On Feb. 11 the crew of the Reel Labor boat fishing team was high-speed trolling big artificial lures at 14 knots in 180 feet of water about 70 miles off the coast of South Carolina. They were participating in the South Carolina Wahoo Series tournament, which runs through Apr. 17 out of several ports along the Palmetto State coast.
Wahoo fishing is a specialized sport that targets one of the fastest and most prized fish in the ocean. The team of anglers, fishing off a 31-foot Cape Horn boat, had caught a smaller 23-pound wahoo that morning. were enjoying an unusually calm winter day when one of their lines got hit by a fish. But the rod didn’t bend tight, nor did the line go blistering off the Shimano Tiagra 50 reel.
“We went to the rod in a boat holder thinking a fish had hit but missed the lure,” said Reel Labor owner and captain Mark Pate, 53. “But when we got ahold of the rod, that woke up the fish, and it rocketed into a run like we’d never seen previously – and we’ve been chasing wahoo for a long time.”
Few fish have the power and speed of a big wahoo. But even Pate was stunned by how far and fast the fish blistered his 130-pound test line, pulled from a specialized, high-end reel set at 20 pounds of drag pressure.
“That fish showed what a 120-pound wahoo can do,” said Pate. “One that big is a whole different class of wahoo. Its run is impossible to believe unless you witness it. That first run was 600 yards, and there was nothing to do but watch the reel scream and the line evaporate off the spool like it was tied to a Ford pickup truck in a drag race. The reel actually got hot from that run.”
They cleared the stern of the four other trolling rods and lines and settled in to fighting the fish, which was shared among several of the anglers. The fish made repeated runs, requiring a lot of reel cranking and boat maneuvering. Finally, nearly an hour later, the fish was drawn close to the Reel Labor.
One angler grabbed the leader, but he couldn’t hold the giant wahoo, and it zipped around to the stern, coming close to cutting the line on the motors.
“The fish crossed behind the engines, and one of our guys got a gaff in it while standing on the motor platform,” says Pate. “That’s when I put the boat in neutral, stepped fast to the stern and hit the fish again at the head with a second gaff.”
The anglers muscled the big wahoo aboard. Pate slumped into a boat chair, exhausted and relieved the fish was caught.
“The odds of us catching a bigger wahoo that day were impossible, and we were whipped and ready to head home, so we did,” said Pate.
They ran back to Hilton Head where the wahoo was officially weighed at 119.3 pounds. The fish was 79 inches long and had a 35-inch girth.
“It’s the fish of a lifetime, like a 200-inch Pope and Young buck taken by a bowhunter,” said Pate. “Three of our five-man crew will have a replica mount made of the fish, because none of us expect to ever get another one like this.”
The fish struck a C&H American Express blue-and-white trolling lure. It’s an old standby design by the now defunct C&H Lure company in Jacksonville, Florida, Pate’s original hometown. Pate bought it from the late legendary angler Don Combs.
The crew of the Reel Labor included South Carolina coastal anglers Justin Dox, J.R. Spencer, Chris Mills and Scott Farmer.
“We’re all great friends and as a team we’ve been fishing this wahoo tournament for almost 10 years,” said Pate. “It’s really a dream come true catching a wahoo this size. And if we win the tournament [$35,000 top prize], it’ll be an even bigger bonus.”