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October 26, 2001

Wahoo at Warp Speed

Score More Strikes by Fishing In the Fast Lane

Captain Ron Schatman would make a lousy counselor for stressed-out executives seeking respite from today's high-rpm business environment. While shrinks tell their fidgety patients, "Slow down, relax and take life at a more leisurely pace," this Miami skipper - despite his rotund physique - resembles the gaunt, taco-hungry Chihuahua who impatiently asks, "Can't this boat go any faster?"

An invitation to join Schatman for several days of wahoo fishing in Bimini allowed me to witness the high-speed trolling technique he helped pioneer and continues to refine. This guy drags lures so fast I'm not sure if the fish he catches should be labeled hookups or road kills. Anglers accustomed to backing off the throttles and settling into a 12-knot (or slower) trolling mode once they reach the fishing grounds may find this fast-paced fishing rather unorthodox, but the results present a convincing case to deploy lures at what many consider cruising speed.

"I usually troll 16 to 18 knots, especially in tournaments. The more area you cover, the better," Schatman says. "I never troll slower than 14 knots, and I keep bumping up the speed until we locate fish. There's nothing wrong with trolling slower, but you'll catch fewer wahoo," he warns.

Fast-trolling philosophy began sneaking into the Bahamas about 10 years ago, introduced by visiting skippers from Bermuda who pulled baits for wahoo at a then unheard-of 12 to 14 knots. Believing you can never get too much of a good thing, Schatman extrapolated the theory. Some may say he went plumb overboard.

"Four years ago I stopped using dead baits and switched to lures full-time. That allowed me to go even faster," Schatman recalls. "The other guys called me crazy for trolling so fast. So I'd say, 'You're right,' then turn around and increase my speed - and I kept catching more and more wahoo."

Wahoo In the Wake
Mark and Tina Wiener, a Fort Lauderdale couple who enjoy tournament fishing, hired Schatman to skipper their 43-foot Viking, Wizard, during the 1998/99 Bahamas Wahoo Championship. That decision paid off handsomely: Wizard took second place in Bimini and won two of the other three legs on its way to nailing down the overall championship. As further evidence that fast-track trolling really does wallop wahoo, every boat in contention for the title employed this technique, leaving the competition far behind.

Effective high-speed trolling requires much more than simply topping off the fuel tank and leaning heavily on the throttles. Tackle must be up to snuff to bear constant strain caused by dragging lures at roadrunner velocity, and terminal rigs must hold together under the punishment of jarring strikes from frenzied 'hoos. Schatman shared a few of the tricks he relies on to produce solid hookups, prevent bite-offs and avoid tangles in the trolling spread while prospecting for wahoo in the fast lane.

A quick look around the Wizard's cockpit reveals the basic weaponry for this blitzkrieg: four stand-up rods rated for 50- to 80-pound line. Two rods sporting Duel 50-Ws filled with 80-pound Sufix monofilament occupy rod holders in the gunwale; two roller-tip rods in the flat-line corners support Duel 9/0 reels loaded with stainless-steel wire line. Schatman prefers stainless-steel wire because "Monel tends to kink" and deploys these lines 125 to 150 feet behind the transom. The mono rigs also run straight from the rod tips and settle into position 150 to 175 feet back.

Wire trolling rigs are by no means an absolute necessity, but they've earned a place in the spread for several reasons. Zero line stretch translates into penetrating hook-sets on fast-striking, bony-jawed 'hoos, and wire lines rarely tangle when making tight turns. Wire sinks quickly when the boat stops after a hookup, eliminating extra work involved in retrieving empty lines to keep them out of harm's way during a battle - not to mention saving precious time in tournament situations.

Rig 'Em Right
Terminal tackle begins with a 2- or 3-pound trolling weight protected by 12-inch lengths of wire at each end. A box full of deeply gouged sinkers aboard the Wizard proves that wahoo are nearly as likely to take shots at a speeding chunk of dull-gray lead as a brightly colored lure. Schatman also takes the precaution of running a length of heavy wire between the sinker's loops and securing each end with a haywire twist because he's seen sinkers disintegrate under the stress of jolting wahoo strikes. Snap swivels must pass through the sinker's loop and the safety wire in order to keep fish on the line should the trolling weight break.

Leaders consist of 15 to 20 feet of 200-pound cable or 300-pound monofilament. A foot-long wire leader ahead of the artificial facilitates quick lure changes and keeps wahoo from severing ties with the angler after hookup.

Bullethead lures with plastic skirts have become a favorite in this fishery since they track well at high velocity and spend more time under the surface where wahoo have an easier time pouncing on them. Schatman feels the long, narrow profile of a bullethead helps provoke strikes because "wahoo love to eat houndfish. On several occasions I've seen houndfish showering across the waves with wahoo in hot pursuit."

