental car companies, click here.

GEAR

Once you have a place to stay at and a car to get you from point A to point B, all you need to do is plan your day on the lake. If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent poles and buy live bait right at the public landing. Life vests are a must, but your guide at the landing will have enough for everyone. You’ll need to take your own food and drinks with you as there is nothing at the landing to buy. The hotel can help you with directions to a place to buy your snacks. I also suggest that you get a small foam cooler with a bag of ice. Of course remember sun block, sun glasses and a hat!
OK, if you do bring your own gear, it’s probably unnecessary for me to tell you what lures to use. The main fish in the lake is Peacock Bass – bring bass lures. If you want more specific advice, I have no problem giving it out – write me at brett@panamafishinghole.com.

COST

Right now, depending on how many people are in your group, you’re going to pay between $80-$150 per day – this will give you a boat, guide, life vests, fuel and about 6 hours of fishing/touring. Minnows cost $1.00 for a dozen – if all you use is minnows, you’ll need about 100. If you want to keep your catch, they will filet the fish at the dock for ten cents ($0.10) per fish.

DIRECTIONS TO THE PUBLIC LANDING AT GAMBOA:

Regardless of what hotel you choose, head towards the Miraflores Locks of Panama located in front of the old Fort Clayton US Army Base, known today at the Ciudad del Saber or “Knowledge City”. Once you get to the entrance to the locks, instead of turning, keep going straight on Gaillard Highway. From here, you’ll pass the Pedro Miguel Locks, Paraiso, the Centenial Bridge overpass, Summit Golf course on the right and then after about 10-15 minutes of driving, you’ll pass beneath a set of train tracks and then immediately you turn left towards the Summit Zoo. You’re about 10 minutes away from the public landing.

Down this road, you’ll pass the Summit Zoo on your right – continue straight. After a few curves you’ll see the Renacer prison on the left – just a few seconds after this, you’ll see a parking lot on the right. This is the parking area for the vehicles and trailers for the public landing of Gamboa. You can drive down to the bottom of the hill and park temporarily to the right away from the landing itself. If you are with someone you trust, unload your gear here with them and then park the car back on top of the hill. Do not leave your stuff with strangers.

Once you’re here, you’ll see the landing to the left, the dock straight ahead and the fishermen’s private cooking and resting area to the right. Just to the right of the dock, there are several boats of which the majority belong to the locals who you’ll be fishing with. This is where basic Spanish comes in. You’ll need to talk to the locals. Most of them know the basic English related to fishing like “I want to go fishing”, “I need 100 minnows” or “pass me another beer” but, this is basically what you need to say if you want to say it in Spanish:

English / “Spanish” / (Phonetics)
I want to fish / “Quiero pescar” / (Key-Arrow Pess-car)
I need minnows / “Necesito Sardinas” / (Ness-ess-ee-toh Sar-dee-nahs)
How much does it cost? / “Cuanto cuesta?” / (Quan-toh ques-tah)
Let’s go fishing! / “Vamos a pescar!” / (Vah-mos ah Pess-car)
Which boat? / “Cual bote?” / (Quall Bow-tay)
Pass the beer! / “Pasa la cerveza!” / (Pah-sah lah sayr-vay-sah)

Of course if there are key words that you want to say or any idea you want to get across, most usually by saying the key word, Minnows, Hooks, Fishing Pole, etc.

WHERE’S THE FISH?

Now you’re set! You made it safely to the landing, got your guide with boat, gas and life vests.  You have your poles, minnows and/or lures on hand as well.  You get into the boat and… …now what!?  If it’s your first time out there I suggest that you enjoy the ride.  None of these guides wants to see you get skunked and each one of them has their favorite Panama Fishing Hole.  But, that doesn’t mean they’re always right either.  If you’re on the water and haven’t caught anything within the first 30 minutes, I suggest you tell the guide where you want to go.  But first, the basic rules of engagement on this massive man-made lake.

1.  You’re in the Panama Canal.  There are boats that are alot bigger than you are in this lake.  A LOT BIGGER!! They have the right of way.

