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Bertram Country

One of the world's premier billfishing destinations—an angler's paradise in Panama—has a fleet from one of the world's premier boat builders.
By John Clemens

How many 7-year-olds have caught a marlin? How about a marlin, a sailfish and a tuna all in one day? Then again, how many children this age regularly fish the waters off Piñas Bay, Panama? Seven-year-old Anthony Sola caught a blue marlin, a Pacific sailfish and a 190-pound yellowfin tuna from his father's Bertram 570 one day in June, 2006. On a day last May, when I was aboard, Anthony, now 8, caught two sailfish and a dolphin. On another Bertram fishing nearby, anglers released 35 sailfish. Another had 29 by noon. In all, 524 sailfish were released from 13 Bertrams the week I was in Piñas Bay.
Deservedly, Piñas Bay is legendary. Zane Grey is credited with discovering the nearby abundance of black marlin in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1960s when a Texas oil tycoon built a compound that became the Club de Pesca de Panama, and then, in 1964, the Tropic Star Lodge, that anglers began to comprehend the true potential of the place—witness Alfred Glassel's 585-pound black in 1965. Glassel is the angler who had caught a 1,560-pounder off Cabo Blanco, Peru, in 1953.

Considering the fishing, the presence of the Tropic Star Lodge makes perfect sense. But the setting—a possible derivation of "in the middle of nowhere—makes its existence spectacularly unlikely, especially considering Tropic Star's five-star hospitality and cuisine. Picture a notch in an intensely green, intensely steep jungle coastline. The nearest road is 100 miles away. From the air you can see a few buildings and a single dock with about a dozen boats moored nearby. Within less than a mile, two rainforest-covered mountains rise above 5,000 feet. Think National Geographic (there's an Indian village nearby). Think Jurassic Park. There's an airstrip. There's air-conditioning. But no TV, phones, cell phone service, fax machines or newspapers. And, perhaps most unlikely of all, no mosquitoes.

I flew in from Panama City with Anthony Sola and his father Louis, as well as Kari Webber, Bertram's PR and communications manager. We rose above the city's skyline—much like Miami's, only higher and more compressed (a 100-story building is underway)—and the dozens of anchored ships awaiting the call to be ushered from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The previous evening we had dined at the Panama Canal Restaurant, where there's a museum devoted to the incredible Canal project, and where the ships slide by so closely you can almost reach out and feel the coolness of their steel hulls.

Louis Sola is Panama's Bertram dealer (Evermarine), an ex-accountant who has found his calling selling the historic brand and who makes it sound more like fun than work. His sales last year accounted for 35 percent of Bertram's international business and he was overall dealer of the year. Panama is, by definition, Bertram country, because the Tropic Star's entire 15-boat fleet is made up of Bertram 31s—the model that put Bertram at the epicenter of the early-'60s big bang in fiberglass sportfishing boats.

Four decades later, the Bertram 570, from which I fished at Tropic Star, keeps the Bertram name synonymous with big-game fishing. Of the seven models currently in production, the 570 would be a tournament angler's choice. Its cockpit space, cockpit furniture and bridge were designed with fishing in mind. The deep-V hull retains the wave-parting characteristics of the earliest, rough-water-racing Bertrams. The ride is incredibly soft in a head sea, and the proprietary Anti-Rolling Gyro (ARG) reduces roll when trolling or at anchor.


I found the 570, successor to the venerable Bertram 54, to be exceptionally smooth and quiet despite its 1,675-hp Cat C12s that delivered a top speed of 40 knots—a number that anglers who know the value of being first to a hot bite and of outrunning a storm will appreciate. Cockpit conversation was not drowned out by the diesels and stretching out on the huge lounges on the bridge was truly relaxing, even when blasting through a heavy chop. A new version of the 570 boasts mezzanine cockpit seating.

Of course, the 570's interior transcends the level of luxury generally associated with fishing boats due to the handiwork of the Italian designers available to Bertram as part of the Ferretti Group. Wood grain on cabinetry is matched; joinery is superb and furniture, headliners, counters and window treatments all set new production boat standards.

We arrived at Piñas Bay just as the rainy season (May through November) did, and for five days we never saw the sun, which made the fishing pleasantly cool considering we were only seven degrees north of the equator (hurricanes start north of 10 degrees, so Tropic Star is spared). In the late afternoons it rained at wide-open throttle.

We were greeted by Mike Andrews, whose father-in-law, Conway Kittredge, bought the Lodge in 1976. Mike and his wife, Terri Kittredge Andrews, an IGFA trustee who has set myriad angling records, now operate Tropic Star under the Piñas Bay Resorts banner.

