Fishing the Gulf of Chiriqui, Panama

Michael QuanFI / FIRE, Misc, Travel20 Comments

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The Freedom to Travel

Well, it’s time to throw on my travel blogger hat!

One of the best benefits to FIRE (financial independence/retiring early) is the ability to travel when you want to.

As a stay-at-home Dad, I don’t have 100% freedom to travel anytime, but I do have A LOT of flexibility and a wonderful wife and in-laws.  They were super awesome and held down the fort while I was off searching for yellowfin tuna!  🙂

My travel still cost a lot (~$4k) which doesn’t mix the best with my minimal project revenues.  Luckily, our assets have been growing the past few years despite the absence of meaningful revenue from my end.  I’ve also saved a chunk of change in the past, so I didn’t feel too bad spending for this trip of a lifetime.

Why Panama?

So, I wasn’t actually planning on traveling to Panama until several months ago.  I was at a family Christmas party and a couple of my cousins were talking about their upcoming fishing trips.  They mentioned wanting to go to a private fishing lodge in Panama and invited me along.

I was intrigued immediately because I’m an avid fisherman.  However, I typically spend the majority of my time doing freshwater fishing in lakes and streams.  This trip would be a deep-sea fishing trip in search of large yellowfin tuna, marlin, rooster fish, etc.

After careful consideration and discussions with my wife, I agreed to go.  We had intended on going sometime in May, but it was already booked up (several months out) and we needed to push it all the way to August (and also plan around our respective wedding anniversaries!).

We were all set for mid-August, excited, and also fully realizing we had booked during the rainy season and at the end of the tuna season. Come what may!

The Journey

Since we had several months to plan our trip, I was able to book my flight using points from my Chase Sapphire card.  I was able to get my entire roundtrip airfare from LAX to Panama City for ~$450 of points.

I ended up on the same flight as my cousin, Shawn, so I was able to carpool with him to LAX.  We got there a little early expecting to hang out in the Priority Pass lounge, however, we missed getting in by 15 minutes!  Bummer.

We took a red-eye to Panama City and got in around 6:00 am.  We were greeted at the gate by some airport staff who whisked us through customs and let us rest in a lounge.  A few hours later we met up with our other cousins and uncle and took a quick domestic flight over to David.

Upon landing in David, we were greeted by Capt. Shane (the fishing lodge owner) and shuttled off to the dock where the Top Cat (boat) was waiting for us.  Our bags were all taken care of and all we had to do was grab a seat.  (I could get used to VIP service, though it did feel a bit strange having someone else handle my bags…haha)

Fishing the Gulf of Chiriqui, PanamaIt took us about an hour to get out to the island (Isla Parida). The trip was mostly smooth with a little choppiness for a few minutes while passing some tidal junctions. Capt. Shane was clearly skilled at maneuvering Top Cat and always did his best to communicate when to “hold on” before accelerating or hitting some major bumps.

When we arrived at the island, we were greeted by a Tonga boat which rowed us to the beach.  Once we got to shore, you simply jump out and you’re on the beach.

Since it took a full day of travel to get to the island, we simply rested that afternoon when we arrived.

The Lodge

The lodge is a short 8-minute stroll from the beach. It sits on top of an acre of beautiful ocean front. The sunrises are absolutely stunning and mesmerizing.  The house we stayed in was quaint and comfortable.  This was literally constructed by hand and all the materials were taken from the mainland and brought over manually.  I was impressed!  Our house had a comfortable main room with a couch and two chairs.  The adjoining bedrooms each had two sets of bunks each.  The bathroom was unique too with the shower outside!

Outside the main house is a beautiful deck which adjoins two additional buildings (the kitchen & dining room, & additional bathroom).  It’s amazing how many modern conveniences they had given how remote the location was.  We were literally only 5 out of 12 people 7 were staff) on that island. Power was from a combination of solar panels and dual generators.  We even had A/C in our house which I LOVED.

Drinks and food were more than abundant throughout our entire stay and we ate like kings! The lodge had everything you could think of – suntan lotion, bug spray, bath towels, shampoo, etc.

Dinners were served in the dining room next to the kitchen and we were spoiled. Chef Eric and his assistant Jaylene were definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Their impeccable service and delicious food were more than I could have asked for (notice my food pictures are as plentiful as the fishing ones!). Apparently, Chef Eric used to be Manuel Noriega’s personal chef.  His jolly laugh was super infectious and left us smiling every single day.

Just some of our delectable delights!

The Fishing

We had 4 full days of fishing here with Shane and his first mate, Juan. We woke up at 6:15 am most days and were on the beach ready to board the boat by 7 am.

Breakfasts were delicious and you could have anything you wanted… eggs cooked anyway, pancakes (blueberry, macadamia nut/banana, etc.), sausage, bacon, fresh fruit, juice, coffee, and home-made bread!

Fishing the Gulf of Chiriqui, PanamaThe fishing this trip was truly an adventure!

