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Captain's Focus

Following is Friday's column as submitted: RISTORI FOR FRIDAYYOUNGSTER'S DREAMS FULFILLED IN PANAMAby Al RistoriWhen a cancellation opened up for the prime last week in January at Pesca Panama, it provided the opportunity for a 15-year-old youngster to fight fish that I couldn't have even imagined encountering when I was his age.My nephews, Bob Correll of Bay Head and Todd Correll from Fort Lauderdale, plus some of their friends, jumped at the opportunity to fish during the ideal dry season from the Pesca Panama barge that anchors in some of the most productive areas of the eastern Pacific. Todd, owner of a phone company in Florida, included his son Conner who has been running the family Bertram since he was barely big enough to see over the wheel, and is also a youth sailing champion.  They were coming off a local tournament win with their Niza Niza by releasing 11 sailfish in a day.As always at this time of year, the weather in Panama was perfect every day -- warm, sunny and dry.  Though there's never a lost day, north winds can create choppy seas at times during the winter -- but we hardly got a drop of spray on us while fishing from the 28-foot Oceanmasters. There's such a variety of fishing available that even if some fisheries are off, there will be others to fill in.Inshore casting with poppers was poor, and we had only one shot at casting for yellowfin tuna -- but there was an unusual bite of black marlin on "plastics".  Conner experienced the thrill of fighting a tuna on spinning tackle during the one day off Isla Jicaron that we encountered them when the mate got in a good cast with a popper to a 50-pounder. That prepared him for a heavy-duty battle with a marlin off the outermost island of Mountousa. Though the normal black marlin method involves trolling live black skipjack (similar to our little tunny, but called "bonito"), there's a mammal problem as large black "porpoise" have become so aggressive that they even grab the multiples of 3-to-6-pound black skipjack trolled for bait before they can be boated. Fortunately, black marlin that aren't usually attracted by high-speed lures, were responding to them.  After Conner's first black threw the Moldcraft lure during its initial series of jumps, the second was well-hooked. Conner was long into the battle on a 50W rig where, eight years earlier, I had cast a popper into a school of tuna and ended up fighting a 170-pound yellowfin for 5 1/2 hours on spinning tackle when it sped off the bank into the great depths of the Pacific. Conner's marlin stayed in depths under 300 feet,  but the drag slipped on what turned out to be the marlin's last run as Capt. Jose had to handline up a dead fish. It was boated, and the mate filleted it aboard for donation to the girls orphanage in David Though the skipper estimated the black at 400 pounds, the measurements of the billfish filling up our bow came to 281.25 pounds by formula. During the early days of black marlin fishing from Club Pacifico de Panama (now part of the national park), every marlin was brought in and weighed before being sent to the neighboring prison camp on Isla Coiba which had the uphill, dirt air strip the camp used to bring in customers. However, all billfish have been released ever since -- and I suspect most of the newer crews just haven't had the experience required to estimate weights. Of course, that's one of the beauties of releasing billfish -- as I doubt if any have ever been underestimated.The black marlin trolling was good enough that we were able to make a long run to Mountousa for just a few hours trolling the last day when an underfilled 50W was dumped before Jose could run on the fish. Bob Correll fought another marlin before the hook pulled within a hundred yards of the boat; Todd Correll released one despite a straightened-out snap swivel as the leader wrapped in the black's dorsal fin; and another marlin missed the lure before we headed in at 10:30 a.m.  to make a plane that afternoon for the 45-minute flight back from David to Panama City.  Pesca Panama's chef turns out the finest fish meals I've had anywhere, and the air-conditioned cabins are comfortable. Dry season fishing continues into April, when tuna are more likely to be abundant. For more information about this trip plus fishing and conservation news visit my weekly blog at nj.com/shore/blogs/fishing. For reservations call Teri at 800 946-3474 -- or visit www.pescapanama.com.   New Jersey fluke fishermen took a beating at this week's ASMFC meetings in Virginia. The pressure exerted by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on the Dept. of Commerce payed off as NMFS Northeast Regional Director John Bullard produced the votes to get regional management through. There was unanimous opposition to joining with N.Y. and Ct. at the recent public hearing in Toms River, but N.J. ASMFC Governor's Appointee Tom Fote lost in his bid to stop what many feel was a N.Y. fish grab rather than a conservation effort. As a result, we will jump from a 17 1/2-inch minimum up to 18 inches along with the other two states as N.Y. drops from 19 inches.  The bag limit will be four fluke during a 128-day season which the N.J. Marine Fisheries Commission will determine for the state. Delaware Bay fishermen will get particularly short-changed as neighboring Delaware will only have a 16-inch minimum.  This was obviously a political move set up by a powerful senator who had even introduced a "Fluke Fairness" bill  in the Senate as a threat to the ASMFC if it didn't fall into line. New Jersey Senators Menendez and Booker have to become similarly involved as overfishing by New York's suddenly "liberated" anglers this summer could lead to even higher minimums in 2015.  The one bit of good news from the ASMFC meeting is that the winter flounder season will be opened year-round. Unfortunately, there is no good news about an increase in stocks, just a recognition that at a mere two flounder a day it really doesn't make any difference in the big picture if a shore fisherman gets to keep a flounder in the middle of the winter, or if an offshore wreck fisherman can bag the occasional big flounder hooked in the summer -- especially when the real culprit, a commercial "by-catch", is allowed. The Division of Fish and Wildlife will have to revise regulations before year-round flounder fishing can begin. A Striped Bass Forum will be held at 4 p.m. tomorrow during the Atlantic City Boat Show. Russ Allen, a biologist with the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife, will present an overview of the ASMFC striped bass assessment results as well as the state's survey results. At Brielle, Capt. Joe Bogan reported a pick of cod, pollock and ling last weekend on his Jamaica II. Tom Stayos of New Milford boated a 17-pound pollock; Ed Trassman from Lincroft had a 19-pound cod; and Bob Plasket of Medford bagged four cod to 14 pounds plus six ling.  Tomorrow's 14-hour trip departs at 3 a.m., while Wednesday and Sunday sailings are from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m.     The Big Jamaica is sailing every Saturday at 3 a.m. for mid-range cod and pollock. Additional trips have been added for Sunday and Monday of President's Day Weekend at 3 a.m.  Call 732 528-5014 for information. Last Saturday's trip produced a pick of both species. Derik Labatch of Toms River and Boris Jelic from Wall each had a 21-pound pollock. The high hook bagged four pollock and two cod. Bob Matthews, at Fisherman's Den in Belmar Marina reports boats there are still picking at blackfish, cod, pollock and ling when conditions permit. The fishing is in 200-foot depths, and requires heavy sinkers. Crabs tipped with a soft bait such as shrimp or clams has been most effective for tog, and the ling prefer Gulp Shost Shrimp. END

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