I’m soaked to the bone as I stare off into the trolling spread. It’s cold, windy and the weatherman was wrong like usual as the occasional 4-footer temporarily interrupts my view of the horizon. I’ve been up since 3:30 am, covered nearly 50 miles of open ocean, yet have a giant grin plastered on my face knowing there’s already a fish in the box and it’s only the beginning of what’s destined to be a great day wahoo fishing off Florida’s First Coast.
The onset of winter can be somewhat discouraging for blue water enthusiasts as air and water temperatures cool, winds increase in velocity, and cold fronts training south create uncomfortable conditions offshore. For those willing to brave the weather, winter wahoo fishing is often highly productive.
...wahoo can travel extreme distances and don’t care how far they go, as long as they are following food.
However, most associate the targeted species with steep ledges and pinnacles common to The Bahamas where trolling at speeds upward of 20 knots results in blistering strikes. While often overshadowed for more tropical locales, the offshore waters accessible to anglers fishing out of Fernandina Beach, Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Ponce Inlet yield surprisingly similar results for those willing to put in the effort.
North Florida experiences a real winter compared to what anglers feel in southern latitudes of the state where sunny skies and mild temps are the norm. Here, winter gloom is real and to be successful in this venture crews must be on the lookout for calm days between passing cold fronts when winds and seas subside. When Mother Nature finally lets her guard down and graces anglers with a calm winter day, experienced wahoo specialists take full advantage knowing the window of opportunity won’t last long.
Generally, the days leading up to an approaching front provide the most comfortable conditions offshore. Once the wind has veered from south-southwest to northwest, you’ve already lost your chance.
From here the wind will continue to shift to the northeast and likely blow in excess of 20 knots as the frontal boundary takes a stronghold on the region. You can try to tough it out, but when the northbound Gulf Stream collides with crisp breezes out of any northern quadrant it can get rough in only a few hours. Hopefully, fishable conditions materialize near full and new moon periods when the bite is typically at its peak.
Wahoo are apex predators in the offshore realm, yet the scientific community still knows very little about these maritime missiles that may reach three feet in length and 30 pounds within 24 months. What anglers know from on the water experience is that these striped speedsters are the meanest, fastest and biggest mackerel around, capable of quickly stopping prey in their track and destroying inferior tackle with seeming ease.
Exuding extra slime to reduce friction when charging forage at highway speed, wahoo are notorious for incapacitating victims by eliminating their means of propulsion. When wahoo attack, the end is never far. They know when an easy kill presents itself and when it makes sense to hunt, capitalizing on low light conditions, cooler water temperatures and strong currents to lean the odds in their favor.
Like many blue water predators, wahoo are structure oriented. Off Jacksonville, most anglers focus efforts around the 28-fathom curve, which is a ledge that runs north to south about 55-miles offshore in roughly 160- to 200-feet of water. Here, the continental shelf slopes gradually and the bottom contour drops on aver-age 20- to 30-feet. It’s not a vertical wall, but it’s enough to attract forage and predators in an otherwise desolate stretch of open water.
Structure is critical, but water temperature also plays a significant role in the action you encounter offshore. Even during January and February when inshore water temperatures plummet the Gulf Stream remains relatively consistent, holding around 78 degrees. Wahoo can be scattered throughout coastal waters year round, but in the winter migratory fish search out water in the mid 70s with an abundant presence of forage. Satellite tagging studies demonstrate that wahoo can travel extreme distances and don’t care how far they go, as long as they are following food.
While it is highly recommended anglers pay close attention to their MFDs for slight variances in bottom contour and temperature, it’s also advantageous to know where ideal conditions might exist before heading offshore. Fortunately, there are several services available that utilize high-resolution satellite imagery to locate convergence zones and the favorable water conditions that wahoo prefer. Terrafin, Clearpoint, ROFFS, RIPCharts, FishTrack and Hilton’s Real-Time Navigator all produce data rich imagery with up-to-date ocean conditions that can greatly narrow your search.
As the winter season progresses and cool water moving down the coast concentrates preferred habitat, anglers should study sea surface charts and look for counter-rotating eddies of water pulling filaments of the nutrient rich Gulf Stream over the 28-fathom curve, further condensing forage and predator fish.
While there are many ways to catch wahoo, pulling artificial lures at high speeds is arguably the most exciting and quite possibly most productive approach. The technique entails trolling a five line spread of bullet and jet shaped lures through the water with the use of 16- to 48-ounce trolling leads and lengthy shock leaders. It’s important to note that you are not trying to fish lures deep below the surface. Trolling leads simply keep your lures from skipping out of the water.
Trolling five lines from a center console without tangling is accomplished with the proper weight selection and spacing of lures to obtain plenty of separation. It’s a synchronized effort and requires a focused crew, but once your spread is set marking the lines with rigging floss takes the guesswork out of resetting the spread.
Many crews run wire lines on bent butts from the transom corners. The lures on these outfits are positioned closest to the boat and weighted with 48-ounce trolling leads. The rods in the gunnels can be spooled with mono or braid on straight butts, rigged with 36- or 24-ounce leads and staggered behind the two wire lines. The final lure is a shotgun positioned 400 feet back with a 16-ounce lead.
Though you can never troll too fast for wahoo, the major benefit of high speeding is that the approach allows anglers to cover a lot more water than they would be able to if dragging natural baits. Additionally, a strike at speed sets the hook with tremendous force.
Trolling at 12 knots is highly effective, but fishing natural bait at slower speeds cannot be overlooked. Often times, it’s best to use a combination of approaches. Experienced crews typically high speed troll until they find concentrations of cooperative wahoo, at which point they pull back the throttles and swap out trolling lures for horse ballyhoo and strip baits rigged with sea witches and Iland Lures. Lipped plugs and the venerable Yo-Zuri Bonita can also be effective.
Wahoo aren’t classified as tightly schooling game fish like tuna, but they often gather in small hunting packs when ideal conditions and an abundance of forage exists. If you’ve found one, there’s likely more in the area. When you get a bite it’s important to make note of the present conditions and location. After you’ve successfully boated the fish it’s wise to hit the area again trolling from the same direction. If you don’t get another bite, then make one last pass from a different heading before moving on.
When searching for the fish, experienced wahoo specialists troll in a zig-zag pattern. The approach provides a change in the course and direction of your lures. Lures on the inside of a turn slow down and sink, but as the boat straightens out they regain speed and rise to the surface. It’s also important that on the initial strike you resist pulling back the throttles. When all goes well you can turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples.
Fish along the First Coast average around 40 pounds, but it is not uncommon to end the day hoisting a ‘hoo upwards of 90 pounds. In fact, during last year’s Northeast Florida Wahoo Shootout there were four fish over 90 pounds weighed, with the tournament’s biggest fish weighing 109.52 pounds.
In The Bahamas anglers targeting wahoo often focus heavily on the tide, but in North Florida it’s more important to fish when you can. Periods with falling or stabilizing pressure near full and new moons theoretically stack the odds in your favor, but there are a number of factors to take into consideration when planning a trip this far offshore.
You could limit out when you least expect it and strikeout when you think the bite should be red hot, so keep a close eye on the weather and fish when you can. You never know unless you go.