TBF & PELAGIC IN PANAMA
The present is a very exciting time for The Billfish Foundation. TBF is working through some exciting new partnerships, with some great people to make things happen all over the world. July of 2011 brought two of these things together.
In terms of great fisheries and cutting edge conservation, there aren’t many places more exciting than Panama. With the prohibition of purse seining and long liners over six tons in its territorial waters and an ongoing TBF socio-economic study of sportfishing in the nation, Panama is at the fore front of commitment to sportfishing. In terms of exciting partnerships—and great fishing gear—there aren’t many companies as interesting as Pelagic Gear. With a new line of Pelagic/TBF UV shirts and a sponsorship of “In the Spread”, Pelagic Gear is working with TBF to empower conservation through sportfishing.
July, at the invitation of TBF Board Member John Richardson, Pelagic President Ron Kawaja joined TBF for a celebration of the partnership. Joining Ron was Cabo charter Captain, Pelagic partner, and all around source of fishing knowledge Tony Berkowitz and master of underwater photography Tony Ludovico. I was fortunate enough to represent The Billfish Foundation. The plan was to fish with Pelagic for four days with Captain Wade Richardson aboard the Hooker and to capture all of it on film. During this time we would discuss conservation and do some field testing of the new TBF performance shirts. The shirts are great, you can buy a longsleeve or a shortsleeve.
July is a good time to fish in Panama. While Wade reports that this year, a La Niña year, has been a little different than normal, it was in July of 2010 that John Richardson and the Picaflor tagged a monster black estimated at 1,150 pounds out of the Perlas. As the prospect of bass fishing in a farm pond is enough to get me excited, the trip to Panama to fish with Wade, Ron and Pelagic all but stopped me from sleeping for two weeks prior to the trip. When the guys boarded the Hooker for the first day of fishing, carrying with them an army of Go Pro video cameras and Tony Ludovico’s gear, the time had finally come.
The first day Ron manned the rod and caught a nice sail. We caught acouple nice dolphin off a floating pallet and generally had a good time developing ideas. Each time we got a fish on the leader, Tony Ludovico would jump in to photograph the fish. We would also stick Go Pros mounted to sticks into the water to film the action. It was interesting to watch Tony at work. He is a true professional and his work reflects this. The first three days of fishing were uncharacteristically slow by Panama standards, but any time you get the chance to fish on a boat like the Hooker you know life is good.
Day four brought with it both pressure and promise. If there was anyone you would want to have at the wheel on a day you really need a trip maker, that person would be TBF''s two time reigning top black marlin release captain Wade Richardson. Wade is an understated Texas guy who really gets on the fish. There is a reason that three days on the Hooker is the grand prize of the TBF Experience membership trip giveaways. On this day we would not only witness this reason, but be privy to what makes Panama such an amazing place to fish.
The day started with Wade picking up a couple schools of tuna up top. They were feeding, with a few fish breaking the surface. We dragged live bonitos around the schools as the tuna would rise and subside. Ron caught a nice 80 pounder, which we filmed. Tony Ludovico hopped in to get some shots on the leader and to take one of his half in water half out of water transom shots. We then put out a daisy chain teaser out of the right rigger to accompany the two live baits. Not long after the teaser was accosted by a nice black marlin. Before we could get a bait to it, the right rigger popped out, squeeling. A marauding yellowfin of 80 pounds had helped himself to the bait and was made short work of by Tony Berkowitz. We continued trolling through the area with live baits and throwing poppers on a stout spinning rod spooled with braid. We caught a few tuna on the spinner, which were mercifully smaller than those we caught on bait.
After a half hour of seeing tuna come check out the baits without committing to eat, we lightened the leader to entice a bite. Trolling a small blue runner (kujinua in Panama), we found a willing participant. It was my turn in the chair and I was happy to make the tuna’s acquaintance. The combination of the lightened leader and this fish being a bit more stout than his buddies, made for 45 minutes of back and forth in the chair. When the hundred pounder got close to the leader, Tony jumped in to do what he does so well. We were messing around with the fish at the back of the boat when Wade called out, “Get in the boat. We need to go.” We gaffed the fish and Tony boarded the Hooker.
Wade spotted a bait ball up top being wildly accosted by yellowfin. There were birds crashing into the sea and porpoises all around. Hundred pound yellowfin, lots and lots of them, were crashing through the bait coming all the way out of the water. There was boiling, churning white water for an acre. The tuna were devouring a ball of runners and they had pushed up to the surface. The scene was incredible--- National Geographic, Jurassic Park type thing. This was transpiring about a mile ahead of us and Wade put her to the pins to get us to the fish.
Upon hearing this, Tony Ludovico’s demeanor changed. He was transformed at once into a combination of excitement (the type of excitement a child gets when preparing to open birthday presents) and determined professionalism (the look of a clean-up hitter stepping up to bat with the bases loaded). Ron, Tony Berkowitz and I were mesmerized. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle and we were blessed to be in its presence. Ron readied the Go Pros and put on his mask and fins.
