Abundant peacock bass in the Canal’s Lake Gatun.

Even the little guys hit with abandon. A chugging topwater attracted this peacock bass.

It’s pretty easy to lose count of the fish landed here,” Fidel Reyes said as he reared back on another peacock bass. “This sargento is a little bigger. No, maybe not.”

He was right about the difficulty of keeping track of these aggressive peacock bass or “sargentos,” as locals call them, from Panama’s Lake Gatun. The fish that the Gamboa Rainforest Resort’s General Manager had just pulled in did resemble many we had already caught and released. Our guide Jose “Puma” Rodriquez was kept mighty busy grabbing new bait from our boat’s livewell. We had already landed over 50 peacocks during our 3-hour trip on this scenic lake, part of the Panama Canal.

The word “Panama” means abundance of fish and that’s certainly true on Gatun. Peacock bass were seemingly everywhere and always hungry. On almost every cast with a live “sardine” minnow, a peacock would slam the bait. Reyes seemed glad to have taken a few hours off from running the resort on the Chagres River just off the Canal. We had both caught several doubles, and every fish was aerobatic.

We explored several nice areas around Barro Colorado Island and every spot held numerous fish. Only the size and corresponding strength of their fight varied. Artificials worked as well; they often catch larger fish, but can be slightly less productive than the small minnows. Topwater, minnowbaits and even small spinnerbaits are effective here.

Rodriquez, who has been guiding on the lake for 27 years, the last six out of this resort, couldn’t even keep track of our tally. He did note that we exceeded the average catch of 25 fish per angler in a six-hour trip. It’s not unusual for a boat to catch even more sargentos than we did—and bigger ones.

Blue morphos butterfly.

“Some anglers boat 80 peacocks in a day, and many are in the 3- to 5-pound range,” he says. “The largest peacock ever taken from our marina was 12 pounds and the big fish in last spring’s tournament was a 9-pounder.”

It’s usually easier to catch bigger fish in the rainy season when water in the lake is higher and cooler. The season’s high point usually happens at the end of October, when waters reach the base of shoreline trees. During dry season, peacocks move out deeper to hang out in cooler water.

The water level of Gatun, the third largest manmade impoundment in the world, is maintained by the Canal authority and when it approaches four feet, they open the locks and drain some if rain appears imminent. As a result, the Chagres River, the main tributary entering the lake, is known as the only river in the world that flows into two oceans. There is a 26-foot difference between the lake and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on each end of the Canal.

While this lake is considered a peacock bass fishery, a little secret is that snook are plentiful in the deeper channels running through the lake and along the Canal. In fact snook are common in the lake, particularly during higher water in October and November. The lake record is a 32-pounder and during the last major tournament in March, the largest snook weighed in was a 27-pounder. In that tournament, which had categories for peacock bass, snook, tarpon and the grand slam (all three), one guy landed six snook.

“In the high waters, there is less dredging of the canal (which is ongoing throughout the year),” says Reyes. “As a result, the water is clearer and not as turbid. Snook can see the lures easier.”

Coming off after fishing, at one of the waterfalls on a Chagres River tributary.

I had to try out the snook action for myself. Reyes and I set out two large Rapalas and trolled along a channel running through the lake. The bait moved maybe 200 feet before my rodtip jerked down; a 5- or 6-pound snook took to the air. Reyes and our guide chuckled. Snook here average about 10 to 13 pounds, according to Rodriquez, so mine was a baby.

“I guess they really are common,” I said, as the guide scooped up the snook. “That took about two minutes. I just wish tarpon were that easy!”

The tarpon are not, but a few are certainly caught each year in the canal or lake. One, a 125-pounder, was even taken right in front of the resort. Big bull sharks are caught around here, too.

The resort marina houses the charter fleet, which consists of 13 fiberglass boats of 17 feet in length, powered by 85 and 90 horsepower outboards. They supply all tackle and bait, even line and rain ponchos. Gamboa’s double console boats provide a comfortable ride even in the random and erratic wakes coming occasionally from passing barges or cruise ships as they move through the open areas of the canal. The excellent guides are well trained to handle the wakes and any large waves they encounter. The resort pays the $1,000 fee for their captains to be commercially licensed each year so that they can fish Lake Gatun. (Boaters fishing just the Chagres River need only a private license.)

For large families, the resort also offers pontoon boats with canvas tops. All fishing is stopped by 3 p.m., leaving a buffer before the 5 p.m. “off water” restrictions imposed by Canal authorities.

Oscars are fun on light tackle.

There are many small Lake Gatun tournaments out of the Gamboa Resort Marina plus a bi-annual international tournament that occurs in March and again in October each year. Those months are the normal beginning and ending months of the dry season, which is the busy fishing time on the lake. Many of the resort’s boats are chartered each day then and a little over half are booked throughout the year, in the dry and rainy season. Many local corporations book several boats for “team building” exercises. Approximately 70 percent of charter trips are booked by Americans.

“Non-guests of the resort simply call us to reserve a boat for either three or six hours of fishing on the canal and Lake Gatun,” explains Reyes. “Gamboa Tours provides transportation to and from the marina from either downtown Panama City or the international airport. Most peacocks under 2 pounds are released, but one of the options for visiting day-trip anglers catching a nice one on the canal is to have the resort fillet and cook it to his or her personal taste. The 3- hour guided fishing trip is $150 per boat for up to 3 anglers and the 6-hour trip is just $225 for up to 3 anglers.”

Guide fees that low are attractive. The town-to-marina, 45-minute transfer is just $22 per person, so businessmen in town for an extra day or two or saltwater anglers returning from their offshore fishing locale can partake in the peacock and snook action on Lake Gatun very easily and inexpensively. In fact, the Tropic Star Lodge—famous for giant marlin, tuna and roosterfish—offers a Gamboa Resort freshwater fishing option package, according to Reyes.

The Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is less than six years old, lies 20 miles from Panama City just past the one-lane Puenta Bridge. The beautiful 145-room resort is located on 340 acres within the Soberania National Park overlooking the Chagres River. For nature lovers, the resort offers a Rainforest Aerial Tram Tour with fauna and flora ecological exhibits. Gatun kayaking tours are also available, or visitors can trek the Chunga Chagres or Las Cruces trails. FS

Getting There

Panama is just 2 1⁄2 hours from Miami by air and there are 10 daily flights from five U.S. gateway cities including Miami. Currency is the U.S. dollar, and taxi fares there are based on a zoning system. There are several rental car agencies in the city, but Gamboa Tours offers transfer and tour services for those not needing full-time access to a car. They can be reached at (507) 269-1262 or visit their Website at www.gamboatours.com for more information.

To find out more about Gamboa Rainforest Resort at the Panama Canal, contact (877) 800-1690 or via email at reservations@gamboaresort.com. Visit their Website at www.gamboaresort.com. The resort and marina can be contacted directly at 011-507-314-9000 for more info on the fishing and boating. Most resort employees speak excellent English. For convenient in-town Panama City accommodations, contact the Intercontinental Miramar at (507) 206-8888 or visit www.miramarpanama.com. For more information on the beautiful country, its mountains, coasts and other attractions, contact the Panama Tourist Bureau at (800) 231-0568 or www.visitpanama.com.

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