Tropic Star Lodge History
The incredible fishing in Piñas Bay was discovered by adventurous fishermen based in Panama City in the 1930’s and ’40s. When word about the abundant fishing opportunities in the area spread, angling pioneers like S. Kip Farrington and the Schmidt brothers visited the region in search of the famed Black Marlin.
They noticed a specific spot that held an unbelievable amount of marine life, and a military survey conducted after World War II identified the spot as a prominent section of natural reef just offshore of Piñas, over which currents from all across the Pacific Ocean converged. This natural wonder would later come to be known as the Zane Grey Reef.
In 1961, Ray Smith, a Texas oil tycoon, built the Lodge as his “home away from home.”
In 1963, it was opened as a fishing lodge, named Club de Pesca – his luxurious private fishing club. Soon after, Ray Smith was able to live his dream. He caught one of the first IGFA World Record marlin on 12-pound line. “There are going to be all kinds of records set here now that the place is being fished a little harder”, he was quoted as saying at the time.
His prophecy has come true. In the ensuing years, more than 300 World Records and numerous Junior Angler World Records have been set at Panama’s internationally known Tropic Star Lodge® – more than any place in the world!
Ray Smith built his villa up on the hill, to allow for a panoramic view of the magnificent bay. This villa is still known today as El Palacio, or The Palace, and is even available as a lodging option for our guests wanting to live the original Tropic Star Lodge experience. It is reached by cable car, or for those looking to drum up some endorphins, there are 122 steps up the mountainside! Imagine the work that went into construction bringing materials by hand up those steps. The river rock faced walls in themselves must have meant many workers, with heavy sacks on their backs, trudging up there.
The areas notoriety grew rapidly — Sports Illustrated did a feature on the lodge in 1963, showcasing the tremendous fishing opportunities to an entirely new international audience. In the mid-1960s, a Hollywood film producer shot a short documentary on the lodge and its fishing, attracting the attention of even more people. Over the years, numerous articles and TV shows have been written and filmed about the lodge and the incredible fishing found in the water of Piñas Bay.
In 1969, shortly after Ray Smith’s death, the Club was sold to Edwin Kennedy who renamed it Tropic Star Lodge to correspond with a “sister Lodge” in Canada known as the Arctic Star Lodge.
After an earthquake on July 4, 1976 the Kennedy’s never returned.
Then in 1976, after the earthquake, Conway D. Kittredge of Orlando received a call from his boat broker about an opportunity to buy a fishing lodge in the middle of the jungle. He knew Conway was interested in boats, and marine-oriented properties, with this info he called his friend Richard Bertram of Bertram boats to see if he wanted to go with him. After all, there were nine classic 31′ Bertrams included in the deal. The long and short of it, Bertram changed his mind, and Conway and his wife Pollyanna ended up with an earthquake-stricken fishing lodge in the middle of the Darien Jungle on the Pacific side of Panama, near the Colombian border. The Kittredge’s and the great hard-working employees were able to get the lodge open in five months. If Conway had not had his Lake Ambrian Plane brought down from Orlando, it would not have been possible. He would take two and three trips a day from Pinas to Panama which eliminated needing to get to the Jaque airstrip about seven miles away by boat. Jaque’s airstrip was built by the USA as many airstrips were in Panama during World War 2, but this one can only be reached on high tide and going up into the Jaque River.
Dr. Guy Harvey wrote a book, Panama Paradise, A tribute to Tropic Star which was dedicated to the Kittredge’s and is highly recommended for a great read. Guy’s research included the history from even before the lodge was even built and visited by many renowned fishermen that charter boats to fish the area to here up to 2010 when the beautiful book was published.
Conway’s daughter, Terri, the youngest of his three daughters got involved in the reservations of the lodge in 1979, but by 1981 her services were needed more at the lodge and she became the assistant to the manager. After the manager was caught not only stealing from the lodge but stealing tips from the poor employees that lived in the village. Terri fired him in January of 1985, just as they were moving into the peak season. Terri became as she always referred to herself as “the default manager” and waited for her replacement. Conway had a keen sense and later confessed he never looked for another manager. Raleigh Werking, (deceased 2018) went from a client who visited the lodge between 1981 and 1989 a total of 22 trips. Raleigh was there as Terri just began working in Panama and they became dear friends. It was Raleigh who took over the marketing for Tropic Star Lodge for many years, he was also the one who brought Guy Harvey to Tropic Star for the first time.
After the removal of Noriega in 1989/early 1990, the lodge was able to get back to some normalcy, but the previous years when the coverage in Panama was so overblown by the press, only the repeat guests would keep us afloat. Raleigh, Mike, and I established our “Dream Team” and he helped us to bring every magazine and fishing TV showdown on the planet. We quickly changed our nickname as the World’s Best Fishing Secret Hole and the rest is history as they say.
Terri met Mike Andrews who worked for the Panama Canal in 1979 they married at the lodge on April 6, 1991. Mike turned the remote lodge into a well-oiled fishing machine and improved many aspects of the infrastructure. Terri and Mike and their love and respect for this jungle fishing lodge were instrumental in having the lodge become Robb Report’s # 1 Fishing lodge in the World. They have been written about in numerous Fishing Magazine Articles, including being chosen as having one of the Best Jobs in the World, along with Jerry and Deborah Dunaway and Wayne Bisbee (Bobby Brown the 4th).
Running the lodge for Terri’s father they worked as the perfect team, Terri in the front of the business and the Mike making sure everything from boats, generators and freshwater was kept in tip top shape.
In 2016, the De Obaldia Family officially took over the lodge. Terri Andrews who called the lodge home for over forty years remains our Ambassador and she will more than likely keep you well entertained over dinner relating many marvelous stories of the good old days.
Our current CEO, Ursula Marais, presently runs and operates the business for the family.
“The area remains wild and remote, much the same as it was those many years ago. Conservation efforts to keep the rainforest in tact is a huge focus point and responsibility. It is thanks to the Darien Gap with no roads that so little has changed, now it is our job to continue with the protection and conservation of this rainforest and the waters around it”, says Carlos De Obaldia.