Wild for Wahoo

Fish this size are why wahoo have earned their nickname of king mackerel on steroids. Each year 70-plus-pounders are caught in N.C. waters.

It’s the misses as well as hookups that bring anglers back for more than one crack at “king mackerel on steriods”.

At age 40, Capt. John Jenkins has become one of the Morehead City waterfront’s most respected offshore captains.

He has operated his 55-foot Jarrett Bay, Calcutta, for 10 fishing seasons, and when he talks about big game fishing, everybody listens, and from spring to fall the name of the game is wahoo.

“A wahoo is my favorite fish to catch,” he said. “They give some awesome bites and they are fun to catch. There’s always excitement when you’re catching a wahoo.”

Although nobody knows for certain where the name wahoo originated, it may derived from an exponential magnification of a king mackerel angler’s battle cry of “fish on!” When a wahoo skies, the fish begs an angler to shout its name.

As so many have said, a wahoo is a king mackerel on steroids, a billfish without the bill.

“There’s nothing like seeing a 50-pound wahoo air out,” Jenkins said. “He can jump 10 feet in the air with the pole bending and the bait in his mouth and the leader trailing down to the water.

“The numbers of fish are amazing, and you can get a lot of teaser and flat line bites right up against the stern. When the fishing’s good, I try to concentrate on getting those flat-line bites.

“I like to get them to strike close enough to the boat that you get sprayed at the strike, and the line just starts screaming off the reel.”

On a good day, a six-pack charter with Jenkins and a mate can catch a limit of 16 wahoo at two fish per person. Even more amazing, it can take a total of 30 bites to actually land that many fish. But such awesome fishing has been commonplace during the last few seasons in the waters offshore from Morehead City.

Wahoo offer some of the most reliable fishing. Once they arrive, Jenkins heads out to catch them intentionally, replacing monofilament leaders suitable for tuna and billfish with No. 9 single strand wire leaders 21 to 24 feet in length.

An exception is made for sailfish and white marlin. He may pull a small ballyhoo rigged with a mono leader for these smaller billfish in season because they often swim in the same waters as wahoo.

Losing a trolling lure or two is worth the risk of a cut-off by a big wahoo if there are billfish around.

“If wahoo are out there, we head out prepared for them in advance,” he said. “We pull the same rigged ballyhoo we use for dolphin, tuna, or marlin except for switching to wire leaders.

“It’s interesting that sails and whites are at the opposite ends of the fishing tackle spectrum. We troll the smaller baits on mono leaders way back in the spread, but big baits right in the prop wash for the wahoo.

“If a wahoo hits one of the small billfish baits, he cuts it off unless he decides to bite another bait on his way out of town.”

The wahoo run begins during March, slows during the summer months, then heats up again in October and extends into November.

The fish are really large, with many above the North Carolina citation weight of 40 pounds. Some days, most of the fish will exceed that size. But the most consistent bite will consist of fish weighing around 25 to 30 pounds.

“I’ve caught two of them over 100 pounds, and they are some the most memorable fish I’ve ever caught,” Jenkins said. “It’s a bragging right’s thing.

“Everybody’s proud of catching a big wahoo because they’re so touchy and mean. A 65- to 70-pound fish is really a big one, but a 100-pounder is something in a class all by itself.”

Jenkins almost whispered one of the keys to good wahoo fishing lest he upset the weather gods. He almost wouldn’t admit the fact the best fishing seems to occur after big storms. Near misses or direct hits by hurricanes and tropical storms do something to the water that really brings in the fish.

“It can be some knockout fishing,” he said. “But sometimes they’ll bite one day and not the next. Sometimes they bite in no current. Sometimes they’re biting like crazy in 3 knots of current. The trick is to pick a good spot and stick with it.”

A good spot can be found anywhere from the 90-foot drop seaward to 60 fathoms or anywhere in the general vicinity of the Continental Shelf.

“With fuel prices so high, we are always happy to find them a little over an hour out at 30 miles,” Jenkins said. “But if the fishing is good at 60 miles, that’s where we’re going to head.

“I’ll always go the extra mile to get my clients into fish. We have tried to not raise prices to compensate for fuel costs. Anglers might want to keep that in mind at the end of the day if the ride has been a longer one than usual and they have had some great action. That extra run time increases the costs of running the boat and any tips to help out would be appreciated.”

Jenkins keeps in touch with other captains, but he’s been catching wahoo so long, it’s almost a pure instinct that tells him where to go to find fish.

“If you feel like you’re in a good spot, and the fish have been there before, your chances are as good right there as anywhere,” he said. “I don’t leave a place I know I can fish with confidence. When they go to biting, you want to be there.”

Bait marks on the depth-finder are one key to finding wahoo. Paying attention to temperature zones also helps. Reading the ocean is something Morehead City charter captains such as Jenkins are adept at doing. It’s how their reputations are made.

“You take what the ocean gives you,” he said. “Pay attention to temperature zones and watch for a the little signs like color changes and rips. Stay there if the bait’s there and fish until you get a bite.

“Wahoo fishing can be tough. It can drive you crazy if there’s guy right next to you and neither of you are catching anything. All of a sudden you start getting bites all across the spread, and your buddy comes near and he can’t even get one bite.

