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‘Bottom fish’ is a term used by most saltwater charter fishing guides to identify almost any fish they don’t usually catch while on blue water trolling offshore fishing trips. However this term can more properly be applied to saltwater gamefish caught on deep sea fishing charters that belong to three ecological groups:
SLOPE- Those saltwater fish species that live in deep waters on and off the continental shelf such as large mature Rockfish, Grouper, Cabrilla and Snappers, especially Cubera Snappers.
SHELF DEMERSAL- An assortment of saltwater gamefish varieties that inhabit near shore shallower rocky bottom areas, examples are the small to medium sized snapper and grouper varieties, some Carangidae family gamefish (Jacks and Pompanos), diverse Sciaenidae or Corvina fish species and a range of tropical juvenile Sebastes species or Rockfish types.
SHELF PELAGIC- Those saltwater gamefish that inhabit near shore shallower continental waters but spend much of the time higher in the water column such as Roosterfish, Amberjack, Sierra Mackerel and many types of Pacific Barracuda.
Panama Fishing and Catching sportfishing charters are accented as the seasonal Vertical Current produces the cold upwelling from deep offshore waters causing huge bottom fish to migrate from the continental slope drop-off into the Gulf of Panama and around the Perlas Islands in search of rich food sources associated with this phenomenon. When the surface water temperature in the Bay of Panama within the Gulf approaches 69 degrees these monsters are first encountered by saltwater sportfishing guides in numbers around the furthest offshore islands and seamounts of the Perlas Islands- Banco San Jose, Trollope Rock and Gallera Island as well as at the western side of the Gulf near The Tuna Coast at Punta Mala, the Frailes Islets and Isla Iguana. Panama Fishing and Catching sportfishing charters are further enhanced if the Vertical Current continues to push cold water into the Gulf of Panama. Within a matter of 10 to 15 days these great bottom fish will have completely occupied the Gulf of Panama and deep sea fishing trips take place much closer to Panama City, Panama. These big fish converge into ridiculously shallow waters and are easy prey for fly fishing or pargo popping. The largest of these bottom fish and the most sought after by fly fishing anglers and deep sea fishing charter boats are the giant Groupers and Cubera Snappers. Concentrating deep sea fishing trip efforts on these most difficult to catch of the bottom fish quarry will also render exceptional sportfishing charter catches of the smaller ‘collateral’ bottom fish such as Rockfish, Clown Hawk fish, large Amberjack, medium sized Snapper, Cabrilla and medium sized Grouper. Bottom fishing charters concentrating on jigging, baitfishing, fly fishing or trolling for huge Grouper and Cubera Snappers are one of the most rewarding and suspenseful branches of Panama fishing. Being on the ocean on a sport fishing charter hooking up to a titanic game fish from the depths, not knowing what it is until it surfaces is appealing and addictive to most anglers and sport fishing guides. These offshore fishing trips abound with apprehension, surprise and wonder that beget interest and fun which are notable means of attracting novice anglers especially children to the art of angling. Panama fishing and catching sport fishing charters afford a remarkable variety of large Grouper and Cubera Snappers that thrive in the Gulf of Panama with several exceptional sport caught fish being landed offshore fishing every year. Finding giant Grouper and Cubera Snappers on deep sea bottom fishing charters is not as easy or simple as it at first seems, a good saltwater charter fishing guide familiar with the area is essential. The Gulf of Panama is big place for a saltwater charter fishing guide to begin an offshore bottom fishing trip looking for even dinosaurian sized fish. Saltwater charter fishing trips require more information concerning the habits and whereabouts of titanic Grouper and Cubera Snappers to ensure the successful capture of these leviathans of deep sea fishing. A first rate deep sea charter fishing guide knows that these large long lived bottom fish attain their exceptional ages and sizes by being very cautious and secretive. Saltwater sportfishing charters trying to locate the haunts of giant grouper and monster Cubera Snappers and inducing them to take a hook require in-depth knowledge and careful presentation, secrets that an experienced deep sea sport fishing guide has learned through years on the water. Lurching about the sea from place to place dragging inappropriate hastily assembled gear along the bottom will not usually yield fruitful results and is a waste of time on an offshore fishing trip. Years of examination and research by an experienced deep sea sport fishing guide concerning the intended quarry (big Grouper, Cubera Snappers) reduces the time spent on trial and error methods and fishless days on offshore fishing trips. Panama fishing reveals that big Grouper and Cubera Snappers although from different genealogical families share many of the same habits and habitats. This is especially true when the equation is further defined by deep sea charter fishing for only the largest species of big Grouper and Cubera Snapper.