As we neared the melee, Wade positioned the boat and out jumped Tony Ludovico. It was like watching Aquaman. He swam deftly, with the ability to hold his breath as though he were a sea lion. Ron jumped in behind him with a Go Pro on a stick. I was watching the scene, when Tony Berkowitz jumped in to Go Pro the action himself.
Looking around, what was happening was unbelievable. The bait that was pushed to surface did not have anything to hold on to, to break up its silhouette and provide cover. This all changed when the guys jumped in. Ron jumped in with no shirt. The triggerfish first came up and were biting at him as they would a log cover in barnacles. When the tuna came close, they stopped nipping at him and started holding on him to take cover. The tuna swarmed about, like 100 pound, 50 mile per hour torpedoes bent on consumption of all they could.
When Tony Ludovico returned to the boat, his wetsuit was torn in a couple of places and he was a bit battered and bruised from being rammed by tuna as they crashed bait. In the process he shot many incredible images-- some beautifully chaotic , others graceful, and others that can only be described by looking at them. Porpoises, tuna, and a feast on the high seas. At one point there was a sea turtle on top near the edge of the fray. Bait piled atop high shell, completely out of the water, beaching themselves in attempt to avoid the tuna’s jaws of death. Four dolphins swam up to him, picked bait out of his arm pits and off the top of his shell, before gently grabbing the edge of his shell with their mouths and seemingly escorting him away. In writing this, this sounds like an exaggeration, but it really happened. I think we even got it on video. Besides, if I were going to exaggerate, why not tell you about the 1,700 pound black marlin we caught?
Tony Berkowitz was swimming around with a Go Pro on a stick. He was videoing Ron and Tony and generally trying to capture the awe of the spectacle. As he swam around, the bait took notice of him and figured he’d make a pretty good log. The little runners mobbed him. They laid flat against his body, tucked around his shoulders, and tried to squeeze themselves into his armpits. The tuna took notice of him too. He was a living, breathing FAD (fish aggregating device). He was bumped, rammed, whacked, and jumped over. He put his arms in the air and signaled something to the effect of “Get me out of here”. From the bridge Wade watched the spectacle. As the fish whacked him, he hollered. He put his arms in the air and was moving back and forth in the water, in response to being hit by the tuna. Wade backed the boat to 20 feet away from him and he began to swim. Tuna, 100 pound tuna, came leaping over his shoulder. As this happened Wade laughed and laughed from the bridge. It was equal parts amazing and hilarious. He was being beaten to hell by the tuna who swarmed around him picking off the bait the swarmed him in hopes of salvation. I almost fell out of the fighting chair, laughing, exclaiming and hollering words that might not be fit for print.
Tony was wearing a snorkel and a mask. His eyes at this point were so big that they almost came out from inside the mask. As he began to swim for it—I think he could have taken Michael Phelps in a forty yard freestyle—tuna leaped over his back and darted underneath him. He was a living, breathing, squealing FAD. It was great. When he made it back to the boat he thought he had a split lip from being hit by a tuna. His mouth wasn’t bleeding, but he had yellowfin teeth marks scratching his back in an eight inch curved line of abrasion. (I promise, this is not an exaggeration). Panama is wide open. We hereby nominate Wade Richardson for a Pulitzer Prize.
With these three guys taking care of the filming, mates Jonathan, Herbie and I decided that somebody needed to take care of the fishing. I sat in the chair and we hooked up runners onto a circle hook and slung them into the churning mayhem. The accurate 50 wide was spooled with 80 for this very purpose. Once the line started shooting out, I threw the drag to 35 pounds and wrenched and the tuna to the boat. After catching six or so 100 pound yellowfin in a half hour, it was all I could to do to say, “Otra”, as we laughed and threw another bait into the water. You could fish every day for a whole life and never see anything like this.
This is what The Billfish Foundation works to ensure. This is what conservation is all about. This is the ocean at her most incredible.
If ever there was someone glad to board the Hooker, it was Tony. Ron, Tony, and Tony are compiling the footage of this epic day from eight Go Pros into a video. It will be incredible. Tony Ludovico has a great many of the photos ready for action, but he will have them up on his website available for purchase soon. They are incredible. This is only the beginning. We hope to use these images to empower conservation in all of its facets. TBF will use the pictures and footage to inspire policy makers, to excite anglers, and to wow students in the classroom. This is how conservation happens.
This scene unfolded in Panama 12 months after the Martinelli administration outlawed purse seiners from the territorial waters of Panama. Is this a coincidence? No. This is conservation.
Conclusions. Panama is great, the yellowfin fishing is wide open. On the return trip in September.
The ride in was great, the future is bright. I was aboard the Hooker when Wade put her on a 300 pound yellowfin. You can win a trip with Wade by joining TBF—truly the trip of a lifetime. As for the field testing of the new Pelagic TBF performance shirts? I had a blistered thumb, but nobody got sunburned. Also, by virtue of what happened, we can safely conclude that they are good luck. They are slick looking and buying them protects you and supports The Billfish Foundation. How can you go wrong?
Now is an exciting time for The Billfish Foundation, good things are happening.