San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua has been known as a small fishing village throughout its history. Artisanal fishing is a craft still practiced in this modest town and is being passed down from generation to generation.
The Annual Panga Fishing Tournament helps support San Juan del Sur’s fishing heritage. Many visiting foreigners, along with North American expats, sponsor a Panga and its crew. In turn, they go out and compete with other crews for the biggest and most fish caught in a given period of time.
A Panga (pictured, right) is a handcrafted open air “V” hole boat with a medium powered outboard motor. It’s usually equipped with a Bimini, or hardtop cover and simple inline seating. There is nothing fancy about this minimally accessorized boat.
The crews saddle up the smaller fishing vessels and maneuver themselves to open waters. The Panga’s captain ventures out 20 to 30 miles from shore. The tournament’s participants start out early in the morning and arrive back to port around mid-to late-afternoon.
The first Pangas out arrive back as early as 1:30 pm. Their portable coolers are loaded with fresh bounty pulled from the Pacific blue waters. The day’s catch is unloaded and carried to the official weigh-in station near the docks. The crews are tired from the early morning launch, but all of that goes away when they begin parading around their day’s catch.
The Rooster fish seems to be the champion size catch on this particular day. However, there are many varieties of fish caught. They also include Tuna, Mai Mai, Dolphin and Red Fish, to mention just a few. They all range in different lengths and weights.
As the fishermen begin unloading their day’s catch, the crowds gather close. Like any other sport, the chatter starts flying between teams. Pointing, slapping each others backsides and giving high-fives are a familiar sight between the crew and their captain. The tip of the scale and the measuring tape will be the final decision makers in who goes home with the trophies.
The photo shown left is a mix of Red Fish, Dolphin and Yellow Tail Tuna next to a four and a half foot Needlefish. I couldn’t keep up with all the different aquatic species being laid out in front of the judges.
One after another, the scale flashes the weights in bright red kilogram numbers. The judges meticulously jot down vitals for each fish that crosses the scale. Each team’s crew and supporters make sure that every meter and kilogram is recorded properly.
Nevertheless, it is very exciting to watch how everyone wants a hand in helping determine the unofficial results. After the last Pangas arrive and deliver their day’s prize catch, the judges retreat to their executive confines to compare notes.
The judges begin their pow wow as the crowds begin to enjoy the food and beverages that are provided. Local beer and plenty of Caribbean Rum are flowing freely. The cuisine is, surprisingly, wild pig that has been cooking all day in a dugout pit.
Competitive crosstalk has been replaced with comradery between the Pangas’ teams. Nothing like having a carefree spirit, laid back community, and a little libation to get the celebration going. Friends and families visiting, kids running around, and beautiful weather make this day in paradise one that we don’t want to end, ever!
What’s a tournament without a queen and her court (pictured left)? It is time to start handing out the awards. Just about every team wins something. The prizes awarded vary from a small boat motor, gift cards, assorted bottles of alcohol, and engraved trophies and color ribbons. Believe it or not, the trophies hold the most prestigious honors over all the other prizes.
As the sun sets over San Juan del Sur’s half-moon shaped bay, the small municipality gently cozies up for the evening. The day winds down and a quietness falls upon our tranquil surroundings. We reminisce about the day’s events and wonder how we found such a down-to-earth community that still lives its traditions. If modern day society could adopt a few pointers regarding simple living from communities like San Juan del Sur, it would make the world a much better place to live.
Author: Anthony Scopel
Photographer: Anthony & Maureen Scopel
Editor: Sheri L. Thompson