They've been called everything from torpedoes to deepwater wolverines. In Hawaii, they call them “ono,” which also doubles as the word for “tasty.” Around here, we call 'em wahoo.
Maybe that's derived from “Oahu,” or from the similar fish “walu” found in the Fiji Islands. Most likely, the name goes back to the first time one of these voracious, tiger-striped predators clamped down and ran out 300 yards of line before a stunned fisherman could gather his wits and holler “wahoo!”
In addition to their unparalleled first run and impeccable white flesh, one of the wahoo's best traits (at least in the Lowcountry) is their willingness to stick around when the weather outside gets chilly. It's not uncommon for a boat full of excited fishermen to pull back into the harbor on a January afternoon with a maxed-out limit on board (two per person).
Mistakenly dubbed “ocean barracuda” by some, wahoo come from the same family — scombridae — as tunas, mackerels and bonitos. Most wahoo caught range from 40 to 80 pounds, although the state record is 130 pounds, 5 ounces — not bad for a fish with a lifespan of five or six years.
Moving at up to 50 mph, wahoo rank among the fastest fish in the ocean. Their range circles the globe, sticking mostly to the warm-water currents of tropical and sub-tropical open ocean zones.
With their mouth full of scissor-locking, razor-sharp teeth, wahoo can be the source of regular frustration when anglers are fishing for other species. Their bite easily severs monofilament or fluorocarbon line, so a heavy wire leader is a must when wahoo are the primary target.
Wahoo fans employ several methods to pinpoint fish. High-speed trolling, usually between 9 and 12 knots, is popular year-round as a way to zero in on wahoo while covering a bigger swath of ocean.
“They can't see what (the lure) is, but they see it's moving fast and they just want to get it.”
To prepare for high-speed trolling, Burnham rigs a 24- to 32-ounce weight in the middle of a two-foot length of braided cable with crimped loops at both ends. The weight keeps the lure about a foot below the surface as the boat trolls. The cable-weight rig is attached to the mainline on one end, and about 25 feet of 200-pound monofilament, or “shock line,” on the other. The trolling lure or bait, rigged with wire, is attached to the end of that shock leader.
Rigged ballyhoo, the go-to bait for offshore fishing, won't hold up at high speeds. Burnham suggests using a lure like Black Bart's Rum Cay Candy or the C&H's “BAMF” (the first and third letters stand for “bad” and “mother”). Wahoo are opportunistic eaters, going after everything from squid to bonito to blackfin tuna. They're not picky, but choose straight-running lures with conical head shapes that will slice through the water. Whatever you go with, Burnham says, stick to dark colors like black, purple, and orange.
“It creates contrast,” Burnham says, adding that anglers also can stack skirts and octopus lures on top of each other at the end of the line. “It'll look like a mess, but they'll hit it. Fish look up toward the light on the surface. Darker colors contrast better against the sky.”
At speeds closer to 5 or 6 knots, wahoo anglers can use an Ilander lure rigged with ballyhoo, rigged with about 4 feet of 100-pound-test, braided cable leader.
Stout J-hooks are the norm for wahoo, and anglers should keep a file on board to sharpen hooks after every bite.
Rigging an in-line planer set-up is another slower-trolling option that allows anglers to target wahoo and other species that like hitting baits a little deeper in the water column. Planers come in different sizes, but they all typically consist of a small metal plate designed to be rigged between the mainline and terminal tackle. The planer runs diagonally through the water; the downward force of the water rushing over it pushes the planer and the lure trailing behind it deeper into the water column. The further the planer is let out, the deeper the rig will run.
A relatively small planer can be rigged directly between a rod's mainline and a long leader (up to 75 feet) tipped with a wire-rigged Ilander/ballyhoo combo. Once the planer is “tripped,” the fish can be fought normally, at least until the planer reaches the rod tip. At that point, a crewman can hand-line the fish to the boat.
Larger planers that can run even deeper are sometimes deployed on separate, heavy lines attached to the boat instead of the rod's mainline.
