Wahoo Highway

Earn your stripes in the fast lane while living on island time.

Capt. Steve Dougherty November 27, 2012

The life many South Florida anglers live is a vicious circle complimented with a semi-unhealthy addiction to chasing migrating game fish. Summer months are highlighted by chaotic adventures chasing squawking birds and surface busting tuna, with the early months of fall dedicated to hunting big swordfish in the Florida Straits. From here it’s time to gear up and get ready for the competitive sailfish circuit, with breaks in the weather affording the opportunity to head across the ‘Stream in search of lightning fast wahoo. There really is no better place to live than South Florida, with world-class angling opportunities limited only by your determination.

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One of the advantages of high speed trolling is that you can cover a tremendous amount of water in no time. Photo: doughertyphotos.com

Although fresh tuna sashimi pleases my palate and I get a fuzzy feeling heading home with an outrigger full of release flags, there’s nothing that gets me quite as excited as a wahoo racing in for the kill at speeds upwards of 20 knots. Unmistakable by their iridescent stripes and saw-like jaws, wahoo are some of the ocean’s most formidable predators. And like many tourists, these striped torpedoes enjoy wintering over in the warm waters of The Bahamas.

Keep your fuel tanks topped off, your wahoo gear rigged and ready to go, and your favorite fishing friends on speed dial.

With cold fronts consistently training south for the winter, anglers along Florida’s Atlantic Coast are often confronted with northerly winds over 15 knots. When the northbound ‘Stream collides with these crisp breezes it can get rough in a matter of hours, with steep swells and cold spray making for seriously uncomfortable conditions. Let’s make it clear that no matter your vessel’s size and seaworthiness, crossing the Gulf Stream this late in the year can be a real challenge. However, a safe passage is certainly not out of the question. First and foremost you’ll need to watch the weather like a hawk. Whether you plan on checking in at West End, Bimini, or trekking to one of the distant Out Islands in search of giant ‘hoo over 100 pounds your adventure has to start by crossing the Gulf Stream.

Fortunately, cold fronts are rather predictable and those with experience crossing will tell you that ahead of approaching frontal boundaries winds will generally veer from south-southwest to northwest. From here the breeze will continue to clock around to the northeast as the front settles in. During this time it’s not uncommon to have winds upwards of 25 knots, but if you know what the front will do and when it will do it you can plan ahead for a great trip. Keep in mind that in order to capitalize on the incredible wahoo bite in the islands you must maintain a flexible schedule.

When low pressure settles in before an approaching front you can expect the action to really heat up. To capitalize on the opportunities at hand you’ll need to be ready to depart on short notice. Keep your fuel tanks topped off, your wahoo gear rigged and ready to go, and your favorite fishing friends on speed dial. And while timing is everything, don’t be ashamed to turn around if the weather and sea conditions take a dramatic turn for the worse. However when conditions permit, the good thing is that you won’t have to go very far.

West End

(26° 42.189′ N, 78° 59.872′ W)
For die-hard crews departing from the Palm Beaches, West End should be your go-to destination. Roughly 56 NM from Palm Beach Inlet, this classic Bahamian port of call rests at the westernmost edge of Grand Bahama Island and is the perfect locale to target wintertime wahoo. Once you clear customs and take on fuel at Old Bahama Bay it’s time to get to work. The steep drop-off of the Little Bahama Bank starts just outside the cut at West End and can at times hold ravenous wahoo, although most crews race north and deploy their spread once they reach Memory Rock. Along the bank wahoo typically cruise the deeper perimeters and wait for forage species to get flushed from the shallows. To duplicate this natural feeding scenario you’ll want to troll in an exaggerated zigzag pattern to make your lures look like they are racing off the shallows toward deeper water. As you make exaggerated turns your lures will behave differently depending on what side of the boat they are on and what direction you are turning, so it may take you a while to get dialed in. However, once you get it you’ll come to the realization that zigzagging the bank in 200- to 600-feet while focusing on sharp indentations in the outer reefs will have your drags screaming—fish shallower and you’ll be molested by ravenous barracuda.

For those with a serious need for speed, trolling the bank at 14- to 16-knots will entice exhilarating strikes. With this approach you’ll need adequate tackle to apply sufficient drag, with bent-butt 50s and 80s the norm. This is no place for weak terminal tackle either because fishing the fast lane will quickly exploit any weaknesses.

Starting at the rod tip you’ll want to tie a Bimini twist in your main line and attach a heavy-duty ball bearing snap swivel to the end of the double line. Next, connect a trolling lead outfitted with a short trace of multi-strand cable, followed by a 30 foot shock leader fabricated from 200 lb. monofilament.

When it comes time to select lures that remain effective at breakneck speeds it’s important to note that any heavy jet or bullet will do the trick, just make sure they are rigged with multi-strand cable or heavy single strand wire. Conventional wisdom says you should troll darker lures during overcast conditions and brighter lures during sunny conditions, but wahoo typically ignore the rules and strike what they want when they want. It’s not uncommon for wahoo to strike the lead (hence the need for cable on both ends of the trolling sinker) as it skips through the water, again proving color isn’t that important. With that being said you will find that certain color combinations shine on particular days.

Bimini

(25° 43.34′ N, 79° 17.45′ W)
From Hillsboro Inlet the islands of Bimini rest approximately 53 NM southeast and from points south they are even closer. Although the islands of North and South Bimini are relatively small, they are within a cluster of islands that span almost 80 miles from north to south. Here the wahoo options are limited only by the amount of fuel you are willing to burn. Many trophies have been bagged right out front of Bimini, but this isn’t always the case or the place to be. While outgoing tides typically set the stage for a hot bite at most locales, here seaweed can wash off the bank and make fishing near impossible. If the ledge out front is covered in grass you can either troll north toward Isaacs or south toward Orange Cay. Because you’ll be dealing with winter weather the prevalent sea state may dictate the direction you fish, but fortunately for you there’s promising structure in both directions. It’s no fun trolling into a swell, with cool air temperatures making an onslaught of spray really uncomfortable.

Although high speeding is all the rage, trolling slower at 8- to 9-knots also does the trick. Many choose to high speed troll until they find concentrations of cooperative wahoo, at which point they swap out high speed trolling lures for horse ballyhoo rigged with sea witches and Ilanders. Although wahoo aren’t classified as tightly schooling fish like tuna, they do gather in hunting packs when ideal conditions and an abundance of forage exists. When you get a bite mark the spot and after you’ve boated the fish be sure to hit the spot again from the same bearing. If you don’t get another strike pass by from a different direction before moving on. It’s 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.

While many will tell you that tides are the single most important factor in successful wahoo fishing, there are other influences that cannot be ignored. You’ll want to look for clean, blue water and focus your efforts during periods with falling or stabilizing pressure. Even though there are a host of factors you must take into consideration when planning a wahoo adventure to The Bahamas, the bottom line is that you should fish when you can. You might limit out when you least expect it and strikeout when you think the bite will be on fire. The only way to ensure you’ll be ultimately rewarded is to put in the time. See you on the other side.

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