Fighting a 'Hoo
Often wahoo are hooked when you're fishing for some other species, such as billfish or kingfish, and the fight ends up being proportionate to the tackle. Plenty of wahoo are landed on kingfish tackle because those after kingfish are already rigging with the necessary wire leader. It is not until several baits are lost to the toothy marauders that billfishermen realize they are in wahoo country and make the appropriate rigging change.
Success on light tackle lies in teamwork and communication between the angler, the captain and the guy responsible for gaffing the fish. The trick is to get over the fish and fight it vertically. This keeps the line away from the fish's tail and prevents the hooks from working back and forth in the hard, bony mouth. It is not so much a game of pumping and winding but more of lifting, with a smooth recovery of the line, and bringing the rod tip to the water to prepare for the next lift. If the fish begins a long run and changes the angle of the fight, it is crucial for the driver to follow the fish and stay on top of it. Doing so should be a deliberate but cautious move. Be careful not to overrun the fish or to go so fast that the angler has to reel frantically to recover line.
Once the fish has been brought to the surface, it is time for the gaff. It's important, especially on big fish or when fishing lighter tackle, to make sure the fish is good and tired before sticking it. As a rule, try to get the gaff in the fish as close to the head as possible, to control where those teeth are. An out-of-control wahoo in the cockpit has more than once meant stitches for the crew.
Over the years, I have seen many 70- to 90-pound wahoo taken on 40-pound kingfish tackle. In May of 2009, I had the pleasure of taking the helm from my friend John Thomas Dusek while he battled a 90-pounder. The day had been a disaster. We dodged storms on the way out, finally making it to a favorite rig to catch bait only to have one of the engines die. We decided to at least fish some before limping back on one motor. We were nowhere near where we wanted to be, but fate smiled on us when the one and only bite of the day happened.
We all looked at each other with that "no, you get it" look before I urged Dusek to take up the rod, as he is generally stuck at the helm while the rest of us catch all the fish. While the fight dragged on, Dusek and I debated whether it was a big king or a wahoo. I claimed it had to be a king because we were too close to shore for anything else. When the fish came to the surface, the unmistakable yell of "wahoo" underscored just how wrong I was.
Rig It Right
Because of the way wahoo attack their prey, the way you rig depends on how you are fishing. Wahoo tend to make a high-speed pass on their prey, with the intention of injuring it with their mouthful of razors, then turn and come back to finish the job. Outside of choosing the right bait, rigging properly for wahoo is critical to success, and often that's simply a matter of assembling the proper leader.
When trolling lures at high speeds, a short 3- to 4-foot 80-pound-test wire leader will get the job done; however, for slow-trolling live baits it is essential to lengthen the leader to about 4 or 5 feet, and even longer when drifting baits. When the bait is in motion, a fish will come from behind and below, using its remarkable speed to overcome and attack. When the bait is moving slowly or just drifting, that set of teeth could easily come from any direction and sever the line.
Rods: 30- to 50-pound conventional rods with plenty of backbone.
Reels: 30- to 50-pound conventional reels with ultra-smooth drags.
Lines: Monofilament in either 30- or 50-pound-test. 30 will handle smaller fish easily, but bigger ones demand 50.
Baits: Live blue runners; skirted cigar minnows and ballyhoo.
Lures: Vibrating hard baits, diving plugs and high-speed trolling lures in dark colors like red-and-black or purple-and-black.
Leaders: For high-speed trolling, 3 to 4 feet of 80-pound wire; for slow-trolling and drifting, 6 feet of wire.