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October 26, 2001

One Up On Wahoo

Grab One of These Tigers by the Tail and Hang On Tight

Long before catching my first wahoo, I read an article by the late Joe Brooks in which he depicted wahoo as the "tigers of the sea." I've boated many wahoo since then, but Brooks' description of lanky, swift fish with vertical bars and ferocious feeding habits still fires me up when I think of them.
While those seeking marlin often curse wahoo for deftly cutting through monofilament leaders and liberating expensive trolling lures, the growing number of fishing tournaments that include wahoo categories or that specifically target them attest to the rising popularity of the species among big-game anglers.
Wahoo, which roam tropical and temperate waters, usually don't school in large numbers but at times randomly congregate over banks or steep drop-offs that hold baitfish. Larger wahoo often travel in pairs; it's not unusual to get two strikes at the same time. Top wahoo destinations include many areas in the Bahamas - especially around San Salvador - plus the Revillagigedo Islands off the Baja Peninsula, the Virgin and Hawaiian islands, Midway Atoll and banks off Bermuda. Being pelagic and migratory, wahoo are seasonal in most areas.
Regardless of the location or season, you can up the odds of finding wahoo by locating floating debris such as sargassum weed and boards. Structures that rise out of deep water like islands, sea mounts and drilling platforms may serve as attractants. Areas where slicks or rips occur on the ocean's surface also often hold wahoo.
Ledges can be particularly productive for 'hoo hunting. Off south Florida where I do most of my fishing, a 20- to 30-foot ledge in 100 to 140 feet of water extends north of Lake Worth Inlet to slightly north of Jupiter Inlet. Wahoo, along with other game fish, often congregate around this ledge, and several tournaments have been won with catches from this site.

'Hoo Lures and Baits
Since wahoo aren't all that fussy about what they eat, many anglers eschew extensive bait rigging and instead offer a choice of trolled lures. 'Hoos do seem to exhibit a preference for certain types of plugs, such as those with contrasting colors that vibrate and shine. Popular choices include Rapala's CD 18, 22 and 26 Magnums, Yo-Zuri's Bonita, Halco's Giant Trembler and Braid's Flashdancer and Marauder.
Any lures used for wahoo should be through-wired because those awesome jaws can cut most plugs in half. It's also advisable to replace treble hooks with sturdy double hooks or risk hooks getting straightened out from those powerful jaws.
Some anglers prefer hard plugs over soft. 'Hoos often dig their teeth into soft lures and only hold them in their mouths without the hooks setting, sort of like a dog with a stick. Since hard plugs are more difficult to grip, they tend to slide through the mouth until the hooks penetrate. Coating softer trolling plugs with hard epoxies such as Devcon 2-Ton not only increases the percentage of wahoo hookups but also makes the plugs last longer.
Attaching hooks to plugs with swivels provides some give and discourages wedging. Although hooks usually remain inside the mouth, the eye of a hook might wedge against the wire loop attaching it to the plug; with all the shaking going on, the water drag against the plug sometimes dislodges the hooks. When a hook can swivel, the plug will rotate so that the least amount of drag occurs.
High-speed skirted lures commonly used for marlin draw their share of wahoo strikes too, especially those with shiny heads and large eyes. Just such a popular lure combination is the Wahoo Dog: a skirted trolling lure - most often an Ilander - with a spoon trailing about 18 inches back. The lure and spoon are connected by a length of single-strand wire that's attached to the eye or bend of the skirted lure's hook; a ball-bearing swivel between the two lures allows the spoon to spin freely.
Another adaptation occurred a few years ago when Capt. Bob Michals of West Palm Beach visited Southern California. He studied the "wahoo bomb" that long-range anglers use when casting for wahoo: a lead-headed, skirted lure bearing a single hook to which a spinner blade is attached by a swivel and split ring. When the lure hits the water and plummets downward, the spinner blade adds just enough flash and action to make it irresistible to wahoo. Michals applied the principle to trolling lures by simply taking a skirted lure and rigging two hooks in a semi-stiff manner positioned 180 degrees to each other. He then attached a spinner blade to the bend of the rear hook with a ball-bearing swivel and split ring. We named the lure Bobby's Baby, and its shine, vibration and action drive wahoo nuts.
Rigged dead baits such as swimming mullet and ballyhoo can be very effective for wahoo, especially when part of a spread that includes lures. Since wahoo are adept at biting tails off baits, it's wise to use stinger hooks. A very simple stinger rig can be make by stiff-rigging a short shank, extra-strength hook such as a Mustad 9175 or 3412C to one end of a short piece of #7 to #9 single-strand wire. At the other end of the wire, form a loop just large enough to fit over the barb of the bait's primary hook; the loop should be in the same plane as the hook's eye. After you've rigged the bait in the normal manner, slip the loop over the point of the primary hook and you're ready to go.
This stinger rig doesn't comply with IGFA regulations, but as long as you're not fishing for records or in a tournament that disallow them, it will catch a lot of short-striking 'hoos. I usually make up several stinger rigs in varying lengths and hook sizes prior to a trip; once on the water, it's quick and easy to select the right size for a particular bait.
Don't overlook live baits for wahoo, either. The largest 'hoo I ever saw - easily in the 100-pound range - ate a mackerel scad rigged with a short trace of 60-pound Sevenstrand cable between the hook and main monofilament leader. Notice that I said "saw" and not "boated" - 45 minutes and nine blistering runs after hookup, the giant 'hoo chewed right through the cable.