230 or so species of ‘Snapper’ belonging to the Genus ‘Lutjanus’ composing the ‘Lutjanidae’ Family of fish are found in tropical seas worldwide. They are a predatory fish with sharp conical teeth, including two to four larger canine teeth. These teeth and the more vertically compressed body help apprentice sport fishing guides and anglers to distinguish Snappers from Groupers, many species of which are similar in overall appearance. The name ‘Snapper’ was originally given by fishing guides in the Caribbean Sea because of their known voracity and quick biting at food. Offshore fishing king of Snappers, the largest by far and most sought after on bottom fishing charters is the ‘Cubera Snapper’ which grows to sizes exceeding 150 lbs, lengths of 5 feet and lives in excess of 60 years. Not confined to Panama fishing waters several similar species of Cubera Snapper all having deep reddish bodies, 4 enlarged visible very strong canine teeth, stubby gill rakers and almost identical body and fin shapes, habitat and behavior have a worldwide distribution in tropical oceans and are a favorite quarry of sport fishing charters and saltwater sportfishing guides everywhere.
‘Grouper’ is a common name for heavy-bodied, large jawed, bass like sedentary fishes of the ‘Serranidae’ Family of fishes that are highly prized on offshore bottom fishing charters. There are over 300 species of Grouper of which the largest species are members of the ‘Epinephelus’ and ‘Mycteroperca’ Genus. Grouper range in sizes from species less than 4 inches long to the Australian Grouper (Epinephelus Lanceolatus) and the Jewfish (Epinephelus Itajara), which can reach 12 feet, and over 1000 lbs. Most Groupers caught on deep sea fishing charters have the same general body shape and are able to change their coloration and color patterns, they are typically distinguished visually by experienced sport fishing guides through close inspection of fin shapes and the number of spines, soft rays, gill rakers and scales along the lateral line. Almost all large species of Grouper are generally ‘protogynous hermaphrodites’ starting life as females and after 6 to 20 years they change to males. This in itself is unusual but not unique in fish species and mother in-laws. However some Grouper species are able to change sex any time after sexual maturity and can change back again if the opposite sex is in short supply or absent. Furthermore it is suspected that in some instances they are able to produce eggs and sperm simultaneously - reproducing through self-fertilization!
Both Grouper and Snapper are ‘batch spawners’ meaning that the egg sac within them contains eggs in various stages of development and are released a batch at a time, as they become ripe. Spawning takes place in offshore deep water away from reefs or other structure, the amount of eggs released is relative to the size of the female, big fish release several million floating eggs at a time, which are externally fertilized by one or more males. The small transparent pelagic eggs drift in the open sea for 25 to 35 hours after fertilization while the larva develops then hatches. The larva feed on plankton and alga for a few weeks developing into carnivorous juveniles that feed on zooplankton, crustaceans and fish. Grouper and Snapper probably spawn all year long in warm tropical waters with peak breeding seasons lasting several weeks depending on plentiful forage species.
Spawning aggregations consist of as few as 2 to 4 fish to as many as thousands of fish at a time. Deep sea saltwater sport fishing guides with years of experience in local waters have come to know when and where these mating rituals occur. The juvenile fish migrate to shallow coastal waters and estuaries, many times into rivers. They display a wide salinity tolerance throughout their lives feeding on larger prey as they grow and mature.
Growth rates for the various species is rapid in the first 6 years slowing as larger size associated with long life expectancy is reached. Sexual maturity is attained at 3 to 6 years and by this time the mature fish are three-dimensional structure oriented. At this stage they are great saltwater charter fishing quarry. Good saltwater sportfishing guides with experience on offshore fishing trips know that temperatures of 65 – 84 F are preferred and temperatures above 93 F or below 40 F can be fatal. Groupers and Snappers generally move to deeper waters, as they grow older seeming able to tolerate colder water, as they grow larger. They have been found on deep sea fishing charters in depths exceeding 1000 feet. However most offshore fishing trips target both Grouper and Snapper found in a variety of habitats from near shore estuary zones, far up tropical rivers, along sand or mud bottoms to the outer edges of reefs, wrecks and offshore rocky bottoms.
