Waterman's Journal

Mar 14, 2013

Jig Casting for Seawolves

Jig Casting for Seawolves: Deadly Tactics for Left Coast Wahoo Angling
by Colin Sarfeh

Red Rooster III trolled south at seven-knots in 74-degree deep-blue, Pacific water, the sultry late-October sun beating down on its bow. I wasn’t used to this kind of heat so late in the year, but being 500-miles south of San Diego, there was no escape from the midday sauna. I was on my very first long-range adventure, or fishing trip of 7-days or more. The target species of this 10-day excursion were husky 50 to 100-pound Yellowfin Tuna, in which the Rooster’s twenty-two anglers filled their catch-limits in 3-days at Alijos Rocks, a favored long-range destination.

With the Yellowfin quota achieved, Captain Andy Cates steered the luxury long range sportfisher towards “The Ridge”, a spot known for bruiser mossback Yellowtail, behemoth Grouper, and – more importantly – the ocean’s seawolves: Wahoo. Fishermen anxiously lined the rails of the 105’ vessel as we approached the banks and high spots that make up The Ridge’s 55-mile stretch, armed with proper jigcasting rods and high-speed reels. This would be my first encounter with the tropical speedsters, but was ready for the task (or so I thought) and joined the battalion of wahoo assailants at the rail.

Below: Crewman Brandon Wilske of the long range vessel EXCEL , gives a seminar about jig casting for wahoo // Captain Justin Fleck displays a nice iron-caught 'hoo for Gary Gillingham of Accurate Reels.

A trolling reel screamed on the stern, signaling a wahoo strike. As the boat slid into a drift, the railbirds cast out and commenced to grinding their jigs in with gusto. “Hook up!” “Fresh one!” “Yeah!” were the cries as the lines of three guys around me began torching the flat-calm Pacific. The sound of ripping water pierced my ears as the guy next to me just a few seconds before chased his fish to the bow, his line roostertailing in its wake. I was so enthralled by the chaos, for one brief moment I failed to concentrate on the task of catching my first ‘Hoo. My heavy iron jig was stopped mid-crank – I was caught off guard and froze. “Oh, no,” was my whispered plea, and made me think that this was the reason why Native Hawaiians gave wahoo the name “Ono”. Line briefly poured off my reel, but in a flash it was over – there was nothing I could do but reel in my weightless line only to discover my jig gone missing and a frayed leader (oh yeah, by the way, wahoo have razor-lined jaws).

A nearby deckhand noticed my plight. “Wahoo catch you off guard?” Yes…Yes it did. Boy, do I have a lot to learn.

That was a few years ago, and I did end up catching my ‘Hoo a few stops later. But, like many anglers, it is the memory of that first encounter that keeps me going back for more.

Below: Jig and bomb throwers wait patiently for the trollers to go off // Everyone had their chance at a 'hoo during this single-drift bonanza.

Preferred for their meat, wahoo have been long known as one of the best tasting fish in the sea; their thick and tender white flesh is comparable to that of a Mahi Mahi. Though their meat is favored by many, it is Ono’s gamefishing value that intrigues west coast fishermen the most. The fact that these fish are one of the toughest species to land because of the speed and voracity in which they strike both bait and lure, like myself, leaves anglers in shock and awe at first happenstance.

A warm water speed demon preferring ocean temperatures of 70-degrees or more, these fish will typically bite any fast moving bait or lure. When it comes to angling for wahoo, West Coast fishermen will almost unanimously agree that their favored method to catch these Lamborghini-laced gamefish is by throwing heavy iron jigs or specially made wahoo “bombs”. Fished at high-speeds on reels with typically no less of a gear ratio than 4:1, these lures are historically designed to be gaudy with bright colors and reflective tinsels.

Below: An array of popular wahoo irons (photo: Bill Roecker) // This skinny was fooled by a pink-skirted bomb with a metallic-gold head.

A wahoo bomb is essentially a doctored-up, metallic lead head, with brightly-colored tinsel streaming off the head. It is wired to a razor-sharp siwash hook that more often than not has a small spinner blade attached to add some flash, and more importantly, create tension to keep the bomb sub-surface as it is retrieved.

There are plenty of manufacturers out there that produce quality wahoo lures, but most iron/bomb anglers tend to choose Catchy Seastrike 33’s, Raider Lures, or Salas 6X Jr.’s as their weapons of choice, as well as an arsenal of pre-rigged wahoo “bombs”. All of these options are typically 10-ounces or greater, and are available in the full spectrum of colors. Metallic and shiny-based, any of the oranges, pinks, purples, greens, reds, blues, and so on will attract a ‘hoo, so long as it is fished at a blinding speed.

Below: Angler Yacoob Vahed showcases his arsenal of wahoo weapons // This homemade "bomb" put in some work - it's bright coloring proved to be irresistable to seawolves.

The big debate these days, when it comes to fishing iron jigs for toothy wahoo, is: to wire, or not to wire? All wahoo bombs are built pre-rigged with a heavy wire leader; however, iron jigs are a different matter. More and more left-coasters are going “minimal”, especially when fishing for big tuna and wahoo. Reel companies are building smaller, more compact reels with unprecedented drag control for baitfishing big tuna; and, on the wahoo side of things, a lot of anglers are choosing to go sans wire when the time comes to jig-fish.