Capt. Shane immediately put us onto some fish.  The first being a huge (well at least to us) blue marlin!  Cousin Shawn reeled that in himself, but Juan had to wrangle this beast half-hanging over the boat!

Oh yeah, remember that rainy season I was speaking about?  Well, the forecasts literally showed rain on the horizon EVERY single day that we were there.

We all came prepared with waterproof jackets, etc., but we completely lucked out 4 days in a row and hit beautiful sunny and partially cloudy skies.  As for the rain, it only showed up at night, and once while on the water the last day (30 mins only).

Yellowfin Tuna

Our biggest challenge was finding the very yellowfin tuna we were eager to catch!  You see this is the prized fish to take home as most of the other fish are simply trophy fish which you take a picture with and throw back.  Unfortunately, we were on the tail end of the tuna season and they became super elusive the first 2 days on the water!

We literally scanned hundreds of miles of open ocean in search of the tuna.  We saw an incredible amount of life while out on the open water, including dolphins, humpback whales, sea turtles, birds, etc.  Capt. Shane had some pretty cool technology on the Top Cat, including a state of the art depth finder, GPS, and even radar to pick up flying birds in the sky!


What I learned was that we were looking for boils.  In this disturbance, you’ll find thousands of bait fish corralled by the dolphins and pushed hear the surface.  When this happens, the birds are super opportunistic and dive straight into the boil to snatch an easy meal.  It also attracts other larger fish looking for an easy meal.  This includes tuna, sharks, bonito, etc.  Once you find a frenzy with tuna jumping around, it’s super easy to catch them.  Just throw out a lure, or live bait into the boil… then hang on!!

Finally on the 3rd day, after 3 hours on the open ocean, we stumbled upon a boil in the middle of nowhere!  There wasn’t any land in sight and the depth showed up as 7000 feet deep… that’s humbling.

We pulled in tuna after tuna for a good 2 hours and our adrenaline was pumping.  After ~300 lbs of fish, so decided to throw a couple back (we figured we had enough to fill our ice chests).

Exhausted with euphoria, we called it a day by early afternoon.

Upon returning to the island, we created a mini assembly line to package and seal the fresh meat.  We must have processed over 100+ bags of tuna, each with 1.5lbs of prime tuna meat.

The island lodge keeper ended up taking several bags (unexpectedly), but there was plenty to go around.

Anyhow, Chef Eric created tiny miracles with the tuna.  He prepared carpaccio, sashimi, sushi, cut rolls, seared tuna, etc.  It was sooo good.

I should also note that we caught some grouper the first couple of days and those were incredibly delicious as well!

Rooster Fish and More

Back to the fishing… our final day of angling was gorgeous.  We did some inland fishing which meant sticking closer by Isla Parida (within 15 miles, vs. 60 miles).

We got to fish around some really cool looking islands and hooked up on rooster fish, needle fish (seen above), barracuda, horse eye jack, pompano, etc.

By the time the day was ending, everyone had already caught a rooster fish, except for me!  Man, I just wanted a cool picture with one.

But, when my turns came up, I kept landing other species.

Fishing the Gulf of Chiriqui, Panama

The final fish of the day was supposed to go to Shawn, but he graciously gave me back the rod out of turn in the off-chance it was another rooster.  As fate would have it, it was one of the largest roosters that day and the perfect note to end on (hence my super wide grin!).

These rooster fish are truly magnificent and fight hard.  They typically need to be revived a bit longer before sending them back into the ocean, but they all recovered eventually.

World Class Experience

Panama is absolutely gorgeous (at least the small portion I got to preview). The water is a wonderful deep-sea green in some areas and deep blue in others. Life was flourishing all around us. We got to see countless dolphins, birds, fish, and even humpback whales!

Capt. Shane and Juan worked well together moving the boat, communicating about the fish, tactics, etc. Juan was an amazing first mate.  He was constantly moving getting the poles setup, hooking us up, helping us to land our fish, releasing them back unharmed, or filleting our tuna with skill and poise.

A big thank you to Capt. Shane and his entire staff for taking awesome care of us and allowing us a trip of a life time!  If you ever want to find a fishing adventure, Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge could very well be exactly what you were looking for. 😉

Bringing Back Our Tuna to the U.S.

Okay, so if you ever plan to take back fish to the U.S. like we wanted to, make sure you know the airline baggage policy in addition to the U.S. customs law.

For us, bringing back fish wasn’t a customs issue, rather it was an airline policy issue we had to mitigate.  You see, during the “high season” of travel, there was a ban on bringing ANY perishables onto the plane (we flew Copa Airlines).  However, we took a calculated risk and purchased carry-on bags that were actually coolers.


(AO Coolers Carbon Soft Cooler with High-Density Insulation, Black, 36-Can)

I purchased this AO Cooler off Amazon and it held my frozen tuna for 24 hours of travel!

After lugging around 35 lbs through 3 different airports, going through 6 different security check points, I was FINALLY able to get it back home to San Diego… at 4:00 am no less.

