Ever wonder why some fish have the names they do? I have, especially because common Key West offshore fish names seem either extremely appropriate or downright odd. For example, the names sailfish and swordfish majestically describe the most noticeable characteristics of those fish and fit them perfectly. Other names, however, seem to make no sense. The fish we call dolphin (or, perhaps more technically correct, dolphinfish) is a classic example. According to multiple internet sources, nobody really knows for sure how dolphinfish got that name. They are not related in any way to the mammal of the same name, looking and acting nothing like them. The name makes sense for the mammal, as it’s derived from the Greek word “delphis,” meaning womb. Dolphin mammals have wombs and carry their young until birth, while dolphinfish don’t and lay eggs as true fish. The other names for dolphinfish in the U.S. - mahi-mahi (Hawaii) and dorado (West Coast) - make perfect sense. Mahi-mahi means “strong-strong“ in Hawaiian, and that they are. Dorado means “gold” or “golden” in Spanish and, if you ever see one “lit up,” you’ll know just how fitting that name is! But we just have to shrug our shoulders and throw our hands in the air on why we East-coasters call those beautiful green, blue and gold fish dolphin.
Marlin got their name from the resemblance of their bills to a marlinspike, a pointed tool used by mariners, especially in rope-splicing. Snapper is a name that makes total sense to anyone who has let a stray finger get near the mouth of one after it’s been boated, while the name grouper only makes sense if you know that it may be derived from a Portuguese name for the fish – “garoupa.” Mackerel apparently comes from an old French word “maquerel” (now, “maquereau”). Tuna seems to owe its name to a derivation from words that have evolved through multiple languages, i.e., ancient Greek (“thynnos”); Latin (“thunnus”); Spanish (“atun”); and/or Arabic, a language whose characters (letters) aren’t reproducible here but in which the word would apparently be pronounced something like “tunn.”
Personally, the local fish with the most appropriate name(s) is the wahoo, which is called ono (pronounced “oh no”) in Hawaii. Both those names are perfect for the fish in one particular context, which has nothing to do with why it really has either name. The name wahoo is commonly agreed by most sources I researched to be an English language bastardization of the name “Oahu,” one of the places they are most prevalent. It appears that some old maps may have even mistakenly used the name Wahoo as the name of that island. The name ono, on the other hand, comes directly from the Hawaiian language and the rough translation is “good to eat.” Taste one and you’ll instantly understand that name. They are my personal favorite fish to eat. I like to analogize them to a white meat tuna. Anything you can do with tuna – eat it raw, eat it rare, make ceviche or Hawaiian poke, cook it through and make salad – you can do with wahoo, it will just taste even better. Get some wahoo, scan the internet for recipes, try one, and I bet you’ll agree! At first glance, those names appear to have only a tangential Hawaiian connection. Ah, but there actually is a way I believe they are more directly connected. That is due to what happens when a wahoo/ono strikes a line. They have been caught in local waters at weights exceeding 70 pounds; they can reach speeds of up to 60 mph; and they normally make a very strong initial run, usually straight back away from the stern of the boat. The speed at which the line peels off the reel and the highly audible whine it makes while doing so are an adrenalin junkie’s dream, often making anglers, especially novice females and children, scream with amazement/delight. So, the term “wahooooo” shrieked in a high-pitched voice would be most fitting to hear as the fish dumps yards and yards off the spool while the angler helplessly waits for the run to stop. Unfortunately, in my experience, upwards of about 50% of wahoo that hit a line will eventually pull the hook or otherwise get away. Some do it during the initial run, when the sheer speed can dislodge a hook not firmly imbedded. Others turn suddenly back to the boat and cut the line with their razor-like teeth before the angler can react. Some may get help from another wahoo in the area who accidentally snips the line trailing the hooked wahoo in the commotion of the run. Yet others get loose during the fight to get them to the boat after the initial run. They can turn and run directly at the boat at the same blistering speed and, if the hook is not firmly implanted, the change in the angle and the large belly in the line that creates can act as a dehooker. Then, even if you get them near the boat successfully, they can still spit the hook during a classic series of violent head-shakes as they become aware of its proximity. As a result, it is very common to hear a collective loud, disappointed groan of “Oh, no!!!” when that occurs. “Wahooooo!” “Oh, no!!!” Couldn’t have named it better if you tried!
