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Pro Tactics for Wahoo

Break the wahoo code for top pelagic action.

December 17, 2020
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Nice wahoo gaffed on board
Close attention to weather, currents and structure yields winter wahoo such as this one. Sam Farkas

There’s a wahoo fishery between Marathon and Key Largo that rivals any in the Southeast. It’s productive, easily accessible, and while not as well-known as other wahoo hotspots, it provides a proving ground for successful strategies and tactics.

Through years of obsessive fishing, Ryan Van Fleet of Tavernier, Florida, has deciphered wahoo patterns in the Upper Keys, and developed reliable tactics for small-boat anglers.

He says the universal precepts of wahoo fishing hold true in the Upper Keys. Think of the three T’s: tide, terrain and temperature.

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The full-moon and new-moon phases, when wahoo feed actively, are favored times to target them. Wahoo gather along reef drop-offs and actively feed during these big tides. Have lines in the water half an hour before dawn. When the surface temperature drops, hunt for them deeper.

Lay of the Land

Local knowledge is indispensable as well, such as the way the water moves, the migratory patterns of the fish, and the prey species.

From Alligator Reef to Molasses Reef, for example, the Gulf Stream swings near the reef as it turns north around the peninsula, creating nutrient-rich eddies that carry both forage and predators. Those currents change every day, and the effects of water flow from the Gulf make tide changes along the reef tricky.

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Wahoo caught at sunset
Short winter days promise hot wahoo action. David Conway

“Cooler water and green water push the fish out as far as 600-foot depths,” Van Fleet says. “Just because the water looks bad, it doesn’t mean the wahoo are not around. In the colder months, move out deeper and find the color change. That’s where you’ll find the wahoo. They tend to stay in an area for several days when conditions are right.”

Though wahoo can be caught year-round in the Keys, the biggest fish come in the fall and winter, around the moon tides, especially when those happen to coincide with a pre-frontal weather system.

Large female wahoo feed ahead of the first large cold fronts that come through the Keys, Van Fleet says. A 30- or 40-pound wahoo is respectable for the Keys, though he sees many much bigger. While 80-plus-pound fish are uncommon, what the fishery lacks in size, it makes up for in numbers.

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Seek Solitude

“This past year, the big push happened in October and November,” Van Fleet says. “My best day, I had 14 bites and caught nine wahoo—over one tide cycle—on a strip bait rigged with a blue-and-white witch by Wild Willy fished off a planer. There was zero boat traffic that day.”

Gaffing a wahoo as it comes boatside
A gaff man at the moment of truth as a wahoo comes boatside. Sam Farkas

That point is significant. Boat traffic puts wahoo down. If you get out under good conditions, without too many boats around, all the better. If not, it’s a good idea to try something else and come back later when the traffic has died down.

“Patience is the key,” Van Fleet says.

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Hunt Structure

Beyond the reef, look for drop-offs and ledges. Even a few feet of bottom relief might hold wahoo. Those are the same ledges where lobsters live, so look for the lobster buoys. Those buoys point to wahoo trolling grounds, but they’ll also present real hazards when a hooked wahoo makes a run toward them.

Wahoo caught using an artificial lure
Artificial lures, with or without ballyhoo, get their attention. Kevin Dodge

Wrecks also hold schools of wahoo. Van Fleet favors the Bibb, Duane and Eagle wrecks for vertical jigging.

“Jigging these wrecks often produces more wahoo than trolling, but the fish act differently,” he says. “Think of your jig as a flasher that attracts them.”

Additionally, seamounts like the Islamorada Hump hold good numbers of wahoo, especially later in the season. “They move with the tuna schools,” Van Fleet says. “In the spring, I catch these wahoo trolling planers.”

Rigs and Techniques

Van Fleet’s primary strategies are drifting live baits on downriggers and trolling with planers. First thing in the morning, he’ll use electric downriggers, each with a 10-pound weight, to put down live baits at two different depths: “One at 59 feet and another at 89 feet down, and the bites will tell you where the fish are.” Goggle-eyes are his favorite bait. “They’re the perfect size,” he says. “Wahoo love speedos (redtail scad), but sometimes they don’t get hooked because those baits are so big.”