And, it was definitely worth it.  🙂

Final Thoughts

I really couldn’t have asked for more from this fishing trip.  It was a perfect time to have a little fun, take a break from the kids, bond with family I don’t usually get to see often, and just have a little adventure!  God blessed us with beautiful weather despite a terrible forecast, offered up fish galore, and many memories I won’t soon forget.

To take this full circle, this type of trip is exactly why I was fighting for financial freedom so vigorously in my 20’s.  Although it was relatively expensive, I feel like my money was well spent and I have no buyer’s remorse.  I think what you begin to realize at my age is that time and experiences are ultimately more important than money.  It’s a strange dichotomy, but one that you’ll inevitably begin to experience later in life.

Next up, a family road trip to the Bay area to visit our really good friends and see cousin, Darren.  On our way out, we’ll be visiting the small town of Solvang, California (just hotwired our 4-star hotel room today for $100!).

At the end of October, I’ll be attending two back to back Tony Robbins seminars (Life & Wealthy Mastery) in Coronado, CA… sadly it’s scheduled right on top of FinCon, so I’ll have to miss out this year.  (btw, if you want to buy my ticket, I’m selling it for just $208 vs. the current cost of $469! – Want it?  msg me here).

In November, we’re going to Las Vegas for my wife to run a half-marathon with our good neighbor friends.

And finally, our trip to Ireland and the U.K. begins just after Christmas.  I can’t remember a year that I’ve traveled so much, but I’m certainly grateful for these amazing opportunities.  Next year we’ve got Thailand in our crosshairs!

Readers, what are your thoughts on travel?  Do you feel your money is well spent on vacations and experiences?  Or, do you prefer spending/saving it elsewhere?


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20 Comments on “Fishing the Gulf of Chiriqui, Panama”

  1. Looks like a *fantastic* fishing trip Michael! It might have been expensive, but also well worth the cost!

    Just think — you could have been sitting in an office working your tail off instead of fishing in Panama.

    I know which one sounds better to me!

  2. That trip looks amazing… and those fish are huge! We enjoy travel a bit, but Mr. Adventure Rich recently moved to northern Michigan and have been focusing on exploring or doing “close travel” (road trips within ~3 hours of home) as we settle into our new area (same area where I grew up). It has been fun to get to know our area and we are looking forward to visiting an island 2.5 hours away next week for a little vacation!

  3. Looks like an awesome trip! I’ve never been to panama but have wanted to. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great fishing trip! My early retired wife and I fish quite a bit for just about every kind of fish you can catch. While I loved the fishing I did in South America for big tarpon on light tackle I highly recommend Venice, LA as a great place to catch a boat load of yellow fin tuna. We caught tuna up to 120 lbs and each of us brought home so much tuna I’m not sure how we will ever eat it all plus a limit of big red snapper as well. This has been a banner year for freshwater fishing in Arkansas as well catching largemouth bass, white bass, rainbow trout, brown trout and crappie. If your travels ever pass through Arkansas, Michael, let me know and I’ll do my best to put you on some big fish of the species of your choice.

    1. That’s so awesome, Steve! It would have been cool to bring back a variety of fish like you did. Snapper is quite tasty as well. I’ll definitely ping you if I’m ever in your neck of the woods… sounds like fantastic fishing in Arkansas!

  5. Wow! That looks like it was an incredible trip, Michael. I really enjoyed reading about your experience and the photos are great. I hope you will do a post like this after your trip to Ireland. Ireland has always been on my top 3 list of places to visit.

    1. I will definitely make it a point to do so, Cody! I hear Ireland is beautiful. However, we’ll be there in the dead of winter, so I’m gonna have to keep my fingers crossed and say a couple extra prayers for some sun while we’re there. 🙂

  6. This trip sounds awesome, Michael and the pictures are fantastic! The part about Chef Eric be Manuel Noriega’s personal chef in the past is pretty cool!

    It’s funny how different our trips to Panama were but how great both of them were. I might need to put Isla Parida on our list to do if we end up moving there!

    — Jim

    1. I know, Jim. I think I’ll have to take a separate trip back and do more of your itinerary. I think you’d love the gulf of chiriqui. 🙂

  7. Those things are monsters!!!! Unless you guys are somehow all under 5’2 but I imagine not. It’s kinda scary, one of those can swallow up my arm O_O eeek! We don’t travel much yet but I’ve always pictured Ethiopian as destination.

    1. They are certainly big fish, Lily! But not too worry, they are harmless to humans.

      Ethiopia sounds like a pretty cool destination. What intrigues you about it?

  8. That sounds like a great fishing trip. I have fished off Mexico’s Pacific Coast but never in Panama. Another place for my bucket list. Thanks for the photo’s.

  9. What a great trip for you! Great pictures of the fish and the food! I’m glad you were able to bring the tuna home without issue…getting a bit of a workout during the process. 😉

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