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Posted by Dix Roper on 31 March 2009 at 08:40 AM


    It was awesome to be back in the water again after a five month dry spell while we were in LA doing Michelle’s green card drill.  Back in Panama in January is the start of what they call the dry season or “summer” but it is the time when the north wind starts and the upwelling brings up the dark freezing water from the depths. Not fun for divers, except the upwelling also brings nutrients, then sardines, then big hungry fish cruising around waiting to be shot. This report is some of the highlights of three different 4 day panga trips to jump into these cold, often dark, waters drawn by the thrill of encountering monster fish sometimes just before you run into them. Only in this area of Panama does this occur and only briefly. It is hard to imagine that at 7 or 8 degrees north of the equator we are lying on the surface shaking, we can’t breathe up because we are shivering with the cold, but excited about our next drop into the darkness to see what kind of monsters are waiting to surprise us.

Ruth and Butch Roper

      The first trip south was in our 24 foot cruise ship, hosting my brother Butch, 73, and his wife Ruth in comfort and style for four days. Fortunately they are both hard core Rangers and sleeping on the floor of the panga and eating cold oatmeal and sandwiches for four days was no problem for them.  Butch who only dives once a year, was doing great in the bad conditions and getting to 30 feet managed to score on our first fish. Butch's BohalaThe bohala tweaked the spear but he landed the fish. We found a place where the water had 15 feet of vis and we hoped that Ruth, on her first trip, might get a shot. It is unlikely that a new diver can take a 40 pound fish on her first try but it almost happened.  Eight to 10 big fish came in at the end of one dive, but her need to breathe did not give her time to stick around to get set up for a shot——-and the moment passed.  Michelle then shot a nice fish out of the school and showed us how to do it.  In some spots we would drop in and find different types of small pargo feeding on the sardines. We don’t usually shoot fish this size but they are beautiful, and the best for eating, so we shot two different types. Mine was much cooler as mine was more scarlet, and it looked like Michelle shot someone’s pet goldfish.  Then she got a good head shot on the next Bohala and almost stoned the fish. She was lucky because if you don’t stone a fish of this size there is a good chance he will wrap your shooting cable up in the rocks and the hunting is over while you figure out what to do.

Michelle and Dix w/ Bohala

Dix w/ Scarlet Pargo

Michelle w/ Pet Goldfish :-)

    That is exactly what happened on Butch’s biggest fish. He ran for the bottom, where the cable tangles on any rock it touches, and then we had over $200 in spear and slip tip tied up somewhere on the bottom, which we had to try and recover.  I breathed up while holding on the float line angled in the current and closed my eyes and pulled myself down, trying to relax. I reached the shaft at 57 feet, which is way too deep for me. I could see the last six inches of the shaft sticking out of a hole, but when I grabbed it and tried to move it, it was like stuck in concrete. It was dark, cold and I was a long way from the surface – time to go. I knew I needed a little more bottom time to assess the situation, so I decided to rest up and go back with a marker weight tied on my weight belt and my belt tied to a buoy line that Michelle would release as I went down. I fell faster with less effort this time, pulling myself down the line. When I got there I took the time to look in the hole and I could see the cable looped around a small rock near the spear tabs.  I undid the loop and Presto, the spear came free but the fish had pulled off.  With spear in hand I tried to move to a clear place away form the rocks to drop my belt but I suddenly knew I was out of time. I released my buckle and felt the welcome assist of my suit’s buoyancy as I rocketed for the surface and the welcome air and sunlight. We had carried off another, touchy, but successful, spear salvage and Butch was happy he did not have to buy a new spear and sliptip.