When sea conditions allow, here’s Van Fleet’s trolling spread for wahoo
[1] Short Planer: Lipped plug or strip bait/witch set 50 feet deep, 200 feet back [2] Long Planer: Strip bait/witch or ballyhoo/witch set 25 feet deep, 300 feet back [3] Outriggers: Ballyhoo/witch behind pink or pearl daisy chain set 350 feet back; ballyhoo/witch set 400 feet back [4] Shotgun: Ballyhoo/witch set 450 feet back Steve Sanford

Especially in the winter, when surface temperatures are often colder than at depth, there might not be many surface bites, but the bottom bite can be on fire. When it’s rough, the fish also might stay deep. He sets up his drift, lowers the baits, and watches the fish finder. A few drifts over marked fish will tell if they’re going to eat.

“With a north wind, the wahoo come tight to the reef. The bait gets pushed off the reef, and the wahoo are waiting. As a small-boat guy, I don’t want to fight the wind. I want to use the current to position my drift. Nine times out of 10, the fish face into the wind-driven current. I set up with the wind and drift live baits to the wahoo. I catch wahoo even when there is no tide, so long as it’s windy.”

Later in the morning, when bait rises to the surface, Van Fleet turns to trolling at 7 to 11 knots, with lures on the planers and ballyhoo on rigger lines.

Downrigger setup for catching wahoo
Van Fleet runs Old Salty No. 8 planers off electric downriggers, locking the planer trip rings in place to prevent the planers tripping at higher speeds. He affixes a swivel to the back of each planer, fastened to a section of bungie cord attached to a release clip. After letting the line back, he wraps a No. 64 rubber band around it, puts the rubber band in the release clip, and lowers the planer. With this system he is able to troll between 8 and 12 mph. When a fish strikes, the rubber band and bungie afford enough delayed resistance to set the hook before the line breaks away from the clip. Steve Sanford

“Planers attract fish, pure and simple. Sometimes I run deep-drop lights on my planers too,” he says. “This added flash pulls them into the spread. Frequently, one rises from 60 feet and eats the planer bait, then the rest hit the other lines. The biggest fish always seem to eat last.”

Read Next: How to Catch Wahoo Anywhere

When you hook that wahoo, maintain your forward motion, to see if you can hook another. When landing a fish, keep the boat moving forward, and bring the fish alongside, keeping its head underwater. The wahoo will fall in line at the side of your boat. That’s when you decide whether to release it or invite it home for dinner.

Holding up a freshly caught wahoo
Cagey and tough, wahoo make fine table fare as well. David Conway

What

Wahoo

Where

Upper Keys, Florida

When

September through April

Who

These two guys know where the wahoo will be:

Capt. Ryan Van Fleet, Good Karma Charters, 305-619-2126

Capt. Tony Young, Forever Young Charters, 305-680-8879

Fishing for Wahoo

Trolling

Rod: 5 1⁄2-foot, extra-heavy power, for 50- to 80-pound line

Reel: 50-class, two-speed Line: 60-pound braid, 150 feet of 60-pound mono top shot, 15 feet of 60-pound fluoro leader, and 50-pound titanium bite leader

Lures: Halco Lazer Pro 190 or equivalent

Live Bait

Rod: 6 1⁄2-foot, extra-heavy power, for 30- to 80-pound line

Reel: 16-class, two-speed Line: 40-pound braid, 150 feet of 30-pound mono top shot, 15 feet of 40-pound fluoro leader, No. 5 single-strand-wire bite leader

Hooks: Mustad 4/0 or 5/0 Big Gun Hook, Eagle Claw Treble No. 4 for stinger

Baits: Goggle-eyes, speedos

Halco lure used when fishing for wahoo
Halco Laser Pro 190 Courtesy Halco

Augment ballyhoo baits with a diving, swimming plug, such as the Halco Laser Pro 190, on a planer.

Planer used to present baits for wahoo
Old Salty No. 8 Planer Courtesy Old Salty

Flat-line baits off the transom are trolled at the desired depth behind an Old Salty No. 8 planer.

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