The first wahoo I ever hooked is one I’ll never forget. It’s day five of a 10 day trip and the conditions out at Alijos are terrible. Stacks of swells being kicked up by a wind blowing in the same direction made just being on deck difficult, but I didn’t care. I had just hooked up. Fishing a live bait with an egg sinker to combat the ripping current, I felt a strange tapping sensation and put my reel in gear to check. Taking a wind and feeling the weight, I load up and my rod bounces twice like the fish realized what just happened and shook from side to side. Then in an instant I hear this rocketing sound as I look out and realize it’s my line ripping up the side hauling straight to the bow. Trying to move quickly without knocking anyone over, I managed to catch up and started to realize that this bucket-list fish might actually make it to the boat. Keeping the rod tip high and a steady wind going, I treat it like a troll fish and just keep on with the same cadence. I didn’t want to psyche myself up but this fish felt really heavy. Not wanting to change anything, I keep going as I see deep color. The deckhand gets the gaff ready. I just keep the steady wind going as my heart beats faster and faster. Oh my god it’s a big one. Just out of range but on the surface, this magnificent wahoo starts slowly making its way back down the rail as I’m trying to pull it closer to the boat. The mistake I had made was choosing 30lb to start with. All the way back down to the port corner the fish takes advantage of the swift current and sets out for another slower run. I keep my rod tip high and check my drag when *pop* and in a second it’s all over.
This is wahoo fishing. The distance between thrill and disappointment can be extremely short, but the unique challenges these fish present make the pursuit all worth it. Most honest long range fishermen will admit that a 25 percent success rate from hook to land with wahoo is actually pretty darn good. This article is going to cover the top three methods to try and get you to at least that 25 percent mark.
Location and Timing
Your best chances at catching a wahoo from a San Diego sport boat would be going on a longer, 6-10 day trip in the late summer or Fall. These fish are warm-water predators, and the season usually doesn’t get going until late July or early August, but the bite will persist all the way through December for the boats going down below. Two main fishing areas account for nearly all of the wahoo brought back to Point Loma: One is The Ridge and the other is Alijos Rocks. If you’re unfamiliar with the Ridge, be sure to check out my previous article where I cover the details of this legendary spot and the ways to be successful there.
The Alijos Rocks. Image courtesy of BD member Soda Pop.
Read Next: A Sportboat Angler’s Guide to Yellowtail
Alijos Rocks is one of the wildest fishing destinations I’ve ever been to. Located 180 miles straight West of The Ridge, this lonely outcropping of rocks with nothing else around serves asa beacon for offshore life of all kinds. When the conditions allow it, the fishing here can be phenomenal. Large schools of nice grade yellowfin tuna compete with groups of wahoo that can be over 100 fish strong. The same techniques apply to both fishing areas but keep in mind that because of its exposed location, Alijos is prone to some miserable weather. Knowing how to adjust with these conditions can make a huge difference in your overall success.
Trolling can be an incredibly effective technique for locating schools of fish first thing in the morning. Image courtesy of OneCoolTuna.com.
Almost every day of wahoo fishing starts out by trolling. These fish are constantly on the move, and trolling through a high percentage zone waiting for a jigstrike before shutting down and drifting has become the most effective way to stay on top of the school. Crews want to see 100lb+ line with rods and reels matching this class to withstand the pressure of the lure and fish as the boat is moving along at 8-10 knots. An 18 inch heavy wire trolling harness is necessary to keep wahoo from slicing through your mono, and I always like to make my own or get them done by the guys at the local tackle shop. Especially with newer high speed trollers, a simple crimp with nothing added is the ideal rigging for strength and performance. I’ve noticed that there are some jigs that work better in calm conditions and others that excel when it’s rough. For example, I figured out that the popular Nomad DTX Minnow is a rough-weather lure and not the ideal bait to troll when it’s flat out. The massive bill on the front of the DTX keeps the lure digging downwards like a big crankbait even at high speeds. This drives the fish crazy, but the downside is that it creates a huge amount of resistance which makes winding it back to the boat extremely difficult when steaming ahead at full speed. The best days I’ve had with the DTX came during the snottiest weather of the trip. We had eight to ten foot seas and 25 knots of wind, and the fastest we could go was maybe six or eight knots. Rolling with the swells and being more manageable at this slower speed, the DTX stayed deep and got bit every single time it was deployed.
18 inches of 130# coated wire and a high quality barrel swivel is all that you need.