    On the next trip we started at a place where we almost always find fish, but this time we found the red tide. There was tons of bait so I knew there would be fish but it was freezing cold in my wetsuit, even with a vest. The day before I was in the pool at 84 degrees and now it was reading 64 cold degrees on my watch. Skinny and seventy years old doesn’t go with cold. I could not relax and get my breath, and so I would go down into the cold, darkness thinking I must be really deep and I would check my watch and it would say 15 or 18 feet. Several times the heads of 25 to 30 pound fish would appear two feet from my face and the sudden encounter scared us both.  There would be one or two loud booms as the close fish exploded away. They were all around me—I could feel them. The sardines kept them there. These constant and sudden close contacts with big pargo, bohala, cherna, and other unknown fish, almost within arms reach, kept me going back down just to look. I vividly remember the heads of two huge 40 lb pargo coming straight at me, inches away and then – Boom-Boom—gone. These encounters kept me in the water way too long and I was shivering and getting desperate for a shot. I was tempted to snap shoot my long wood gun, with the handle held to the rear, but I realized there was likely a big rock just three feet in front of me. It was real clear that big wooden guns, that require two hands, do not work in this situation and a small euro gun would have been great if you did not mind doing a demo on your spear. After all the planning, the long trip down, and being unable to hunt the fish all around me, we were totally frustrated thinking it must be the same everywhere.——- But——- the ever changing ocean realm is full of surprises, and we were getting ready to leave Hell and go to diving Heaven——and just a few miles away.  As we approached the new spot we got excited seeing the bait going off and finding the water clear and warm. We knew we were in for some funin’ and gunin’. What a welcome change. It was clear, warm, flat seas, no wind, full of bait and we could look over the side and see big fish cruising 15 to 20 feet below us. This is every divers fantasy that hardly ever materializes.

Michelle w/ Bohala

Michelle w/ Bohala

    We were so excited to be back in clear water with 40 feet of vis and fish all around us we were not sure which fish to start with. 54lb Pargo DientonI had the first time experience of finding a big hungry pargo dienton feeding out away from the rocks and shot him just when he decided to leave for home. I stoned him but it was still hard dealing with the spines and teeth on this fish when trying to get the spear out and get the fish aboard. He weighed 54 lbs.  Michelle jumped back in the water while Fabio and I undertook the task of cleaning this monster. I hate cleaning fish when the diving is so fantastic but Fabio can’t clean fish and watch us in the water at the same time.  Michelle could not control her killer instincts and shot two more bohala before we got the Pargo cleaned.  Enough fish.  Now it is time to settle down to look for the monster.

Dix w/ Pargo Dienton

Michelle w/ Bohala

    We went to another area where we have seen BIG bohala in numbers and we hit several of my favorite spots before we found the bait and could again look over the side and see big fish below. Another Two Bohala by MichelleThis had never happened on other trips so we knew we would get to see a lot of fish before we found the king of the pack.  I will never tire of the thrill of seeing a school of 50 lb plus, fish, suddenly appear and then leisurely swirl completely around me, watching a few feet away, and then drop back into the deep. The scan time you have is about 5 seconds to select the biggest fish and guess at his weight. Wow 75lb Bohala!We passed on many 50 plus pound fish before one came in that looked like the boss. Michelle took her time and drilled him from above, at an angle right thru the head. —- BAM—-  Almost stoned, and as she pulled the fish close we could see that she had a new personal best. Michelle was stoked and elated that everything had worked and our patience to wait for the king had paid off. She was proud to have made a good shot, otherwise it is likely she would have lost a fish of this size and power, as well as our expensive gear. We finally got it on the certified scale and WOW.——  75 POUNDS   The little Chocolatita has a new women’s world record Bohala. I am proud of my petite Pistolera and Michelle was really pumped.

Michelle's Monster! - 75lb Bohala

Michelle's Monster! - 75lb Bohala

Michelle's Monster! - 75lb Bohala

Michelle's Monster! - 75lb Bohala

    Later the same day we were seeing schools of the elusive Mullet Snapper feeding Michelle's Mullet Snapper - 36lbson the surface and several looked to be on steroids compared to the normal size.  They are hard to approach and powerful enough that a big one can pull you down so fast that you are not sure what you shot.  A little while later Michelle was still fired up and wanted to try and shoot a big mullet.  She approached the school in midwater and in her 5 second scan, selected one that was big, if not the biggest. —-BAM—- another good shot on a special and beautiful fish. We boated the fish and found it weighed 36 pounds, another best for Michelle and maybe another women’s record. This diving was light years better than the day before. Awesome!


    What a memorable day at sea! We had been blessed with the diver’s dream we all have of that perfect dive day, and when went we went back the next morning, everything had changed and the red tide was back. We knew it was time to start the long trip home, but on the way we stopped and Michelle shot two more small delicious fish, a pargo and a bocipenda, also for her to take to the interior and share with her mother and family.

