The clouds looked sinister. On land, white puffy clouds against a dark blue sky are pleasant. But 40 miles off Hatteras Inlet in North Carolina, with the wind blowing spray off a boat wake, they appeared evil.
Standing on the bridge of Release, a 50-foot Carolina sportfish, I watched two rods bend under the pressure of high-speed lures. Next to me, Capt. Rom Whitaker powered the boat through the chop at 14 knots. In the cockpit, a half-dozen anglers held on and watched the lures.
A few minutes into trolling, we saw what we’d been waiting for. One of the rods bucked heavily followed by a blast of spray in the distance. For a split second, I spotted a silver and blue torpedo in the white water. With line leaving the reel, Whitaker kept trolling. His persistence was rewarded with another bucking rod and screaming reel.
With two wahoo on, Whitaker slowed the boat and the mate helped one angler into the chair, fitting him with a heavy rod. The other angler was asked to work his line from a gunwale-mounted rod holder. Whitaker kept the boat moving ahead slowly while the anglers brought their fish closer to the boat.
That’s when the line started running low on both reels. The anglers struggled to crank the handles on their rods, and the fish struggled to keep the men from making any progress. The battle went back and forth until the 4-foot-long streak in the water became a brilliant blue and silver wahoo. The mate used a gaff to subdue the wahoo and brought the fish over the side. Then, the second angler moved to the chair and the process was repeated. After a couple of hours, we had our limit of wahoo onboard.
There aren’t many places where you can catch a fishbox full of wahoo before lunch, but the pros fishing out of Hatteras have dialed in tactics that work everywhere. From August until October, anglers from New England to the mid-Atlantic get a shot at great wahoo fishing. This year, when the wahoo go by, try high-speed trolling and fishing ballyhoo with wire, because that’s how they do it in Hatteras.
Whitaker often starts his day high-speed trolling. When he’s about 10 miles from his destination, Whitaker will slow the boat to 14 knots and put out two high-speed lures. “If I see flying fish or mark bait, I’ll put out the lures,” he says. In the summer, Whitaker explains, when the water is hot, he looks for the edge of the temperature break. Later in the season, he will troll over structure like a wreck or near a depth change.
Whitaker’s high-speed rig uses a heavy trolling sinker and large lure. For tackle, he uses a Penn 70vs reel on a heavy rod. The reel is spooled with 80-pound mono topshot that ends in a ball bearing swivel. To keep the lure swimming below the water he attaches a 48-ounce sinker to 25 feet of 200-pound monofilament leader. “Make sure there are a few inches of 270-pound stranded wire on each end of the trolling sinker,” Whitaker says. “We learned that lesson quickly.” The end of the leader gets a ball bearing swivel and 3 feet of 270-pound-test SevenStrand wire. The business end of the rig consists of an Ilander lure head with three skirts and an 8/0 recurve tuna hook. “The whole lure is 9 or 10 inches,” Whitaker says.
He runs a 48-ounce sinker on one side of the boat and a 36-ounce on the other. “I put the lighter rig back 100 yards and the other back 50 yards,” he says. If he hooks a fish, Whitaker puts the boat in a tight turn in hopes of catching another wahoo.
Each November, I make a trip to Hatteras to learn wahoo tactics from the masters, including Whitaker. Then there’s Capt. Tim Hagerich, one of the most studied wahoo anglers in the Hatteras charter fleet. He’s turned wahoo fishing into a science.
He taught me about fishing in the fall, when wahoo gather around structure and schools of bait. To find the fish, Hagerich looks for hot, blue water. “They love hot water, up to 82 degrees,” he says. Wahoo hunt the edge of the continental shelf where the water depth drops from 180 to 250 feet. “But I can count on one hand the wahoo I’ve caught in deeper water,” he says. This puts wahoo in range of anglers running out of East Coast inlets, 25 to 40 miles from shore.
To further dial in the location, Hagerich focuses on sea mounts, drops and wrecks that attract bait. “Wahoo are structure-oriented in the fall,” he says. Along the East Coast, the fish will haunt inshore lumps and drops in as little as 120 feet of water.
Hagerich keeps his trolling spread simple. “I run seven rods,” he says, explaining that he rarely gets more than two or three wahoo bites at a time, so limiting his spread makes it easier to clear lines when chaos hits. Trolling speed is critical. “I go 8 or 9 knots,” he says. “When I hook one wahoo, I kick the speed up a knot and often entice a second fish to bite.”
To target wahoo in the fall, Hagerich relies on one of the oldest tricks in the book. Back before modern monofilament was popular, anglers used long wire leaders to tame the biggest fish in the sea. Wahoo are famous for their sharp teeth, and their jaws are hinged like a pair of scissors to slice through flesh. To combat the wahoo’s nasty choppers, Hagerich uses heavy single-strand wire.
Hagerich’s trolling rig starts with a 50-pound-class rod and reel combo with 80-pound mono and adds a ball-bearing snap swivel. To make a wahoo rig, he takes 30 feet of No. 9 single-strand wire and adds a loop in one end with a haywire twist. Over the other end, he slides a seawitch skirt and egg sinker followed by a needle-eye hook. Hagerich makes another loop and secures with a haywire twist. He then slides a large ballyhoo over the hook, nestling the hook eye under the ballyhoo’s gill plates and lining the tag end of the wire up to pierce the base of the bait’s bill. Then, he uses a rubber band to lash the bill to the pin.
He theorizes the heavier, stiffer, thinner wire keeps the bait just below the surface of the water where a wahoo can see its silhouette.
The most important weapon in Hagerich’s arsenal is his planer rig. He runs a heavy rod and 50-pound reel spooled with 100-pound braided line from one of the flat line rod holders, To the braid, he connects a ball bearing swivel and 80 feet of 150-pound mono. The long mono leader is attached to another ball bearing snap swivel, a 30-foot wire leader and sea witch.
To pull the lure 30 to 50 feet below the water, he uses a No. 4 or No. 6 planer. Since he doesn’t want to handline 80 feet of leader to the boat, Hagerich uses a quick release rig to attach the planer to the line. Where the braided line meets the mono he crimps two loops of leader line about a foot apart. On the planer, he makes a bridle by adding a short length of leader and large snap swivel to the front and rear connection points. He clips snap swivels to the loops on the leader and deploys the planer.
As the angler brings in a wahoo, Hagerich can unclip the planer from the line. Then, Hagerich can handline the last 30-feet of wire until he the wahoo comes alongside the boat.
Wahoo have sharp eyes and no tolerance for abnormality. For that reason, Hagerich replaces his wire leaders after each fish, to eliminate imperfections in the wire that could impact the lure’s action and cost an angler his trophy.
In Hatteras, every boat in the fleet is honed in on wahoo during the season, and they’ve developed techniques that are effective anywhere wahoo swim. This summer, as wahoo move along the East Coast, try high speed trolling and pull seawitches with wire leaders. To catch a wahoo, fish for wahoo.
This article was originally published in the July 2021 issue.