Andrews gave us a fast history lesson. The original boats were lapstrake Wheelers that succumbed to the humidity. Zane Grey actually discovered a fishing ground off the Perlas Islands, not Piñas Bay. The Lodge's 14,000 acres abut the Darien National Rain Forest. In 1992 Tropic Star was the first fishing lodge to switch exclusively to circle hooks. You cannot bring a billfish to the dock unless it's a potential world record. The diesel powered 31s, whose hulls are all different colors, are named after clients' home countries—Miss England, Miss South Africa, Miss Australia, etc. "There was a Miss France, said Andrews, "but after 9/11 no one would fish it, so it became Miss Spain.

Andrews' fondness for his legendary Bertrams was immediately evident. "In 16 years there have been only two days when some of the boats came back in because of the weather. What other boats could do that? This year, 12 Bertram 31s caught 79 marlin in one week.

We checked in and then boarded the 570, which had been brought from Panama City by Sola's captain and crew. We had only lures that first afternoon, which was frustrating because sailfish were jumping all around us and on other boats we could see rods bent double. The boats were only a few miles from the lodge and close to shore. Miss England had 32 sails; Miss Scandia had 25.

Later—over drinks and hors d'oeurves on the porch as it poured—the resident anglers extolled the Lodge. "I've fished from Texas to the Keys, New Zealand, the Bahamas, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, said Billy Wagner from Duck Key, Fla., who had been aboard Miss England. "This is the most consistent spot for black marlin, except perhaps Australia, and for sailfish. Certainly the most consistent within easy reach of the U.S. It's my fourteenth trip. Inquiries about the quality of the service elicited superlatives that eclipsed those bestowed on the fishing. "Nowhere else does the staff exert such an effort to make sure you enjoy yourself, said a frequent visitor. "Coming here is like coming home.

Day two found us better prepared, with the live well full of baitfish that resembled blue runners. Virtually all the fishing is done with live or dead baits or belly strips. Live baits are bridle-rigged and trolled at about three knots. In less than three hours we had eight sailfish—two of them caught by Anthony and one by Kari, her first. All were estimated to be over 100 pounds. We also had a dolphin, or dorado as it's known in Spanish, in the box. And so it went. At one point we were totally surrounded by pods of sailfish—10 to 15 in a group—finning on the surface. There was action everywhere. The blue boat, the red boat, the orange boat and the gray boat were all hooked up. They looked like toys bobbing in the shadows of the jungle cliffs. At times the sky was so low it seemed as if our tuna tower would disappear into the clouds, whose steely gray hemlines unraveled and hung down between the shutter-green hills so that the rain forest appeared to be slowly smoldering. Think Gorillas in the Mist.

The 570 was supremely comfortable to fish from. We felt like a Canal freighter surrounded by tugs. On our way back to Panama City on the 570 we passed through the Perlas Islands, stopping at Contadora for lunch. We met up with Louis Sola's latest boat, a Bertram 360 Open completely customized for fishing. A bunch of these would make ideal upgrades for Tropic Star's 31s if the time ever comes to replace them. Of course they're Bertrams, and they'll last forever.

In the firmament of fishing destinations no single spot shines more brightly than the Tropic Star Lodge, now celebrating 30 years of Kittredge/Andrews ownership. During those years hundreds of IGFA records have been set here. During my stay several anglers were taking sails on fly rods. "On conventional tackle they may jump a few times, but on a fly they just keep jumping, said one of them.

Some people come to Tropic Star just to bottom fish for species such as grouper, snapper, amberjack and roosterfish. Some relish the white sand beach—the only one along 200 miles of coastline—that's a 45-minute hike through the rain forest. Then there are the 100-foot waterfalls that can be reached on foot in a couple of hours; you return in a dugout canoe.

But it's the presence of black marlin that has really put Piñas Bay on the map. Tropic Star is where Neil Patrick, Bill Shedd and Guy Harvey tagged a black marlin estimated at 1,300 pounds and tracked it for 1,759 miles out into the Pacific and back to the Gulf of Panama. The fight, which took two rods, was captured in one of the greatest fishing photos ever taken (see Motor Boating, February 2006). In 2001, ESPN's Larry Dahlberg caught 10 black marlin over 500 pounds in five days.

Blue and striped marlin are also present. From June until September you're guaranteed a marlin or $500 is refunded against your airfare. December through March is the hot black marlin season, and Tropic Star Lodge (www.tropicstar.com) is booked three years out during January and February when partial weeks are not available. With four per boat, rates for lodging, meals and fishing begin at $3,400.

Consider it the fishing trip of a lifetime. You'll be fishing on one of the most revered boats ever built and you'll be in one of the most timeless settings that exist on the planet.

For more information on Bertram, call (305) 633-8011, or go to www.bertram.com.