THE OTHER MACKEREL
THE WAHOO REIGNS AS THE MOST GLAMOROUS MEMBER OF A HIGH-PROFILE PISCATORIAL FAMILY
One of the most beautiful fish in the ocean, wahoo move fast, strike hard and are delicious on the table. What’s not to like?
Of all the scombrid fish species in the sea (mackerel, bonito and tuna), I posit the theory that the mysterious wahoo is the coolest of them all. To be sure, their close cousins, king mackerel, get more attention as the quarry in many a big-dollar fishing tournament.
And their more distant relatives, yellowfin and bluefin tuna, serve as unlucky targets of relentless fishing pressure worldwide thanks to their brute strength, which attracts recreational attention, and their high value and delicious flesh, which brings both recreational and commercial pursuers.
Much is known about the other family members due to their dollar value, but wahoo are different, like your weird cousin everybody mostly likes but nobody really understands. Wahoo rarely school, but they do aggregate around structure at times. For most anglers they remain an incidental catch, something you hook and land from time to time while trolling for something else.
Wahoo have all of the admirable attributes of their better-known relatives and more. Kingfish have a sleek, torpedo-like appearance and shine like a silver dagger, and most tuna look powerful and polished. But the wahoo? It’s flat-out beautiful, especially when a specimen appears out of the deep, freshly lit up like a blue-and-silver neon sign. There’s no prettier fish in that precise moment.
Big and Strong
Wahoo reach close to 200 pounds. The all-tackle International Game Fish Association world record sits at 184 pounds — a monster fish caught off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in 2005 — but tales abound of longline-caught wahoo weighing more than two bills. Though these striped beauties definitely get big, most of the ones caught are of the smaller variety, perhaps 30 to 60 pounds on average. I’ve caught lots of wahoo, but I have never encountered one over 100 pounds.
One time, though, I thought I had. Many years ago, Bill Buckland, owner of the Fisherman’s Center in Riviera Beach, Florida, took a wahoo fishing trip with me aboard my boat to Walker’s Cay, the northernmost island in the Bahamas. Our chef friend Mike Debriere came along. We trolled the drop-off along Matanilla Reef north of Walker’s on a cold winter morning. The most consistent way to target wahoo is by high-speed trolling using wire lines and large leads to get baits down several feet beneath the surface. That’s just what we did.
As we zigzagged on and off the reef, the reel sang out, and the monel wire ripped off the line at a furious pace. Debriere grabbed the rod and set the hook; we knew it had to be a big fish, as his efforts to slow it proved fruitless. Although the initial run of a wahoo starts with a powerful run and blazing speed, the fish typically tires quickly, and Debriere made steady progress in short order.
Gaffing a Prize
The blue and silver prize materialized in the cobalt waters beneath my boat, and Buckland gaffed the monster and swung it aboard. As we stared wide-eyed, we were certain we had broken the elusive 100-pound barrier at last. Eager to share tales of my fishing prowess, I called Walker’s resident and charter skipper Billy Black on his Hatteras, Duchess, to let him know of our triumph.
“Whadaya think it weighs?” Black asked nonchalantly.
“Gotta be a hundred-plus!” I exclaimed. “We’ll see,” came the reply.
We fished the rest of the day and caught a couple of smaller fish, but nothing near that first beast’s size. When we rolled into the marina that afternoon, Black was standing on the dock behind our slip. We heaved the behemoth onto the dock.
Black looked at me and said, “Seventy-five.”
“No way,” I countered. “It’s a lot bigger than that.”
We loaded the fish into a wheelbarrow and rolled it to the gantry on the center dock. The dockmaster arrived with the scale. When we hoisted the fish into the tail rope, the scale read exactly 75 pounds.
“You boys ain’t seen a lot of 100-pound wahoos, have ya?” Black asked with a smile.
Buckland, Debriere and I looked at one another and had to laugh. No, actually, we had not. And as it turned out, this wouldn’t be our day to see one, either.
Target for Success
That 75-pounder remains the biggest wahoo ever landed on my boat, but we’re still looking for the triple-digit fish. If you want to target them yourself, there are specific places to try. These fish congregate in certain areas at certain times of the year. In the winter months they stack up along reefs in the western Bahamas, like our fish from Walker’s Cay. Most run much smaller, but at times you can get a lot of bites by working the tides.
A tide falling off either the Little or the Great Bahama banks into the deep waters of the Straits of Florida can turn that bite on. By far the most effective method of fishing involves high-speed trolling. Rigged natural baits or bizarre-looking Junkanoo lures trolled between 12 and 16 knots on wire line with heavy leads of 16 ounces or more definitely produce strikes. The leads are attached to the end of the wire, followed by 30 to 50 feet of monofilament. A few inches of wire or aircraft-cable leader are used ahead of the lure to counter the wahoo’s razor-sharp teeth. Once the lead pops up, you must hand-line the fish in the rest of the way.
This method, though productive, does have drawbacks. You have to use heavy tackle to handle the strain of pulling all that wire, lead and leader through the water. So when you hook a 30-pound wahoo, it’s not a terribly exciting fight. And it’s difficult if not impossible to fish according to IGFA rules when rigged this way. There’s nothing that says you have to be Igfa-compliant, but I think fishing is more fun when you are.
However, there are alternatives. Try livebaiting in areas where wahoo are known to hang out. They love large-bodied baits, and the redtail scad, known colloquially as the “speedo,” is a perennial favorite. Try dangling a couple of speedos under a kite using a tandem-hook wire rig — you can use whatever size tackle you like.
You can also use a conventional trolling spread with a single natural bait run far behind the boat on a shotgun line. Wahoo seem to prefer darker-colored lures, so black and purple, red and black, or green and black Iland Hawaiian Eyes rigged in front of large double-hook ballyhoos on wire often elicit a strike.
Other places to target these elusive fish include areas around Grand Cayman island in the Caribbean, along the Pacific coasts of Panama and Costa Rica, in Hawaii and, of course, in Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula.
If you want truly large wahoo, one place reigns supreme: San Salvador, in the eastcentral Bahamas. Two large seamounts rise from the ocean floor north of the island, and huge wahoo gather there in winter, presumably to spawn. More 100-plus-pound wahoo have come from San Salvador than anywhere.
These fish disappear in the summer, and where they go is a mystery. The prevailing belief is that they head toward the center of the Atlantic to feed, a location where encounters with people would be rare.
Wahoo swim in tropical and warm, temperate waters worldwide, so you never know where you’ll raise one. When you do, view it as a pleasant surprise, a treat to top off an already great day on the water. The wahoo is one of the fastest fish in the ocean, able to swim at speeds approaching 50 mph, so when they strike, you’ll know it. They are also delicious, and one of the most beautiful fish in the world. Who could ask for anything more?
The author is still waiting for the first 100-plus-pounder to come aboard his boat.
Wahoo are flat-out beautiful fish that are taken most consistently by high-speed trolling.
The striped beauties are known for the speed and strength of their first run. Trolling lures (right).