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December 02, 2010

Fishing Hannibal Bank

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

The flock of birds came into our view just over a mile from the waypoint entered into the boat's GPS, and shortly after we saw the birds, we saw the porpoises. A large school swam back and forth across the seamount known as Hannibal Bank, and as we strained our eyes in the morning light, we began to catch glimpses of what we had come for - yellowfin tuna.

The tunas and porpoises often swim together in the Pacific, and as guide Carter Andrews slowed the boat and we all grabbed stout spinning rods, we realized just how many of each species there were. We could see hundreds of tunas cruising in several large schools, which meant that thousands more likely swam beneath us. Andrews' mate, Juan Spragge, wasted no time watching as he positioned each of us along the gunwale of the center console and told us to await the order to cast.

Send Out the Poppers
Andrews steered the boat in front of an advancing school, and when the fish came within range, Ariel Pared, Raul Riviera and I wound up and heaved large popping plugs as far as we could, chugging them back toward the boat as quickly and noisily as possible. Spragge cast too, and as the tunas and porpoises passed, we retrieved our lures to make another pass.

It took several attempts, but Spragge finally hit pay dirt. A huge fish exploded on his lure in a giant splash after only a single popping motion, and the 60-pound braid screamed off the reel as the tuna sounded. "Nice work, Juan," Andrews said as Spragge passed the rod to Riviera, who settled in for what would be a long fight. The fish went very deep before settling down, and when it did, Riviera began the laborious task of trying to winch it back to the surface.

He brought the fish close several times, but the tuna would simply sound again, taking another strong run downward. A little over two hours into the fight, we at last saw color beneath the boat. The crew, who had lapsed into lethargy during the long struggle, suddenly became energized and readied gaffs in anticipation of the endgame. "Take your time, Raul - don't try to force it," Andrews said, and Riviera patiently worked the fish closer a few inches at a time.

When the fish came within gaffing range, Spragge leaned far overboard trying to grab the leader while I stood by with a gaff, but the fish had one strong surge left and sprinted down and under the boat suddenly and violently. The line touched the bottom of the hull, and the fish was gone. We estimated the tuna at close to 200 pounds. Everyone stared at one another in disbelief before we all finally laughed, and someone said, "That's fishing!"

Undeterred, we re-rigged and began casting the poppers again. We managed to land several nice fish but didn't hook another giant that day. Riviera will likely repeat the story of the big one that got away at Hannibal Bank for many years to come!