Big Dolphin Off Panama

While anglers can certainly pursue this great game fish in oceans around the world, the waters off Panama offer the best chance at a trophy.

Stu Apte caught a 58-pound dolphin on 12-pound tippet in 1964. I’m pretty sure it’s the longest-standing International Game Fish Association fly-rod world record. In 1990, Rufus Wakeman caught an IGFA record 53½-pound dolphin on 16-pound tippet and has been chasing Apte’s 12-pound record ever since.

However, 58-pound dolphin are pretty hard to find, much less catch on a fly rod. Apte caught his record at Tropic Star Lodge, in Pinas Bay, Panama. Wakeman found his in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, but a review of the IGFA fly-rod records told him that five of the men’s and women’s dolphin records came from Tropic Star Lodge. After he found that little tidbit, it wasn’t long before Wakeman, Scott Loper, Rick Herpel and I were on a plane headed to Tropic Star, with a whole lot of 12-pound tippet.

Owned and operated by Terri and Mike Andrews, Tropic Star Lodge has been in business for over 50 years, which is in itself amazing, especially when you consider that it is located smack in the middle of a Panamanian jungle. The lodge is practically a second home to renowned artist Guy Harvey, and it’s the sort of place that anglers return to year after year. It maintains a fleet of 31 Bertrams with native captains and mates and is considered by many the best place in our hemisphere

to catch black and Pacific blue marlin. There also are sailfish, big yellowfin tuna (from 60 to 300 pounds) and — during the winter months — lots of huge dolphin. In fact, captains chasing marlin consider 40-plus-pound dolphin pests and try to avoid them.

In most of the places I’ve fished for dolphin on fly, the typical routine is to run around looking for flotsam, weed lines or birds. Sometimes you can spot dolphin and chum them over to the boat, but many times you have to troll until you hook one — the school will usually follow the hooked fish to the boat and stick around if you keep one fish in the water. Unfortunately, this works only with smaller fish. The largest dolphin normally travel in pairs, and by hooking one, you can usually bring the other one into fly-rod range. Last summer, Tony Nobregas and I were fishing with Capt. R.T. Trosset and his son, Chris, out of Key West, Florida. We were hoping for a big dolphin on fly and found a nice weed line south of Cosgrove Light. We trolled one bait, hoping to see what was around, and ended up hooking a very big cow. As I fought the fish, Nobregas got his fly rod ready with a 6-inch streamer and a 60-pound fluorocarbon shock tippet. Dolphin don’t have a lot of teeth, but they do have some, so a shock tippet is necessary.

It wasn’t long before R.T. announced from the tower that there was a huge bull following my fish. When I brought my fish up to the boat, R.T. threw out two pilchards, and Nobregas plopped the fly right next to them. The bull casually swam over, gobbled up the pilchards and then sucked in the fly. Chris quickly gaffed my fish as we took off after the other fish, which was greyhounding its way to Cuba. To make a long story short, Nobregas’ dolphin was the biggest R.T. had ever seen. As luck would have it, Nobregas put a little too much pressure on it next to the boat, his 12-weight fly rod broke, and shortly thereafter, his tippet parted. When we got back to the dock, the cow weighed 38 pounds — the bull had to be over 50 pounds! The Florida Keys is a great dolphin destination, but nothing compares to the waters off Panama for really big fish.

I first set foot on the property of Tropic Star (tropicstar.com) in December of 2009. I was there to fish for marlin but had a fly rod rigged for sails, dolphin and small tuna. There are plenty of tuna in Panama — the problem is finding ones under 80 pounds. Most fishing days out of Tropic Star start with a run to Zane Grey Reef for bait. In Panama, baits are bonito or skipjack tuna anywhere between 5 and 20 pounds. These are serious baits that are kept alive in tuna tubes and slow-trolled on 50-pound stand-up rigs for marlin, which run from 200 to 800 pounds. If you’re interested in dolphin, you have to explain to your captain that you want him to look for floating trees, rips, weed lines, etc. so you can catch dolphin on a fly rod. If you don’t, he will run away from them to protect the baits. A 40-pound dolphin will attack a live bonito but won’t be able to eat it. The tuna tubes hold only six baits, and when they are gone, you have to sacrifice crucial fishing time to find more. When a big dolphin comes into the spread, all you’re going to wind up with is a dead bait or two, so the mate will try desperately to get the bonito out of the water before the dolphin kills it. This same action actually works well for teasing the dolphin right up to the boat for a perfect shot at a trophy fish on fly. Casting can be a problem because of the other baits and teasers, but there is good news. A teased dolphin will follow the bonito right up to the transom, so you’ll rarely need to cast more than 20 feet. The key is to place the fly in the salt just as the bonito is yanked from the water by the mate. This is the only scenario that I’ve found for effectively teasing a dolphin into fly-rod range. Usually one will make a single pass at a bait or lure, and if it isn’t hooked, it’ll simply leave. At times, we got them to hang around for a couple of passes by dropping back a hookless Panama-rigged bonito belly, but it didn’t work as well as the live bonito.

