I love fishing. I have a little red canoe that Nate and I take out for summertime trout fishing in Montana. The problem is, the trout we catch (and release) are usually less than 10 inches long. Sometimes we get lucky with a 15-20 inch walleye or two, and those are the ones we take home for dinner.
The best days are the days that we have something to show for spending hours on the water, and while the walleye in our mountain lakes are nice, I can’t help but think sometimes about what it would be like to catch a huge fish from the ocean.
I don’t love the idea of being out in the open ocean, but I have to admit that when I see sport fishing advertised on our travels, I always want to go. Usually we decide these excursions are too expensive and talk ourselves out of it, but on a recent trip to Panama, we opted to make it happen.
I recruited a group of 6 friends to spend a week in Panama and Costa Rica with me and my husband for my 30th birthday, and because there were 7 of us who wanted to go fishing, the cost was much easier to handle. A half day (5 hours) with a private fishing guide “to the best spots” cost $400. The only thing included (besides the equipment and guide) was a guarantee that we would catch fish. On that note, we bought our own beer and hopped on board.
As we sped out to deeper water with our guide Oriel from Bocas Marine Tours, we cracked open a few beers and sat back, enjoying the humid weather, the company, and the prospect of catching our dinner.
We had only been at our first fishing spot for about 15 minutes when we accomplished that very goal. My friends nominated me to reel in the first fish, a Yellow Fin Tuna about 15 inches long, which was quickly followed by another tug on the line. What resulted was a bit of a struggle for my friend Amanda as she single-handedly hauled in a King Mackerel, nearly 36 inches long and about 15 pounds. That fish could certainly feed a hungry group of travelers, if not an entire restaurant.
Oriel had stayed true to his word; each one of us caught a fish that day. I will be honest, fishing in the waves of the open ocean is not like fishing on our mountain lakes back home. The weather wasn’t perfect, the waves were massive and relentless, and we didn’t make it through the day without a few bouts of sea-sickness. However, we did come out of it with our very own catch of the day, a 15-pound King Mackerel that would soon be dinner, which made the whole adventure worth it.
I’ve been traveling to Bocas del Toro for over ten years now, and we have even been fishing there once before (without much luck), but we’ve had even worse luck trying to find a restaurant that would cook up our fresh catch. Being a touristy island in the Caribbean where sport fishing was available, this did not make sense to me. We started going door to door to restaurants with our King Mackerel after we got off the boat, searching for anyone who would cook it for us. That’s when we met Suki Basra, owner of La Mariposa restaurant.
Located on the second floor of the main street right next to Jampan Tours, La Mariposa boasts a beautiful open balcony with a view of the docks and neighboring islands. It has a very comfortable and welcoming ambiance, especially when Suki is around. Not only did she agree to cook our King Mackerel (for only $20 extra), but she took it a step further, preparing a custom family-style meal for us, complete with sides, all while accommodating our dietary needs as well. The entire feast was under $150 for all 8 of us, cocktails included.
The customer service was over the top for Panama, and we were so fulfilled with our experience that we returned two days later for my big 30th birthday dinner. We asked for another family style meal, this time leaving the creativity of the main course to the kitchen staff. They prepared a delicious, traditional Panamanian dish for us and tended to our every need while we enjoyed the live music and even a unique rendition of “Happy Birthday,” just for me.
Suki and her staff were the icing on our fishing day cake, meeting a need and going above and beyond that for a group of budget travelers who simply wanted to catch their own dinner. I couldn’t possibly recommend any Bocas del Toro restaurant over La Mariposa, especially if you’d like to feast on your own fresh catch of the day.