They are opportunistic carnivores preferring live prey and often feeding above the substrate. Most charter fishing guides realize large Grouper and Cubera Snappers are classic ambush predators unable to sustain a chase, typically exploding from cover to engulf prey, which is why it is important to use reasonably stout charter fishing tackle or fly fishing gear on bottom fishing charters. Throughout their lives they migrate to differing habitats, depths and water salinity foraging for food, they are the apex predators of three- dimensional underwater structure. Once a suitable area is found they will establish themselves and stay as long as conditions are favorable, many times for years, becoming territorial towards other predatory fish.
Charter fishing guides note that in the larger sizes Big Grouper and Cubera Snapper become secretive occupying caves, ledges and crevices around any structure but will swim aggressively in open water when feeding or searching for food and are many times caught trolling plugs or pargo popping and fly fishing on sport fishing charters. Big Grouper and Cubera Snapper are cannibalistic and will eat almost anything alive or dead they can get their mouth around when hungry so cut bait is also a favorite of experienced sport fishing guides. They are able to generate sound by vibrating their thin walled swim bladder with sudden contractions of axial muscles, producing mooing-like sounds, deep booms and sustained rumbles or vibrant grunts. The grinding of teeth when fighting for food produces long strange audible noises.
These sounds may have many functions including warning, intimidation, orientation and recognition. Big Grouper and Cubera Snapper are attracted by irregularly pulsed sounds, coming out of their hiding places to examine experimental noisemakers placed near reefs and other structures by eager saltwater sportfishing guides. Their cautiousness is many times overcome by their great curiosity and territorial moods, habits that are exploited by knowledgeable sportfishing guides and fly fishing enthusiasts. Big grouper or Cubera Snapper become agitated and angry when other fish are feeding in their area. Both will typically chase other feeding fish away swallowing or carrying off to their lair whatever the smaller fish were feeding on. They can be aggressive even towards divers, full-sized Cubera Snapper have been known to severely bite human intruders and monster Grouper have on occasions attempted to swallow whole scuba divers swimming in their territory. Sport fishing charters angling for king sized Grouper and Cubera Snapper require the use of strong heavy tackle. ‘Stand up’ rods or ‘tuna sticks’ with 50-130 pound test lines on heavy-duty conventional reels are the best weapons to muscle these enormous fish away from their natural cover and should be available on a saltwater fishing trip. When fly fishing 60 to 80 pound leader, 16 to 20 pound tippet and a good strong fly rod are advisable. Drag settings of up to ninety percent of the line strength are necessary for the ‘toe to toe’ struggle the angler and his monstrous quarry will engage in. Size 7/0 to 12/0 forged big game hooks attached to six feet of 80-250lb monofilament or cable leader rigged to the appropriate weight to reach the bottom are favored by charter fishing guides to ensure a solid hook up. These are seriously powerful big fish, apex predators of the ocean and are unaccustomed to any aggravated larceny directed at them. Accordingly when hooked they become enraged, turn color and stampede to the safety of their lair displaying amazing speed and energy uncharacteristic of such gigantic heavy bottom fish. If this initial burst for cover is not abbreviated then the taut stretched line will break on contact with any structure encountered, resulting in a lost big fish and an irate saltwater charter fishing guide.
The best locations bottom fishing charter guides prefer to find mammoth Grouper or Snapper are close to steep reef drop-offs; deep rocky island points or jagged offshore fishing bottom structure all with strong currents. Inducing heavyweight Cubera Snapper and large Grouper into a hook-up is sometimes tricky and frustrating on sport fishing charters or when fly fishing. The bait or lure must be placed close to the big Grouper or Snapper, the closer the proximity the more probable a hook up will occur but also the more difficult to drag the dirty great bottom fish away from cover. Experienced sport fishing guides use medium sized pelagic baitfish such as blue-runner, mackerel or bonito lowered to the bottom near the den of Goliath sized Groupers or Cubera Snappers. This technique has historically been proven deadly on offshore fishing trips and bottom fishing charters. The live pelagic fish does not search for cover when placed on the bottom in unfamiliar hostile territory, rather it franticly attempts to swim to the surface emitting distress signals. The ensuing vibrations and struggling from the hooked bait attract small resident fish that instinctively peck and attack it. All this activity and turmoil has an uncanny way of luring colossus Cubera Snapper or large Grouper to the site of the ongoing free for all. As the giant Grouper or Cubera Snapper moves in the other smaller fish scatter leaving the hapless hooked pelagic bait twisting in the tide and writhing seductively. If live bait is not available on a deep sea fishing trip or saltwater fishing charter a large fresh pelagic fish head impaled on a sharp hook will produce similar results as the smaller foraging fish are unable to easily dismember the bait or carry it off. The incessant pecking activity and the erratic radical swimming behavior produced by smaller reef fish while feeding in this manner greatly agitates and finally coaxes the titanic Grouper or Cubera Snapper away from their covertures to investigate the commotion in their domain.