Tactics and Considerations
Wahoo of one size or another can be taken on just about any saltwater tackle. Spinning and plug tackle are appropriate for smaller fish, as long as the reels hold a sufficient amount of line and have smooth, dependable drags. Even fly gear is being employed by anglers on long-range trips out of California, but a lot of backing is necessary and anglers often must be loaded into smaller skiffs to chase down their fish. For truly large wahoo in the 100-pound class, 50- to 80-pound-class tackle is appropriate, but I also keep a sturdy casting outfit handy that's rigged with a wire leader and spoon - if a 'hoo misses a trolled bait, throwing the spoon back in the wake and retrieving it at top speed will sometimes prompt another strike.
A long, streaking run usually follows the jarring strike of a wahoo. A series of violent body shakes take place throughout the remainder of the fight - by both fish and angler! Wahoo often run toward the boat after the first few body shakes, prompting many anglers to think the fish broke off. The best response: Reel as quickly as possible, and when your line comes tight, you'll know if the fish is still there.
Wahoo don't mind chasing down rapidly moving baits and often seem to prefer them. When pulling dead baits, I usually increase my speed by a couple of knots above what I use for dolphin or sailfish. I carry an assortment of high-speed lures such as Area Rule's Hoonobs and Ballyhood International's Wahoo Express, which perform properly at speeds of 15 to 25 knots. These lures can also be deployed when running between fishing locations, often resulting in spectacular blind strikes.
Regardless of whether you use plugs or skirted lures, they should not have too erratic an action. Wahoo are built for speed, but their long, narrow bodies make it difficult for them to turn sharply. An exaggerated lure action may cause it to dart out of a wahoo's path during the last moment of attack, and the fish may not continue pursuit.
Although wahoo can show up anywhere in a spread of trolled baits, most strikes seem to occur in the prop wash near the transom, far behind the boat on a shotgun lure, and below the surface. Off south Florida and most other locations, deep-running offerings usually get hit first. Besides some baits that swim down a few feet while drifting or slow-trolling, the three main methods to get trolled baits below the surface are planers, downriggers and wire line (the latter usually in conjunction with a trolling sinker).
From an efficiency standpoint, wire line represents the most effective way to catch wahoo when trolling deep. Both planers and downriggers create slack when a fish hits due to the angler's line being freed by a release clip or from a planer tripping and rising toward the surface. That critical pause before setting the hook can be crucial when hooking wahoo or most other game fish. A wire line, on the other hand, doesn't have slack and doesn't stretch, and a striking 'hoo can often become hooked up simply by the forward movement of the boat.
All that said about wire line, plenty of wahoo succumb to baits fished with downriggers or planers. Just be sure to set the release clip so that it requires a lot of force to trip it. Doing so helps set the hook at the moment of the strike so when the line's released and slack occurs, it's a bit less likely the wahoo can spit the hook. Instead of using release clips - which can get stuck - many experts go with a #64 rubber band wrapped around the line at least eight times - the loops at its ends are then attached to a snap and connected to the planer, downrigger wire or weight.
One of my memorable wahoo catches involved my 12-year-old nephew, M.J., who was fishing aboard the Do Stay, a 37-foot Merritt skippered by Capt. Elly Brown out of Jupiter, Florida. Brown followed a slick in 240 feet of water when the 'hoo hit an Ilander-ballyhoo combination attached to wire line. As line blitzed off the reel, M.J. jumped into the fighting chair and was passed the rod. After its initial run and violent body shake, the fish headed back toward the boat at warp speed. M.J. could barely take up the slack despite furiously cranking the reel's handle with all his might. A few minutes later he relinquished the rod to his dad, who subsequently brought the beautiful 41-pound 'hoo to gaff. Although it wasn't a giant catch, it represented M.J.'s first battle with a "tiger of the sea," and, like so many anglers first tangling with a 'hoo, both he and his dad were amazed at the speed and power these fish generate.
They also marveled at the wonderful taste of fresh wahoo steaks for dinner that night. Although they make for excellent table fare, it's a wise practice to release small 'hoos or more than needed for dinner. While not much is known about the status of wahoo populations, practicing catch-and-release will help ensure that future generations of M.J.'s will also enjoy the unique thrill of catching wahoo.

Ray Waldner, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, holds a master's degree in aquatic biology and a Ph.D. in biological oceanography and specializes in ichthyology - the study of fishes. He's a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic College and worked as a part-time charter skipper for five years. Waldner regularly visits the winner's circle in south Florida fishing tournaments.