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Winter Wahoo Fishing in Key West

Winter brings an excellent run of wahoo to Florida's southernmost fishing grounds. Here's how to score.

“Cowbell” style high-speed lure took this winter wahoo off Key West.

In Florida, wahoo are probably ranked just below marlin on anglers' “what I would love to catch offshore” list. I caught my first wahoo off Key West trolling for mahi in the summer of 1971, when I was a complete novice. The first run was awesome and the colors of the fish in the water at the end of the fight were brilliant. I'll never forget it. Even the locals thought it was a big deal. As the years passed, I came to a greater appreciation of just what a great catch a wahoo of any size is.

This lit up wahoo couldn't resist a lipped-diver.

Today, wahoo are as unpredictable as ever. A globally distributed species favoring deep, warm ocean waters, wahoo are caught up and down the Florida coast. In certain places and seasons, the odds of catching one increase. But the best place in Florida to target numbers is most definitely Key West! Wahoo can be caught off Key West year-round, but the best time to chase them here is November through February when schools move in near the reefs. Wahoo seem to appear in waves for several days, then disappear for a week or more. Most captains believe the best bites are four days before or after the full and new moons.

At times wahoo are so thick off Key West that bluewater divers can actually spear them.

At times wahoo are so thick off Key West that bluewater divers can actually spear them, but the trick is always to find them. Local freedivers simply drift the edge of the reef, hoping to swim into a school. They'll report spotting schools of over a hundred, but then days when they never see any. Anglers troll with downriggers and planers, drift live baits, or chum with live pilchards or bonito chunks.

If you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, the results can be spectacular with catches ranging from 15 to over 70 pounds.

The best way to cover the most water is high-speed trolling. Wahoo tend to stay deep so getting down to their level is very important. Most of the Key West charter boats use downriggers while others use planers. Both these methods require special equipment and heavy tackle because the baits need to be moving fast.

Bonito belly strip with skirt is a charterboat classic that catches a lot of wahoo.

My friend Hunter Ledbetter links wahoo to the schools of small blackfins that appear off Key West in early fall. He's convinced that if you can find the tuna, there will be wahoo following them. Hunter uses #6 and #8 planers and trolls a bonito strip behind a sea witch with 9/0 hooks. He's also found that heavy mono gets a lot more strikes than wire, but has to admit that he gets cut off a lot.

Sharp eyes and sharp teeth. You'll need wire leader, but not too heavy.

I rode along with Ledbetter last September after he reported catching wahoo when they weren't supposed to be there. We ran south from Boca Chica channel and began trolling in 300 feet of water. I'd really never used planers before and learned a lot that day. Hunter trolls at 8 mph and never stops the boat even when a fish is hooked. Tackle is heavy and he keeps the boat moving so the angler won't be fighting the planer while the wahoo swims around on a semi-slack line.

Most crews troll bonito strips on a long (to 100') leader behind a planer like the one shown above.

We had a few cut-offs, caught some barracuda, but eventually started catching a few blackfin tuna in the 5-pound range. This was what Hunter was looking for, because the wahoo he'd been catching had blackfin tuna in their stomachs, so we stayed in that specific area.

The high-speed planer rigs require pretty stout drags, so the smaller fish simply tripped Hunter's planer and never really took out any line. The wahoo were a different story. When a wahoo hit, there was no question that it was a wahoo… the drag screamed. Several times the run only lasted seconds before we were cut off, but by the end of the day we had boated two nice wahoo in the 30-pound range. What was most impressive was that this was in early September. Both had blackfin tuna in their stomachs.

Of the two we boated, both had blackfin tuna in their stomachs.

There's no telling when you will run into a wahoo. Captain Patrick Cline, another Key West expert, was deep dropping for tilefish in 800-plus feet of water one day when a wahoo simply appeared behind the boat. It probably followed up the strips on the deep rig, but suddenly there it was. Patrick had been using bonito strips for bait, so he immediately began throwing chunks of bonito to the circling wahoo. Wahoo really love bonito chunks and as soon as one appeared with a hook in it, they were in business. Nothing like a 50-pound wahoo to brighten up your summer day.

Wahoo like this frequently respond to chunk baits.

Wahoo also follow weedlines and flotsam just like mahi, but they stay deep. Dropping a jig down below a large weed patch or floating debris provides a good opportunity for a summer wahoo. It never hurts to try this technique.

As the temperatures drop up north and the baitfish migrate south, the numbers of wahoo off southern Florida increase dramatically. Every December I get calls from Key West captains with reports of amazing wahoo catches. Captain Chris Trosset caught six one day between 40 and 70 pounds. Captain Patrick Cline and his freediving buddies speared seven one day.

