September 28, 2012
By Jeff Weakley
Make wahoo your favorite fish-for life-with these seven deadly discoveries.
When quizzed on the subject, only a handful of Florida anglers would rank wahoo as their favorite fish. But when a fisherman catches a nice 'hoo, the fish leaps to the top of the favorite list. Why the sudden change of heart? For starters, wahoo are among the best eating fish in the ocean, commanding a culinary respect that far exceeds that of their close cousin, the humble kingfish. And who would argue that a big wahoo's drag-sizzling first run shames all others except possibly a blue marlin or yellowfin tuna? Plus, wahoo are pretty cool to look at.
The first time I saw a wahoo up close was on a trip some years ago to the Florida Keys. It was a rainy, nasty afternoon, and when the mate flipped the 15-pounder over the transom, I marveled at the fish's vibrant, iridescent, blue bands. They reminded me of the deepest shades of the Gulf Stream.
I have since learned that nature engineered those colors for a purpose, as wahoo rely on their distinctive pattern to hide in the shimmering depths. Equipped with keen eyesight and teeth made for killing, they frequently ambush prey by vaulting for the surface as if launched from a submarine. Surprise is the trademark of this pelagic assassin.
But when it comes to public opinion polls, sadly, that unpredictability is in fact the predicament of the wahoo. The species has long been the incidental favorite of the offshore fisherman, but seldom the chief target.
A fisherman in Miami, for example, knows that sailfish bite in April when the wind is out of the east and the current is heading north. During the same month, that same angler can just about bet on a dolphin school zipping along beneath a frigatebird offshore. But wahoo? When, really, can you plan on catching a wahoo?
For years we've relied on a deep line in the trolling spread, for instance a planer and spoon, a ballyhoo and weighted trolling feather, or a diving plug. A deep bait for wahoo. That's been the extent of our thinking.
But it has only been within the past decade or so that anglers have really started to pattern Florida's wahoo fishery, putting together the whole picture from seasons to depths to baits and tactics. Much of what we've discovered is, well, surprising, which seems appropriate considering the reputation of this fish.
Discovery Number One: Wahoo are far more structure-oriented than you may realize, especially with regard to big fish. The rocky perimeter of the continental shelf off northeast Florida is a prime example.
"If I just want to catch wahoo, I'm not gonna leave the edge of the shelf to venture out into the blue water," said Capt. Robert Johnson of St. Augustine. "Even if there's a pretty rip outside, we catch a lot more on the Ledge."
Johnson was describing the late winter/early spring wahoo fishery that's been booming in recent years along his home coast. The February through April invasion of toothy critters makes for a welcome bonus to the charter business aboard the 41-foot Jodie Lynn, especially given the fact that the size of the fish rivals that of world-renowned fisheries in the Bahamas and Bermuda.
"They average 35 to 60 pounds in winter," Johnson said of the Ledge 'hoos, "and every year boats get some 80- and 90-pound fish up here." The numbers can be impressive, too.
"Last year, we had three days in a row that we caught 12 fish. They were a bit smaller; it seems you lose the size when you gain the numbers."
The Ledge Johnson refers to is a sharp, 20- to 30-foot dip in the seafloor some 50 miles offshore. This is the kind of structure that attracts forage fish, and thus larger species such as wahoo. The top of the Ledge is about 170 feet deep, the bottom just over 200.
Plugs are easy to fish, and highly effective.
"My theory is that the fish are here all the time, but as the inshore waters cool, they get bunched up," he said. "Some days this time of year you don't find 70-degree water until you get 48 miles offshore."
Johnson, like many skippers in his neighborhood, targets a variety of species in a day's fishing, and thus offers a mixed spread of baits and lures. He said his favorite wahoo combo would have to be a blue-and-white Ilander lure rigged in front of a horse ballyhoo, and taken deep on a No. 3 planer. Or maybe a silver Drone spoon behind a No. 5 planer. Or a swimming mullet down deep. But he's caught 'em on surface baits. Even had wahoo strike cedar plugs aimed at tunas.
In other words, the concept of fishing the structure, maintaining that zigzag trolling pattern over the top of the Ledge, takes precedence over tackle.
