Big Wahoo in the Mid-Atlantic

Follow these tactics for year-round success

June 21, 2017
mid-atlantic wahoo catch
From summer into fall, wahoo abound off the mid-Atlantic coast. Ric Burnley

When the wahoo bite fired up off Virginia Beach last fall, I knew Capt. Kenny Koci was my go-to. While most areas get a short shot at ’hoos, Hatteras anglers can target the fish year-round. If anyone was going to get on ’em, Koci was my trump card. “Fishing’s been good,” he told me.

summer wahoo in Atlantic Ocean
Summer wahoo prowl inshore structure. Ric Burnley

Mid-Atlantic Wahoo

Each fall, as the warm water moves south, wahoo and tuna ride the edge of the continental shelf. Anglers fishing the canyons and nearshore humps and hills encounter wahoo all summer, but in early fall, the fish are on the move and on the feed.

I met Koci at Fisherman’s Wharf Marina hours before dawn. The plan was to target tuna early, then turn to wahoo fishing, and later rig up for swordfishing that night. Before the sun was up, mate Derek Nelson had baits in the water and a half-dozen yellowfin in the box. “They’ve really been biting early,” he explained as the sun came up and the fishing slowed.


That’s when Koci ordered us to make the switch. Nelson brought in the monofilament leaders and switched over to his cheater rig. That’s a ­20-foot leader of 150-pound mono with a foot-long shot of No. 9 stainless wire connected with an Albright knot. Nelson uses the rig whenever he’s targeting wahoo with a chance of tuna. “Tuna won’t usually hit a full wire leader,” he says, “but adding just a short piece of wire is enough to keep the wahoo from biting through the leader.”

He runs the wire leader through a Sea Witch skirt or Ilander lure, employing all the famous wahoo colors, especially black-and-red and purple. “They like pink too,” he says.

To the Sea Witch, he added a ¾-ounce egg sinker and left the tag on the haywire twist to serve as a pin. For wahoo, Nelson prefers a 7/0 recurve hook. “I think the fish stay hooked when the point bends slightly toward the shank,” he explained. Obsessive about using sticky-sharp hooks, he tested each on his thumbnail before sending it out.


Wahoo Spread

wahoo spread to use
Try a variety of lure and lure-and-ballyhoo combinations. Rule of thumb is to place larger lures closer to the transom and smaller ones back in the spread. From left to right: Sea Witch on long riggers; Ilanders on short riggers; Large Ilander off transom; Small Ilanders or naked ballyhoo on center riggers; Planer rod off the right transom; Ilanders on short riggers; Sea Witch with or without ballyhoo Illustration by Steve Sanford

Nelson sweetens the skirts with medium or select ­ballyhoo, which he brines overnight in a slurry of ice, salt and water to make the baits tougher and brighter. Nelson prefers monel wire to then lash the ballyhoo to the hook. “A rubber band is fine for tuna, but wahoo slash the bait, and I’ve had them come back for the head.”

His rule of thumb for setting the spread is bigger baits run closest to the boat. “I want to draw the fish’s attention away from the teaser,” he says. He starts with Sea Witches on the long riggers, then Ilander lures on the short position, and he’ll mix up smaller Ilanders or a naked ballyhoo on the long and short shotgun.

The left flat line is a bigger Ilander lure, and the right corner holds his planer rod. “I get most of my bites on the planer,” he admits. Something about a Sea Witch or Ilander swimming 30 to 40 feet under the boat drives wahoo crazy. “I like to use a 4½ Drone spoon too,” he says.


He uses the same ­cheater rig, but attaches the wire to 100 feet of 130-pound monofilament. A few feet from the end of the leader, he adds a planer with a bridle. His planer rod is spooled with 200-pound braided line that cuts through the water better than monofilament. When the angler brings the line to the boat, Nelson reaches over and ­removes the planer so the angler can continue to work the fish to the boat.

As I expected, Nelson’s wahoo arsenal was tight. Koci worked the boat along the edge of the 100-fathom drop at 7 knots, trolling as shallow as 20 fathoms before turning out to the deep.

We caught fish everywhere. The key was fishing structure. By the end of the day, we had a limit of big wahoo in the box. Jackpot!


Hatteras History

Back home in Hatteras, ­Nelson and the rest of the island’s anglers rely on wahoo for their bread and ­butter. The fish are available ­year-round, but the best bite is through the summer and into the fall. As the seasons change, wahoo fishing heats up. Last October, I joined captains Andy Piland and Tim Hagerich on Good Times out of Hatteras Harbor Marina.

As Piland weaved the boat out of the inlet, Hagerich pulled miles of wire out of the cabin. “It wasn’t that long ago we used fishing wire for everything,” he laughed. “I’m glad those days are over.”

For toothy wahoo, old tricks die hard. Hagerich admits that wire offers a lot of advantages over monofilament.

