Trolling plastic-skirted lures at high speeds is the ticket for First Coast wahoo.
Mark Lacovara was ready to pull away from the dock and make his way through the dark of night toward Jacksonville’s Mayport Inlet. His call reminded me of a conductor on a commuter train alerting would-be travelers that the train was about to pull away from the station. Later I would learn that I had just boarded an express train…the “Wahoo Express.”
After clearing the inlet, Mark pushed the three throttles all the way down on his 33-foot boat, engaged the autopilot, and we headed toward the impending sunrise at a speed of just over 30 knots. The water temperature was initially 72 degrees but climbed up to 77 by the time we neared the trolling area. We crossed over the “Ledge” a little more than an hour and a half after launching. The color chartplotter showed that the bottom fell sharply from 180 feet to 200 feet. A 20-foot drop is not all that great, but 50 miles off Northeast Florida, it is the dominant break in an otherwise gently sloping sea floor. The waypoints Mark had saved depicting wahoo caught during the past two years indicated that the most productive water lay just ahead.
Mark backed off the throttles and slowed to idle speed. It was time to finish rigging and put out our spread. An 80-pound-class, bent-butt rod was placed in a holder on each side of the transom. The two flatline rods would pull plastic-skirted lures with chrome heads about 100 feet behind the boat. Ahead of each lure, six feet of 480-pound-test steel cable and then 25 feet of 300-pound-test monofilament led to a 3-pound lead trolling weight. The weight would keep the lure a couple of feet or so under the surface at the high speeds we would be trolling.
A 50-pound-class rod was positioned in a holder on each of the gunnels. Plastic lures with chrome heads similar to those put out on the flatlines would be pulled about 150 feet behind the boat from outriggers. This time, however, smaller 11⁄2-pound trolling weights were rigged ahead of the cable and mono. These lighter weights ensured that the lures would ride nearer the surface and limit stress on the outriggers. A floss loop was placed on the 80-pound mainline and a No. 64 rubber band connected the mainline to a tagline from the second eye of the outrigger.
The wahoo season in Northeast Florida is going full steam by November and lasts through the end of March. Wind can create big waves this time of year and our trip had twice been postponed because of bad weather. It was now late March and the season for ’hoos was rapidly drawing to a close. Water temperatures were in the mid-70s and many of the barred speedsters had already departed. A few good-size dolphin had recently arrived in area waters and Mark thawed a package of ballyhoo to sweeten our skirted lures should the wahoo bite not be what he hoped. In addition, there was much talk among the crew and on the radio about the impending arrival of cobia near the coastline. Add king mackerel in summer, sailfish in fall, and a good year-round bottom fishery to the mix and an angler can stay busy out here.
“Make sure the drag doesn’t slip and allow line to play out on those reels,” Mark cautioned as he gave the boat power. All four lures in turn were tossed overboard and into the wash. Line was released until the lures were far behind in our wake. This time he would not take the boat up to its cruising speed of 32 knots; he would level off and begin trolling at just half that speed.
Mark’s favorite technique for catching wahoo is high-speed trolling. “Fast” is a relative term and one man’s “fast” might be another man’s “slow.” However, trolling a spread of lures with plastic skirts at speeds between 12 and 20 knots definitely qualifies as “fast” in my book.
We started by zigzagging back and forth across the trench, staying within a couple of miles either side of the dropoff. The trench runs north and south, paralleling the coastline. Mark chose to head south. We had been trolling less than 30 minutes when the clicker on one of the flatlines suddenly went off like it was in freespool and line started peeling off the spool.
“Fish on,” someone called out.
Brad Burgess was the first to reach the rod. Getting an 80-pound-class, bent-butt rod out of its holder is not an easy task. Doing so when the boat is going 16 knots and pulling three pounds of lead and a big lure makes the task significantly more difficult. The angler first has to move the rod toward the transom and away from the cockpit…that’s one of the reasons these rods are secured with a safety rope, so they aren’t lost overboard. However, when a hard-fighting wahoo is racing north while the boat is high-speeding south, the rod and reel is akin to the flag in the middle of a rope being used for a tug-of-war. You don’t just walk over to the flag, pick it up, and walk away with it. It wants to stay where it is. And so it was with the rod.
