Feature Article: Tony Pena Obit

Tony Pena, The Planner

BY PAT McDONELL/Special to Western Outdoor NewsPublished: Feb 01, 2019

Writer/Photographer set 18 world records in 19 countries and never stopped looking for the next great fishery to experience and share its secrets with readers




TONY PENA TRAVELED the globe and advanced awareness of new techniques and destinations to hundreds of thousands of readers over four decades. He was known for his exquisite photography and technical writing, but he also had the ability to bring to the reader the thrill of the hunt, the hookup and the catch. He was also an exceptional speaker before fishing clubs and outdoor travel shows. Pena passed away Jan. 17 at his home in Valley Center at age 70. PHOTOS COURTESY OF SABRINA PENA

VALLEY CENTER There were few saltwater species Tony Pena failed to catch and photograph, and his passion to travel and experience the best of the world’s fisheries led him to 19 countries where he set 18 world records and set a high bar for standards in outdoor writing and photography over four decades. His stories appeared in every major national and local fishing publication, including Western Outdoor News. He was a sought after seminar speaker, a master halibut angler, and was also the originator of the Tony Pena Spectra Knot.

He was above all a planner, said his wife Sabrina Pena last week after Tony passed away from a heart attack in his sleep Jan. 17 at their Valley Center home. They moved to San Diego’s North County 10 years ago after he retired as the City of Coronado’s Director of City Planning and Community Development.

“He was very astute at planning, but I did not know just how well he was it until last week,” Sabrina joked. “He was simply amazing because he went out on his terms. He said once when he came back from a trip to Panama after a captain he knew had a heart attack and fell overboard at night and was found days later that he hoped to die in his sleep. He got his wish. Because he was such the planner he made a great use of his hobby of fishing, and it propelled him around the world.”

When he was not on the job in Coronado for 35 years, by his own estimation attending 2,000 City Council meetings (Nov. 18, 2018 the City Council declared his last day on the job, Nov. 18, to be Tony Pena Day in the city), he was planning trips to fishing locales he dreamed about as a young boy growing up near the ocean in naval housing in National City, the youngest of seven brothers. He starred on the gridiron at Southwestern High School, but focused on college as his ticket to success, and went on to graduate from SDSU with honors in 1970.

As a graduate assistant in geography at San Diego State in the early ’70s, Pena read copies of fishing magazines while administering exams to undergraduates, thinking of ways to fish the exotic locales described in their pages.

A TYPICAL FRAMED photo of Tony Pena of a huge dorado. He was a master at setting up photos showing anglers and catches but bringing out the vibrant colors in fish, which were almost always released.

Make no mistake, Pena was great fisherman. He actually got his start in the fishing business as a seminar speaker and co-host of many Saltwater fishing school trips to Baja and eventually Panama with Kit McNear, who ran schools through California Angler magazine and later teamed with Western Outdoor News. By that time, in the ’90s, Pena’s brilliant photos and features were in every major national outdoor publication.

”He was one of the finest photojournalists to ever come around, and in his stories he was really accurate,” said McNear. “He was a great fisherman, and among many things he pioneered the use of Pili Plugs on the West Coast. He brought over the hardbaits and gave them to me and we used them in fishing schools, and that started that whole thing, of using plugs for tuna and roosterfish. Now, of course, it’s a big thing, with many other companies in it, but that was all Tony. He developed the tackle and the techniques here and in Baja for that style of fishing in the beginning. Another thing, in the late ‘80s he was the foremost authority on Southern California halibut fishing, and in his seminars he was amazing, an Encyclopedia of information on catching them.

“But of all his loves and places he traveled, it was Panama he loved most,” McNear continued. “I took him that on a trip for the first time on the Coral Star. He was hooked. It was funny because he was calm, and easygoing, and I was the opposite. One morning in our room at Hotel Las Arenas at a school we were hosting, I couldn’t sleep. Too excited about getting out there. He opened his eyes, looked over at me hopping around my bed, and said, ‘Kit, settle down, the fish will be out there waiting for us.’ That was Tony. We shared some rare moments over the years,” said McNear.

Pena was first published in 1978, and recognized early that magazine editors required unique photography for their slick-paper full-color publications. He won many photography awards including Best Photo Series by the Outdoor Writers Association of California for 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2010 (2nd) as well as Best Magazine Feature for 2010 (Marlin Magazine "Travel Safely").

THE TONY PENA Spectra knot that easily joins super braid with mono. Many of his stories and photography are archived in his website rovingangler.com

Pena’s forte in articles he wrote, expansive features with exquisite photography, was sharing not only the thrill of the catch, but the reason for the fishery, or the uniqueness of the destination or fishery. His favorite place to fish, as McNear pointed out, was the west coast of Panama, particularly Coiba Island and its nearby Hannibal Bank.

“It was Panama, hands down,” Sabrina said. “Tony told me once that ‘You can go there and catch 32 different species of fish in one day.’” He also recognized the fragility of fisheries, and promoted catch-and-release and conservation groups.

Pena was an educator, always willing to share his stories and knowledge and expertise in technical stories and in seminars, and guided other anglers to 17 world records of their own. His angling forte, arguably, was halibut. He was well known for his ability to catch huge fish on the Tijuana flats just a few miles south of where he grew up, but he always thrilled at the explosion of a tuna or roosterfish on a surface popper.

Some of his varied magazine titles included: A guide To Grouper, Caribbean Grand Slams: Cohiba Style, Destination Gorda Banks, Popping Pargo, Top Ten Baits For Halibut, The World Is Yours, Snook Secrets of La Paz Bay, and Outsmarting Roosterfish. Those and many other of his archived stories can be found at his website: rovingangler.com

Over four decades, Pena wrote for Marlin, Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing as well as Maxim, Las Vegas Travel, Southeast Asia Fishing World, Los Cabos Tournament Magazine, Western Outdoor News, California Angler, Pacific Coast Sportfishing and South Coast Sportfishing.

He leaves his wife Sabrina, five older brothers and a stepdaughter, Andreona Pena. Memorial Services are set at the Pena’s family church, St. Mary’s in National City at 10 a.m. on Feb. 16. Half of his ashes will be spread a month later off San Diego Bay, Sabrina said, and the other half eventually will be spread in a ceremony in waters off Panama. “That was what he said he wanted,” said Sabrina. “We talked about all of that.”

Tony Pena was, above all, the consummate planner.

An excerpt from a Tony Pena Feature, ‘Snook Secrets of La Paz Bay’

The line to one of the dead baits started moving upcurrent and wasn’’t noticed until it was parallel to the beam. Not one click of the rachet sounded alarm. Niles grabbed the rod as Osio shouted, “Pargo! Hit it!” Cranking the reel handle to take up the slack, Niles soon came tight to heavy resistance. The fish made the rod tip bounce wildly as if shaking its head and then came to the surface, making a thunderous leap.

“Snook! That’s a snook!” I hollered as we scrambled to clear rods from its path. The fish peeled off line under good drag pressure and took Niles around the boat twice before slugging it out from the stern. After 15 minutes the fish was alongside as Osorio carefully grabbed it fir a quick weighing. The scale pulled down to 35 pounds – a good fish anywhere and especially on a dead bait intended for a bottom-dwelling pargo. It was just another lesson to be learned from the unpredictable snook.”

From rovingangler.com

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