“You need to find your own little numbers and stay right there. If you had a good bite there yesterday and are marking bait today, watch the screen and keep fishing with confidence. When they decide to bite, look out.”

Jenkins uses standard trolling baits rigged with 9/0 hooks on Carolina Gentleman lures and Sea Witch skirts in colors blue-and-white, black-and-red, black-and-purple or black-and-blue.

He uses the darker colors during the darker days. But day in, day out, he relies on a blue-and-white lure with a strip-bait or a 12-pack sized ballyhoo.

“There’s no scientific formula other than the wire leader if you want to keep wahoo on the hook,” Jenkins said. “I fish with 50s and 30s and use 80-pound line on my 50s and 50-pound line on my 30s.

“It’s a durability factor. When you’re charter fishing, you don’t have time to change out lines fishing day after day.

Jenkins attaches his leaders to the lines with snap swivels so he can change lures fast. Wahoo can really tear up some tackle.

“Your tackle goes pretty quickly,” he said. “A single fish may bite your flat line, short-trigger and out-rigger baits. Some anglers might think it’s a school of fish, but it’s only one fish that keeps missing the hook.

“The best way to change a bait is to have one ready to snap on. You can re-rig the one the fish struck while you keep fishing with a full spread. Being ready for the bites is the big thing.”

If a fish strikes and misses, Jenkins drops the baits by trolling in a tight circle. If the fish is still there, he’ll come back and strike again until he’s hooked.

“I troll nine rods as long as the fish will let me,” he said. “I coach the anglers to prevent tangles. Lots of them are repeat customers and they help out with everything and become part of the team.

“A wahoo is a very easy fish to lose. He shakes his head and has really sharp teeth.”

Anglers can lose their composure during a wahoo strike when the drag isn’t slowing the fish while line is disappearing fast.

“Just don’t freak out if the line’s going,” Jenkins said. “Keep it as tight as you can and keep a bend in the pole.

“Sometimes they run straight for you because they’re completely unpredictable. Don’t stop reeling thinking the fish is off the hook and give him any slack or you’ll lose him.

“They can also bite right through the wire leader or make a run and break it.”

Listening to the mate and watching his actions can save a break-off or cut-off. If you’re sitting in the fighting chair and the mate has the leader but suddenly lets go, be ready to begin catching the fish once again. Wahoo routinely make multiple runs of 50 to 100 yards.

“When you gaff a wahoo, swing him right into the box if you can,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes they slip the gaff. A 50-pound wahoo that’s thrashing around on the deck is a bad thing. He’s strong and has razor sharp teeth. Stay away from those teeth.”

Even experienced fishermen come unglued when a bunch of wahoo attacks the baits and multiple bites are not uncommon.

“I’ve caught seven fish after seven strikes twice,” Jenkins said. “But if you land three or four out of seven, you’ve done some really good fishing.”

Captain Rocky Hardison of O Lucky Me Sport Fishing in Morehead City also cashes in on the wahoo bite. He fishes a 60-foot Carolina Custom boat that runs at 30-plus knots so he can get out to the action wherever it’s happening.

“(October) is the best wahoo fishing we’ll have all year long,” he said. “There’ll be lots of limits of fish coming back to the docks. Over half our trips will result in limits of wahoo.”

Hardison’s biggest wahoo weighed 89 pounds. But any wahoo is a big fish when it comes to what it takes to put him in the boat.

“When we rig for wahoo, we go to all No. 9 wire on our trolling lures,” he said. “We use a 10- to 14-foot leader and a standard trolling spread. But we also drop some of the baits down because wahoo can run deep.”

Hardison runs one bait down deep by using a No. 24 commercial planer. He fishes the planer from an 80-pound class, bent-butt rod.

“We add a 30-foot mono extension off the planer and add 10 feet of No. 9 wire with a snap swivel connection to tie on the trolling lure,” he said. “I put a Hawaiian Eye or Sea Witch on the planer rod. Black-and-red, black-and-orange, blue-and-white or pink is a good color for wahoo when they’re running deep.”

Besides the planer, Hardison runs a wire line with a 1-pound to 3-pound trolling weight rigged with a rubber band rig.

“A trolling weight will let you troll fast at about 9 knots and still keep the bait down,” he said. “You tie the rubber band to the line coming off the rod tip, then tie the rubber band around the reel.

“When a fish hits, the rubber band snaps, and it gives you some warning so you can get to the rod fast. The drag is set so tight it won’t give you any warning. You have to get to the rod fast so you can loosen the drag before the fish pulls the hook.”

Hardison also advises circling or dropping back the bait if a wahoo misses the hook on a strike.

“Keep the bait jigging and he’ll come back for it,” he said. “If you know there’s one around and he’s hungry, you want to keep trying until you catch him.”

With all the effort involved in going after wahoo, nobody wants to miss a strike or lose a fish. But anticipation and heart-sinking frustration is part of the allure of fishing for wahoo.

If you catch half of the fish that strike, you’ve had a wonderful day on the water. It’s those misses, as much as the solid hook-ups, that drive Morehead City anglers wild for wahoo.

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.

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