History Items of the Canal Zone

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My Dad bought me a spinning outfit; a medium fiberglass rod and a Mitchell 301 reel. He took me out in the yard and with a lead weight and taught me the throw. I was 11 years old and looked at this project with a modicum of skepticism.

I had fished in the creeks near Margarita and at Mindi dairy with the tiny-wheenie hooks and sewing thread tied to a strait tree branch. I used dough-balls cooked in salty water with cotton ball fiber in them for strength. I caught lots of shiners.

I used wine bottle traps for crayfish as well. You would invert a wine bottle and if it has a "V" funnel in the bottom it can be used as a trap. To make it simply hold the bottle with a match heating the glass in the center of the funnel. Go through enough matches to get the glass really really hot. Then plunge the bottle bottom into ice water; 'pop' and you have a hole. Some bottles can be tapped with a straight screwdriver to knock it out the hole. You will have a bottle with a funnel in the bottom. Fasten a strong to the neck, put bait in it (dough ball or chicken innards piece), close with a cork and toss it near the bank in the creek. In a couple of hours you will have a couple crayfish in each bottle.

The spinning outfit seemed like a lot of work and required skill but Dad wanted me to join him so… I wore out a weight or two, but soon I was able to cast into the washtub from 75 feet most of the time and could cast as far as Dad could with relatively good direction. I used to practice in the Rodman pool when it was closed.

Pop then showed me the two tricks that almost guaranteed fish. The first was a plug called a "Seahawk" which drove the fish mad. The second was the Solunar tables  ( http://www.voyageurcountry.com/Solunar-Lunar/index.html ) which predict the best time to fish based on tides, phase of the sun and moon. Other fishermen fished all day but I only went out for a couple of hours but I caught as many fish in my short period by using the tables.

Dad had two spots. The first was the jetty across from the mine dock at the first island on the causeway that protected the pilot launches from weather. You needed to clamber carefully over the rocks out to the end on the seaward side, about 20 feet from the end. For fishing, you cast out to maximum range with the deep diving Seahawk. Rig was a seven-foot solid glass rod, Mitchell 301 reel, and 12-pound test monofilament line. A six inch plastic coated braided steel leader with swivel and clip was a wise idea at this site because the primary catch was Spanish mackerel; 3-6 pounders. I caught amberjack, small wahoo, and red snapper there on a less frequent basis. Because of the jetty and rocks, a keeper chain for the catch was used.

The second spot was the corrosion pier on the other side of the causeway from the jetty.

The pier was an open top metal I beam pier about 40 foot square with a metal net around it. The holes in the net were 6 inches square and extended down to below the low tide mark. You could climb down the net to the water as it was constructed of 3/8-inch diameter rod stock. The net was designed to keep boats out from under the pier. Down inside the net hung form seven I-beams that span the square from side to side, were corrosion experiments. On vertical cables down into the water there were various materials, metals, painted items, chains, wire rope, etc. suspended at varying depths. Depths were designed to pit the test materials against the elements (seawater, sea animals, and tropical weather). There is no deck on the pier but above each I beam there is a walkway. On the left seaward corner is a weather station attended daily for weather recordings. On the railings of each walkway were more experiments designed for weather and sea spray. Where the walkway from the pier intersected with the causeway, there was a locked gate and wings of barbed wire to keep folks from climbing around the gate. The bottom here is a jumble of old pilings from previous pre causeway piers.

The corrosion pier was a good spot because the Panamanian fishermen came there almost daily to chum with anchovies. Later I will write about my time fishing with them, sometimes at this very spot.

The best place to cast was along the right side of the pier as you faced it; the seaward side toward the Amador beach. I could just make it to the far corner with my longest cast. The cast was as close to the net as possible. The rig was the same as at the jetty and cast was made from as close to the water as conditions allowed. Light rain or drizzle seemed to improve the catch. Again, the Solunar table was the best guide. The catch was mainly white corbina, snook (robolo), and small snapper. 4-6 pounders were the norm. I once caught a 12 pound yellow corbina, and once a 21 pound black snapper. Seahawk deep diver and 6-oz white feather were the best lures.

One day, with an inshore wind, I had hung my last Seahawk in the net. The tide was dropping rapidly and I could see several perfectly good lures hanging in the net above the water. Hmmm… Those lures cost $1.75 each and if I could get out there… Yep, you guessed it. I watched the MP patrol go by out toward the end of the causeway, timed it. I watched as they went back toward Amador, timed it. I hid my gear under the walkway and the next time they went by toward Amador, I threw my poncho over the barbwire wing of the gate and, presto, I was on the pier.

I climbed down and retrieved 6 lures. From that vantagepoint I could see fish, lots of fish, down inside the net. I went up on the walkway and crawled down under it onto the top of the I-beam. I lay there watching several schools of large fish, corbina and shook, lolling in the water. If only I could…. Hmmm… Then I heard the footsteps. It turned out to be the weather guy, a West Indian helper. He walked right over top of me and to the end of the pier, opened the station and began to take his readings. In what seemed an eternity (probably 15 minutes) he closed the station and started to walk back. He passed over and the footsteps receded. I lay there on the I-beam face down in shock and relief. Then, "Catching anyting?" the deep Bajan voice said. He had kicked off his shoes a sneaked back to scare me. He sat down on the walkway where he could see me and dangled his legs off the side. "Don fright from me bwoy. I don take tea wit dem po-lease atall!"

That was the beginning of a long relationship. He had the keys to all the chains of the prohibited areas on the causeway and if there was not a true hazard to me he would let me go almost anywhere, tunnels, boathouse, Navy seal peer, etc. All he asked was that I bring him a fish once in a while. I did so at least once a week for several years. He introduced me to several of the Panamanian fishermen who came to the pier to fish.

I talked one of them into letting me fish from their cayuca while they were there. I let them have all the fish I caught save 1 for my house and sometimes one for my Bajan friend. I also bartered for them to take me out daily for one entire summer. I brought them 60 and 80 lb. test monofilament leader that they couldn't afford in Panama. I ordered Sobie hooks from the states for them. I brought them Apples from time to time (they had never eaten one when I first brought them) and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They taught me bait net casting on the flats off Panama Viejo, deep fishing at X and Z buoy, trolling with deer bone lures for mackerel, drift line for dorado (dolphin), shark fishing , and to speak Spanish.

Added 2003/11/08
I fished with the Indians in 35 foot motor cayucos from Chirillo... They told me NEVER to put my hands into the water past the wrist... One day at "X" buoy I was bringing in a fish -- the only Corbina of the day and when he surged downward, panicked at the surface, I reached deep into the water to grab the leader. Suddenly my view of the Corbina 5 feet down in the crystal clear water was obscured by a gray mass moving by... and moving by... and moving by. The boat had been hit by the back of a huge shark who took the 20 pound Corbina, hit the bottom of the boat and almost knocking me in and scraping the skin off my fingers with his skin. The boil he made in the water raised the 35 foot boat with 5 people in it like a cork in a 2 foot swell. As I sat back in the boat, Felipe said calmly, "Tiburon... Cuenta sus dedos hijo" as he began rolling up the lines to move somewhere else... When I recovered enough from the shock and from inspecting my bleeding knuckles to look at him, he wore that "I told you so!" smirk fathers use on kids.

I will tell that story later, God willing, and the river don't rise!

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