The naming conventions for sailfish, swordfish, red snapper and yellowtail are undeniably accurate, although the widely recognized king mackerel is not emperor of the tribe Scomberomorini. This noble designation is most certainly bestowed to wahoo. In terms of tenacity and shear velocity, these fish swim alone. With unmistakable iridescent stripes and scissor-like jaws lined with serrated teeth sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, the fastest and largest mackerel found in the Atlantic Ocean is an imperial predator unlike any other.
Shaped like a torpedo, a wahoo’s elongated body is covered with small, barely visible scales that help the fish swim with minimal resistance underwater. For an extra boost when they need it most, wahoo can tuck their pectoral and dorsal fins into perfectly streamlined indentations. They also have the supernatural ability to exude a special slime coat to reduce friction when charging forage at highway speed. Camouflaged in a tiger striped pattern highlighted by vibrant hues of silver, purple, blue and bronze, from above or below wahoo are silent hunters that magically melt into their surroundings leaving unsuspecting prey no chance of escaping their deadly attacks. When wahoo strike, 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 and strong currents to lean the odds in their favor.
Before assessing the best methods of increasing wahoo catch rates, it’s imperative you first understand the characteristics of the species in your crosshairs. While closely related to kingfish and other mackerel, in terms of behavior and where they hunt and live, wahoo are more similar to billfish and tuna. Uniquely, wahoo are the only pelagic fish that have a single globally distributed population. Looking at genetics one could not distinguish between a wahoo caught in Bermuda and an ono caught in Hawaii. With spawning females capable of producing roughly 60 million eggs per year, it is believed that mature fish and their larvae move freely from the Indian Ocean eastward into the Pacific Ocean as well as westward around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic Ocean. These fish have also displayed much faster growth rates than anglers might believe, with wahoo reaching sexual maturity between one and two years of age. Though regionally dependent, it is estimated that a three-month old wahoo grows over 2 mm per day before their first birthday.
Though wahoo can be caught virtually any day of the year around the state’s expansive coastline and throughout The Bahamas, certain areas are more likely to produce these prized fish than others. It can be argued that the waters outside the Boynton Beach Inlet with broken reef formations and an array of artificial wreck systems provide the most prolific territory for taking ‘hoo in the entire state. It’s a bold statement, but the local captains that target wahoo day in and day out are some of the most consistent in the business. Captain Chris Lemieux (lemieuxfishingcharters.com) charters among the best planer fishermen in the state, though he’s a proponent of live baiting given ideal conditions. “Frantic goggle eye emit distress signals that nearby wahoo can’t ignore and I would rather come home with a single wahoo caught kite fishing than run over three fish with a planer rig,” says Lemieux. When baits are trapped on the surface with leader hanging out of view, wahoo charge from below at full throttle with the sole intention of severing their prey in half. “This time of year, we focus a lot on kite fishing for sailfish. If you’re not participating in a tournament, or you are interested in weighing a fish for the meat division, then a short section of tooth-proof leader material gives kite fishermen the slight edge needed with the razor gang. And although it’s not comparable to the clear presentation of fluorocarbon, I’ve caught many sailfish on titanium wire,” continued Lemieux. With reports of toothy critters wiping out sailfish kite spreads, Lemieux rigs live baits with a 6/0 J-hook in the shoulder and smaller stinger hook attached with a short length of single-strand wire.
Regardless of where they are found, wahoo are structure oriented. If the habitat they’ve currently stopped on is substantial enough, then chunking can also be effective. This is how it’s done in Key West along Coalbin Rock, the Tail End Buoy and at the Bar south of Boca Grande Key where locals entice these striped speedsters with fresh speedo and bonito chunks. It’s important that baits are crafted to appear like severed fish, not triangular chunks. During the coming months wahoo congregate in the Florida Keys to spawn and schools of fish are focused largely on feeding and reproducing. The once nomadic wahoo let’s its guard down a bit and the fish are easier to locate for the time being.
Across their global domains, the preferred temperature for wahoo is between 72- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Off Florida’s First Coast, anglers who fight the cold weather and rough seas common to the winter months find fast action 50 or more miles offshore when temperature breaks pass over notable changes in seafloor contour. To narrow down the search for tigers in the spotlight, veterans who fish these waters look at chlorophyll charts, monitor sea surface temperature and study water clarity and color. Here, most of the action is focused around the 28-fathom curve, which is a ledge that runs north to south in roughly 160- to 200-feet of water. The shelf slopes gradually and the bottom contour drops on average 20- to 30-feet. It’s not a sheer wall like the stretches of aggressive bottom we target across the Bahamian archipelago, but it’s significant enough to attract forage and predators in an otherwise desolate expanse of open water. The game plan here is to tack in and out over the bottom trolling east and west. With the possibility of hooking fish approaching the triple-digit class, high speed trolling tactics are largely similar to heavy duty exploits in the islands.
