Fishing in Gatun Lake in Panama

ishing for Sargentos on Gatun Lake…

Saturday, October 09 2004 @ 03:26 PM EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
Views: 8,665
Panama boasts some of the best bass fishing in the world. If you like to fish in fresh water, then you’re going to love it here… I’m a fisherman. I’ve fished all my life, and grew up pulling bluegills and catfish out of local lakes and ponds when I was a kid. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and as the saying goes “Even a bad day fishing is better than a good day at the office…”

Gatun Lake was formed when the Panama Canal was built, and at the time it was the largest manmade lake in the world. It’s very large with a great variety of depths and conditions of cover and food sources, and it’s a wonderful habitat for the main target, Sargentos.

In reality, “Sargentos” are not actually bass at all. They are actually chichla monoculus which are different (scientifically speaking) from bass. Here’s a link to more information about the fish in general.

Most recreational sportfishermen access the lake from either the boat ramp at Gamboa, or they drive up to Arenosa and fish from there. You can either buy your own boat, or hire a local guide. The guides use 18′ jon boats with (usually) a 30 hp outboard motor. The cost for a half day fishing (leaving before dawn and returning at about 12 noon or so) is standard at $50. If you’re paying more than that you’re getting ripped off. There’s a few tricks you need to know when dealing with the guides…

First of all, make sure that the guide knows that you want to move around and look for fish. Some times the guides will try to burn as little fuel as possible, because whatever they don’t burn is money they are not spending and it eventally comes back to them. Often times I’ll show up with a couple of extra gas cans, and I’ll make sure that the guide knows that when I say move, it’s time to move. If I want to go farther away or drive to a different spot, then we go. Don’t let them just drive ten minutes away from the ramp, park, and watch you get sunburned for five hours and not catch anything.

Make sure you have at least one working cell phone in the boat, that’s charged up and able to make calls if necessary. Get a few phone numbers from the other guides on the shore to call in case the motor breaks down or you have a problem. It’s always a good idea to have communications and a backup plan.

The most common bait used is live minnows. You can buy minnows right there at the boat ramp, and there are people who make their living by catching and selling minnows to fishermen. The most common price is $5 for 100 minnows. You want to get the largest minnows you can find, because basically larger fish go after larger minnows. Make sure to get at least 50 minnows per person fishing, and that’s a low number. There’s nothing worse than running out of bait on a good day. Much better to buy too many…

A few words about how the fish act, eat, live, and move. When the eggs hatch a huge school of little brothers and sisters is born. They will stick together as long as possible, and eventually grow until they are about six to eight inches long. By now they are a roaving school that moves around the lake in search of food. That’s why the guides will try to park and wait, because they know that no matter where they park, eventally a school of fish will find the boat. But, they will be small and almost not worth catching.

Pulling up 80 or 100 small fish in a day can be fun, but after awhile you get tired of that and are more interested in going after the lunkers. Sargentos reach mating age at about two years of age, and they will pair off and make a nest. Both the male and female will stay at the nest and guard the eggs until they hatch and after. They will strike at any meal of opportunity that passes through their area, but generally will not travel very far away from the nest until after the eggs are hatched.

They will normally lay their eggs in about 30 feet of water, in an area with good cover and sources of food. They will clear out a spot on the bottom for the nest. A nesting pair are the largest fish in the lake, and they are generally a combination of hungry, defensive, and territorial. A good method for finding these lunkers is to motor into an area with stumps, trees, and cover, and then cast around the boat in all directions, letting the bait sink to the bottom, then slowly drag back toward the boat, just off the bottom. If you get lucky and catch one or two big ones, then move on to a different spot because you’ve just cleared out the neighborhood. Big fish don’t nest in close proximity to another nesting pair.

Gatun Lake was made by flooding thousands of hectares of what was jungle, and there are a lot of stumps, submerged trees, and things to get hung up on under water. I recommend some kind of braided line over monofiliment. Personally I use a 10/50 Spiderwire Premium Braid. That means it has a 10lb test diameter, with a 50lb breaking strength. There have been many times that I’ve had to literally yank the line (wrapped around a leatherman) and pulled the hook straight without breaking the line. You can argue that monofiliment is more sporting for the fish, but after having 10-lb test routinely break with a large fish on, I got tired of losing the big ones.

