The first time I saw a wahoo, we were trolling the edge of the Gulf Stream when a quicksilver missile shot 10 feet out of the water and divebombed the center bait 30 feet behind the boat. “Woohoo!” I shrieked. “No,” the captain laughed, “that’s a wahoo!”
My fascination with these fish has lasted a lifetime. Each spring, as warm waters return to the mid-Atlantic, wahoo show up on the edge of the continental shelf. From the canyons off DelMarVa to the valleys and humps off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the fish stick around all summer and into the fall.
Off the mid-Atlantic coast, wahoo can be caught almost anywhere along the edge of the continental shelf. Capt. Jason Snead, Oregon Inlet Fishing Center’s 2010 captain of the year, looks for wahoo to arrive in late spring. “We start to see the fish in May,” he says, “when the water temperature hits the middle 70s.”
The fish show up a little later off Virginia Beach, Virginia. Local pro Capt. Pat Foster, known as the Admiral, doesn’t expect wahoo until the end of June. Farther south, Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, is wahoo world. Capt. Kenny Koci on the charter boat The Big Tahuna never stops fishing for wahoo. “We catch them year-round,” he says. “There isn’t a month that hasn’t produced ’hoos.”
All three captains agree that late summer to early fall is the pinnacle of wahoo season. “The warmer the water, the better,” Koci says. “We’ll often find wahoo in water up to 80 degrees.”
The skippers also agree that wahoo can be hard to predict. “You have to wait for the wahoo to find you and then be ready when they show up,” Snead says.
And all three say the best way to find wahoo is to find a wahoo. “Where you catch one fish, you’re bound to catch more,” explains Snead. When he hooks a wahoo, he turns the boat and makes a few more passes through the same water. “Keep making bigger and bigger circles in the same area,” he says. “They don’t usually travel alone.”
It takes a lot of fuel to power wahoo, so these fish seldom wander far away from the kitchen, and they can’t afford to be picky. These fish will eat anything from squid to mackerel, but they really seem to love dolphin. Find a school of bait or a piece of structure that holds dolphin, and you’ll often find wahoo too.
Any drop or rise in the bottom along the edge of the continental shelf will also hold these fish, especially crossroads, where the current intersects structure. Color changes, weed lines and other flotsam are also known ’hoo hide-outs.
Foster recalls finding a floating tree one day. “Every pass, we pulled two or three wahoo off of it,” he remembers. “They just kept coming.”
Since Hatteras is within easy reach of the edge of the Gulf Stream, the wahoo scenario there is a little different. While Hatteras ’hoos favor floats and weed lines, Koci also looks for the fish over rock pinnacles from the Rockpile to the 200 Rocks. He most often finds wahoo on the inshore or up-current side of structure. Koci says that wahoo offer offshore anglers who are new to the area an easy opportunity for glory. “Just find the break and start trolling,” he says. “You’re bound to run into ’hoos.”
Foster and Snead usually encounter wahoo when they are looking for tuna, marlin or dolphin, so they rarely have the security of wire line. For these guys, the go-to bait for wahoo is an Ilander over a large ballyhoo, or a No. 4½ Drone spoon dragged 60 feet behind a No. 8 planer or 36-ounce in-line sinker on a flat line. “Any time there are wahoo around,” Foster says, “I’ll fish a planer rod.” If they encounter big numbers of wahoo, the pros replace both flat lines with planers.
Snead relies on purple, dark red and black skirts on his Ilanders. “There’s something about dark colors,” he says. He likes dark spoons too but says that white and silver can be hot as well. Fishing out of Hatteras, Koci stresses the addition of Mylar and flash to his baits. “Wahoo like the bling-bling,” he explains.
Even with mono line, anglers have a chance at catching toothy wahoo. To keep one from cutting the leader, Snead suggests leaving the boat in gear while fighting the fish. “If you can keep the fish coming in, keep the line tight and keep the boat moving forward, you can keep the wahoo from biting through the leader.”