The true definition of high speed trolling varies greatly, as one man’s fast may be another’s slow. One thing that we know for certain is that you can’t outrun a full-grown wahoo. There’s no magical trolling speed and it all depends on the current, sea state, whether you are going down sea or into it, your vessel’s planing characteristics and which offerings you choose to pull. The technique largely entails trolling a five-line spread of bullet and jet shaped lures through the water with the use of 12- to 48-ounce trolling leads and lengthy shock leaders. 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. A strike at speed sets the hook with tremendous force and in only a few hours of fishing you can effectively navigate more than 50 miles. Taking this fact into consideration, it stands to reason that the more promising territory you pull your baits through, the more likely you are to cross paths with the target species. Also, speed is clearly an enticement for wahoo, as these fish thrive on tuna and bonito, some of the fastest fish in the sea.
For years we’ve been told that outgoing tide presents the absolute best time to target wahoo wherever they roam, as it effectively pulls baitfish from the safety of shallows to deeper water. But like many species that are captivated by moving water, either outgoing or incoming will trigger these fish to change course. Slack tide is the enemy. In Florida, charting the moon phase can be a big help, and the bite is noticeably amplified six days ahead the full moon up until the second day before, then again two days after the full moon. 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 chasing the most elusive of all mackerels. Sure, there are peak seasons and optimal fishing times, but anyone who invests enough hours in charting clean blue water knows that wahoo are available from sunup to sundown around the entire perimeter of the state and during every month of the year. For this reason, wahoo wizards need to stay sharp in order to maximize every available encounter because with these hard-hitting fighters, a single fish can transform you from zero to hero. It’s recommended you keep a detailed logbook of your efforts including wind, tide current, moonrise and moonset. After a few years compiling data you’ll be able to predict the bite and have a heads up of what’s going to happen long before it does. Soon you’ll have a solid understanding of seasonal migration patterns and when history repeats itself, you’ll be ready to capitalize.
In The Bahamas, wahoo aren’t nearly as finicky as they are across the Florida straits. I have caught many fish during incoming tides in the middle of the day. When fishing in the islands I don’t worry about the moon phase as much and instead orchestrate trips around work schedules and comfortable crossing conditions. Whether we are fishing Cat Island, Cat Cay or near the Corner, trolling at 16 knots allows us to cover ground to find packs of fish. Burning fuel is fun when it isn’t your bill, but after a few bites it’s a good idea to incorporate horse ballyhoo, split-tail mullet and handcrafted strip baits pulled at slower speeds.
Searching for fish on the troll, experienced wahoo specialists typically zig-zag in an aggressive pattern. The approach provides a change in the course and direction of your baits and lures and is effective at any trolling speed. On the inside of a turn they slow down and sink, but as the boat straightens out, they regain speed and rise to the surface. The exaggerated zig-zag pattern makes your lures look like they are being swept off the shallows toward deeper water. This works great in Florida where the ledges are long and less defined, but in The Bahamas the edge is sharp and the difference between 60 and 600 feet could literally be a few boat lengths. Here it is far more valuable to follow the contour and pick a particular depth where you anticipate wahoo will be holding.
The unpredictability of these fish is their most calculable characteristic. Aggressive as wahoo can be, they also display finicky tendencies, mood swings and unpredictable behavioral patterns. But like all pelagic game fish, wahoo must at one time or another feed to fuel their insatiable appetites and long-distance migrations. Wahoo are apex predators in the offshore realm, yet the scientific community still knows very little about these maritime missiles. Though tagging studies on these fish are limited, there have been a few applications in Florida and The Bahamas. Challenging conventional wisdom, wahoo tagged in October should have been moving toward The Bahamas, but this was not the case. There were four fish tagged in our backyard during the fall and each one wandered north. Two traveled as far as Savannah, another was recaptured offshore of the Chesapeake and another caught off New Jersey. One thing they all had in common was that they stayed in the warm water of the Gulf Stream. Ultimately, pelagic species such as wahoo are on a constant hunt for food and don’t always follow the norm. A conventional streamer tag that was placed on a wahoo in Hawaii was recovered off Midway Island—a distance of more than 1,100 miles, further demonstrating their ability to travel long distances as long as there is food along the way.
Few fish generate the excitement level of a wahoo with vivid stripes and regardless of location or preferred tactics you might limit out when you least expect it and strikeout when you think the bite will be on fire. And just when you believe you have their feeding patterns figured out, they stop biting or disappear altogether. The only way to ensure you’ll be ultimately rewarded is to put in the time. Wahoo fishing doesn’t have to be difficult, but you do have to be calculated in your approach. Schoolie dolphin may give you a second chance and snake kings are often willing to play, but these nomadic hunters typically provide a solitary shot for success. Although consistently finding and fooling brilliant game fish is enjoyable in its own right, another reward comes at the end of the day when you finally get a chance to sample the fruits of your labor. Good luck on your quest for the one.