When the weather is nice, I’ve seen the Yo-Zuri Bonita (formerly known as the Marauder) or the Cowbell High Speed Wahoo Lure work well because the design of these lures make them more manageable when trolling faster on sport boats. Color seems to fall into a few known patterns, but they’re so strange that I believe anything bright will get bit. The traditional producers are bright pink, black/purple, and orange/black. If color gives you confidence, go with one of these three, but make sure to test the lure next to the boat before sending it out for the first time. The manufacturers mostly get it right and the lure should swim straight behind the boat without any adjustment. Sometimes they don’t, and the plug fails to track correctly which will never get bit and causes tangles once the boat starts turning. The lure isn’t completely broken, it just needs a little tuning. An experienced deckhand can tweak the tie-in point and have you running true in just a few minutes. Once everything looks good, send it back and keep it short (20-50 yards) so it’s kicking not far behind the prop wash.
Once you get bit on the troll, you now have the right-of-way through the stern and all the commotion of people trying to fish the slide should have no impact on you – if everyone follows the rules. The most important thing to remember about fighting a wahoo on the troll is that steady pressure is the #1 rule in being successful. Constantly turning the handle keeps the hooks in place and the fish will sometimes help you by swimming along with the direction of the pressure. Keep the steady wind going, and resist the temptation to start pumping or take your hand off the handle. Once the boat stops moving, plant your feet in a good spot and keep consistent pressure until the fish is brought to gaff. A final note is to be mindful of your lure once the fish comes over the rail. I hold my line tight and try to prevent too much banging on the deck. I’ve seen some lures break after one fish this way.
Fishing with a live bait for wahoo is also known as the “finesse” method because you’re able to use light line and play the fish to the boat. I use the same 30lb bait outfit that I do for yellowtail, a Fathom 25N paired with a Calstar 800m. In calm weather, 25 or 30lb is standard and I make sure that my drag is set loose for that crazy initial run. In rougher weather and while using sinkers, 40lb became my go-to as you can pull harder against the fast current and swell that you’ll be dealing with. For a leader, I use 16 inches of 40lb wire with a simple 1/0 Mustad live bait or “J” style hooks, haywired to one end and a small solid ring on the other where I connect to my main line. If you have multi-strand wire, be sure to pack the correctly sized barrel crimps that fit the diameter of your wire. Most 40lb wire accepts an A2 size but double check. The more expensive nickel-titanium “Knot 2 Kinky” wire is well worth the investment if you’re planning on fishing wahoo often. True to the name, you’ll experience no kinks and the wire is supple enough to tie with knots instead of crimps. Sometimes when the fish are pressured or not in an aggressive mood, switching over to a heavy fluorocarbon leader and putting the wire away can get you an extra bite when fishing gets scratchy. The downside to this is that if the fish isn’t hooked perfectly, those razor-sharp interlocking teeth can still cut through 100lb fluoro with relative ease. If the weather is rough and the drift is fast, try adding a small quarter ounce egg sinker above the wire leader, and simply drop your bait off the stern without casting. Wahoo have a tendency to stay deep and charge to the surface using their speed to ambush baits. With the boat as cover, they sometimes sit right below the stern and wait for stray sardines to fall over. I have caught several just feet under the boat by dropping a hot bait straight down and watching the bite.
Another small detail that I noticed when flylining during a tough bite was that the size of the bait seemed to make a difference in the way you got bit. One time we had a mix of sardine that ranged from big 8 inch baits all the way down to the cracker-dines where a size 1 or 2 hook was necessary. The big baits were much stronger and healthier looking, but almost every time I’d get a bite the fish would snip it in half and usually eat the non-hooked side. Sometimes they’d come back around to eat the other half but not always. I started realizing that spending a little more time looking for a healthy smaller sardine resulted in much better hookups because the fish started eating my bait as a whole, and casting wasn’t an issue because of the egg sinker that I had put above my leader. It’s important to pay very close attention to your line, as the bite is usually much softer than a tuna and sometimes you won’t even know you’re picked up until you start winding in to change your bait. If you give them too much time, wahoo will swallow your whole leader and cut you off even above the wire. Any sort of tick or heaviness and I put my reel in gear just to check.