Captain Chris Trosset, a smoker, and his pup.

I seem to get these reports only at times when I'm stuck doing something and can't get down there the next morning. At this stage of my life I'm more interested in photographing fish than I am in catching them, so I'm eager to hop on a boat on short notice while promising to never pick up a rod. However, photographing wahoo is not all that simple. First of all, this is a prized catch and no one wants to keep it in the water while I snap some photos. Gaffs come out quickly and the wahoo is promptly dumped on the deck from which location it tries to kill everyone on board. Seriously, wahoo can be extremely dangerous, if you're anywhere near their razor-sharp teeth. With all their thrashing around on the deck, they can inflict some serious wounds if those jaws ever hit flesh. It pays to be ultra-careful with them… even the small ones.

Wahoo can be extremely dangerous, if you're anywhere near their razor-sharp teeth.

The great wahoo fishing is always hit or miss event, but targeting them in the winter is pretty reliable around either a full or new moon. It also helps if you have calm waters—a brisk wind seems to put them down.

Nice fish off Key West, with Capt. Robert “RT” Trosset standing far right.

Captain RT Trosset's favorite live bait for wahoo is a “speedo”—actually a red tailed scad—which he catches by chumming in open water. Blue runners also work, but the speedos are wahoo candy. RT rigs them on 58-pound wire with a hook in the nose and in the tail and either drifts or bump trolls them in 90 to 150 feet of water, just off the reef's edge. This can be done on light tackle and is a lot more sporting than the heavy rods needed for the planers and downriggers.

Speedos and runners, shown here, are prime wahoo baits. The shark zeroing in on the baits is likely a silky shark.

The wahoo don't seem to have a problem coming to the surface for a live speedo, but that might have a lot to do with the cooler water temps in the winter and the abundance of baitfish. As expected, the trick is finding the speedos. RT usually checks with the commercial yellowtail fishermen to find the most active spots, but even that scheme isn't foolproof. Some days they are everywhere and other days, you can't rent one.

A variety of diving plugs and high-speed lures will take wahoo. Speeds of 8 to as much as 18 mph will do the trick, depending on the lure and the day.

On my last wahoo trip with RT, we couldn't find any speedos so we went to plan B, which is trolling deep-diving plugs. There are a number of specialized wahoo plugs made by Mag Bay lures, Yo-Zuri and Nomad which are designed for high-speed deep trolling. There are also a number of skirt lures designed specifically for wahoo, most of which are long and thin or produce a lot of bubbles.

Some more options wahoo will find sufficient.

The plan is usually to drag two of the deep diving plugs along with a skirt on the surface. These are all immediate contact hook sets, so outriggers are ineffective and any more than three lines means chaos and tangles when a fish hits. Most of the wahoo plugs are huge and are used with heavy tackle and braided wire leaders. RT prefers to use lighter tackle, so his favorites are the Mag Bay Desperado and the purple Rapala X-Rap Magnum 40. They can be trolled at high speeds, dive to almost 40 feet and can catch most anything that swims. A short section of wire is always a good plan, but it can't be too light or too long… those plugs are expensive so using straight mono has its downside. We will troll some of these plugs on almost all of our winter trips, just to see what happens. If we're moving from one spot to another, it never hurts to try to dredge up a wahoo.

Purple is a promising color to choose.

The light tackle captains in Key West usually start their days by cast netting 50 pounds of live pilchards and housing them in massive livewells. The plan is to anchor up at the end of the bar (an elongated, isolated section of the outer reef southwest of Key West) or on a wreck and live chum the pilchards for blackfin tuna and anything else that might swim by their floating buffet. We've seen kingfish, bonito, tuna, jacks, mahi, sailfish and even wahoo suddenly appear in the chum, so we always have a rod rigged with a wire leader and some chunks ready to go. For some reason the wahoo will quickly respond to chunks even if there is a bunch of live pilchards in the water.

Wahoo are at the very top of everyone's highlight list for fly fishing and there's no reason that they can't be caught in Key West on a fly.

I caught my first and only wahoo on fly in Bermuda while chunking and throwing a fly that was just a big ball of dark red fur… it looked just like a chunk of bonito. Wahoo are at the very top of everyone's highlight list for fly fishing and there's no reason that they can't be caught in Key West on a fly. If you hit a day when wahoo are cruising the edge of the reef, chumming with a combination of live pilchards and bonito chunks will certainly bring them into fly rod range. I've seen wahoo come right up behind the boat and gobble up chunk after chunk. RT Trosset has a collection of chunk flies that he uses in Bermuda and he is itching to catch a wahoo on fly in Key West. You'd just have to hit that perfect day and be ready when the opportunity strikes. FS

Published Florida Sportsman Magazine December/January 2021

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