Big game fishing–it goes hand in glove with big game hunting. It shares with hunting the challenges of locating, outwitting and taking an animal from the wild, and offers the intrepid outdoor adventurer maritime exhilaration and thrill every bit as rewarding as the most demanding terrestrial achievement. It’s a natural extension of the very lifestyle that defines a Safari Club International member to the extent that big game fishing occupies a noticeable portion of Convention. One of our long-time big game fishing exhibitors, Raleigh Werking and Tropic Star Lodge, has even earned SCI’s C.J. McElroy award—an award presented in part for dedication to wildlife conservation, exemplary ethics, and commitment to SCI’s programs and missions.
Successfully associating a fishing operation so perfectly with a distinguished and opulent hunting organization requires much more than cavalier effort and a record book fish mounted over the bar. Instead, Tropic Star’s success has been earned from now 50 years of providing ultimate big game fishing adventures, and those adventures resulting in more than 300 International Game Fish Association (IGFA) World Records.
As this year marks Tropic Star Lodge’s 50th anniversary, I took the opportunity at Convention and later in follow-up calls to speak with Werking to find out what, in the past 50 years, has earned the lodge its reputation as a “must-go” destination for SCI Members. If I had to narrow our discussions down to the one overarching theme that defines the Tropic Star Lodge experience, it’s that Werking’s goal, in addition to putting guests on big fish—and lots of them, is for guests to be so immersed in comfort and familiarity that they feel Tropic Star is their own personal, private lodge and not simply another “been there, done that” fishing vacation. With more than 100 loyal employees, some of whom span three generations from one family, servicing a maximum of 36 guests, it’s easy to imagine nearly every want or need catered to personally and immediately.
That personal, private club atmosphere didn’t just evolve at Tropic Star—it’s part of the lodge’s DNA originating from its genesis in 1961 when Texas oil tycoon, Ray Smith, searched the world over trying to find the ultimate fishing spot to build a lavish, private fishing lodge exclusively for him and his friends. He found it on the Pacific coast of Panama at Piñas Bay, a secluded bite taken out of the edge of the Darien Jungle 150 miles south of Panama City. The area remains wild and remote, adjacent to a Choco native village and within walking distance of dense rainforest, tropical waterfalls and the only white sand beach on the whole coast. To this day, access to the lodge is only by plane or boat.
To say Smith found incredible fishing in Piñas Bay is an understatement. The area’s main underwater feature, the legendary Zane Grey Reef, is only a 20-minute boat ride from the lodge. It’s about a quarter square mile seamount that rises from a flat continental shelf in 350 feet of water to form a peak with three distinct pinnacles within 150 feet of the surface. The deep valley between the pinnacles holds an abundance of baitfish that attracts and holds all manner of bill- and sailfish along their migrations, as well as massive yellowfin tuna, feisty dorado, jacks, snapper, grouper, remarkable roosterfish and more. There has been no respite in the quantity or quality of big game fish in the past 50 years, as Piñas Bay is currently ranked the #2 all-time best fishing place in the world, even besting the waters off Hawaii and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Like every good SCI Member, Werking and Tropic Star Lodge know the importance of protecting such a valuable natural resource, and have been instrumental in initiating and lobbying for the implementation of important conservation efforts that protect the abundance of big fish. Those conservation efforts include a 20-mile boundary from the shore that protects and separates sport fishing from commercial fishing. Tropic Star was also one of the first fishing operations to stop killing billfish catches, and remains a leader in billfish tag and release. The lodge was on the cutting edge of using circle hooks instead of J-hooks, which can gut-hook and kill big fish, and that protection of the resource pays off in lots of tight lines and world record fish.
When asked what guests might do around the lodge if they tire of catching big fish, Werking laughed, “I’ve never seen that happen!” Even so, Tropic Star is a full tropical resort with kayaking, whale watching, hiking, birding, trading with local natives, swimming, beaches and more. For guests who are new to the sport of big game fishing, there is also a complete introductory class designed to familiarize you with what to expect and what to do when aboard one of the 15 customized Bertram 31s in the lodge’s fleet. Tropic Star Lodge is still, no doubt, every bit the remote, private country club Smith envisioned 50 years ago with the only big difference being that today, thanks to Tropic Star Lodge, you can be part of this paradise experience.– Scott Mayer