"My favorite sea conditions? Flat calm," he said, laughing. "They don't seem to care. I've caught 'em when it's northwest at 20, southwest at 20, and when there's not a breath of wind."
The structure component figures into other wahoo fisheries, as well. South Florida livebait fishermen chasing sailfish and kingfish catch a surprising number of wahoo-and of sometimes surprising sizes-over artificial reefs and wrecks in a hundred-plus feet of water within a few miles of the coast. And far out in the Gulf of Mexico, many miles west of Key West, anglers have reported seeing pods of the speedy fish stacked motionless as cordwood over deepwater rockpiles.
Discovery Number Two: Depth of presentation is not necessarily the key to catching wahoo. Far more important, it seems, is speed.
For many anglers, this one comes as a real surprise, contradicting numerous other "discoveries" we've made over the years. First, a brief history lesson.
Anglers have long experimented with tackle designed to take trolling baits deeper, where wahoo are believed to feed. Downriggers are popular among light-tackle fishermen, as the device operates with a release clip that frees the fishing line after a strike, allowing the fish to be fought unencumbered by additional weight.
Another popular device, the release planer, operates like an airplane wing, diving as it moves forward. The simplest way to rig the planer or its modern cousin, the Z-wing, is on a tether of 300- or 400-pound-test monofilament. You allow the planer to dive in the wake, then secure the line to a transom cleat. How do you get your fishing line down there? Easy. Affix a double-snap (available at tackle shops, as are complete rigging kits for the planers) to the heavy mono, pay out your fishing line behind the boat, wrap a rubber band several times around the fishing line, loop the rubber band to the second snap, pay out more line, and watch what happens. Like magic, your line disappears in the wake. Let out enough to get down the planer cord. When the wahoo takes your ballyhoo or strip bait, the rubber band breaks, releasing your line.
Deep-trolling rigs that incorporate a heavy cigar sinker or planer in-line, as part of the fishing line, are traditional charterboat favorites, but the release systems are far more practical for private boats and light-tackle sportfishermen. Wire lines, effective but of questionable sport, also fall into this category.
Finally, no review of deep-trolling tactics would be complete without a mention of the numerous diving plugs on the market. Plugs require no fancy rigging other than a few feet of wire leader to prevent cutoffs, and they're amazingly effective. Lipped models such as the largest members of the Magnum Countdown Rapala family, the MirrOlure 113 series, the Rebel Jawbreaker and the Mann's Stretch lures are terrific wahoo catchers, as are lipless divers like the Boone's Cairns, Yo-Zuri Bonita and Halco Giant Trembler.
Now that you're finished perfecting your deep-trolling tactics, consider the advice of Capt. Ron Schatman of Miami, best known for his contributions to, and victories in, the Bahamas wahoo tournament circuit.
"Depth is of no importance," said Schatman, whose tackle features nary a downrigger nor planer. "Speed is everything. Last year we won the Bahamas Wahoo Championship trolling at up to 18 knots; we got 122 fish in 12 days."
Lures, such as this Ilander, account for lots of action.
Ultra-high-speed trolling (see accompanying sidebar for rigging tips) pretty well excludes the light-tackle fisherman. The sleek, tapered wahoo lures are in themselves efficient tools, displacing far less water than flatheads, chuggers, Konas and other styles. Even so, about the only way to keep lures in the water at speeds in the 10- to 18-knot range is through the addition of a heavy cigar sinker rigged several yards in front of the leader. The weight is used not to sink lures, just to keep them from skipping out of the wake. The combination of lead, leader and lure-plus a fish that can attack head-on at fifty miles an hour-puts a lot of strain on the line. Schatman fishes a 36-ounce sinker on each of a pair of wire line outfits stationed in transom rod holders, and a 24-ounce sinker on two standup 50-wides spooled up with 80-pound mono. The heavier wire lines track straight behind the boat, and run under the mono during turns. "But even with three pounds of lead, the lure is only riding a few inches beneath the surface," he said. "The fish might be farther down below, but they can sense that lure going by."
Rigged naturals such as ballyhoo and mullet, both popular on trolling boats statewide, typically don't hold up at speeds over 10 knots, considered by many anglers to be the threshold of effective wahoo trolling. At the traditional mixed-bag pace of between 5 and 8 knots, the baits do nab their share of wahoo, but anglers tackling the high-speed game have learned that leaving out the "meat" detracts not a bit from the action.