Fighting a wahoo on light gear is one of the craziest experiences I’ve had on a sport boat. As a captain once explained to me, wahoo are sprinters while tuna are marathon runners. The initial blaze after hooking a wahoo will feel like it’s melting your drag washers, but as long as you hold on through the first run, the fish is much more tame. When looking at the anatomy of a wahoo compared to a tuna, you can see that the overall shape of the wahoo is more slender and hydrodynamic, but the tail is much smaller. This allows for these short bursts of speed but impedes on overall power. The reason so many wahoo fly up or down the rail after getting hooked is because the fish is trying to swim straight out as fast as it can, but the pressure from pulling drag often becomes too much and forces it to arc out either left or right. Because of this, I tend to keep a light drag until the fish is done with its big run. Many times this has kept me from having to sprint up the side like a madman, which can become dangerous when it’s crowded or the weather gets bad.
The straight-tie is effective but risky. Image courtesy of Steve Carson.
Fishing with jigs or bombs for wahoo can be summarized by the old saying “The best color for wahoo is speed”. Much like yoyo fishing for yellowtail, getting a bite on a wahoo bomb is all about moving that bait as fast as you can through the water and waiting for a pure reaction strike. Two lures make up the majority of my wahoo box: Captain Jimmy’s wahoo bombs and heavy Tady 4/0’s. That being said, there are many lures out there designed for a fast retrieve that can get bit just as well. On the drift, I’ll fish with a 50lb outfit and a stiff 6.5 to 7 foot rod, usually up in the bow where I can cast the jig as far as I can slightly upswell from the boat. I’ll count down anywhere from 5 to 25 seconds and then get in a position to burn the lure all the way back and then pause before bringing it back over for a new cast. Varying your sink rates is the best way to find the fish and establish a pattern that you’re confident in. The reason I pause and have the lure sit at the boat for a couple seconds before re-casting is because of the numerous stories I’ve heard about a wahoo chasing a lure out of the water and jumping into the boat unhooked. I know it’s hard to believe, but after listening to so many similar accounts from various long range anglers and deckhands, I’ve become mindful of the fact that it can happen.
The wahoo bomb that Captain Jimmy makes seems to get bit more consistently than any other brand that I’m aware of, but it’s such a simple lure that many guys end up making their own and catch fish on them. Because of its smaller profile, a wire leader is always recommended with a bomb but I would keep it shorter than my live bait leaders. The colors that I see working are the same ones that people use for trolling. Pink, chrome, black/purple, and green/yellow are the top producers for the trips I’ve been on. This lure is fantastic on the slide when you aren’t trolling but the fish are in the area. Standing with your outfit and bomb ready in your hand and pitching it out the moment a trolling strike happens can be amazingly effective if you’re prepared.
When it comes to iron fishing, the reason I like the 4/0 so much is because it maintains its kick at high speeds and the larger profile allows me to tie with straight mono or heavy fluoro without getting bit off as much. Granted, I expect to lose a few jigs every time I go wahoo fishing, but the difference in getting bit using the straight-tie compared to wire leaders makes it worth the fact that I might come home with a few less lures. Chrome/blue and red/black are two of my favoritecolor patterns, but last time I was out I tried a custom paint color that was bright pink with a black head, and it was getting smoked! I don’t know what it is about pink lures, but yellowfin and wahoo down below can’t seem to stay off them. On a calm day when the wahoo are up chasing baits where you can see them, a traditional light surface iron can be the most exhilarating way to get a bite. In direct contrast to fishing with a bomb or heavy jig, the best retrieve I’ve found with a surface iron is to slow down and have the jig lazily kick all the way back to the boat. The only one I’ve gotten a bite on was the bright purple OCT-10. Also try letting the jig sink and bringing it back at an angle. Experimenting with drop times and retrieve speeds keeps it interesting and always results in a few more bites.
Getting bit is unlike catching a yellowtail or tuna on the lure where after the initial strike you can lay back and let the fish take its run. Not wahoo. These fish have the tendency to bite the jig right in the middle and clamp down without ever getting hooked. If you keep winding and never allow any slack or loss of pressure, the fish will instinctively keep biting down and the hooks ultimately find a part of the jaw to impale, or again, they spit the whole thing out. In any event, whenever I get bit on the jig I keep winding hard, with the tip facing the fish, until the wahoo starts pulling line or it lands on the deck.
The one thing to remember is that wahoo fishing is never a guarantee. Learn what you can from every bite and make adjustments to bring these tricky fish to the boat. In the beginning of the article I lied. Reading this gets you about 15 percent of the way there. The rest is up to you.