Fortunately, the crew was experienced and had fished together before. They have caught numerous wahoo while high-speed trolling and knew what to do. While Brad struggled with the rod, another angler grabbed the fighting belt and strapped it around Brad’s waist. A third crew member moved over to join what now appeared to be a huddle and helped Brad get the rod out of its holder. As if on cue, the two anglers who had helped him moved away and Brad popped up with the rod and reel in the fighting belt and a look of determination on his face. About the same time, Mark slowed the boat to idle speed. The fight was on.
Wahoo don’t leap over tall buildings but they are analogous to Superman’s locomotive. They are relentless in their pulling power and the one at the end of Brad’s line was a diesel. However, the stout rod and 80-wide eventually prevailed and the 45-pound ’hoo was gaffed alongside the boat and placed on the floor of the cockpit.
“Can’t you guys put the fish straight into the fish box?” Mark chastised the angler who had gaffed the fish. “Someone is going to get bitten or a piece of equipment broken.”
He was right. Wahoo have a set of razor-sharp, serrated teeth and powerful jaws so strong that steel cable is typically used instead of wire leader. Brad would later show me a scar on the back of his hand from a too-close encounter with a wahoo in the cockpit. After the lure was carefully removed, the fish was placed in the fish box.
Mark resumed trolling, again at 16 knots, along the Ledge. After an hour with no more strikes, he decided to move inside and look for a temperature break of a couple of degrees. He prefers water temperatures not to exceed 75 degrees in the area he is trolling and surface temps over the dropoff were too warm. Chatter on the radio indicated there was a break a few miles inshore where
temps dropped from 75 to 73 degrees in only a few boat lengths and that several fish had been caught on that break. After finding the cooler water, we caught another wahoo in short order.
One of the advantages of high-speed trolling is that you can move between areas that are reasonably close in a short period of time without having to take the lures out of the water. Another benefit is that anglers can cover more water in a day of fishing. When you are in the search mode, as often is the case while trolling, it stands to reason that if you pull your lures through more water than other boats do, more fish are likely to see them and have the opportunity to strike. Also, speed clearly is an enticement for wahoo, especially that 12- to 20-knot range. When ’hoos rush up and take a lure being trolled at a fast speed, the hookup is pretty certain. And a fish already noted for the ferocity of its strikes adds additional credence to its reputation.
The higher speeds preclude the use of ballyhoo or other natural bait. However, a large plastic-skirted lure trolled at a high speed is better any day than an improperly rigged bait that spins or gets washed out behind a skirt that is being trolled at 10 to 12 knots.
Mark decided to slow his trolling speed to about 8 knots while we ate lunch and, hopefully, find out if any dolphin had arrived early to these waters. Lines were brought in, the cable removed and exchanged for fluorocarbon leader, and ballyhoo put beneath the plastic skirts. During the next hour and a half, we boated two dolphin that each weighed in the neighborhood of 25 pounds.
Mark monitored the chartplotter carefully while trolling at the slower speed and was able to get a good sense of where the temperature break was located. With full stomachs and having had a bit of a break ourselves, we again swapped leaders. When the rigs were ready to be placed in the water, we resumed high-speed trolling at about 16 knots. The afternoon wahoo bite was good on the temperature break inside the Ledge. We put three more in the fish box before calling it a day and heading back to the marina.
High-speed trolling is not limited to anglers fishing off the First Coast. The technique can be used wherever there is a good concentration of wahoo. The Bahamas is an area of particular interest to Florida anglers in the winter, as the islands host a wahoo run at that time of year. In summer and fall, many anglers target wahoo within a few miles of the coastline of South Florida. The Gulf of Mexico produces some big fish in summer, along the giant weedlines that gather adjacent to the Loop Current.
One caveat: Count on burning more fuel than you may be accustomed to using. You might start by trolling at higher speeds, 14, 16 and 18 knots, for a portion of your next wahoo fishing trip and see how the results compare to what you are getting at more traditional speeds. Don’t be surprised to find that wahoo like express speeds better than commuter speeds.