How to

Wild wahoo

WAHOO have always been one of my favourite species of fish to catch. In most areas they aren’t all that common, and off the Gold Coast where I live they turn up in erratic numbers each year. Some seasons we see plenty, but more generally we catch maybe half a dozen as by-catch when chasing billfish with lures. There are specific ways to target wahoo at certain times of the year and the following article will explain some of those methods in detail. The attraction of wahoo is a mixture of speed and beauty. They are an amazing fish to hook, look magnificent in the water and are excellent eating.

I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of fishing in very remote places over many years. Fishing places like Cato and Wreck Reef in the mid-1980s introduced me to wahoo. I’d caught a couple fishing off the Gold Coast and South West Rocks prior to these trips which fuelled my hunger to catch as many as possible. In the early days a lot of commercial anglers referred to wahoo as “Bastard Mackerel” as the silver sheen of scales often stained the fillets, making them unmarketable. When I first went to Cato Island aboard the old Seafari skippered by Joe Wilkinson from Bicheno in Tasmania, we stumbled across a mother lode of big wahoo. At the edges of the cobalt current where the bottom rose up from hundreds of fathoms to the surface there were long thin purple fish stacked like logs from the surface down to as far as you could see into the amazing blue depths. We had six big skirted lures out the back that we’d dragged at 6 knots all the way from Mooloolabah catching yellowfin tuna and striped marlin on the way. As we crossed the edge of the continental shelf every lure disappeared in a white foaming boil, drags screamed and then everything just stopped as six limp lines lay in the water. They destroyed the lures, bit off the swivels and even chomped on the double knots. Thinking back to it, some of those lures were original Jo Yee Apollos, a lure that is now collectable and highly prized. When they do stack up in big schools, wahoo can be incredibly destructive on tackle particularly if you are running monofilament traces. On that first trip we were incredibly under gunned for the encounters we had with wahoo, huge dogtooth and big yellowfin tuna and collectively over 10 days at sea we lost over 300 lures. However, we caught a lot of big wahoo up to 38 kilos. The main lessons we learnt was to not troll expensive marlin lures in areas where wahoo were thick!

Over subsequent years I spent a lot of time fishing the atolls of the Coral Sea, and I was always fascinated by the behaviour of wahoo. Sometimes during periods where it was a total glass out big numbers of wahoo would swim just under the surface and were for all intents and purposes asleep.

If you cast a lure at them they’d suddenly startle and swim off, but rarely ate the lure. I read about Pacific Islanders lassoing wahoo in these conditions using a noose attached to a long pole. It’s quite ironic that one of the fastest fish in the ocean will, at times, sleep on the surface having a sunbake. More usually, wahoo would appear in the wake of the boat as a purple and bronze missile barrelling in on a collision course with a lure. The impact of the strike is quite amazing-wahoo bites are rarely subtle. When hooked most wahoo thrash around on the surface for a second or two with a lot of wild head shakes before they scream off in a burst of bubbles. In experiments overseas measuring how long it took to remove a given length of line from a reel, it was calculated that the first run of a big wahoo is timed to 77km/hr. Now that is an incredibly fast fish!

We also discovered very early on the wahoo have a passion for eating metal jigs. This was a far cheaper option than some of the trolling lures of the day. On Seafari the most popular wahoo jigs were 7 ounce Nat-Nats made by Bill Way. These tended to flutter on the drop and wahoo loved them. We also made a lot of our own jigs by filling up bath towel rails made of chromed brass with molten lead and cutting these into short lengths. In some ways we were pioneers when it came to jigging for wahoo in Australia, but this method was already established on the big party boats fishing out of southern California. This all took place well before the advent of braided line. It was so effective we used to reckon that for every wahoo that ate a trolled lure, you could catch ten on a jig. Since those early days I’ve caught a lot of wahoo on jigs, but the downside of this method is that you need a concentrated population of fish to work your magic on. More usually, wahoo are quite scatted roaming the southbound blue oceanic currents. In this situation trolling is much more effective. However, if you are keen to jig up your first wahoo, fined a jig around 200 grams that is chrome or gold and flutters on the drop as it sinks. Don’t use single hooks on Kevlar loops as the fish commonly bite them off. I still prefer a solid treble on triple split rings rigged on the back of the lure when targeting wahoo. Around 40cm of wire is also essential. These fish have incredible eyesight so it is important to minimise your visible connections. When the fish are shy I use a length of nylon coated wire and by the use of an Albright knot attach this to the leader. It stops the need for a swivel, is neat and tidy and works very well, although you may have to re tie the leader between fish as the wire will kink.

