Everything You Need to Know About Fishing in Panama

Though it’s a small country in size, Panama’s coastline is 1,550 miles long bordering both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, and there are over 1,000 offshore islands which help create a gamefish heaven for anglers. The warm and predictable climate stimulates good fishing opportunity year-round both in saltwater and freshwater. 

Many experienced guides, charter captains, and lodges await anglers for their trip of a lifetime. Fish are so integral to life in Panama that, according to Panama’s Ministry of Education, the country’s name derives from the meaning “abundance of fish, trees, and butterflies”.

In addition to its prime geography for sportfishing, Panama supports its robust tourism industry with quality infrastructure that makes it easy for travelers to visit and enjoy their stay. 

Panama City is a world-class capital city that boasts a mix of metropolitan skyscrapers, casinos, and nightclubs as well as colonial architecture in Casco Viejo, the historic district and most popular destination in the city. Panama City’s airport, Tocumen International Airport, is the busiest in Central America and 9th busiest in Latin America as of the middle of 2019; the airport opened a brand-new second terminal in April 2019. 

Many Panamaians speak English in addition to Spanish, and navigating the currency is simple as U.S. dollars are used. Though the official currency is the balboa, there are no actual balboa bills in circulation; the country uses U.S. bills and the balboa is a dollar-based currency measure with a 1 to 1 conversion.

Now, onto the best part … the fishing!

Popular Fish To Target

Saltwater Fish: Blue marlin, black marlin, striped marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, roosterfish (pictured catch above with Panama Nautical Club), mahi mahi, jacks, snapper, grouper, wahoo, Spanish mackerel, bonito, white tip shark, cubera snapper, red snapper, bluefin trevally, snook, amberjack, pompano, sea bass.

Freshwater Fish: Tarpon, peacock bass (Spanish name: Sargento), snook.

Locations to Fish

It’s easy to get to (and fish in) both the Caribbean Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as they’re only a few hours apart by car. In between Panama’s two coasts, rivers and lakes hold large, fighting freshwater fish like tarpon.

Gulf of Chiriquí: On the Pacific Coast, the Gulf of Chiriquí is one of the world’s best locations for big game fishing. Well-known locations within the gulf are Hannibal Bank, Isla Montuosa and Isla Landrones. Part of what supports this incredible fishery is an abundance of bait fish that feed on nutrients and oxygen being pushed to the surface by a unique terrain full of peaks, valleys, and underwater islands. As Panama Nautical Club will tell you, the Gulf isn’t always flat, but it is rare to have a day blown out. 

Also, the largest Central American island, Coiba, is in the Gulf of Chiriquí. Coiba was formerly home to a Panamanian prison, but after the prison was shut down in 2004, it was designated  as a nature reserve in 2005. Since it previously served as a penal colony, most of the island was untouched and nature flourished due to the absence of development. The island is now officially known as Coiba National Park and its Special Zone of Marine Protection. If you go to the Gulf of Chiriquí, you may find this UNESCO World Heritage Site worth a visit in addition to fishing and sightseeing in the water around it.

Piñas Bay: Many locations stake a claim to being the “Marlin fishing capital of the world”. While fishers around the world will probably never be able to settle the debate, Piñas Bay is certainly in the conversation. Over 300 IGFA world records have been broken in the bay, more than any other location in the world.

Panama City: The capital city is situated at the mouth of the Panama Canal on the Pacific Ocean side. Saltwater fish are bountiful in Panama Bay, and freshwater fishers can fish in the canal, in Gatun Lake a short drive away, or in other rivers nearby. Peacock bass are popular to fish for in Gatun Lake, where snook and tarpon are also occasionally targeted. Caña Brava Expeditions offers full-service packages of 4 or 5 days based out of Panama City with daily fishing adventures to various river locations for tarpon, the Silver King.

Coronado: Two hours from Panama City, Coronado is a coastal city that was Panama’s first beach town developed as a resort destination. It’s grown with a large expat community and as a destination for locals and international travelers alike. One of the area’s big advantages for sun-seekers is that it’s on the ‘Arco Seco’ (translation: dry arch) section of Panama’s Pacific coastline. Here, rainfall levels are significantly lower than in other coastal areas.

San Blas Archipelago: Here, fly fishers will be excited to know the flats are home to bonefish and permit along with snappers, tarpon, snook, grouper, king fish and more. If you’re looking for sight fishing in Panama, set your eyes on the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean / Northern side of Panama.

Seasons & Climate

Across the country, fishing is great all year, though what you’re targeting may vary. 

Panama GEM Charters (on the Pacific) puts it simply: “Panama only has two seasons, dry and wet. Fishing is usually good all year. From December to May, bottom species are more common (grouper, snapper and more), and from June to November more pelagic species (mahi, tuna, jacks).” 

The dry season is typically mid-December to mid-April and is the busiest time for tourism.

Licenses & Requirements

  • Fishing licenses are not required for recreational fishing. 
  • Keep your passport handy or check with your charter if going on an offshore trip. Your passport (or a valid ID for local Panamanians) may be required at departure if you’re departing from a registered site.
  • Regulations in general are light, largely in thanks to the abundance of fish.
    • Though shrimp and lobster seasons are enforced, seasons for fish species aren’t regulated. 
    • Catch and release is mandatory for billfish (including black marlin, blue marlin, striped marlin, white marlin, spearfish, sailfish, and swordfish).
  • Panama’s ban of longline fishing and Yellowfin Tuna purse seiners helps protect many of the popular sportfishing species from overfishing and maintains the health of the fishery. A great example of positive results from conservation efforts!
  • If fishing the waters around Isla Coiba, a $50 fee per boat is charged per week of fishing since the area is a national park and nature reserve.
  • Turtles are a protected species, so engaging or endangering them is strictly prohibited. Penalties apply to consuming, purchasing and exporting turtle products in addition to capturing or fishing for them, so be sure to refuse any product or dish made with turtle shell or meat and help protect the species.

Getting There & Traveling within Panama

Getting to Panama is an easy flight from most of the United States and from many other countries. The country is served by Air Canada, Air France, American, Copa, Delta, KLM, Lufthansa, United and other airlines. As mentioned earlier, Tocumen International Airport is the busiest in Central America. Three other international airports after Tocumen are: Albrook “Marcos A. Gelabert” International Airport (also in Panama City), Enrique Malek International Airport (in the city of David in the Chiriquí province), and Bocas del Toro “Isla Colón” International Airport (an island airport on the North side and to the West near Costa Rica).

The country also officially has over 100 airports (more private airstrips per square mile than any other country) for domestic flights, but cars, buses, and taxis are reliable and safe methods of transportation to get around the country. In many cases, ground transportation is an easier and more affordable way to travel within Panama.

No visa is required for most citizens of other countries. However, it is very important to ensure that you have the following to meet Panama’s entry requirements when arriving:

  • Proof of onward travel
  • A passport valid for at least 6 months following the date of travel
  • A bank statement with proof of USD $500

Now that you know Panama is literally named in part for “an abundance of fish”, and you know how to get there, it’s time to book your trip and catch fish!

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