Some people swear by their favorite lure, spinner, bobber, or what have you. Basically, anything that works on bass will work on Sargentos. The fish are visual hunters, and need the light of day to see what they want to eat. That’s why first light at dawn is the best time to be fishing, when the fish are coming off a 12-hour fast and are hungry. Also, a day after a new moon (no moonlight at all) or a night that’s completely cloudy is best because the fish can’t feed at all at night. I’ve been almost shut out fishing on days when the prior night was a clear sky and a full moon, and the fish have been able to eat all night (urp…)

You don’t need a lot of fancy gear or tackle to catch these fish. Just a simple Zebco push-button works fine, but there’s no limit to the amount of money you can spend on rods, reels, gear, lures, and other “stuff.” No matter what you spend, the guy who’s going to catch the most and biggest fish is usually the guide in the back of the boat who’s using just a handline on a spool with a sinker and a hook. More expensive gear almost never translates into more or bigger fish down here. Being able to read the water does.

The fish will hit hard and often from dawn until about 9am or so, then they will head off to deeper water, shade, and cover. Remember that there are several things in the lake that eat the Sargentos for lunch, and they are exposed when they hunting, so once they’re full they’d rather hide. Starting at about 9am or so you’ll have to start moving around to find them. Cast around under floating vegitation, and especially around trees and submerged logs.

If you get a big fish on, let him run a little and take some line. Make sure you have your reel set with a light drag or it will snap. They will run in bursts, usually down and toward deeper water and cover. You will have to do the classic reel in line when the fish is resting, and let him run when he’s got the energy. It’s a tug of war that you’ll win if you have the patience to not just try to yank him up. After a couple of minutes the fish will be exhausted and you can get him up near the boat. Have a net ready and expect another couple of bursts and runs once he gets to the surface and sees the boat. Netting the fish is a two person job, one on the pole and one on the net. Put the net in the water and pull the fish into it. Don’t try to just haul a large fish out of the water and into the boat without a net because your line will break and you will lose him.

Five pound fish are actually pretty common. My personal best is an eight-pouinder. I’ve seen larger fish but not many. I’ve seen pictures of very large fish, possibly as large as 12 lbs. And just so you know, the International Game Fish Association (IFGA) does not currently recognize any records for the chichla monoculus. No one has ever taken the time to properly record and document any record catches of these fish. So, it’s all just fish stories until someone does…

There are other things in the lake as well. One of my favorites is Oscars (Astronotus ocellatus) which are also of the cichlidae family of fishes. These are the same oscars that you can buy for your acquarium, and they can get up to 18″ long and 4 lbs or so. They are fast, strong, and agressive, and will fight like a crazy. As soon as you hook into an Oscar you know it’s not a bass because the fight is a lot sharper and the pulls and yanks are stronger. Oscars are a great eating fish, and are actually better to eat than the Sargentos.

There are also cayman and crocodiles in the lake, so no skinny-dipping. These critters are getting large, and I’ve seen one larger than my 14′ boat (no kidding.) There are also dogfish, which are a bony fish and no good to eat. Be very careful with these guys as well, because they have a mouthfull of razor sharp teeth and can be tricky to unhook without getting hurt. There are tilapia in the lake as well, but you need to change bait to catch these vegitarians.

Fishing in Gatun Lake is some of the best in the world. The lake is lightly fished and it’s a balanced environment and ecosystem with literally millions of fish in the lake and almost no one fishing for them. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any boat ever getting completely skunked (not catching any fish at all) and it’s much more common for people to return early because their coolers are full, their arms are tired, and they’ve run out of bait.

The natural beauty of the lake cannot be overlooked as well, with virgin jungle growing right down to the water’s edge, the cries of howler monkeys in the distance, and huge ocean-going vessels slowly making their way through the canal. If you’re going to spend a short time in Panama, try to make at least one of those days fishing on Gatun Lake. You won’t be sorry.

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