Two nervous live baits swam behind the 31 Bertram, only yards from the jagged rocks of the Panamanian shoreline. Our captain had experimented with different bait species, settling on a small bonito and a goggle-eye on the surface, with another small bonito rigged and sent deep on a downrigger. The visible baits sensed trouble - and it didn't take long for it to show up.
The baits began darting frantically from side to side, unable to go far because they remained fastened to a stout leader and a 10/0 circle hook. Suddenly, a comb-shaped fin appeared amid a large boil as a roosterfish rose to the surface and engulfed the bonito. The fish disappeared with its prize as line ran from a free-spooled reel, and after a few seconds of drop-back, Raleigh Werking threw the reel into gear and wound tight to the fish.
The rod bent as the fish came tight, and the roosterfish sounded, taking quite a bit of line with it. "Big fish," said the captain in English we all understood. Werking, an expert light-tackle angler, had the fish on 16-pound-test and pumped and wound smoothly while making minute adjustments to the drag. It took some time - roosterfish are extremely strong fighters - but as the fish eventually tired, Werking applied increasing drag until the fish finally broke the surface after a 45-minute fight.
We pulled the big rooster aboard for a few photos and then released it, taking our time to make sure it was fully revived before letting it go and watching it disappear back into the green water whence it came. Werking smiled widely and said, "That was a nice one, about 60 pounds, but it's not the one we're looking for. Let's go get a bigger one."
Developing a Fishery
Werking and I were fishing out of Tropic Star Lodge, located in Piñas Bay, Panama, and we had run to the southeast that morning, to a large rock near where Panama ends and Colombia begins. Werking is the marketing director of Tropic Star and has spent a lot of time fishing the rocks of coastal Panama for roosterfish and the numerous other species found close to shore. He has caught many big roosters along the way, including the current 8-pound-test IGFA world-record fish, 54 pounds, 9 ounces. He was trying to break the 16-pound record of 71 pounds, 1 ounce, but the fish he had just caught wasn't quite big enough.
Between bites, I got a chance to ask Werking about the incredible inshore fishing around Piñas Bay. "My first trip to Tropic Star, in 1981, was an eye-opener," Werking said. "While most people who come to Piñas Bay target black marlin offshore, the roosterfish really caught my attention as well. Over the years, I would find myself fishing more along the shoreline for roosterfish and cubera snapper. Back in the '80s, it was all slow trolling with diving red-and-white Rapala plugs and Panama strip baits on the surface, close to shore. This method was productive for catching fish in the 20- to 40-pound range, which was great."
But Werking wanted bigger fish. "When lodge owner Mike Andrews devised a new live-bait system, it really changed the game," Werking said. "Now we could fish inshore armed with a full range of live baits, including bonito kept fresh in the tuna tubes while goggle-eyes and other smaller baits were kept ready for action in the circular center part of the livewell system. Having the ability to load up with such a variety of baits enabled us to spend more time fishing and less time trying to catch bait."
Andrews' livewell system, incorporated into all of the lodge's 31 Bertrams, features six tuna tubes arranged around a conventional circulating center well, making it a snap to keep a wide variety of frisky baits ready to go. Each morning, we would find smaller baits, caught by crew members who went in search of goggle-eyes the night before, in the center part of the well, and we would run to the edge of the reef looking for small tunas to fill the tuna tubes. It never took long to find them after we deployed heavy bait rods rigged with small feathers and silver spoons.
In fact, on most days, we never had to go to the reef at all, since large schools of bonito had come in close to shore and would pop up in feeding frenzies throughout the day. We caught them easily by putting out the bait rods and also by casting into them with feathers and vertical jigs.