Other successful methods used by experienced saltwater sportfishing guides on charter fishing trips include trolling a 10-12 inch strip of pelagic fish belly on a large bare hook very slowly along the bottom using a planer or downrigger near deep rocky points or reef drop offs and steep ledges where strong currents and rough working water predominates. Another favorite of saltwater sportfishing guides while Panama fishing are big lipped wobbling swimming plugs fished in the same manner that many times reap favorable results when nothing else will. Big iron jigs and weighted feathers skillfully employed by knowledgeable saltwater anglers sometimes work like magic. The California pargo popping craze of casting and dragging huge ugly gurgling lures swiftly across the waters surface has proved to be lethal, eliciting incredible chases and jolting strikes on popular saltwater charter fishing trips. Fly fishing with sailfish poppers using a two handed strip to swiftly move the popping fly along the surface will yield similar results on a saltwater fishing trip. Upon hook–up to one of these lollopers of the deep dark ocean the first impression an angler has is of being hung up on the bottom – Don’t despair set the hook several times hard! The next sensation experienced is that of being attached to a speeding freight train – Pump the rod and stop that demonized big fish! The key to landing the Behemoth Grouper or Cubera Snapper on a deep sea fishing trip is to ably apply maximum pressure as quickly and relentlessly as possible. It is the angler’s strength and will verses that of his now seemingly possessed and unwieldy Leviathan quarry. Quick reflexes, strength and determination will decide the outcome. A skillful veteran angler and most saltwater charter fishing guides will usually subdue 100-pound denizens of the deep in 30 minutes or so; bigger Grouper or Cubera Snapper can take considerably longer. As with all large slow growing long-lived commercially valuable fish heavyweight Grouper and Snapper have been over fished by commercial interests and are scarcer every day. A good example given by many saltwater charter fishing guides is the Giant Sea Bass (Stereolepis Gigas) reasonably abundant on deep sea fishing trips just 10 years ago and a favorite target of unscrupulous commercial factions is now considered almost extinct by most sport fishing guides. Fly fishing and charter fishing trips catching these monstrous Grouper and Cubera Snappers in the Gulf of Panama generally do so in abnormally shallow water compared with other areas where they are caught on a saltwater fishing trip. When brought along side the boat they can easily be photographed, revived and released by the sport fishing guide to spawn and perhaps fight another day. Good advice for anyone interested in sharing the wonderful experience of a deep sea saltwater fishing trip with future generations of children and grandchildren.
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The morning of the 26th of September 1513 from a Darien mountaintop Vasco Nu�ez De Balboa and his company of explorers first laid eyes on the 'Mar Del Sur' (Gulf of Panama-Pacific Ocean). They raised a cross, fell to their knees and the priest Andres de Vara, intoned the Te Deum. Descending to the beach Balboa waded into the waters of the great sea waving the banner of Spain and proclaimed the vast ocean, and the coasts adjoining it, the property of his King. He named this gulf 'San Miguel' in honor of his having arrived there on the day the Catholic Church celebrates this saint, to this day this smaller gulf within the Gulf of Panama is called 'Golfo de San Miguel'. Balboa and one party embarked to explore the nearby islands and sent Alonzo Martin with another group to explore the coasts. Martin, leaving first, is credited with being the first European to navigate the waters of the Pacific. An Indian chief named Tumaco who had vast quantities of pearls many of large size occupied the first island Balboa reached.
Pearls were in such abundance that the natives decorated their clothes, their dugout canoes and even their oars were encrusted with them. Balboa landed on one of many islands (over 100) of a group he named the Archipelago de Las Perlas. To the largest island in the group he gave the name of Isla Rica, or Rich Island, because on this island he found the greatest quantities of pearls. Balboa returned to Darien after amassing all the gold and pearls he could lay his hands on. The only incident mentioned on his return journey across the Isthmus was the execution of a native chief named Ponera, together with three of his associates who were found dressed as women and committing sodomy. These men, Balboa allowed to be devoured alive by the savage dogs, with which he always traveled. Later Balboa sent Pizarro and Morales to the islands for more booty. These lieutenants waged several battles to conquer the Perlas Islands and returned with baskets of pearls and gold. One pearl weighed 25 carats and sold for 4,000 ducats, approximately $100,000 in present day dollars.