Besides completely stopping wahoo from slicing through the leader, Hagerich told me that his lures track straighter and swim better behind a 30-foot section of No. 9 wire. “It also keeps the lure a little deeper below the surface,” he says.

Hagerich prefers piano wire to stainless steel. “We go through so much of it, it’s better to get a whole spool.” He replaces the whole leader after every fish. “As soon as I wrap it around my hand or it gets a kink, it’s done.” At the end of each day, he starts all over again with a fresh leader on every rod.

big wahoo catch in Atlantic
Tasty summer wahoo comes over the transom. Ric Burnley

Yeah, he’s good at twisting up a haywire twist. He showed me, saying, “Be sure both legs of the wire are coming off at the same angle so you’re twisting both, not wrapping one piece around the other.” One end of the wire is ­twisted into a loop and clipped to a snap swivel tied to the main line. The other end of the leader is threaded through a Sea Witch, Ilander lure or chugger skirt and attached to a 7/0 hook. “I use the Owner Jobu hooks that are treated to be ­corrosion-resistant.” This allows him to go all day without sharpening the hooks. “Wahoo have a bony mouth. The hook has to be super-sharp,” he stresses.

According to Hagerich, when fishing for wahoo, speed is the most important factor. They’ll troll as fast as 9 knots and get more bites than slower boats. “If you miss a bite,” he adds, “give it some juice and the fish will come back.” He expects to get multiple hits, so he’ll speed up after he has one fish on. “A lot of the time, we’ll get a bite on the planer first, then the short rigger and long riggers,” he says.

They look for fish over rock piles and wrecks inside 100 fathoms. “Wahoo like it shallow,” he points out, and many bites come as shallow as 20 fathoms. “We’ve had days when we limited out by doing circles around one wreck.”

By late fall, wahoo fishing is off the hook out of Hatteras. “I’ve fished all over the world and never seen anything like wahoo fishing here,” ­Hagerich boasts. Not only do the fish grow more numerous as the seas cool, but they also seem to grow bigger. “By the end of the fall, we’ll catch fish over 50 pounds all day.”


Wind-On Planer Rig for Wahoo

wind-on planer rig for wahoo
Setup and description: Main line on the left, 150-pound mono in the middle and the lure off to the right of the photo. Illustration by Steve Sanford

Start with 100 feet of 150-pound monofilament. Two feet from the swivel that connects the leader to the main line, crimp two 3-inch loops about a foot apart. Crimp a 4-inch piece of 300-pound-test to the front and another piece to the back of a No. 6 planer. Crimp a 150-pound-test snap swivel to the end of each piece of 300-pound-test. Clip the planer to the loops in the main line.

Three tips

1.) Front tether is longer to enable planing 2.) Snaps allow planer removal prior to winding in leader 3.) Removable planer makes battling the fish easier

Fast Facts for Success

Depth: Wahoo prefer shallow water from 20 to 50 fathoms. Look for hills, rock piles and wrecks.
Flow: Fish away from the full and new moon to avoid swift current.
Temperature: Action heats up as water temperatures drop into the low 70s.

rig for wahoo
Pass the end of wire through the skirt, a 1-ounce egg sinker and the eye of a 7/0 hook. Bend the end of the wire over and make a haywire twist in front of the hook, keeping the loop small. Before finishing with barrel wraps, slide the sinker over the twist. Use monel wire to wrap a ballyhoo onto the hook. Illustrations by Steve Sanford

SWS Planner

Mid-Atlantic Wahoo

What: Big wahoo
Where: Hatteras, North Carolina, and Virginia Beach, Virginia
When: June through October
Who: Wahoo offer great excitement, but require some know-how. These pros can get you on fish.

Hatteras Island

Capt. Andy Piland
Good Times
Good Times website

Capt. Kenny Koci
Wasabi website

Virginia Beach

Capt. Russ Kostinas
Top Notch
Top Notch website

Capt. Joe DelCampo
Captain Cheryl
Captain Cheryl website

Top Trolling Lures for Wahoo

Ilander Sailure
Ilander Sailure Courtesy Ilander

Lightweight and active, the Ilander Sailure entices finicky strikers.

Sea Witch
Sea Witch Courtesy

Rigged alone or with a ballyhoo, the wahoo find the action of the Sea Witch especially appealing.

Ilander Sea Star
Ilander Sea Star Courtesy

The Ilander Sea Star runs well at faster trolling speeds.

No. 41⁄2 Drone spoon
No. 41⁄2 Drone spoon Courtesy

For variety, substitute a No. 41⁄2 Drone spoon on a planer for a Sea Witch or Ilander.

SWS Tackle Box

Rods: 50- and 80-pound-class conventional stand-up
Reels: Two-speed 50- and 80-class, matched to rods
Line: 80-pound braid, 200-pound braid on planer rod, 150- to 200-pound mono leader and No. 9 wire
Lures: Sea Witch, Ilander Sailure and Sea Star Jr., No. 41⁄2 Drone spoon


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