A 21-foot Boston Whaler was my introduction to the world of offshore fishing when I was a teenager. My friends and I learned to catch kingfish and cobia from the nearshore rigs, within sight of the beach. Then as we grew braver, we ventured farther from shore.
One calm day, we pushed the limit and motored far offshore in search of cobia or dolphin. When we found sargassum, we dropped a couple of flat lines for dolphin and a third line with a kingfish leader rigged with a large ribbonfish. We trolled until we started getting nervous about fuel and decided to make a couple of passes on a buoy we’d sighted before heading in.
On the first pass, the rod with the ribbonfish went off like nothing we had ever seen. I took the rod and saw a very small amount of line on the spool. Somehow the 30-pound-class tackle held, and we managed to get on top of the fish. I was nearing exhaustion when one of my buddies identified the fish as a wahoo. After a ridiculously long fight, our second try with the gaff nabbed our prize, a 60-pounder. Not only had we learned exactly how these magnificent fish got the name wahoo, but we were now big-game anglers. And I was hooked on a fish that has a hold on me to this day.
What Is in a Name?
Not too long ago, my good friend from Hawaii, Burt Moritz, e-mailed me some pictures of the ono that they had been catching. As I waited for the images to download, I wondered what new, exotic fish species I was about to see. Instead, I found some very nice wahoo. No matter what you call wahoo, to say that they are special fish is an understatement. These fast-growing brutes command respect from all who seek them, for not only are they the truest of sports in battle, but their flesh is of the most remarkable quality as table fare. They are found in the tropical and subtropical blue waters of both the Atlantic and Pacific and are caught year-round May through October, the peak season in most places.
Rigging for Wahoo Fishing
While wahoo can be caught by drifting live baits near structures such as weed lines, buoys and oil rigs, the most consistent strategy is trolling. And while many argue that the best way to get a big fish hooked up is to slow-troll large baits like blue runners, the most popular method is to fast-troll either skirted natural baits, such as cigar minnows or ballyhoo, or a vibrating hard bait at speeds of 7 to 8 knots, and sometimes even faster.
“One of the best days of wahoo fishing I ever saw was at the Flower Garden [Banks National Marine Sanctuary, in the Gulf of Mexico,] this past February,” respected Gulf angler Trent Allen recently told me. “I think we had 17 or 18, and they were all caught by our trolling those old Bait’O Matic skirted baits. You know, the ones with slanted heads to make them dive. I think we were dragging them about 7 knots about 20 feet down.”
Another favorite bait is a Rapala diving plug about a foot long, although any stout trolling plug will do as long as it will get below 10 feet and run straight at speeds of 6 to 8 knots. Darker colored baits like red-and-black, purple-and-black as well as combinations of blue and green, seem to get the most consistent results.
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.