At morning’s light, a faint mist lay across the lake like a blanket, cloaking the surface of Gatún. Despite the early hour, the forest was already awake, abuzz with the melodious song of beetles and grasshoppers, atwitter with the raucous calls of puff birds, tanagers and toucans.
Our local Panamanian guide was already waiting to take us on the fishing trip of a lifetime. Not many people can say they’ve fished in the Panama Canal. Even fewer have the opportunity to bait a hook and throw out a line downriver from a supertanker, slowing cruising from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Fewer still get to brag that they caught 75 sargentos (peacock bass) in a little over an hour and a half.
There had been a sultry breeze as we motored across Lago Gatún, searching for that perfect haven of yellowish-green and black sargentos.
“We fish here,” our guide told us after he caught a peacock bass within seconds of throwing out his line.
From that moment on, he could barely keep up. He’d put a minnow on my husband’s hook, and before he could work his way to the back of the dinghy to bait Nicolas’ and my hooks, Gustavo would have already snagged a fish.
For nearly two hours, the three of us pulled in sargentos, one right after the other. Nicolas beamed from ear to ear as he posed for the camera — a genuine Kodak moment — with his rod and reel and the largest specimen of the morning.
He even managed to snare a puffer. The Panamanian guide expertly cut the line and the blowfish splatted back into the moss-colored water.
I joked, “Now, this is my kind of fishing.” Even as I snickered, the ripple from a distant cruise ship forging the canal gently rocked our motorboat.
We returned to our floating hotel with an ice chest brimming with sargentos.
While we waited for our day’s catch to be filleted (for an unheard-of $6 tip), we jumped into kayaks and paddled the short distance to Monkey Island, Captain Carl’s own private island of tamarin monkeys. I lobbed a bite-sized chunk of banana onto a protruding section of tree trunk. Almost instantly, a fluffy primate edged toward the fruit, inquisitive and hungry, but wary. We laughed at the cute little creatures, with their black faces and claws, mottled brown fur and voluminous mane and poufed head crest of white. They were truly the jesters of the jungle.
We wound up our paddling expedition back at the houseboat, where Captain Carl had asked us if we all wanted candy. What a silly question — who turns down an offer of candy? Of course, that’s when he introduced us to Candy, the 4-foot boa constrictor that had also been snuggling overnight in a container in an obscure corner of our buoyant hotel.
We had already met the other creatures of his menagerie: two baby crocodiles, a couple of talkative parrots, several good-sized iguanas in cages and my personal favorite, the Keel-billed toucan, who delighted us with his breakfast of grapes.
The $400 price tag for one night’s stay with a nighttime canoe trip followed by the morning’s fishing trip had been worth every penny.
I packed up my belongings and my family, and we piled into the Captain’s dinghy, the Gatún Explorer, one last time. The launch zigzagged at a steady throttle through the sluiceway — past the dredging cranes sitting idle alongside the shoreline, past a heron contemplating a fish dinner at the water’s edge. The loud trill of a scarlet bay wren, wafting across the Canal Zone on a breath of hot air, bid us adios — the wilds of Panama singing “good-bye.”