In 1514 Pedro Arias Davila (Pedrarias) arrived as governor of Darien. It is suspected that Pedrarias was Balboa's father-in-law but history is not clear on this point. About this time La Antigua was renamed Castillo del Oro, and Friar Juan de Quevedo was its first bishop, while Gaspar de Espinosa was chosen as the first Alcalde (mayor). Shortly after the arrival of Pedrarias, Balboa made another quest for the mythical temple of gold, which resulted in failure. Several months of Indian fighting prevailed after this endeavor.
After the Indian hostilities Pedrarias consented to an expedition planned by Balboa, to explore the South Sea. Ships were built and a road was constructed across the Isthmus to transport the ships to navigate the Pacific. During the several months of intense labor upwards of two thousand natives weakened and died due to the workload. Reaching the Pacific Balboa navigated across the Gulf of San Miguel then past the Archipelago de Las Perlas and to a point about two leagues farther on. The inexperienced crews of his ships became alarmed at a vast pod of humpback whales, which they mistook for reefs in the ocean, and induced Balboa to stop and return to land. Upon his return Balboa was arrested and imprisoned, under the charge of treason to the Crown by orders received from Pedrarias, the Governor. Balboa, in his forty-second year of life, was beheaded in the year 1517.
Balboa maintained his innocence to the end, defying his accuser and murderer, Pedrarias, who occupied a window only ten feet from where the execution took place. Rumors of a great Indian empire far to the south had filtered through to the Spanish camp. Both Balboa and Perdrias jealously wanted to accomplish what Francisco Pizarro, later carried out. Pedrarias was well aware of Balboa's ambitious plans, and this knowledge only served to put an edge on the bitter fruit of hate that sprouted from the seeds of jealousy. There are only two Archipelagos on the Pacific coast of the American Continent, Archipelago de las Perlas in the Gulf of Panama discovered by Balboa and The Galapagos which was discovered by Pizzaro.
After Balboa, the islands were a clearinghouse for Spanish treasure before being transported across the Isthmus via the 'Camino Real' to the annual Black Ship which would take it to the King of Spain. Isla Contadora (counting or accounting island) still bears the name given it during this period. In later times the Perlas Islands were a focal point for Pirates and still later for intense commercial pearl harvesting. The greatest of pearls, La Peregrina the most highly regarded jewel of the 16th century was found in the Perlas Islands in 1560 by a black slave who was said to have been given his freedom in return for this extraordinary pearl. It was taken to Spain by Don Diego de Temes, who presented it to King Philip II who then presented it to Mary Tudor. Upon her death, the pearl reverted to Spain and went through a succession of royal hands, hence the name La Peregrina or The Wanderer. Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I, took La Peregrina to France and to Prince Louis Napoleon who in 1837 fell upon financial hardship and sold it to the Marquis of Abercorn. The splendid Pearl finally wound up in the hands of the Duke of Abercrombie in England from whom Richard Burton purchased it for Elizabeth Taylor in 1969. La Peregrina, The Wanderer, is one of the largest most perfect natural pearls ever found, it is a magnificent white, pear shaped pearl as big as a pigeon’s egg.
The pearl oyster, Pinctada Margaritifera Mazatlanica, was once found in abundance throughout the Archipelago de las Perlas in Panama. It supported a substantial commercial fishery by hardhat divers for many years. The products were pearls, mother of pearl, shells used for making buttons, and meats used locally for food. By the mid 1920’s, the fishery was in decline due to over fishing. The red tide of 1938 all but finished whatever oysters remained and by the 1940’s there was no related industry. The oysters began to repopulate the Las Perlas Archipelago during the 1970’s, but remain relatively scarce. Comercial harvesting has since resumed on a small scale by skin divers using facemasks. Today the Las Perlas Archipelago is a famous sportfishing and tourist destination boasting several first class resorts, hundreds of uninhabited islands to explore, untouched rainforests, innumerable beaches, incalculable sea life species and crystal clear turquoise waters. One can only hope that history will not repeat itself and allow commercial interest to devastate these newly recognized treasures of the Perlas Islands.
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