    We arrived home and welcomed the help of Elsy in the dreaded clean up operation. Elsy had brought the magic of her youth and beauty from the interior to share with us for a few weeks while she learned trippy new things and helped us around the house. Elsy helping around the houseNow, when Michelle was ready make the trek back to the interior to take fish to her mom and family, they could go together. Elsy would get back in time for school and was happy with all the necessity items we bought her, as her family is on the edge of survival. Elsy's Birthday GiftWhat she was most excited about was showing her friends and family the gorgeous, thrift shop, wedding dress we had brought to her from the states for her birthday. She would get to enjoy the dream and thrill of being beautiful and special which seldom happens in such a primitive situation. We also enjoyed the fantasy of playing Cinderella here at the house. One moment Elsy would be washing dishes and ten minutes later she would be transformed into this other-world fairy princess, dressed and waiting for the magic pumpkin to arrive when Everything is possible. What fun. And on her next visit, when the water is warmer, she now wants to shoot her first fish.

    I took them to the bus at 1 AM with tons of stuff and a cooler full of frozen fish. They change buses in Santiago and ride more hours to the end of the line. Then it’s a pickup truck to the end of the road where her brother will meet them with a horse to carry the cooler and other stuff. Then it is a four hour walk thru the hills for them to get there before dark.  The people have to live very simple, close to nature and make the best of it but generally poverty is not first choice. Let’s hope we can continue to be Elsy’s ticket out to a better life.

    All alone, with visions of big fish still dancing in my head, and knowing that the bait and fish would soon disappear, I made another trip back to the Perlas with just Fabio. It was again fantastic. I shot big pargo and two bohala over 60 lbs but could not beat Michelle. I had been hoping for a big cherna or broomtail and he finally showed up. I got a great shot on the cherna, but he took off and pulled my buoy down and snapped it off. Everything lost.  Less than an hour later I was frightened as this huge black shape appeared out of nowhere, looked at me and turned to go.  It was a monster mero, I would guess between 250 and 300 lbs… I shot him thru the gills from behind hoping for a brain shot but no such luck.  He pulled my buoy down like a cork and snapped my shooting cable like it was thread and swam away with my gear.  In an hour I lost two spears, two slip tips, one float line and two, once- in- a life- time fish. With slip tips, I seldom loose fish but when shooting monsters there is a lot of luck involved and it was not on my side that day. I hate loosing fish but it is reassuring to know that nothing goes to waste in the ocean. In the constant underwater war for survival usually the big eat the small, but occasionally it cycles the other way.

      I had enough fish but I returned to the site where Michelle slew the big 75 lb Bohala, curious to see if there were any larger.  The vis was three feet with suspended plankton in the water like snow that was not falling. One dive and I knew there was no hunting.  Then I saw a fisherman catch a fish and I thought, how can the fish see the bait. I went to 20 feet and the same. One last dive.! I went to 25 feet and suddenly I “pierced the veil”. I entered into a new world of clear water, alive with fish of all sizes. It was a unique, breathtaking and beautiful scene, hidden beneath a 25 foot thick layer of murk.

    I was “shot out” for one of the first times in my life so I was completely satisfied to be an observer of this special moment when the liquid world we love was teeming and vibrating with life.  I felt like, on the surface I was leaving the desert, the air world, and I could drop down this secret 25 or 30 foot tunnel, pierce the veil, and enter into the liquid, Lost World, untouched by time. I went back again and again, trying to take in, all that I saw and felt, knowing this Magic, this gift, would never be repeated exactly the same again. I felt privileged to visit this secret place, only it would be great to have a five minute breath hold.

    All of us that often go beneath the sea, feel or sense our primeval, original connection with the ocean. Even though my experience, of piercing the veil and entering the Lost World, is etched in my soul forever with the wonder and joy it brings, I can already hear the sirens calling for my return.  When craziness abounds, the pressure builds and you are close to the edge—listen carefully and you will hear the sirens calling you in your heart ——- to go back to Nature, back to order and back to simplicity.  The beckoning call of the siren offers mystery, excitement, magic, rejuvenation and—- Danger..


Would you refuse this siren’s call to follow where ever she leads? ——————Not Me.

—————  Pack my dive gear   —————-


Dix and Michelle Roper
    29 March 2009


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