Few fish generate the excitement level of a lit wahoo. These revered pelagic predators are natural born killers with a camouflage coat of armor that allows them to melt into their open ocean surroundings with ease. The fastest and largest mackerel found in the Atlantic, wahoo are perfectly adapted aquatic assassins with razor sharp teeth complementing streamlined, torpedo-shaped fusiform bodies. While those with a penchant for petroleum prefer to catch these well-equipped game fish at the least efficient speeds, local anglers with years of experience fish at a much slower pace knowing that when it comes to catching wahoo, it’s hard to beat strip baits, planers and the distinct knock of a two-stroke outboard.
It’s certainly not always about having the fanciest boat with the most motors, and perhaps this is most evident along the southeast coast of Florida where local charter captains have been making a living putting anglers on quality fish for decades. Keeping the rods bent is required to excite visiting anglers day in and day out, so it’s no surprise why the best of the best use a versatile trolling approach that is not only appealing to an array of fast-moving game fish holding throughout the water column, but one that is also extremely affordable. Here, it is all about fishing planers with strip baits crafted from freshly caught false albacore. And, through years of refining tackle and technique, the area’s top producers have become extremely proficient at finding and fooling wahoo on the troll.
To charter captains, bonito are both a blessing and a curse. While false albacore put up a hard fight, they quickly dismantle spreads meant for more glamorous targets and have zero food value, so paying customers aren’t always enthralled with their presence. However, catching bonito is a critical step to catching wahoo on planers and seasoned captains have learned how to overcome the perceived adversity.
Captain Chris Agardy (fishenvycharters.com) of Boynton Beach, Florida grew up fishing on his father’s charter boat plying the same waters off the coast of Palm Beach County and has since become a wahoo magnet fishing out of the treacherous South Lake Worth Inlet, known locally as the Boynton Beach Inlet, in the shadow of the famed martini glass.
Capitalizing on the summer run of bonito, Chris takes great care in catching and preserving bonito slabs to get him through the winter season when the once plentiful fish become scarce. If you plan on harvesting bonito to craft strip baits, then it’s imperative the fish are put on ice immediately after being pulled from the sea.
“Back at the dock, start by filleting the slabs off each side of the bonito while leaving as much meat on the fish as possible. From here you’ll want to thin out the slabs by shaving the meat with the edge of your blade. For this step it’s critical you trim the meat starting at the tail end of the fish to follow the natural grain of the muscle fibers. Work against the grain and you will destroy the strip. The final slab should be about a ¼ inch thick,” says Captain Chris.
While the blood-red meat of a bonito might all look the same to you, Chris has a preference to the part of the fish the strips are cut from. “I much prefer the belly portion of the slab for trolling strips as the meat has a tighter grain. The skin side also produces a natural silver shimmer. The upper part of the shoulder features painted bonito stripes and adds a bit of natural attraction, but the grain of the meat here is thicker and these strips tend to wash out a little faster,” continued Agardy.
Additionally, Chris prefers to prepare, salt and stockpile the slabs whole, and then cut individual strips the morning of a trip. He also tells us that the strip that comes from behind the bloodline is extremely oily and always produces a bite.
...it's hard to beat strip baits, planers and the distinct knock of a two-stroke outboard.
When it’s time to go fishing, lay the prepared bonito slab skin-side down on the fillet table. It’s important the tail of the bonito becomes the top of the strip bait hanging at the eye of the hook. As you are crafting teardrop shaped strip baits keep the blade at an angle to produce a beveled edge where the skin meets flesh. This will help prevent premature washout. Repeat the process making note of the grain’s direction and you should be able to create four to six strips per slab.
When it comes time to rig, fresh cut strips are enhanced with brightly colored skirts, sea witches and Ilanders, which create a larger profile and further prevent washout. Captain Chris also has his preference in rigging with single and double J-hooks chosen with both wire and fluorocarbon leader utilized depending on the level of stealth needed for any particular situation. Though most often strips are fished with a pair of Mustad 7766D J-hooks, featuring a 6/0 lead hook and 7/0 trailing hook, sometimes a larger single 10/0 Mustad 7691S is used with an oversized strip and larger trolling head. If you desire to fish different sized strip baits with according hooksets, Chris recommends fishing the biggest baits closest to the boat. Regardless of chosen offering, to combat the bony mouth of a wahoo it’s imperative hooks are tack sharp and inspected throughout the day.
