Spanish mackerel and wahoo are by far one of the most targeted and sought-after pelagic species offshore during our summer pelagic season. Not only do they taste great, they’re also excellent sportfish that fight hard and fast.
Without a doubt the most successful and easiest way to catch these awesome sportfish is to troll, whether it be with lures, dead baits or live baits. It’s easy enough trolling around generic lures, tackle and baits and catching a few fish, but there are ways to maximise your catch rates. Refining your gear, lures, rigs and bait and learning how and where to troll can make a huge difference to how many fish you can catch, and how big they are. There’s no better feeling than setting out a perfectly righted bait or lure for a troll, finding a school of fish on the sounder, then turning back to watch your rods in anticipation before they fold over and scream off.
There are a lot of options when looking for a trolling set-up for wahoo and Spanish. Spin, overhead, long rods, short rods, braid or mono? It can be a little confusing, but in my experience the best set-up you can get is an overhead, either a star or lever drag reel in the 20-30 size range with a fast gear ratio, matched with a 7-8ft trolling rod in the 15-24kg or 24-37kg range.
Using a longer rod has several benefits. The first is manoeuvrability around the boat, as these fish can change direction or dart off quickly when boat side, and with a shorter rod you could lose them to the prop or hull. Setting baits and lures apart is also easier with a longer rod, and they’re excellent for absorbing the lunges and headshakes during the fight. I also find, with the addition of mono to a longer rod, there’s a good amount of stretch and a slightly slower take up of pressure to set hooks, which allows the fish to hit and turn before the pressure is applied and the drag screams off.
Faster gear ratio reels are great for these fish. Spaniards and wahoo can swim incredibly fast and change direction quickly, and you want to be able to keep up with the fish during the fight. Also, faster gear ratio reels make chasing down fish with the boat much easier.
The combination of a long rod, mono and a high gear ratio certainly makes fighting these fish very easy and effective, as you can keep an even pressure very easily, further eliminating that chance of losing a fish. In most instances, a 15-24kg rod is ideal for most lures, baits and the majority of fish you will encounter. If or when you are purposely targeting larger fish in excess of 20kg with bigger baits and lures, the 24-37kg rod comes in very handy. It can handle what you are trolling and help to shorten the fight time, reducing the likelihood of being sharked.
As I mentioned before, mono is my preference as main line, but I usually run braid backing on my reels and run a 100m 24kg or 37kg mono top shot on my reels. I get the stretch from the mono with the top shot, and the line capacity from the braid when I need it. However, you can run straight mono if you prefer. You should still have enough line. In my opinion, you don’t need to use any fancy or colourful mono – I find the cheaper lines like Schneider to be ideal, as they last a long time and are very strong and hard-wearing.
The number of set-ups you want to run is up to you, but I rarely run more then two. These fish school up, so it’s not uncommon to encounter multiple hook-ups, and I find dealing with two fish much more manageable then three, especially when I fish solo. Also, it’s much easier to run two baits or lures effectively without tangles.
Setting the right strike drag on your reel is very important so you can set hooks in nicely without tearing them out. I find a strike drag of 3-6kg to be ideal when trolling dead or live baits, and 6-10kg is more than enough when trolling lures. What drag setting you run is a matter of personal preference, but this is what I usually run as a rule of thumb. It can change depending on what lure bait and hooks I use.
Once you’ve got the perfect set-up, the next thing to do is run wire leader to your rigs and lures. These fish have very sharp teeth and will have no trouble biting through heavy mono leaders. I find single strand wire to be the best when connecting to your rigs and lures; it’s much better than multi-strand. Single strand is thinner so it’s harder for fish to see, and it’s much easier to change out and retie if damaged or kinked.
A simple Haywire Twist is all that’s needed to connect to a small barrel swivel which you connect to your leader. With the other end of the single strand you tie another Haywire Twist to the rig or lure.
You’ll find that 50-80lb single strand is all that’s needed for these fish. You can go heavier, but the heavier you go, the fewer fish you’ll catch, in my experience. The amount of wire leader you run is up to you, but I generally run a 30-50cm length, depending on what I use.
Spanish mackerel are by far one of the most common pelagics on our reefs in Queensland, and can be found on most inshore and offshore reefs in southern Queensland and northern NSW during pelagic season, and throughout autumn and early winter. When targeting Spanish mackerel, I recommend trolling dead or live baits. Spanish mackerel like to swim around or sit on certain reefs, and by covering these reefs at a slower trolling speed you can thoroughly cover the reefs, trying to find where the fish are. With the added use of a sounder, you can locate the Spanish mackerel on certain areas of the reef, especially around bait, and work them until they decide to eat your presentation.
As Spanish have usually seen a lot of other anglers’ lures, baits and rigs, they can be quite cluey at times. This is why I find tempting them with natural baits to be far more successful. In my opinion, you will predominately catch smaller school-size Spanish on skirts and hardbodies, and because there’s competition between these school-size fish, the faster you troll with lures can trigger a reaction bite. Unfortunately, that reaction bite will usually only last so long before they wise up. On most days, boats fishing baits will generally catch a lot more fish than boats trolling lures.
There’s a large variety of dead baits you can use on Spanish. Most will work, but by far the most common and successful are garfish, slimy mackerel, yakkas, tailor and bonito. For very large Spanish mackerel, larger baits like bonito, small tuna, school mackerel, wolf herring, small mackerel, fusilier and tailor are the go.
The key to catching fish on baits is rigging them properly with the right hooks,and weighting the rig so the bait swims straight and looks as natural as possible. If the bait spins, you won’t catch many fish.