2.  Baro Colorado Island – off limits.  No fishing is allowed around it and no going ashore.  Baro Colorado is inhabited by the Smithsonian Institute’s finest scientists and they’ve all gone mad.  If you get too close, they will eat you.  Nah, just kiddin’!  For the integrity of their work, you are to stay away.  There are signs all around this area, so you can’t “accidentally” fish in the restricted areas.  Not possible especially if you’re with a guide – they definitely know this rule.

3.  Life vests.  Yeah, they’re uncomfortable, but if you get caught without them the canal police that are constantly transiting the waters may pull you over and may confiscate your fish and gear.  They may even feed you to the scientists on Baro Colorado.  It has been a long time since I’ve actually seen anyone get anything taken away from them, but for more reasons than one, just put it on and like it.

4.  Caiman and Crocks – sure, the ones in Florida are cute and cuddly, and I know that ever since Crocodile Dundee came out on the big screen you’ve been dying to put some moves on them.  But these crocks are mean buggers and you do NOT want to be in the water with them.  Refer back to #3 again please.  If you fall in the water get back in the boat immediately.  No swimming is recommended in any part of the lake.  There are several true stories about crock attacks in the region but everyone of them has to do with someone getting out of their boat and into the water for no good reason.

Now, back to the program.  I have a relief map at the office of the entire canal area from Panama to Colon.  I’ve taken a simple picture of the area of the map that includes the Gamboa Public Landing in the lower right corner and Baro Colorado in the upper left corner.  I have shaded the of limits areas in red – actually some of this area shaded in red is actually ok to fish in, but there are so many other good areas to fish in that it doesn’t make sense to take the chance of mismarking it for you.  The blue areas are the spots I recommend you try fishing at, especially if you’re not catching anything with your guide.  Simply point to the map and tell your guide to take you “There”.

PEACOCK BASS

There are some basic things to keep in mind while fishing for Peacock Bass.  Our particular breed is called the “Cichla Monoculus” by the nerds and “Sargento” by the locals.  Previous to the existance of the bass in the lake there were more than 10 different species of edible fish in Gatun.  Somewhere in the 1950’s a famous medical doctor of the times, whose name escapes me, had them in a pond in the back of his house.  One day it started to rain in Panama and some of the fish were washed into the river behind his house, the Chagres River.  It only took about 10 years for the fish to take over as the major species in the river and lake, exterminating the majority of the species that had once thrived there and greatly reducing the populations of others.  And they gave this guy a degree!

If you grasp the concept that they need to see their prey to eat it, you’ll do a lot better than most who run randomly anywhere on the lake and never get “lucky”.  First, the canal authorities have a dredging division right in Gamboa and they periodically remove the dirt and silt that has landed in the transitting portion of the canal.  When they do this, they dirty the surrounding waters making fishing in the immediate area next to impossible.   You first need to get away from the murky muddy water of the middle of the canal and some of the outlets.  Once you’re in clean water, you’re on your way to fishing.

Peacock Bass feed on live bait mainly and are actually finicky about dead bait.  They love minnows, but will also go after bugs and other crawly things on the surface.  This is the nature of all bass and the bottom line is that they’re like little sharks that will eat just about any living thing. My father has pictures of bass that he caught that had just previously eaten a RAT of all things!  Talk about agressive!! So, if you can figure out where the minnows are, there is certain to be a good sized Peacock in the same area.  Look for stumps, grass, deep water embankments as a start.  Keep in mind also the direction of the wind.  The wind will tend to blow and push “food” of all types in a certain direction and up against a specific shoreline.  Keep in mind the position of the sun and the shade for hiding places for the minnows. 

Now here’s an interesting thing about Peacock Bass that I haven’t heard about other bass. Peacock bass find their mates once the reach about 2lbs.  This couple lays their eggs practically anywhere and stays together as a team in the same spot until the day they die… …whether that’s by old age or by your crafty fishing abilities.  So, if you catch one big one, there’s a very good chance that another big one is nearby.   

That’s it for now. There will more than likely be a “Part 2″ to this, but for now you’ve got enough information to get you started on the lake.  Good luck and TIGHT LINES!!!

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