Speaking with experience gained from about 8,000 hours of wahoo fishing in the Bahamas over the past 10 years, this skipper says lure color usually makes no difference. "I often get triple hookups when towing a different-colored lure on each rod," Schatman says. "I generally pull brighter lures on clear days and dark ones in overcast conditions, but the fish will let you know if they prefer a certain color on any given day."

While any old lure color may do, Schatman gets very particular when it comes to configuring hooks. His advice: Rig tandem hooks in-line and forget 90- or 180-degree offsets. "Wahoo swim up on their prey and attack from behind. In-line hooks fit in a fish's mouth easier and offer a better chance of a solid hookup," he believes. "The rear hook's point should lie just outside the lure skirt. Most wahoo are caught on the front hook, but sometimes the fish bite light and just the rear hook catches them."

Change of Pace
Though Schatman enthusiastically touts the virtues of high-speed trolling, he realizes the value of velocity may not apply to every scenario. "This technique works well in the Bahamas because we run up and down banks searching for schools of wahoo. In a tournament situation, whoever locates fish first stands a better chance of winning," he explains. "If you're in the Pacific working over a seamount covered by scores of wahoo, you've got a captive audience and don't need to cover a lot of ground to find fish."

By making a few adjustments to the techniques described above, weekend anglers can enjoy wild wahoo fishing without investing in heavy tackle and a boat large enough to comfortably handle roaring across the swells at warp speed. Don't bother using wire line. Scaling down to 30-pound monofilament on appropriate rods and reels provides enough muscle to handle 'hoos while allowing for a fun, fair fight. Cut trolling speed back to around 11 knots and reduce the size of the trolling sinkers. Weights of about 12 ounces should be enough to keep lures running under the surface. Since smaller boats rarely offer roomy cockpits, shortening leader lengths to 8 feet makes for easier, safer handling of toothy torpedoes at boatside. Schatman also advises using single-hook lures as a safety precaution in small boats.

Working as mate aboard the Concrete Machine, Bobby Boyle has experienced many seasons of wahoo fishing in Bimini. He agrees that high-speed trolling represents the most effective method for hooking large numbers of fish but also recognizes that a slower pace may be more realistic for the majority of anglers. "Wahoo travel in schools, so your best bet is to fast-troll until you locate a concentration of fish. Then you can change tactics once you find them."

Boyle's favorite change-of-pace technique involves trolling lures or double-hooked ballyhoo behind planers, especially when waters get rough. "Downriggers do the job well, but when a 10-pound ball starts swinging around in bumpy seas it can be a hazard to your gelcoat," he says.

Winter Blast In Bimini
When calendar pages flip up to reveal November, knowledgeable wahoo-fishing addicts keep track of cold fronts coming down the Florida coast because these chilly weather patterns ignite red-hot feeding sprees. "Low-pressure systems before approaching fronts really turn fish on," says Schatman. "Then fishing picks up again when the barometer stabilizes a few days after a front goes through."

Deciding exactly where to concentrate one's efforts when pursuing Bimini's wahoo presents a challenge because everywhere looks good. Just outside the harbor, steep-walled banks rise from untold depths to within scant feet of the surface; roving packs of fish could be patrolling almost anywhere along this appealing structure which extends for miles. The day after the tournament, I hopped aboard the 37-foot Salt Shaker, Unbelievable, to join Joe Waksmacki and his son, Scott, for a leisurely morning troll. We hooked a wahoo minutes after putting lines out and iced another before returning to the Bimini Big Game Club in time for breakfast.

It's not always so easy, but trolling along the banks turns up action sooner or later, whether you head south toward Cat Cay or north to Great Isaac. Most fish hang in depths between 200 and 400 feet, so it's wise to run a zigzag pattern over the bank while keeping an eye out for signs of feeding activity - and be ready to take advantage of any opportunities that may present themselves. As a case in point, on Day Three of the tournament, Schatman spotted showering baitfish and immediately veered the Wizard into the fracas. While his anglers battled three wahoo that had grabbed the lures, the skipper pointed in astonishment at the depthfinder. "Who's gonna believe that?" he asked. We were in just 40 feet of water.

At the risk of having friends label you a speed freak, break out the bullethead lures and bump up the velocity next time you're trolling in a search pattern for wahoo. Don't be surprised if other species crash the party; fast-trollers at the Bimini competition also tallied yellowfin tuna, dolphin and a blue marlin. Even though it may be bad for their health, these fish just can't resist the temptation of fast food.