Wahoo respond well to heavy skirted lures trolled at high speed. There is a shallow reef complex located south east of the Tweed Bar known as Nine Mile Reef, and this area attracts a lot of wahoo when the current runs hard over the top of it in summer and autumn. The main baitfish in the area are small tuna and long toms. A locally made lure called a Hex Head is extremely popular in this are for chasing wahoo. These lures consist of a heavy hexagonal shaped head with a pair of skirts attached and come pre rigged on 49 strand cable wire with stainless steel hooks. When trolled at a speed of 12 to 15 knots these lures produce hundreds of wahoo at the Nine Mile each season. The strikes are blistering and it pays to use at least 15 kilo tackle when high speed trolling. The average wahoo we catch off the Gold Coast is around 12 to 15 kilos but we commonly get fish twice that weight, particularly on the wider grounds when chasing blue marlin. While high speed trolling using heavy skirted lures is popular at the Nine Mile Reef, it also works well in any areas where wahoo are feeding over reef and it is a great searching method. Bibless minnows that work at speed can also be used in conjunction with the heavy skirts, but in truth not too many lures work at the optimal speed of 12 to 15 knots. High speed trolling works best very early in the morning from first light until an hour after sunrise. It is a very exciting way to fish.

Perhaps the deadliest method of all for targeting big wahoo is to troll small live tuna in areas where wahoo are hunting. I have a box of pre made rigs using 49 strand wire. The front hook is pinned through the upper jaw of the tuna and the rear hook is place just behind the middle of the fish, just pinned through the skin. We have these rigs hooked on and ready to go, and usually start our session trolling a pair of tiny pink squids out the back while spinning small metal lures for tuna. Small mackerel tuna, striped tuna, frigate mackerel and bonito are all suitable to use as live baits. Don’t be afraid to put out quite big baits, even a 10 kilo wahoo will attack a two kilo tuna. When we catch a tuna we put it straight back out, as these highly oxygenated fish won’t stay alive in a live bait tank (unless you have specially designed “tuna tubes”). We troll the tuna at a slow walking pace, while continuing to spin for a second bait. When a wahoo or big mackerel is in the area the tuna become extremely skittish, and it is not uncommon to have wahoo leap high into the air before landing on the hapless bait. I always fish these baits in strike drag on the reel. If you miss the hit, stop the boat and free spool the line. Sometimes the wahoo will come back and eat the head of the tuna as it sinks. The only downside of this method is that it is also highly effective on sharks, and because we are using wire they need to be fought back to the boat and released.

Trolling hard bodied minnow lures is another effective method for wahoo. When I am targeting black marlin I often troll a Halco 190 Laser Pro from the long corner position positioned amongst the skirted lures. I use this lure as it is deadly on wahoo and keeps them well away from my valuable skirted lures. Surprisingly, over the years I’ve caught quite a few marlin on the Halco as well. A good spread of hard bodied minnows is a reliable method to target wahoo around bommies and current upwellings. Sometimes the fish can be extremely boat shy and lures positioned around 80 to 100 metres back often get the most bites. There are some great diving minnows on the market that work well. Brands such as Halco, Zerek, Samaki and Nomad all produce some great deep diving troll lures. I carry a mix of lures and vary them according to conditions. When there is a chance of big wahoo I like big lures.

In more recent times a lot of anglers have been targeting wahoo, yellowfin and mackerel by casting big stick baits. This works well if wahoo are feeding on the surface and the hits can be explosive. I’ve seen wahoo jump right over the boat chasing a stick bait just lifted out of the water. A long sweeping retrieve seems to work well but be very careful as these crazy fish can shoot out of nowhere and are incredibly dangerous. The mouth of a wahoo is a lethal cutting machine.

When you hook a good wahoo let it run. Don’t increase the drag or try to stop it. The first run expends a lot of energy and wahoo make your ratchet scream like few other fish. After the first run is over you will generally start to get some control over the fish. It will usually take a few more runs and you’ll feel a lot of head shakes. As the fish gets closer keep the boat in gear going forwards, put your gloves on and get ready to leader the fish. I keep most of the wahoo I catch, and they can be a difficult fish to release. I gaff the fish in the head and lift it aboard onto a clear deck. It is important to dispatch the fish quickly with a club between the eyes as wahoo are dangerous if not controlled. After a few pictures I scrub the fish down with a coarse brush to remove the tiny scales, wash it with the deck wash and put it on ice. From the strike to the plate wahoo are the complete gamefish and I always get excited when I see that purple and bronze banded missile of a fish at the boat. 

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