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December 02, 2010

Fishing Hannibal Bank

This legendary area off Panama is home to big fish, and lots of them.

Hannibal and Coiba
panama marlinI had traveled to Panama to check out the Islas Secas Reserve and Resort, a new fishing operation located in the Gulf of Chiriqui, in the Islas Secas chain of islands (see SWS Planner). The lodge's proximity to two of the most famous fishing areas in all of Panama - Hannibal Bank and Coiba Island ­- had piqued our interest and made the trip irresistible.

Coiba was home to the now-defunct Club Pacifico, a fishing camp famous among traveling fishermen in the 1970s and '80s. But Manuel Noriega closed Club Pacifico many years ago, and I had never made it there, so this was my first visit to the area.
Black Marlin Central
Hannibal Bank is so named because it was discovered by the U.S. Navy survey ship USS Hannibal as it performed depth soundings and surveys in preparation for the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The bank sits along the edge of the Pacific continental shelf and rises to within 120 feet of the surface in some spots. It's a natural aggregation spot for bait, and thus attracts a wide variety of predators.

In addition to the tuna, which you can reliably expect to find there on most days, Hannibal Bank offers spectacular marlin fishing. Many black and blue marlin have been caught here, and live-baiting with tunas bridled to large circle hooks works best, although you can catch them on lures as well. But given that the marlin have come for a tuna dinner, why not offer them what they came for?

A couple of days after losing the big tuna, we hit Hannibal Bank again, this time in search of a marlin. It didn't take long to find one. We first caught several small tunas on spoons, and Spragge rigged one on a circle hook with 400-pound-test leader and dropped it back on a Shimano Tiagra 50 Wide spooled with 80-pound line. The porpoises ate a couple of our baits, forcing us to re-rig several times, but on the third bait, the outrigger pin snapped and line began melting off the Tiagra, slowly at first, then with increasing speed.

None of us had seen the bite, and at first we thought another porpoise had attempted to steal the bait, but it soon became clear we were hooked to something large. My wife, Poppy, had taken the rod and was fastened securely to the fish, working on it with a harness-and-belt setup that gave her maximum leverage.

Andrews, Spragge and I speculated about whether this could be another huge tuna, but after about 45 minutes, the line angled upward and the bill of a black marlin of about 400 pounds broke the surface. We were elated, and after another 30 minutes, the tired fish came alongside the boat, where Andrews and Spragge released it as I shot a few photos.

Inshore Opportunity Galore
We alternated between fishing Hannibal Bank and casting plugs around the numerous rock islands closer to Islas Secas. We caught dozens of cubera snappers and a few bluefin trevallies and lost a few very large roosterfish. The amount of habitat in the area boggles the mind - you could literally spend years exploring the rocky shorelines of the islands large and small and never fish it all. This place is a caster's dream.

We also fished around Isla Montuosa, a beautiful uninhabited island west of Hannibal Bank. Montuosa rests on the edge of the drop-off just like the bank and can be equally productive. Plus it has deep pockets of water flowing around it on the east and west sides, where strong currents can create incredible rips. These hold huge dorado, of which we caught many, as well as tuna and billfish. We had a brief encounter there with a lit-up blue marlin of 500-plus pounds but failed to get a hook in it.

The establishment of the Islas Secas Reserve and Resort has once again allowed fishermen easy access to these incredible fishing spots: Isla Coiba, Hannibal Bank, Isla Montuosa and the numerous small islands of the Gulf of Chiriqui offer spectacular fishing for a wide variety of species, from snappers to black marlin. Whether you like light-tackle casting or billfishing on heavy tackle, there's almost limitless opportunity for you in this amazing part of Panama.