Why am I telling you all this? I guess it’s because I find myself very “wahoo-minded” as the New Year approaches. Last January, we had the best sustained streak of wahoo-catching that I can remember in my 10 years in this “job.” (Speaking of words – calling what I do a job, now there is a real misnomer!) That led our mate Jerry and me to have some of the most fun trips we’ve ever run. Having repeated opportunities to see and hear the excitement of an angler enjoying his/her first experience with a big, fast wahoo and then having the pleasure of eating fresh wahoo sashimi on what seemed like a daily basis was as good as it gets! So, while you can never truly predict what the local catch will be like at any particular time, let’s just say that I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we have a sequel to last year’s boffo hit!
One great thing about that would be that we normally don’t have to go very far to have an excellent shot at getting a wahoo when they are “running.” They can be found at such times just outside our reef, as we zig-zag between about 125’ to 250’ feet of water, i.e., about 6 to 8 miles offshore A solid linear color change from powder blue to purple; a good sargassum weed line; or a substantial “floater,” such as a crate or pallet, will increase your odds, but they very often strike “out of the blue” in those depths and others as well. For us, they most often hit on a downrigger line, on a sea witch-type lure (red, red/black and purple/black are favorite colors) with a thawed ballyhoo attached. If you want to specifically target them to the possible exclusion of some other species, trolling multiple downrigger lines at higher speeds (e.g., 8-9 mph or more in a neutral sea, adjusted for current speed) may help, but we’ve caught plenty at much slower speeds, e.g., 6-7, while trolling for other species as well. We usually use 50 pound test for the downrigger line with a couple of feet of wire at the end of the leader. Different people swear by different depths for the downrigger. Jerry likes 25’, so the fish can easily see the surface lines if it misses the downrigger bait. Other mates prefer running the downrigger deeper, e.g., 40-50’, We’ve caught them at all those depths and even farther down. Wahoo will also hit baits on surface lines – both “skirted” and “naked” ballyhoos – especially when you get “wolf-packed” by a group of three or four at the same time. So, if you’re primarily targeting wahoos, I’d add a short piece of wire to the end of your leader on even surface lines to prevent an unwanted “bite-off.” Also, around structures like crates, you might try multiple passes at different downrigger depths or even try an artificial lure like a large spoon, if you don’t get a hit right away. Incidentally, when we talk about depth, we mean downrigger meter reading depth. The downrigger weight and line will actually swim significantly closer to the surface due to the “blowback” effect of the boat moving forward, that effect varying with the boat speed and the size weight you are using.
In wahoo tournaments, where that’s all you want to catch, trolling is usually done even faster, i.e., 10-15 knots, with 50 lb. or larger tackle. Bullet lures or “wahoo bombs” are rigged on cable with two in-line hooks, snap swivel, and with 25 to 50’ of mono attached to trolling cigar weights. The trolling weight must have a trace of cable on both ends because it will also attract the high speed attack of the wahoo. Different size trolling weights will vary the depths of your spread. Drag is set at your highest trolling speed so that the slightest pull of your hand will take drag at this speed. When fish are hooked, the boat may only slow down to 8 to 10 knots as the fish is brought to the boat.
Because of the relatively shallow water in which they can be found, wahoo have also become a favorite target of local spearfishermen when the bite is on. If that’s your bag, give wahoo a shot, literally, in January.
I should mention that a good deal of the technical advice above was provided by our own mate, Jerry Pope, as well as Capt. Steve Liberatore, who now mates for Capt. Marlin and Capt. Seth on Fishmonster Charters. Thanks to both of them for their help.
If some of these terms or suggestions are unfamiliar to you, you can research them further on the internet, so I didn’t waste time with massive detail here. But, if last year is any precursor of what January will be like this year; if you want some of the most fun you’ll ever have catching a fish; and if you want to savor the most delicious fish I know, January might be the ideal time to target a wahoo. Call, text or e-mail us if we can help but, even if not, good luck in the hunt anyway. May you hear multiple “Wahoooos!” and minimal “Oh no’s!” every trip and may all your wahoos be big ones
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