How a Few Center-Console Pioneers in Northeast Florida Revolutionized Wahoo Fishing

Some of you may not know that Northeast Florida has some of the most fertile wahoo grounds in this great nation. But I’ll go one better — except for San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, I’d say this area has some of the most productive wahoo fishing in the world.

Northeast Florida Wahoo fishing

I know some of you are shaking your head in disbelief. Here’s the rationale of how we discovered our great wahoo fishery in Jacksonville and St. Augustine. First, there was the clandestine goat rope in 2010 when a federal agency banned red snapper fishing from Central Florida to South Georgia. This closure drove people to sell their boats or venture further offshore in search of another fishery. Secondly, and most impactful, was what I call the “High-Speed Revolution.” 

The revolution initially began with a bunch of knuckleheads standing around in a bait and tackle store talking about fishing. In the freezer of this store was usually a 12-pack of beer chilling down as the band of “center console misfits” wandered in around 4 p.m. For me, it was purely incidental that I stumbled across these guys and their great stories of wahoo fishing.

Florida wahoo fishing

It was 2006, while I was still on active duty in the Navy. I wandered into the C&H Lures Tackle Shop in Jacksonville to find this bunch of guys drinking beer and laughing. I was still in my khaki uniform from work and I could tell it made some of the guys a little guarded. The conversation quickly changed course and they proceeded to talk about grouper fishing. I was an outsider in a uniform, and these were secrets of the highest measure. I would return each Friday to squeeze my way in, but I would not be “read in” to this secret wahoo fishery for another year. 

Finally, after an entire year of bringing beer, one of them let it slip. During one of his enthusiastic rants, Casey Smith, one of the regulars and a great guy, let the words “high-speed” slip out in front of me. I was thinking I hit the jackpot! But you could hear a pin drop. The rest of the group stared at Casey as if he’d blasphemed. The facial expressions of the rest group were priceless. Casey tried to play it off, but it was clear for at least the next little while that he was in “time out” from the truth elixir known as Michelob Light that had paved my way in.

high speed wahoo fishing

In a series of one-on-ones with different members of the group, I was eventually “read in” very cautiously and slowly let in on the secret world of Northeast Florida high-speed wahoo fishing. They were still in the process of defining the tackle required, speeds, areas and fuel consumption. At the epicenter of all of this was Steve Grant, then the general manager of C&H Lures. He was the hub from which most all the reports and information was shared. He was our testbed for line, reels, lures, shock leaders and trolling weights. High-speed trolling in the Bahamas had been around for a while, but here in Northeast Florida in 2007 a revolution was starting, and I was a foot soldier soaking it all in. 

This band of center console misfits weren’t really misfits at all; they were innovators of the highest order. In 2012, the number of high-speed wahoo fisherman in the Northeast Florida Wahoo Shootout (the largest wahoo tourney in the world) came to less than 20. By 2016, you’d have been hard-pressed to find 20 people who weren’t high speeding. You will find the occasional old-timer who wants to remain relevant by saying he was high-speed trolling in the 1980s 1990s, but, in truth, they were marlin fishing. The old timers were trolling at 13 knots for marlin and would catch wahoo as by-catch. We routinely troll at 20 knots for tournament grade wahoo.

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Because of a band of beer-drinking, working-class guys, high-speed trolling went viral. In truth, an entire industry, specifically the lure industry, owes a debt of gratitude to this group of pioneers. Millions and millions of dollars have been made off the techniques they designed.

High-speed trolling for wahoo is tremendously expensive for the gear, tackle and the fuel consumed, especially for those of us who fish on a budget. Originally, we started with the Shimano Tiagra or Penn International 30W reels and, for a time, they worked very efficiently. But it became clear we needed to size up because we were destroying the drags before the season was over. Our trolling leads got heavier because we wanted to pull big lures as close to the boat as possible. We started pulling 96-ounce trolling leads with a 48-ounce Cowbell lure at 50 feet behind the boat. The huge trolling lead would keep the big lure beneath the surface at speeds up to 23 knots.

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Subsequently, we sized up our reels to the Penn International 70W or my personal favorite, the Shimano Tiagra 80W. Because the size of our working-class checkbooks was far smaller than the class of fisherman that usually buys these reels, we bought them one at a time and most often off Craigslist or the online classifieds. In the early days, we just had our mix-and-match reel combos. I started buying the Shimano 80Ws one at a time; only recently have I completed a matching set.

The line we settled on to use to withstand the rigors of a high-speed wahoo hook up is 130 lb. braid. The small diameter allows the lure setup to settle a little deeper in the water than big mono. Reaching this conclusion proved extremely costly with lost tackle.

The biggest recurrent cost in high-speed wahoo fishing is fuel. Other than wide open, it seems the most inefficient cruise fuel burn is at a trolling speed between 16 to 20 knots.

High speed wahoo fishing

Our group found a way to make it work for the working-class stiffs in center console boats on a budget by splitting the costs among the group. A consistent crew of friends could split the costs, usually five ways, where each is only seeing $150- $250 per person out of pocket, which is affordable once or twice per month.

In Northeast Florida, our wahoo season generally starts around Nov. 1 and rolls through the end of March. During November, while most of my closest friends will be sitting in tree stands, I’m mapping out my strategic attack on the Northeast Florida wahoo grounds. I’m not really into hunting deer that much. I believe the Northeast Florida grounds have two peak periods for sheer numbers of fish caught — December and February — although the largest fish of the year and tournament winners usually come on the full moon in March.

Fast Forward to 2023, C&H Lures is now gone, and the new wahoo information exchange spot (minus the beer) is Strike-Zone Fishing Jacksonville. Highspeed wahoo fishing is now all the rage from Fort Lauderdale to Morehead City. I started a Facebook group named Wahoo Junkies on Christmas Day 2016 and it now approaches 16,000 members, each individually screened from all around the world. Tournament slow troll/bait fishing for wahoo has become so obsolete that tournaments have specific categories for bait fisherman now. 

Local folks usually book me for highspeed wahoo trips starting the week after Thanksgiving. The biggest factor in wahoo fishing is finding a good weather window. But when we do get those great fall and winter days, it is exhilarating catching the striped beasts of Northeast Florida.

Until next time, please stay safe on the water and remember that great things happen when you take a kid fishing.

Capt. Tim Altman

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