This column originally appeared in the Jan. 3, 2011, edition of The Key West Citizen.
My goal for the week was to catch a big fish.
For more than a month I hadn’t put a big fish in the boat. I caught plenty of legal-sized snappers. I took two trips to Illinois, did some major fixer-upper stuff at the house, celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day, did some boat repairs, did some automobile repairs and I painted the front of the house. But I didn’t catch any big fish. So, I decided it was time to buckle down and seek out a great big wahoo.
Wahoo! This is the species I most like to hunt and catch. Wahoo are arguably the fastest fish in the ocean. They have a tendency to run sideways when they’re first hooked. They are so fast, that on several occasions I have seen them raise rooster tails as he, or she, as it might be, screeched across the surface of the water. This is truly a sight to behold. The speed of the wahoo’s first run also creates a distinctive screaming sound as line peels from the fishing reel. Wahoo fishermen know, the second they hear that high-pitched siren, that a wahoo has been hooked.
One of the most perturbing characteristics of wahoo is their maddening habit of swimming toward the boat. Right after the first blistering sprint, they turn and race toward the boat. They do this almost without fail. I can’t really think of another species prone to doing this. The inexperienced angler almost always feels the slack in the line, curses out load, smacks the fishing rod against the nearest gunwale and proclaims, “%!&$#, he got away!” But now is not the time to bemoan a lost monster-fish. Now is the time to reel as fast as you can; because a slack line will allow the hook to fall right out of a wahoo’s mouth. “Reel, reel, reel!” screams the captain, and if you’re lucky, the wahoo stays on the line. This is no ordinary fish. This is why I target wahoo. The Hawaiians’ call wahoo “Ono.” I’ve heard that’s because they can wreck even the strongest of fishing tackle and are extremely dangerous once brought onboard. One internet site describes wahoo as “a prized sport fish, but not always catchable.” And so, my quest for the crafty wahoo begins.
I left the dock at 8 a.m. By 9:30 I was hooked up to a totally uncooperative wahoo. His first run had sizzled line from my Penn Senator reel until I could see the bottom of the spool. The unrelenting screech of straining drag washers never wavered. Just when I thought the line would break, the fish began his frenzied race toward the boat. There was no time to celebrate the end of the first run. I was immediately thrown into high gear, cranking the reel for all I was worth in this muscle-jolting battle of wit, perseverance and brawn. There was no question that I was hooked up to a major fish. There was no question that it was wahoo. My excitement darkened for just a moment. I was alone on the boat. There was nobody to clear lines. There was nobody to lend a hand. I wondered if I would indeed be able to land this fish by myself. I slowed the boat to an idle, with the motor in gear. I engaged the autopilot, or as I like to call it “Otto Pilot,” to maintain a straight-forward motion. I called out, “Otto, don’t let me down. Keep a straight course.”
My frenzied reeling finally brought the line tight again. The enraged fish dashed from left to right behind the boat. He was going to cross the three remaining trolled lines that I had not had a chance to remove from the water. This is one of the dangers of fishing alone. But, I love this stuff; I’ve been called a lot of things, but a coward has never been one of them. “Keep him out of the downrigger cable,” I admonished myself. And once past that, “Don’t get fouled on that flat line, C.J.” I raised the rod tip to clear the outboard motor then shoved the rod tip as deep in the water as possible to clear the flat line. I prayed out loud, “Please don’t let me lose this fish; I’ll never ask for anything else again.” The fish kept sprinting to the left and I jerked the rod back out of the water to keep the line from being sliced by the trim-tabs. “This is the fish I’ve been looking for,” I said, speaking once again to Otto. The fish turned and went under the boat. “Don’t go under the boat. Stay with me. Keep away from the propeller,” I pleaded. I plunged the rod tip back in the water. I had to keep the line from scraping the bottom of the boat. “Concentrate,” I warned myself.
Usually, I would have seen the fish by now, but he was under the boat and hidden from view. “Come to Papa. Let me see you.” He emerged from under the boat only ten feet deep in the crystal-clear Florida Keys’ Gulf Stream water. “Oh my gosh,” I gasped. This was a massive wahoo. He was lit up like the sign in front of the Marathon Deli. Fluorescent-white stripes against a vibrant-blue body. I was mesmerized, and wondered once again, if I would be able to boat this fish. I reached for the gaff with one hand and held the rod high with the other. I balanced the gaff in my right hand and turned the handle on the reel. I spoke out loud, “Nice and easy now, C.J. Don’t panic him. You’ll only get one shot to gaff this fish.” I was almost out of breath. Salty sweat stung my eyes. The big wahoo looked directly at me. I felt his head start to turn. This was it. He was getting ready to run again. Before he could flick his tail, I struck with the gaff. It found its mark. The weight of the fish stopped me cold, as I attempted a one-handed lift. I knew it was a matter of seconds and my prize would wriggle off the gaff. I dropped the rod to the deck and two-handed him into the cockpit. He made a sound like a sack of cement being dropped into the boat. This was a great fish.
I slid him into the fish box and closed the lid. The gaff, and the pink-and-purple plastic lure, went in with him. I sat down and noticed his tail was extending from the end of the 4-foot-plus fish box. In all my years of fishing the EP2 this was only the third fish that did not totally fit in the oversized box. I let Otto run the boat while I pulled an ice-cold soda from the cooler and watched as my hands shook from the recent battle. My big-fish goal had been met, and, quite handily, if I do say so myself. Not being one to diminish the value of teamwork I called out, “Thank you, Otto. Thank you, EP2. Thank you, Mr. Wahoo.” Followed by the saying I never get tired of, “Life if good in the Florida Keys; life is very good in the Florida Keys.”