A preferred outfit for jig casting to wahoo includes a 7’-8’ rod rated for 40-50-pound tackle with a matching high-speed reel. My personal rigs consist of 7’ Seeker 6470 Black Steel or Super Series rods, Avet JX 6/4 or Accurate BX-500XN reels, 65-pound spectra backing with 50-pound monofilament; however, there are many combinations out there with various different brands that will get the job done.

To locate a wahoo wolfpack, long range captains will typically troll heavy, wooden marauders at high-speeds around reefs, banks, and high-spots, or in open-water near floating debris. The crew will deploy a 4-to-6 line trolling spread, with the two outside marauders swimming just outside the prop-wash and the remaining positions not too far behind in the wake. Yo-Zuri Bonitas and Braid Marauders in purple/black, orange/black, ahi, and mackerel patterns are good color options for trolling up a “speedy”.

Below: Wahoo are often associated with debris, like this kelp paddy, floating offshore // A troll fish (note the heavy purple/orange marauder hanging from the 'hoos mouth) is brought aboard for a happy long range angler.

While the anglers in charge of the trolling rods await a screaming reel and ensuing battle, the rest of the angling contingency anxiously awaits the opportunity to make the long cast and electric retrieve in hopes of connecting with a hungry ‘hoo.

Once a trolling rod goes off, the captain will slide the boat to a halt to set-up a drift, at which time jig fishermen can cast out their offering. Fishing “the slide” can be super effective when targeting wahoo – just make sure to (1) wait to cast until the captain says so; (2) cast away from the hooked troll fish; and (3) cast in the direction of the drift (“with the wind in your face, you’re in the right place”). SAFETY NOTE: Always watch your jig when rearing back to cast, you won’t miss the ocean… it would be a devastating injury if you were to hook a fellow angler.

Once your jig or bomb is in the water, let the lure sink for a 20-30 “Mississippi” count, depending on the depth and current. Always keep in contact with your lure by “feeling” the line, as frenzied wahoo will often pick you up on the sink, noted by a quick bump, a strong pull, or a distinctive stop in sinking. If any of these happen, put your reel in gear and start winding like crazy until tension is on the line and you have connected with the fish; otherwise, you are more than likely to lose your expensive lure.

Below: This fight ended on the bow after being hooked back at the stern // The author with a decent 'hoo on the jig - this one fell for a Salas 6X Jr. "Tar Baby" w/ a painted pink tip near the hook.

If you do not get bit on the sink, and you have reached your desired depth, put your reel in gear and wind in the lure as fast as you possibly can. Wind, wind, wind… Wahoo are one of the fastest fish in the sea with speeds reaching up to 60-mph, so even at your fastest grind, you cannot out-reel these speedsters. When a wahoo does take your lure, it is distinct, fast, and ferocious. Although, you will want to, DO NOT rear back to set the hook – wahoo will often grab your jig from the side, chomping down right in the middle of your lure while completely missing the hook. If you try to set on the fish, you will most likely pull the lure out of the fish’ mouth without the hook ever penetrating flesh. The proper tactic to greater your chance of hook-set is to just keep reeling against the inertia of the fish until line starts screaming off your reel – at which point the battle really begins and hook has most likely set itself in or around the wahoo’s mouth.

SAFETY NOTE: If you do not get bit during retrieve, as you bring your lure closer to the boat, let it hang in the water for a few seconds to ensure that there are no wahoo following nearby at warp speed. There have been many instances where fish have come skyrocketing out of the water after a jig or bomb, flying into galley windows and even injuring anglers.

Below: Captain Mike Ramirez welcomes aboard a seawolf caught using a silver/pink/black Catchy Seastrike 33 // On the troll! This one was fooled by a "Tony the Tiger" colored marauder.

Wahoo are known for blistering runs, capable of sawing off many other hooked fish in doing so. As best as possible, anglers need to follow their fish in order to avoid tangles and cutting off other lines in the water. Fishing aboard the 124-foot EXCEL in March 2012, I had one ‘hoo take me around the stern and up to the bow in a matter of seconds. Running, dipping, dodging, and going over-under other angler’s lines, I somehow managed to land that fish – and burn a few calories in doing so.

Though, wahoo can produce angling adrenaline with their lightning speed, these fish, after a couple of runs, usually come to the boat fairly easily. Unlike a tuna, where the end of the battle is often tougher than the initial strike, wahoo will usually lay up pretty nicely for your gaff. It is important here not to lift the fish’ head out of the water, as the hook may not be implanted properly in the wahoo’s bony mouth, even though you fought the fish all the way to the boat. I have actually seen a couple fish simply drop the lure boatside and swim away unharmed, not having been hooked at all.

Below: Captain Derek Waldman of _Red Rooster III _with a fine specimen // Captain Mike Pritchard of _Excel _gaffs a lit-up wahoo for angler David Choate.

All that being said, the window is very short from the time a fish is hooked on the troll, frenzying other wahoo present nearby, to when the pack fades out completely. You may only get that one shot at hooking a ‘hoo, so it is important to stay calm and not get caught up in the excitement of the situation at hand. In my opinion, wahoo are one of the most fun fish to catch using a lure. It takes a combination of angling savvy, determination, and sheer luck to land one on the jig – but, if you employ some of the tactics discussed here, your chances will be greatly increased. Just remember WIND, WIND, WIND! Not only will you have a better hook-up ratio, you will be hooked for life. Trust me, you won’t want to catch another wahoo any other way.

Some photos courtesy of Chef Jason Fleck, _EXCEL _Sportfishing; Tom Ferrari, _Red Rooster III _Sportfishing; Jack Nilsen, Accurate Reels