Now think about this process. Your tease bait is an 8- to 10-pound bonito. The dolphin thinks it can eat this — that’s either a very imaginative or a very big dolphin. Anything that will try to eat a bait that size is pretty much well over 30 pounds, and in Panamanian waters, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a fish over 70 pounds. So needless to say, you need some pretty serious tackle. A 12-weight is an absolute minimum, and a 13- to 15-weight is better, unless you’re looking for a tippet record. The key is having enough lifting power to get your opponent back when it sounds. You’ll need a reel designed for blue-water fishing and about a mile of backing. Over the years, I’ve settled on what I think is the best offshore rig for seriously big fish. If you’re using one of the many braided backing materials, 50-pound-test is the minimum, and 65- or 80- is preferable. Keep in mind, this stuff can really cut your finger if you’re not careful when a fish takes off. As a buffer, I put about 100 feet of 80-pound fluorescent Dacron after the braid if I’m using one of the full billfish lines. When I’m using a 600- to 800-grain shooting head, I put about 100 feet of 50-pound mono as the buffer. The shooting-head rig is a must if you’re using light tippets, and the billfish line is better if you think there might be any real casting involved. However, 90 percent of the time, you won’t need to do anything but plop the fly a few feet behind the boat, because that will be where the fish is.

The next decision is what fly to use. Remember the match-the-hatch rule? How do you match an 8-pound bonito? With a very, very big fly. Cam Sigler makes excellent billfish tube flies that are deadly when rigged with a double hook. They have optional popper heads, which some experts prefer, but the synthetic fly patterns work better without the head, says Guatemala Capt. Ron Hamlin. Don Reed at Saltwater Fly Tiers has a big Blaster popper that works really well too, but I’ve had really good luck in Panama with Rainy’s 8/0 Robrahn’s Bluewater baitfish patterns. Like all the others, it’s rigged for adding a trailer hook, and a 5/0 octopus-style fits perfectly. None of these fly patterns are ones that you’ll want to cast for distance, but a huge dolphin that’s trying to kill an 8-pound bonito is not going to show much interest in a 6-inch snack. Big fish like big food.

Even in Panama, you’re not always going to run into a lot of dolphin over 50 pounds, but you’re going to see some on an average trip, which gives you a better chance at an IGFA record than anyplace else in the world. The first monster I saw was on the third day of my first visit to Tropic Star. It looked like it was six feet long, and its head was enormous. It hit a pink-and-white Cam Sigler fly and just hung there, shaking its head. I was zeroed in with my camera and all set for the best dolphin photo ever when the hook fell out. The beast had to be over 70 pounds. We caught our share of 30-plus-pound dolphin on that trip, but a record-size catch eluded us.

Wakeman, Loper and I decided to return to Tropic Star recently to focus on fly-fishing. We were going to look for marlin, naturally, but we had two rods ready for dolphin. The deal was for Loper or myself to play with the 30-pounders and Wakeman to take on anything that was certifiably “huge” — he was after Apte’s 12-pound record. The week before we arrived, the largest dolphin caught weighed 74 pounds, and we heard from a friend that, when he was there, the lodge had a one-day friendly dolphin tournament. He caught a monster — 63 pounds, actually — early in the morning and figured he had it locked up, so he went back to chasing marlin. As it turned out, his 63-pounder came in fifth place. There are some really big dolphin in Pinas Bay, if you’re lucky enough to bump into them.

Well, as it turned out, Wakeman got only one shot at a 50-plus-pound dolphin. It came up on the short bait, flashed sideways to show us how huge it was and then swam off. We caught several over-25-pound fish on the Rainy’s supersize fly, which seemed to work better than the others that trip, but we really had very few shots at trophies. Fishing is fishing wherever you go, and because we wanted dolphin, naturally we were the ones who didn’t find as many. Each afternoon, guys would come back complaining about how they’d had to run away from dolphin that were killing their baits. One boat caught two over 60 pounds one day, but our boat was plagued with the little guys. They were a lot of fun, but we would have traded them all for one monster. One of our problems was that the smaller bonito were hard to find, and most days, we were dragging around 15- to 20-pound skipjack tuna. For some reason, Murphy’s Law controlled our trip, but we were making plans for next year’s expedition before we even boarded the plane back to Miami.

In my travels, I’ve seen a lot of dolphin hot spots. Panama’s Tropic Star is the best, but Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas also has some really big fish. Wherever you’re offshore fishing in the Bahamas, there’s always a good chance of running into some really

big dolphin, especially if you find one around offshore buoys or a floating tree. In Florida, Islamorada and Key West can also be outstanding in May and June, and these areas have plenty of schoolies that are great fun on a 10-weight outfit. If you’re going to be chumming a school up to the boat or targeting the mate of an already hooked fish, a full fly line is best because you’ll be doing some distance casting. Poppers are also a lot of fun and very effective. Dolphin are plentiful and a ton of fun regardless of their size. If you’re fishing offshore, be ready — the opportunity will come sooner or later.

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Pat Ford
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The bull casually swam over, gobbled up the pilchards and then sucked in the fly.Pat Ford
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Finding a big dolphin can be challenging, but once you do, they are typically ready to eat anything.Pat Ford
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Dolphin Tackle

For schoolies, a 10-weight rod and a castable fly line should work just fine. For pairs in the 15- to 30-pound range, a 12-weight with a castable fly line is a good choice. For monsters over 30 pounds that are expected to show up on trolled baits, 13- to 15-weight rods and either a 60-foot billfish line or a 30-foot 600-grain shooting head with 100 feet of 50-pound mono as a running line is what you should look into. There are dozens of reels on the market these days designed for tarpon, all of which have excellent drag systems and are adequate for big dolphin. Backing can be the braid of your choice in the 50- to 80-pound-test range, but try to get the thickest one you can find, and put 100 feet of 80-pound Dacron in as a finger protector. ­Leaders do not have to be very long — 9 feet from the fly line to the fly is fine. Your pattern selection is pretty much unlimited, though the fly should look like a baitfish and be sized to match the fish you’re after.Pat Ford
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The small tuna used to attract giant marlin are great teasers for huge dolphin. Another effective teasing method is to use bonito belly strips. These can be cut in a way that makes them swim much like lures and are perfect for bait-and-switch tactics.Pat Ford