A blistering first run that can challenge the drag system on even the largest marlin reels; some expert’s say it is the hardest, fastest first run of any game fish, period. A mouth full of razor blades that will cut though most leader materials and the strike so violent, and fast, that it causes your heart to skip a beat. On a fly rod, abiding by IGFA rules, the wahoo is one of the greatest challenges in our sport, and you must be ready to deal with the frustration factor because ‘believe you me’ (Vanuatu for ‘not kidding’); ya gonna bust a heap of em off!
The wahoo or ‘ono’ is without a doubt one of the most aggressive fish swimming, and if they attacked swimmers I’d never go in the bloody water again! I’ve seen wahoo lay open a careless deckhand like a surgeon. I’ve even seen a stone dead fish send a guy to the hospital. He was holding up a 40 lb’er by the tail for a photo and his grip slipped, sending the scalpel sharp teeth down both sides of the man’s leg. It took over a 100 stitches to close the wound!
To even have somewhat of a fighting chance to bring a hot wahoo to gaff you are going to need to be on top of your game, but it can be done and here are some proven methods and tips on how to pursue a true tackle buster!
Clear the Decks!!!
I’ve done almost all my big game fly fishing from a 40 foot class game boat, the foot rest for the chair is the first thing to go. Take the rest and secure it to the back of the chair, with the ‘foot rest’ on the deck, this will now act as a rod rack; take some foam rubber and silicone it to the rest to protect the reels and prevent the butts from sliding. One bungee cord across the brackets will secure the upright rods, and make for a quick grab set up. The chair should be locked so it won’t swivel, making for a good station for the angler to jump into action from. You should have a minimum of three outfits rigged and ready to go on the rack, and here’s why….
If you part one off, the last thing you are going to want is to take the time to rig another setup. Just reach over for next one in line, and when you raise that 100-pounder, you want the angler reaching for the 14wt not the 10!
Outriggers should be removed because you don’t need them and the rigging will just get in the way of back casts. Deck coolers, brine bags or anything that could impede the angler or deck gang’s movement will need to be removed and stored somewhere other than the back deck. In this game you need to be able to move quickly from starboard to port corners. If the angler is right handed, the attack or casting position will be in the port corner using the gunwale for support in any kind of weather. The angler should practice getting from the chair to ‘attack’ position smoothly and quickly. The idea is to turn the back deck from a trolling platform into a fly-fishing battleground.
Leave anything that isn’t double digit at home, this is not bonefish gear territory! I’d suggest nothing smaller than a 12-weight outfit and in this business; you really do get what you pay for (unfortunately this gear can cost huge!) I’m a big L.L. Bean fan and this goes back to my product research and testing days in Alaska, but all of today’s modern gear is really good stuff. I’m going to give a couple of examples and it is strictly my own personal opinion talking here. The Best outfit I’ve ever seen in use is a Sage Xi2 rod with a Tibor QC Gulf stream reel, and what makes me believer in this combo?
For wahoo, reels need a very smooth drag and be able to hold A LOT of backing! The Gulf Stream has the smoothest drag, I believe, on the planet and it holds a ridiculous amount of backing. We are talking big bucks here (about 800 bucks), a cheaper option is the Orion Arbor series, and this reel holds 275 yards in the 12wt and is about a third the cost. The Sage rods are extremely strong; great balance, cast the heavy fly’s well and most importantly have a second grip forward on the 13, 14 wt. series. This feature comes in great use when that monster “Hoo” goes deep!
Fly line, as long as it is matched up to the outfit and weight forward to help casting, I don’t have a major favorite here, all of today’s premium fly lines are good. I’ve had good results with both the fast and slow sinking lines. The strike usually comes within a second or two of the fly hitting the water so it doesn’t seem to matter on the sink rate. I believe this is more of a case of whatever is more comfortable for the Angler. Backing, more is better, but go with at least 15kg test braid
Leaders, flies, gaff’s n such
I had my guys hand tie all our leaders and measure, then re-measure and measure again to make sure we stayed in the IGFA guidelines (I won’t bore you quoting the rule book here). You MUST have a shock tippet! Bite proof for ono is wire! IGFA only allows 12 inches and believe me this isn’t much, so to compensate for short wire length use big ass flies. This increases the odds that the fish smacks the body of the fly. Marlin class stuff rigged with double hooks on wire! Color choice isn’t a huge biggie, but something with a lot of flash material is really hot!
The IGFA rules allow gaffs to be up to eight feet long. A longer gaff is harder to control, but in fly-fishing, you can’t ‘leader a fish in’ to a short gaff. So length is a help, and boy oh boy is a good gaff man worth his or her weight in gold! I’ve lost a few heart breakers at gaff and the secret to reducing this is nothing more than being a good team. (the angler, driver and deck hands).
We’ve talked about the gear you need, but how about the fishing part. How do you get one of these psycho fish close enough to toss a fly at them?
We use the bait and switch method and target wahoo by staying on the edge! With wahoo, more than any other species (from Hawaii to Vanuatu), forty fathoms, 240 feet of water is the magic number! Watch your sounder and stay on the “forty” curve, pinnacles and seamounts. Wrecks are also hot spots for wahoo. I’ve caught ono way off shore before, but I believe these are migrating fish and when they get to where they are going it’ll be somewhere in 40 fathoms!