Discovery Number Three: Ignore Number Two; shut off your engines and let the fish come to you.
The flipside to the speed revolution is the slow-and-deep strategy being refined by anglers in South Florida. And, sigh of relief, the method is perfectly tailored for light-tackle anglers in small outboard boats. Bait of choice is a live goggle-eye or speedo, both members of the jack family, although any large, hardy live bait (blue runner, herring, baby bonito, etc.) will do. The best-outfitted anglers present baits far below the surface on a downrigger, sometimes in a "stacked" series that includes three baits at hundred-foot intervals on one 'rigger.
But even the most casual weekender who owns a 20- or 30-pound-class trolling outfit or heavy spinning rod can expect a reasonable shot at a wahoo with a beefed-up version of the typical (and publicized ad nauseum) livebait kingfish rig. Start by increasing the size of your monofilament shock leader to around 50-pound test and eight feet in length. And don't be shy about wire leader-bump the size up to about No. 6 and use at least two feet. Though their usual strategy is to slice and dice their meal, wahoo also have a gluttonous reputation for completely swallowing baits. My father once found a pair of perfectly intact peanut dolphin in the belly of a 75-pound 'hoo. An 8-inch trace of wire could leave that ravenous wahoo flossing its teeth with your monofilament. You'll also want to increase hook size, tossing out the forward treble in favor of a 6/0 or 7/0 shortshank single. A stinger hook can be used, although many 'hoos are taken on the single hook.
To get the rig deep, add a sliding sinker above a swivel, or a pinch-on sinker, or a breakaway sinker, or simply allow the bait to dive on its own. A blue runner hooked just in front of the dorsal fin may well be nature's perfect planer. You can choose to drift or slow-troll, though if you're one of the techies deploying a stack of baits on your downrigger, you'll definitely want to maintain headway to prevent fierce tangles. Wahoo roam the outer reefs and dropoffs all along the Florida coastline (reference Discovery No. 1). They also hang around weedlines, where they eat peanuts (get the drift?).
Discovery Number Four: There is nothing random about a wahoo bite. The species shows a marked proclivity toward certain feeding times.
"The best time is at first light, right at daybreak when you can just barely see your lures in the water, until around 9 o'clock," advised Capt. George LaBonte of Jupiter, a high-speed specialist and co-host of FS Live Radio in West Palm Beach. "Then it gets good again late in the day, around sunset. It's also good on a tide change."
Schatman, whose familiarity with Bahamas reefs has given him an edge in tournaments, revealed one scenario that he banks on:
"The fish bite usually on an afternoon tide change with a full moon," he explained. "If you've got a full moon, you'll have a high tide early morning, and a low early afternoon. You can count on fish biting the last hour of the outgoing to slack tide; a good hour and a half bite is gonna happen. But the trick is knowing not only when, but where. You can go through an area that's packed with fish, and not get a bite. When you get back there on the right time, you might have a surprise waiting for you."
Our Hawaiian brethren, noted for their creative strategies and innovative lure designs, have even taken to wahoo fishing at night, capitalizing on the species' low-light foraging behavior.
On the other hand, the very best time for a wahoo bite is when you're least expecting it, fishing on the clicker and not the clock.
Discovery Number Five: Wahoo are not loners. If you've spent some time poking around offshore weedlines for dolphin, you've probably stumbled across a pod of wee-hoos, those striped piranhas that shadow larger, less buoyant pieces of floating debris such as barrels and trees. Adult fish, on the other hand, are more often regarded as singular. Turns out they school up, too. It's just that fishing tactics must be adjusted to capitalize on their sudden appearance.
"Wahoo are rarely alone," said Bill Curtiss, veteran high-speed troller and owner of Carl's Bait and Tackle in Davie. "They travel in packs along color changes and dropoffs, no matter where you're fishing, the Bahamas or Broward County. If you catch a wahoo on a color change or weedline in 200 to 500 feet of water, circle back around and there's a good chance you'll catch another one."
Some specialists take the approach a step further and work the other fish during a bite.
