The Skinny On Skinnies

You’ve surely heard about the elaborate multi-day excursions hailing out of San Diego on long-range vessels that reach distant waters so fertile you’d think you were dreaming. With impeccably outfitted boats, 5-star meals, first-rate service and the superb quality of opportunities available off the coast of Baja, most of the fares book six months to a year in advance. The primary focus of many long-range excursions is on cow size yellowfin, but after the giant tuna, wahoo are the most sought after game fish targeted by adventurous anglers from Southern California. In fact, some anglers go on fall, winter and spring trips for the sole purpose of bringing home “skinnies,” as they’re called on our coast.


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Photo: Jason Fleck

Wahoo are fished by San Diego long-range boats during all months and on most trips extending from 6 to 16 days. They usually show up at Alijos Rocks, 450 miles south, in July or August, and may provide hot fishing at The Rocks or The Ridge off south-central Baja until Christmas. They also provide steady action at Clarion Island and The Hurricane Bank, about 1,000 miles south, from October through June. The remaining months are storm season, when the area is left alone and game fish feed uninterrupted. Long rangers also find wahoo south of Point Eugenia, about halfway down the Baja peninsula, although they can occasionally be caught at Guadalupe Island, 220 miles from San Diego, from August through October.

…a wahoo literally chased a bomb up over the side and landed head first in the bait tank. It was absolutely unreal!

The first wahoo of the 2013 season came aboard the Red Rooster III, while trolling on The Ridge under relief skipper Derek Waldman’s watch on July 1. It surprised Waldman and his anglers, because the first skinny is most often caught near Alijos Rocks, almost 200 miles to the southwest. The Ridge commonly doesn’t clean up enough to hold wahoo until sometime in August, but this past year was different.

There are many techniques used to catch wahoo and they readily bite trolled jigs, bombs and iron lures, but also take plugs and chunks. When moving from spot to spot, anglers take turns along the stern, with Braid Marauders trolled as close as ten feet behind the prop wash getting the most attention, although skirted jigs also take a few. The most productive are very heavy, with chrome heads and vinyl skirts. Trolling is a great way to find wahoo, but not the best way to catch them. When a wahoo is hooked on the troll the mates generally toss out live chum to get nearby fish fired up. As the boat slides out of gear, anglers toss jigs and live baits. Oftentimes, anglers encounter wahoo when the boat anchors up on structure. There’s will be no sign of them on the troll, but once the anchor is down they mysteriously show up.

Wahoo bombs weigh around 8 oz. and are fished at high speed and greater depth, and are most effective when employed as drop-back lures that are cast or dropped into the boat’s wake after a wahoo strike occurs on the troll. Bombs are very heavy and are designed to sink quickly, and can also be fished vertically in the water column. Most come pre-rigged with cable leaders. When the fish are fired up, wahoo chase bombs all the way to the boat and the angler with the fastest retrieve often gets the first strike. Captain Randy Toussaint aboard Royal Star recalls one of the most unique things he’s ever seen happen while watching his clients work iron. “A long time ago when I was skippering Qualifier 105, a wahoo literally chased a bomb up over the side and landed head first in the bait tank. It was absolutely unreal!”

Long-range wahoo fishing is an incredible experience and for Florida anglers looking to make a trip to the West Coast, the top captains have a few tips to help prepare for your inaugural trip.

Captain Tim Ekstrom

Royal Star
If somebody wants to catch wahoo, I’d say the best shot at ‘em for a new angler might be on a fall trip to The Ridge or The Rocks, fishing with either bait or jigs. You might jig cast first, during the initial salvo, and then go to bait. If wahoo are slinking around the boat on the outside, you might want to try something different. Go up to the bow and put a jig in, let it sink and wind it in at a 45-degree angle. When the current is running hard, the bow is often open and clear of other anglers. Fish lurk all around the boat and you just have to put in your time. I like live bait the best, but the jig works well, too. Fish wahoo with whatever gear you’re comfortable with, but if you plan on casting bombs you need a reel with a super high speed retrieve.

Captain Jeff DeBuys

For casting I recommend a 7 to 7 ½ foot rod. I like 50 lb. straight mono line, which is a better shock absorber compared to a spool of braid. When you hook one and he turns around, you’ll be happy you have a little bit of stretch. Your reel should be a minimum of 5.5:1, with 6:1 even better. A lot of guys still like the old Newell 533 because it holds enough line and casts really well, but with these reels you’ll certainly need to bring some extra drag washers. For a bait rig, which requires casting long distances, I’d suggest 30 or 40 lb. test, with 47 lb. single strand wire to the hook and an 18-inch leader. Connect line and wire to a mason ring and use a J-hook of 3/0 or 4/0 size. Sometimes you can sit on the anchor and piece together a good day catching ‘em on wire with sardines. No matter how they get hooked, keep turning the handle until the fish is gaffed. You must keep slack out of the line and keep cranking your reel from start to finish.

Captain Kevin Osborne

This past year we had wahoo eat 10-pound skipjacks on the kite. We actually landed a few on the big tuna gear, but they mostly slice the big baits in half. When they get up the chunk line the object is to catch them and get them outta there so we can focus on tuna. I like to see anglers fishing with 40 or 50 lb. gear—bait on the 40. When they get picky we go down to 25 lb. test and a wire trace with a 2/0 hook. This is California long-range finesse fishing for wahoo and the technique can be extremely effective.

Captain Justin Fleck

When you find wahoo in an area you can pretty much guarantee the tuna will show up next. Fluorocarbon is so strong and abrasion resistant we go to it because the wahoo react to it so much better. We use 100 lb. fluorocarbon for wahoo on 30 lb. test, with 5/0 Mustad Demon circle-hooks when we want a stealthy presentation. When you don’t want to use wire, fluoro works best. Eighteen inches of fluorocarbon is my preferred leader length. We also use sardines under a balloon when the skinnies are thick, but with this method you’ll want to use a trace of 60 lb. SevenStrand wire.

Captain Roy Rose

Royal Polaris
For jig fishing, I like the gold Hopkins spoon that features a hammered finish. Lately on the boat, the Salas 6X Jr. Tar Baby has been hot. Fishing with bait, I like to nose hook sardines with 27 lb. wire. If I see them milling around the boat, I make a 15-inch, 100 lb. fluorocarbon leader and attach a 2/0 circle-hook with a perfection loop. They do blow up on surface jigs pretty well, but I wouldn’t recommend that method because you lose far too many that way—that’s for after you’ve already bagged a few.

The Point Loma Sportfishing fleet, H&M Landing, Lee Palm Sportfishers and Fisherman’s Landing are located near incredibly productive grounds and home to the finest long-range operations in the world. If you’ve never experienced a San Diego long-range excursion you need to give it a try. While you will certainly encounter trophy wahoo, don’t overlook big tuna for equally exciting action. With specialized vessels designed for comfort and extended days at sea, personal service and modern accommodations, this may very well be one of the greatest angling adventures you ever experience. See you on the rail.