Teasers and the ol’ bait n switch
You must have two good deck hands to successfully fly fish for wahoo. Put one deckhand on each teaser pole. It pays to invest in proper teaser poles in the ten-foot range. A limber teaser pole will allow you to really pop a teaser across the surface when the boat is out of gear. Fly fishing rules require the boat to be at a dead stop when the cast is made. Noisy teasers are important to keep the fish’s attention right up to the back of the boat!
It is important when targeting wahoo to bring heaps of teasers. When we did our ten day live-aboard charters, I figured 20 a day rigged and ready to go and this number worked pretty well for a base. Belly baits about 12 inches long and sewed on with 200lb test mono behind an assortment of skirted marlin lures. Noisy “pushers” that can be towed at slower speeds seemed to produce the best overall effect. The fresh, bait caught the day before is first choice, but have plenty of pre-rigged, salted bellies in the freezer.
Wahoo, mahi, and shark bellies work best. It requires a bait that is tough, and will stand up to an attacking ono. Many times the deckhands will literally have to fight the Wahoo for the teaser and a fresh tuna belly will just get whacked on the first go. Pull two teasers, one about 75 feet back (port side if your angler is right handed) and the next about 150 feet (starboard) at or around 6 knots. If you have a tower, this is where you need to be driving. Since I was fishing the shallows or seamounts, I regularly encountered sails, dogtooth tuna, and black marlin along with our Hoo’s. The extra height of the tower lets me have a clue about what just crashed the teaser. On the strike, everyone needs to jump right into their jobs! The deck hands start bringing the teaser’s in close while making as much noise with the lure as possible. The driver slowly brings the boat to a stop timed to the arrival of the long teaser into casting range. Don’t just kick the engine out of gear as the sudden drop in rpm can spook a fish. The angler steps forward to take the short teasers place as the deck hand steps back. This is where long teaser poles come in handy.
Do not cast until the captain yells ‘CAST’ (and don’t yell ‘cast’ till the boat is out of gear and long teaser lifts clear). Make a short cast as close to where that 2nd teaser was and avoid as much free line off the reel as possible to prevent getting reel-wrapped on the fish’s strike. Ninety percent of the time the wahoo will attack the fly as soon as it hits the water. If you have to strip, do so in quick jerky motions and be very careful of your free line. I’ve seen this many times and man it is so bloody quick.
WHAM, a huge hole in the water and a screaming drag!
Once hooked up, point the rod tip at the fish and just hold on. The first run is breath taking and the backing will just melt off the reel in a blur. Again, here is where a tower pays off, watch the direction of the run and start backing into the fish. A big ono will be like casting your fly into the back of a pickup going down the highway; there just aint no stopping it! Be ready on the throttles or you’ll get spooled! On David Long’s world record (largest wahoo ever caught on a fly) I backed down so hard the turbo kicked in! On any wahoo over 40 lbs. you just gotta let them have their head and get that first run out of their system. David’s big fish ran until he could ‘see the brass’ on his spool before that fish stopped. No two wahoo will ever fight the same on light tackle, some will sound like a big tuna while another will bust across the surface leaving a rolling wake flying off its back.
If you can survive that first run you’ve got a fighting chance, but don’t rush it! David’s record fish took him just under 3 hours! When the fish is close and the fly line is back on the reel, each deckhand needs a gaff and be patient for the headshot! Gaff a hot “Hoo” in the tail and you’ll just piss it off! Never bring a hot ono onboard-EVER! As we mentioned earlier these fish can inflict serious damage. Beat the living “bejesus” out of them with an aluminum baseball bat, and then beat em some more before boating.
Hey this is why we go fishing and take on the craziest of challenges! As a whole we may not catch a lot of wahoo on fly-fishing gear, but it isn’t all about catching is it!
A Little Background and More
Vanuatu is a group of over 80 islands that lie in the South Pacific stretching north to south for over 300 miles. The Islands during WW2 were called the New Hepadies and our Pacific fleet was based here. We faced the Japanese in the battles of the Coral Sea. The diving of old WW2 wrecks are famous in Vanuatu, and it is also one of the hottest marlin spots in the whole world. These waters hold six species of billfish; blues, blacks, sails, stripes, short bill spear fish, and swords. It is probably the hottest wahoo destination on the planet. My clients hold quite few world records from these waters, but records are made to be broken and I believe Vanuatu to be place where a lot more fish will make it into the book
Wahoo make excellent eating, but you need to take care of them. A brine bag stuffed with ice is best. In Hawaii we never left the dock without at least a hundred pounds of crushed ice. Put your fish on ice right away and let them set up over night for best results. After filleting and skinning, loin out the top half for sashimi or searing.
Here are a couple recipes that will make Emeril’s mouth water.
Ono Fish Dip
In a hot frying pan with a little veggie oil, sauté ½ chopped onion and 1tsp curry powder, then add 2 cups of raw diced fish and pan fry until just cooked, don’t dry it out. Refrigerate until cold. Mash the fish with a fork. Add 1 tsp. each of both mayo and Dijon mustard. Stir through the fish. Add ½ cup of chopped green onion and ¼ cup if diced tomato. Mix thoroughly. Add more mayo/Dijon until desired consistency, season with black pepper. Serve on crackers or French bread with a touch of Tabasco sauce.
It is to die for when served in a half of an avocado!
Take loins and roll in Cajun seasoning. Sear on a hot pan so that just the outside is cooked. Cool, slice thinly and serve with a dipping sauce of soy and wasabi, simple, fast and yummy!
Corky Decker is an IGFA certified Captain whom until recently lived and fished in Vanuatu, South Pacific. His Clients David and Sandy Long hold two IGFA Wahoo world fly fishing records.