With a focus on the future of fishing, and many anglers adapting to widespread catch and release practices, heading out for a day on the water is no longer solely about filling the box. However, some pelagic species are targeted strictly for their prized flesh. Wahoo are big game targets that are never to be released and when you’re given the chance to swing the gaff, the steps that ensue will determine the plated fish’s overall freshness, flavor and edibility.
If it was all about filling the fridge, we would be way better off visiting the local fish house and paying market price. Regardless of actual price per pound once we include fuel and tackle costs among many other expenses, you’ve spent a great amount of time and effort to find and fool one of the ocean’s fastest and most colorful targets, so why jeopardize the meat by not taking great care of it?
One of my biggest pet peeves is fishermen that head out the inlet without sufficient ice onboard. If you aren’t going to care for the resources we are privileged to harvest, then it’s best you strictly practice catch and release. If I head offshore without at minimum of 100 pounds of ice I start to get anxiety. It’s also best you avoid overcrowding any type of fresh catch in an inexpensive plastic cooler with insufficient ice. The ideal scenario is a large, well-insulated fishbox or roto-molded cooler prepped with a slushy mix of saltwater and crushed ice. Submerging fresh wahoo in this ice bath ensures firm flesh. By keeping the fish extremely cold you can counteract the natural enzymes that immediately begin to deteriorate the white and opaque meat that is held on a high pedestal. It’s certainly ok to snap a quick picture of your prized catch, but when a fish is left in the sun for even five minutes, natural enzymes start to break down and warm up the fatty tissues, which makes the meat mushy. I also see too many anglers nonchalantly tossing their fish or dropping them on the deck. To preserve the finest meat and avoid bruising, it’s best to delicately move the fish from deck to fishbox.
Efforts to prevent spoiled meat don’t end here, with many meals ruined at the fillet table. When it comes time to clean your catch, once again remember that the sun is your enemy, so don’t stack the fish in a giant pile and admire your bounty for a social media hero shot. Rather, if you care about what’s important keep every fish on ice until it’s time for that individual fish to be cleaned. Sunlight is the number one spoiler of fresh fish.
At this point, you’ll need to decide if you want to fillet or steak your wahoo, as this will influence the type of knives required. Cleaning wahoo can be both dangerous and time consuming without the proper tools. Choosing the right knife for any task can be a challenge, as many are shaped different and not all fillet knives are created equal. Rapala, Forschner and Dexter-Russell are certainly trusted brands, with Bubba Blade, Havalon, CUDA and Gerber also producing fillet knives of outstanding quality.
With a long and stiff fillet knife that’s wider than the width of the fish, you’ll be able to delicately skirt the vertebral column while filleting a wahoo lengthwise. The method is identical to that of filleting a dolphin or mackerel.
While I prefer filleting wahoo over 40 pounds, steaking wahoo is another option that keeps the firm tenderloins intact and ensures maximum yield of smaller fish. Because you’ll be hacking through bone, its important you have a breaking knife at the ready. This tool has a longer blade and is much stiffer than a typical fillet knife. Some feature smooth blades for all around performance, while others feature serrated edges for enhanced cutting power.
If you’re new to steaking fish, then it’s imperative you understand how important the preparation is to the final product. Wahoo slime is nasty stuff, so begin by washing off with a hose. You should also remove the anal fins, finlets and dorsal fin with a set of sharp shears.
Next, take your knife and make a long incision from the anal cavity to the fish’s chin, directly down the center of the belly. Remove the stomach contents, entrails and clean thoroughly. You can use a rag to scrub the stomach cavity while aggressively rinsing it out with a hose. Now grab a cimeter or steak knife and begin cutting through your fish starting just behind the gill plate, working your way to the tail. I prefer steaks around an inch and a half, but the choice is yours.
When you get toward the tail and the steaks become small you can transition and fillet the remainder of the fish to use as tartare or poke. What I really like about wahoo steaks is that they hold up great on the grill. The only problem with steaking wahoo is that I’m not afforded the opportunity to scrape out the leftover flesh from the rack to eat as sashimi!
With regular use, even the highest quality knives will dull, particularly when you’re cutting bone. However, I have a Victorinox knife that is almost 15 years old. It sharpens easily and has never failed me. Regardless of your preferred brand, there is some great steel out there these days but you still need to be keen with a sharpening stone and use the proper sharpening technique and stroke for that specific blade. With a sharp edge, and the precise control offered by a balanced grip and blade, you’ll look like the next Iron Chef.
Wahoo is phenomenal sashimi style, but you can’t eat all of your fish raw. Whether you choose to grill, bake, broil, or sauté your fresh wahoo it is important you don’t overcook the tender fish or it will dry out and lose its delicate flavor. Regardless of what you’re breaking down on any given day, it’s important you set an example by maximizing yield. Large grouper and snapper heads are often tossed by the wayside, but are ideal for soups and chowders. Collars and cheeks can’t be left out either. Scraps and odd-shaped portions of flesh can be bagged separately and used for fish fingers and fillers when preparing fish cakes and similar recipes. And of course, you can’t forget about the roe.
I could carry on with proper freezing procedures, but I believe you should only harvest what you can eat fresh. Wahoo in particular doesn’t freeze well in my opinion. Though not always affordable, recreational fishing is a sustainable method of putting food on the table, with the proper chilling and filleting procedures all making a big difference in the longevity of freshness, presentation, aroma and flavor of any fish. There’s nothing quite better than fresh wahoo, but the way you prepare and care for the firm white flesh is critical. Enjoy!