Hunting and Gathering in Panama


By Tom Morkin

The sailing for the 35 mile trip from Panama City to the famed Las Perlas Islands in the Gulf of Panama was as fluky as anticipated for that time of year. It was mid December and the winter trade winds should have but hadn’t arrived yet. In addition, the “Inter Tropical Convergence Zone” (ITCZ) which is a large area of low barometric pressure that meanders between approximately 10 degrees North and 10 degrees South latitude, was stubbornly refusing to leave the Costa Rica/Panama area and head south towards Ecuador. It normally tends toward 10 S in the northern winter and 10 N during the northern summer.

The consequence of this misbehaviour for us meant cloudy, showery days punctuated by thunder and lightning in the late afternoons and evenings. It also meant one could expect winds ‘from around the clock’, quite a different scenario from the winter weather pattern when blue skies and mellow and consistent northerlies prevail, which is what we are experiencing now.

But we did sail almost 35 miles to beautiful Isla Chapera so for that time of year, we weren’t complaining especially after dropping the hook in 30 feet of gin clear water off a knock down dead gorgeous white sand beach.

Minutes after the anchor was set we were in the water checking out our new under water neighbourhood. Without doubt, the Pacific side of Panama has amazing coral formations and multitudes of small colourful fish. The water clarity can’t match that of the Caribbean but it does seem to be more big fish- amberjacks, trigger fish, parrot fish, manta rays, sting rays, cod, pargo, corvina, pompano just to name a few. In the Perlas islands, time in the water was spent more fishing than sightseeing. For the next two and a half weeks, fish was on the daily menu.

Although we sometimes fish off the boat with rod and line we’ve found over the years that spear fishing produces more consistent results. It is also a great way to get exercise, not just for me but for Liz also. Although she’s not a trigger puller she is an extra pair of eyes under water and she tows the inflatable dinghy behind her so when I shoot fish I don’t have to swim far with a flailing and bleeding mass of shark bait. Occasionally, if I’m spear fishing solo, I trail a line to string the shot fish, trailing them behind me in the water, but somehow that just feels too much like trolling for sharks.

My fishing gear includes a two banded spear gun and a pole spear. Over the years the pole spear has delivered far more protein than the gun. Normally we’ll carry both the pole spear and the gun in the dinghy.

The advantages of the pole spear include:

  • Rapid re-cocking under water providing a second and sometimes a third shot at your elusive prey.
  • Little likelihood of damaging or losing the spear when targeting fish in rocks and coral.
  • They’re much cheaper, simpler and less likely to fail.
  • They’re safer- you are less likely to shoot your mate with a pole spear than a spear gun.

The spear gun is used for bigger fish. They pack a bigger punch and usually the spear goes completely through the fish. Since the spear is attached to the gun by a strong line, one can swim to the surface with the impaled fish in tow. The spear gun has a longer range than a pole spear, perhaps six feet (with my gun) and three feet with a pole spear.

Hitting the fish is only half the battle. More often than not, it is necessary to drive forward with the pole spear to ensure complete penetration. Usually this means swimming down to the hit fish taking it in your free (gloved) hand, forcing the spear tip through the body and surfacing with one hand on the pole and the other hand on the fish. The sad truth is I lose a significant percentage of the fish I hit with a pole spear. They often shake the spear before I can drive the spear tip home.

The only defense I can offer to this fruitless maiming of countless fish is that my lost rate is decreasing with experience. I take fewer long shots and seldom shoot a fish that is not a head shot. I avoid the temptation to shoot a fish that is so deep that I won’t have enough air to pursue it after the hit to ensure it doesn’t escape with a couple of spear holes in it.

A rubber band failure on my spear gun on our second day took the gun out of operation for the duration of our Las Perlas sojourn. Although this meant the bigger fish were not targeted, we dined on small trigger fish, parrot fish, cod mullet and corvina. We take only enough fish for a couple of meals so depending on the size of the fish, we usually stop fishing after we have two to four.

It was the abundance of pearl oysters in the islands that resulted in the name ‘Las Perlas’. Although we didn’t find any pearls, we harvested these same oysters which nicely complemented our seafood menu along with small snails (escargots) we picked on the rocks at low tide.

In a couple of Las Perlas anchorages, the spear fishing was unproductive. This was particularly true in places where the current was so strong that sediment in the water made visibility poor, not to mention the strong current made spear fishing difficult if not borderline dangerous.

In this situation we’d cast off the boat with rod and reel using pieces of scrap fish for bait. This kept us well supplied with trigger fish.

Trolling what we call a meat line behind the boat while under way has been quite successful so far in Panama. We call it a meat line to underline the fact that we do it for food as opposed to sport. No fancy, expensive fishing gear is required.

Our gear consists of a $6.00 ‘yo-yo’ around which 100 feet of 100 pound test monofilament line is wrapped, a two inch single or double hook hidden in a $2.00 ‘hoochie’, a rubber replica of a squid. We don’t use big lures for the simple reason that big lures attract big fish and I personally don’t want any fish bigger than me on the boat!

A two foot section of bicycle inner tube which is connected to the fishing line on one side and boat on the other makes a simple but effective shock absorber. Finally, a clothespin or two also connects the line to the stern rail. When a fish strikes, we hear a SNAP! (the clothespin lets go of the boat) and then we know we have a fish.

Our idea of playing the fish is to slow the boat down. That’s it. We wait for the fish to tire and then reel ‘em in. I gaff the fish to bring it to the stern rail and insert it head first in a large bucket. Liz then uses the highest proof, lowest priced rum onboard and pores an ounce inside each gill case. This ensures a quick and hopefully intoxicating death for the fish and a deck not splashed with blood.

We’ve come to realize that our boat speed must be at least four knots while trolling at sea. In fact, I can’t remember ever catching a fish under four knots.

Exiting the Gulf of Panama with light winds, our boat speed was between three and four knots. It was during a prolonged gust that propelled Feel Free to five and six knots that we heard the SNAP! of the clothespin. We had hooked a bull mahi mahi or a dorado as they are called in Latin America.

We decided it was too big to bring aboard until it was truly played out so this fellow was towed for half an hour at about four knots. When we started bringing him close to the boat we were horrified to see its mate was following him no less than six feet behind. She stayed with her mate until we landed him on the boat. How long had they been together? How will she do without him? Do they hunt as a team? Will she take another mate? Will she survive alone? These questions haunted us for the rest of the day.

But, it didn’t prevent us from putting the meat line out two days later when two fairly small skipjack tuna were put on the menu.

There is undeniably a strong atavistic pleasure I’ve derived over the years from using simple means to gather and hunt for our sustenance while voyaging around the world. In this increasingly specialized world we have become increasingly dependent on a handful of gigantic multinational food companies which exert more and more control over what we eat. We become more and more removed from the production and processing of the food we eat. To be able to occasionally circumvent the giant food companies and food distributors feels mighty good.