When adding a strip to a double hook, line up the hooks alongside the strip and insert the back hook first, dead center. Next, insert the lead hook about a quarter inch from the top of the strip, ensuring the bait does not bind. Single hook rigs should include a stiff pin to attach the top of the strip near the hook eye.
Strip baits crafted from the flanks or bellies of fish have proven their effectiveness in many big game scenarios, though streamlined bonito strips are most effective when fished behind a #4 or #6 planer. How a planer works is simple. The weighted metal plate attaches to your main line and digs deep into the strike zone as it is trolled through the water column. When pulled at the appropriate speed and distance behind the boat, planers run at a 45 degree angle. A long leader, or shock cord, trails behind the planer and connects to the fluorocarbon or wire leader and strip bait.
When trolling for wahoo, though dependent on the depth and desired speed, anglers often utilize shock cords upwards of 100 feet in length. Trolling outfits loaded with 80 lb. braid allow anglers in search of wahoo an opportunity to present classic strip baits as far as 50 feet below the surface on 40 to 80 lb. monofilament leaders. Ultimately, longer and lighter shock cords result in more bites, so don’t be afraid to scale down your tackle for a stealthier presentation. Ready for whatever conditions they are faced with, planer pros are always outfitted with multiple yo-yos spooled with shock leaders of various lengths and breaking strengths. And although you might think a 50-wide Tiagra is overkill for fishing off our coast, they are absolutely necessary as pulling planers produces a significant amount of drag.
Though a planer remains under tension while in fishing mode, the device trips as a fish strikes and instantly eliminates all resistance. It’s important to remember that trolling too fast or choosing a bait that’s too big will result in the unwanted tripping of the planer. Whether fighting a fish or simply checking your bait, once the planer reaches the rod tip the angler’s job is over and a designated mate is required to retrieve the shock cord and hooked fish by hand.
Wahoo are the most elusive of all pelagic predators and continue to drive determined anglers mad, while at the same time surprising unsuspecting fishermen when they least expect it. Just when you think you have their feeding patterns figured out, they stop biting or disappear altogether and completely throw you off their trail. It’s easy to see why these masters of deception rank so high on every blue water angler’s wish list.
Whenever possible, focus your wahoo efforts just prior to or just after full moon phases. Typically, outgoing tides provide the greatest odds of success, especially in the southeastern portions of the state where heavy concentrations of baitfish are flushed off near-shore reefs. Historically, the martini glass shaped water tower in the distance behind the famed Boynton Beach Inlet has been a consistent producer for those in search of purple stripes. Located between Palm Beach and Boca Raton, and within close proximity to the nutrient rich Gulf Stream, Boynton Beach’s rapidly sloping shelf complimented by broken reef formations and an array of artificial wreck systems yields more quality wahoo than nearly any other port in the area.
Understanding the bathymetry outside Boynton Inlet is relatively easy as prominent reef lines and high profile shipwrecks exist up and down the coast, and all are clearly displayed on today’s sophisticated electronics. Skilled wahoo hunters use these obstructions in conjunction with ideal depths to find and fool their target quarry. Ninety percent of encounters occur between 130 and 200 feet of water where these underwater structures create upwellings that congregate and push tiny baitfish toward the surface. Now in open water, they become easy prey for bonito and blackfin tuna—wahoo’s favorite forage.
If you want to catch a wahoo, Captain Chris has one piece of advice. “Don’t give up. Way too often anglers attempt to target these precious predators and call it quits way too soon. Your trolling efforts shouldn’t be limited to the first or last 60 minutes of daylight. Start early, before the sun even creeps its fiery head over the horizon, and stick with it. Don’t stop until 11:00 a.m. The same applies during the afternoon bite. Start at 4:00 p.m., and troll well into dark. It might be a few trips between wahoo catches, but that makes success even sweeter.”
Wahoo can reach triple-digit weights approaching the massive 200-pound mark, but the fish we encounter off Florida rank as somewhat juveniles ranging in size from 25 to 75 pounds, with a few larger specimens thrown in annually to keep things exciting. While there are many ways to catch wahoo, the timeless tactic of slow trolling planers and strip baits just might be the most effective method of consistently putting these delicious fish on deck.