A larger planer also can be attached to a heavy trolling rod and fished in-line with the lure. When doing so, many anglers rig a heavy wire or cable bridle between the mainline and leader. This heavy bridle remains slack while the planer is set and under pressure. When a fish trips the planer, the pressure transfers to the bridle, which absorbs the shock of the strike.
Wahoo attack from the side and below, screaming in at 25 mph or more to hit bait moving 10 knots in another direction. It's a hit that anglers usually never forget.
“It takes a good decent whack, but once it trips, the fish is hooked up,” said Burnham, who rigs his planers with a bridle of 275-pound, 49-strand cable. With heavy enough tackle, “you can fight the fish all the way to the boat. It's about as smooth as it gets.”
Planers rigged with a bridle can be removed once they're reeled up to the rod tip. Then the fish can be fought right up to the boat without hand-lining.
Bringing a wahoo on deck always feels like an accomplishment, mostly because of the strength of their strike and initial run from the boat. A big wahoo, maybe 80 or 90 pounds, can easily peel off 200 or 300 yards of line.
Bobby Krivohlavek, captain of the 48-foot charter fishing boat Daymaker, said a typical wahoo fight starts strong but quickly settles into a steady tug-of-war.
“They put up a big fight, but then they're wusses,” Krivohlavek said. “You lose them when they turn toward the boat and bite the leader.”
During a wahoo's blistering first run, its staggeringly fast directional changes keep an angler on his or her toes. Fishermen shouldn't tighten the drag or try to thumb the reel — the whirring spool can tear the skin off a thumb when a wahoo runs.
Daymaker crewman Joseph Allbritton said “you know when you've got a wahoo because there's quite a bit of head shake. You don't have to set the hook; just wait for that first run to stop.”
Once an angler has fought a wahoo up to the boat, keep the boat moving forward as the gaff man gets in position. If possible, the angler should move toward the front of the boat or cockpit, which should bring the wahoo up along the side of the boat.
Gaff the fish in one smooth, solid motion, pulling it straight up out of the water and then over the gunwale.
Wahoo can put up quite a fight for the first minute or so onboard, so be careful to avoid their razor teeth. Don't ever try to land them while anyone onboard has bare feet. Put a gaffed fish directly into a fish box or, if need be, subdue him on deck, keeping clear of those teeth.
Take any pictures quickly. Wahoos' silvery iridescence and cobalt-blue tiger stripes fade within minutes of death.
Of course, don't be afraid to enjoy what may be the whitest meat in the ocean before you even get back to land. The texture of wahoo demands little more than a light searing, or start slicing off sashimi and watch your catch disappear on the way home.
The appeal of wintertime wahoo trolling isn't that the catch is better than in the peak months of late spring, but that they're still out there and biting when everything else quiets down.
Atlantic's Burnham recommends going out within three days of a winter full moon.
“That's when wahoo fishing is stupid crazy — they go into a feeding frenzy,” he said. “Wahoo hang out where the bait are; find bait, and you'll find wahoo. Once they school up, they'll hit your swivels. They'll grab every tiny thing that shines in a second.”
Tides play a factor, as well; try to maximize trolling time during the hours around slack tide, when the current isn't moving as hard.
Although a slick surface can make the ride more comfortable on the passengers, it also can give wahoo an edge. They're known to be smart fish, and a bit of chop on the water can help entice the fish to make the split-second decision to grab the tasty looking Ilander lure flying by.
Find a spot to fish over structure, ideally along the ledge off Charleston in 145 to 180 feet of water. Live bottom reefs further out also are hot spots for big 'hoos. Trolling for wahoo can double as scouting missions for bottom-fishing spots.
On the surface, look for weed lines of floating sargassum that indicate temperature breaks and habitat for bait fish.
“The most important thing is to find the wahoo,” Krivohlavek said with a shrug. “You've got to drive over the top of them. If you don't do that, it doesn't matter what you do.”
Fortunately, the odds are good. Wahoo appear to be plentiful off Charleston. Because they don't tightly school, these fish are less susceptible to commercial fishing, typically showing up as by-catch. That means that unlike so many other heavily regulated fisheries, it's unlikely that wahoo seasons will be shut down anytime soon.
Best of all? There's no need to wait for spring to hit the blue water.