Given this illustrious background, we were understandably champing at the bit to get going. Our first morning, we headed to the dock and met Gustavo, captain of one of Tropic Star's 14 vintage 31-foot Bertrams. Gustavo has fished for Tropic Star for 25 years and drives the Scandia. At first glance I noticed the massive custom livewell occupying the center of the cockpit. The well has a conventional center section for smaller baits, and six tuna tubes, three on each side of the center well. These people are serious about live bait.
We headed out toward Zane Grey Reef, a rock shelf offshore of Piñas Bay which consists of three distinct peaks with deep valleys between them. When the currents collide with these peaks, which rise to within about 150 feet of the surface, baitfish get trapped in the eddies that form, making it center stage for billfish action. Just inside the reef line we came across a small flock of birds, and the mates put out bait-catching rigs consisting of several small feathers strung along a leader on dropper loops. As we trolled along, they jigged the line by hand, adding action to the feathers. Within a minute we hooked several small tuna and a bonito and placed each carefully, head-down, into the tuna tubes. When all six were full, we resumed running toward the edge.
Once we reached a spot Gustavo liked, three tunas were retrieved from their tubes and quickly bridled, one by one, to very large circle hooks. The Panamanian mates rig a bridle by pulling a loop of floss through the forward part of the bait's eye socket with a bait needle. The hook then goes through both ends of the loop and is twisted to cinch the bridle tight to the face of the bait, between its eyes. When the hook is slipped under the tight part of the loop, the rig is finished, and the hook is held firmly to the bait's head. This is the same rig used by many south Florida sailfish experts, albeit on a different scale.
We had two marlin in the baits that afternoon, but neither one ate. We did manage to catch several nice dorado (dolphin) on pitch baits. When fishing gets slow, the captains will pull in the oversized live baits and deploy a conventional trolling spread to cover more ground and try to locate the fish. The distinct disadvantage of live-bait trolling is that you must go slow and are therefore limited in the amount of real estate you can cover. While trolling conventional baits, including some beautiful Panama strip-baits made from both bonito and dorado bellies, we did catch several nice Pacific sailfish, including a beauty caught by my old college friend Steve Stock, who serves as president of Guy Harvey Incorporated. Still, the marlin eluded us.
Other boats had better luck. The next day, the radio crackled with reports from other Bertrams as several boats hooked blue marlin, and a nice black was caught and released by Harvey Taulien - his first - and the first of our trip. Then came the big news: A boat just down the line from us had hooked a very large black. Angler Jay Perez found himself on the right end of the rod when the big marlin ate, and most of us in the fleet could see the fish crashing across the surface from a great distance. It was obviously a big one. Perez, young and strong, settled in and fought the large black gamely, bringing it boatside after a protracted battle for a quick photo session and a clean release. They estimated the black weighed between 600 and 700 pounds.
We were back to towing live tunas behind the Scandia when news came of the release, and we had barely finished celebrating Perez' catch when a huge boil erupted behind one of our outrigger baits. The mates shouted in excitement as the frantic tuna tried in vain to elude the large, dark shape that lurked beneath it. When the marlin finally crashed the bait - an event which seemed to take hours - it left a huge hole in the water where, moments before, our tuna swam.