"Most of the action off Jupiter and Palm Beach comes in two or three flurries in a day," said LaBonte. "When we catch a lot of fish in July and August, usually it's three quads, or three triples. We almost never get just one fish. You want to have your drags set heavy enough to set the hook, but light enough to where you can keep trolling at speed after a hookup. While the first fish is dumping you, others will whack the other lures. You want to take advantage of the bites when you get 'em."
Livebait fishermen employ a similar strategy, keeping other baits in the water while fighting a fish. Of course, if bite number one turns out to be a real whopper, it's wise to pull in the rest of the gear to focus on boating that fish, especially if said gear is of the usual 12- to 20-pound class. A wahoo at wide-open throttle can easily drag off a couple hundred yards of line, and if he turns one-eighty and heads back in your direction (a trick the species is famous for), you run the risk of losing your hookset. Tight line is the key, and you often must use the boat to assist in this department.
Dawn and dusk are major feeding periods for wahoo and thus great times to fish.
Discovery Number Six: Wahoo won't bite your hands off-that is unless you give them a chance to. Horror stories abound concerning that dreadful dentition, but common sense is a powerful weapon.
Schatman's advice to big-boat anglers is to maintain headway, have someone open the transom door, grab the leader, and slide the fish onto the deck. "They lie there like a dead mouse," he said. Then it's into the fishbox, and on to the next fish.
LaBonte, who runs charters on a 25-foot inboard, also has a pretty straightforward technique:
"Forget about the glory shot; gaff 'em wherever you can, lift 'em over the side and get out of the way. Keep the fish up off the deck until you get him in the box. If they get off the hook and get their tail down, that's when they can flip around."
Retrieving hooks on the spot can end with a trip to the emergency room. Best to box the fish, cut or unsnap the leader, and re-rig. Serious trollers keep a healthy supply of lures or baits handy for replacement. Livebaiters simply twist on another piece of wire and hook and get back to work.
Discovery Number Seven: Sooner or later, no matter how you fish, you will discover a wahoo.
Despite all the advances in strategy, the great majority of offshore anglers will always hold a special place in their hearts for the surprises these fish are famous for. The sailfisher who lands one on monofilament leader, the dolphin angler who pulls one out of a weedline, the kingfisherman who racks one on 12-pound gear, the partyboat angler who boats one on a deep-jig-for them, it is unpredictability that will forever maintain wahoo as a Florida favorite. You savor the thrill of knowing that the luminous torpedo you have boated is a very special fish.
As a final entry in this discussion, turn the pages of the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) record book to find the entry for a whopping 94-pound, 8-ounce wahoo captured on 16-pound-test line on May 30, 1994.
Among surprise attacks from wahoo, this one is worthy of legend status. The following story is told by the rodman himself, Mike Flowers, host of FS Live Radio in Pensacola. Flowers, incidentally, reported that the last few years have been dynamite for schoolie wahoo in the northern Gulf. From about mid-May to the end of August, local anglers troll jetheads and other chrome-headed lures to target the fish around weedlines far offshore, generally starting 30 miles out.
However, when Flowers made the pages of IGFA, he wasn't even close.
"We had pulled up on some natural bottom about 15 miles offshore, to do some jigging for amberjack," he recalled. "I'd caught three mullet for live bait, that was all we had. Kingfish season was closed, so I took out a light wire hook that I figured I could just straighten out at boatside. I hooked the mullet and threw it out. I'd been using the rod for pompano fishing in the surf, and there was some surveyor's tape tied to the end. When I reached up to untie the tape, away he went.
"I had a Penn 850 loaded with 600 yards of 16-pound test. He took it all to where I could see gold on the spool. Just when we turned the boat to get some line back, he slowed down. I got lucky, and that was all.
"The hook had almost completely straightened when I got him to the boat. We couldn't believe how big he was. We put a gaff in him, and of course the gaff was too small. We sort of bounced him at boatside; one guy grabbed him by the tail, and together we pulled him over the side. We didn't have a fish box big enough to hold him. He was close to six feet long, and real fat. It was an old female, we learned later, it's teeth all worn down from age.
"Just one of those oddball things, pure luck."
First Published Florida Sportsman April 2000