The Wahoo Specialists
The swagger was apparent. Pride filled his steps as he walked the highly traveled carry on bag towards the picnic table next to the dock at Key West Harbor. For months, my client Dave had told me about the “Wahoo Killer” pack and how he was bringing it to Key West on his next trip. The bag landed with a thud on the table top, pulled into the sunlight and unrolled as if it were the ancient lost scrolls.
Inside, the lure keeper was filled with every kind of high speed lure color combination known to man and wahoo. Each weighted and highly polished lure was separated ingeniously with some of the most sophisticated packaging. Even I marveled at the glitter. That was when I had to step in to break the stares.
“We won’t need these” I said.
The change of emotion was as clear as the wind shift just before a cold front. Calm turned into concern quickly followed by a crushed response of “Why not?”
I replied “We don’t use Bahamian style high speed lures here in Key West, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.”
This was not what he had envisioned when he stepped of the plane just minutes before.
Wahoo in the Florida Keys are generally thought of as a bonus fish. When working the clean blue water between Pacific Reef off of Key Largo, down the entire stretch of the Florida Keys to the Dry Tortugas and beyond; from 150 feet of water out to 4500 feet of depth, they can be anywhere really.
In a typical charter boat spread there is usually a down rigger employed or some deeper running bait used to fill the possible wahoo gap. Very few captains in the Florida Keys set out in the morning specifically targeting wahoo for the day. They always welcome a wahoo bite, but rarely offer “No Wahoo No Pay” guarantees because of the unpredictability of the fish. In the fall and winter, certain conditions will prevail that can help in locating these speedy predators.
With air temperatures still hovering around the 90 degree mark it’s hard to tell that autumn has arrived in the islands. The water temperatures start to slowly sink lower, primarily due to the shorter days and changing angle of the sun early in October. Until the first clearly defined freshening northeast breeze hits 20 knots, the change is hardly noticeable. This is the trigger for wahoo to spawn. Pairs of males and females start to appear over wrecks, deep ledges and under floating debris and within weed lines. They are sometimes in schools of twenty or more and are all focused on eating and reproducing. They lose some of their nomadic behavior and turn into an easier to locate schooling fish. The perfect scenario for a day of actual Florida Keys wahoo fishing.
Captain Murray Shatt, who is the owner of Lifetime Dock and Lumber has been in the Florida Keys dock building business for well over 20 years with close to double that amount of time fishing for wahoo. Because of his engineering background, he has developed a single handed system that consistently catches wahoo year round and especially during the fall and winter months. The trolling outfits that he uses are electric deep drop reels (Daiwa Tanacom Bull) paired with stand-up rods. Running his 31’ Ocean Master alone means efficiency is paramount. Hooking one or more wahoo at a time doesn’t allow clearing of the lines single handedly so the electric reels do the clearing for him. Trolling speeds range between 4 - 5 knots and he’s convinced that applying as much drag as possible is important. Wahoo have bony yet soft mouths so one would naturally assume that stout pressure would cause pulled hooks but Captain Murray believes that the strong drag and larger hooks are needed to penetrate past the skin and through their bony jaw with pressure from the boat in constant forward motion keeping the hook securely imbedded. Wire rigged ballyhoo flat lines and on the down riggers with stout drags emphasized his point during one concentrated wahoo fishing stretch a few years back. He landed at least one wahoo on each of 20 consecutive trips. Serious results using these tactics. The key to his success has as much to do with the timing as it does with experience. Captain Murray knows when, where and how to fish for wahoo. Period.
Private angler Darice Horachek is and has been a fan of FishMonster Magazine since the very beginning and loves wahoo fishing in the lower Keys. Every time a wahoo is posted on our newsfeed, Darice chimes in with a post congratulating the angler and she signs each entry “The Wahoo Queen”. Her numbers on wahoo over the last few years have been remarkable emphasized by the photo collage her husband proudly displays anytime we see him at our seminars or festivals. He’s very proud of both their wahoo success and Darice. The wahoo picture included in this article is her most recent and shows her lure choice. A pink and blue Islander trolled in 300 feet of water just south of Looe Key produced her latest wahoo magic.
One of the most common successful depths in FishMonster Magazine’s Lower Florida Keys wahoo reports is 300 feet, give or take. The reason for this may be because of the deeper artificial reefs and the 350 foot contour line causing the concentration of wahoo weed and trash. If you see a fairly tight weed line with plastics and wood debris plus a bucket or two in fairly clean blue water, fish it hard. You may have found a wahoo lair.
On our charter vessels out of Key West we have solid wahoo action in the fall and tend to set a faster spread that also catches tuna. Wahoo eat tuna so finding the tuna schools helps in finding wahoo. Running at an average speed of seven knots black/purple, blue/white or pink/white feather combinations are dropped back and staggered off of each outrigger by emptying the spool by almost half. That means WAY back and running in clean water.
The wahoo baits stay closer to the transom. One is always a bonita patterned Rap X wired with 140 lb. single strand and a swivel. We may run another Rap X or deploy a down rigger with a Sea Witch/Ballyhoo combination. With the down rigger we have to run slightly slower. Long drop backs away from the release clip seem to work best. Keep a good distance between the down rigger ball and the wired ballyhoo.
There have been many times that our flat line monofilament rigged ballyhoo that was meant for dolphin gets crushed by a wahoo. Wired baits below the surface are something we count on with confidence. The 250-400 foot depth range is our most dependable area to find the fall wahoo especially close to the full moon.The BIG moon means wahoo for FishMonster Charters.
Spearfishing is another way to jump into the wahoo game with consistent opportunities in the fall and winter. This is one of the ultimate thrills in free diving and underwater hunting. Predator Spear Gun owner and fifth generation Conch Ed Dowling, has decades of experience and narrows his focus for wahoo based on the conditions at certain known wahoo hang outs. His most recent successful fall wahoo trip yielded two fish over fifty pounds with a few glimpses of fish over eighty pounds - all within fifteen miles of Key West. The common thread between his successful wahoo trips has mainly been an eastbound current and great visibility over large structure in blue water. The pair of wahoo were mixed in with bull sharks and Ed actually shot one of the large colorful mackerels within four feet of a full-sized shark! When asked about the shark turning to eat the wahoo or him, Ed explained that there is a mutual respect between predators. From experience, he also has a sense that tells him when the sharks are too “hot”. He warns that low visibility and sharks are not a good combination. He’s never had a fish taken or been bitten.
There’s so much more to the Florida Keys wahoo story than presented here in this article. To learn more, feel free to contact any one of our professional offshore captains that you see in our magazine or news feeds. They’ll be glad to hear from you.
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