Garfish are very easy to swim, but bonito and bigger baits can be quite tricky and may take some time and practice to get swimming right. There are plenty of online videos that can show you how to rig troll baits so they swim perfectly. The hooks I predominately use for my baits are ganged Mustad Tarpon 7766D in 6/0 to 10/0 and I try to match the size of the hook to the bait. To weight the rig I use net lead around the shank of the first hook, and to rig the bait I like to use copper wire.
Live baits are about as good as you can get for Spanish. Small tuna, slimies, yakkas, tailor, fusilier and bonito are deadly, but you can only really work them well in areas that have very slow current, whereas dead baits can be worked in fast and slow current effectively. For live bait rigs I use a J hook pinned in the nose of the bait, and a Mustad or VMC treble at the rear of the bait. The size of the hook doesn’t have to be massive, just big enough to suit the size of bait you are using. Between the J hook and treble I like to use multi strand wire, as it’s a little more flexible than single strand – but single stand is still fine to use.
When trolling dead baits, the ideal trolling speed is around 3-4 knots, and with live baits 1-2 knots, or even drifting if the current is fast. The distance you set your baits back is up to you. As long as you still feel contact with the bait, I believe further back is better. Usually, anywhere from 30-60m back is perfect.
You will encounter lots of by-catch when chasing Spanish mackerel, especially on live bait, and it’s not uncommon to catch wahoo while chasing Spanish. Wahoo are very different from Spanish, even though they look very similar. Wahoo are extremely fast – they’re up there among the fastest fish in the ocean. Like mackerel, wahoo migrate up and down the coast, but they are a true ocean-going pelagic and will travel vast distances around the ocean. So unlike mackerel, which will hold on reefs most of the time, wahoo will usually only hold on or around the reef for shorter periods, as they like to keep on the move.
Being an ocean-going pelagic, wahoo like blue water and are often found on or around reefs that receive warm ocean currents. You’ll often find schools of wahoo cruising around the reefs or moving between reefs, so covering ground is key when trying to catch wahoo. This is why trolling lures is such an effective method. Speed is also key when trolling lures for wahoo – you usually can’t troll fast enough for these fish, but any speed over 6 knots is good. I prefer trolling at 8-15 knots, but I’ve also caught wahoo trolling at 20 knots moving between reefs.
There’s a huge variety of lures that you can troll for wahoo: deep divers, shallow divers, bibless, skirts, weighted jet heads and Hex Heads. They all work extremely well, but can only be trolled at certain speeds. Most divers and bibless lures are suited to 6-10 knots, some a tad faster, but skirts can be trolled quite quickly and effectively over 10 knots, especially weighted jet heads and Hex Heads.
There are a lot of lures out on the market to catch wahoo, such as Halco Laser Pros, Rapala X-Raps, Samaki Pacemakers, Classic Bluewater F18s, Halco Max, Hex Heads and River2Sea Downsiders, just to name a few. They all work exceptionally well, but make sure they have good terminal tackle. Wahoo, especially big ones, are incredibly good at destroying most generic terminals. Changing out to stronger split rings, trebles and singles is recommended.
When trolling for wahoo, you usually want to troll around the edge of the reef or structure, looking for signs of bait, as the wahoo won’t be too far behind. If you are trolling on reefs deeper them 15m, it’s perfectly fine to drive over the reef, as bait and wahoo will sit on top of it. A lot of the time when trolling for wahoo, you’ll locate them sitting higher in the water column on your sounder, and it usually doesn’t take long for them to pounce on your lures. Sometimes it may take a few passes, but usually it’s pretty instant and you generally get double hook-ups when running two rods. The distance you set your lures back for wahoo varies on speed and types of lures, but anywhere from 20-60m behind the boat is fine.
If you find wahoo and they aren’t interested in eating lures, it’s time to change tactics and try live bait. By far the best live baits for wahoo are small tuna or bonito. On occasions, live yakkas and slimies will work, but if you can get a small tuna or bonito, they generally won’t last long. If you can’t catch or find live baits, it’s also worth trying slow trolled dead baits like a tuna or bonito, and using them the same way you would for Spanish.
Another great alternative is a Wog Head rigged with a dead gar trolled at around 8 knots. Sometimes the smell and look of the bait can trigger a strike from wahoo, and can berley up the other fish in the school, triggering a feeding frenzy. The same thing can happen with Spanish as well.
Even though these fish may look mean and nasty with a full set of razor sharp teeth, they are quite fragile and release terribly. For that reason, if you want to target them, I recommend that you keep what you catch, and then stop fishing for them if you reach your limit. Releasing dead or tired fish only increases shark problems.
Spanish mackerel and wahoo are fantastic to eat, but need to be taken care of, like all fish. When you have these fish boat side, gaffing them is by far the best way to land them, but a gaff shot in the belly or side of the fish can really ruin the meat. You’ll also end up with an angry toothy critter with hooks attached, thrashing around on board, which is rather dangerous. A swift gaff shot to the head or pectoral fins makes for an easy capture and removal of hooks.
A long esky or fish kill bag is important to store these fish, so they are stored perfectly straight. If the fish are bent in the esky it can ruin the flesh. Before placing the fish in an ice-cold esky, make sure you bleed it and brain spike it, so the flesh is at its best.
A big concern many people have when keeping big pelagics is the risk of ciguatera poisoning. Ciguatera poisoning from wahoo is unheard of, but it can be present in large Spanish mackerel over 15kg. Usually very large resident Spanish mackerel that live on coral reef may have it, but cases of ciguatera are very uncommon and most Spanish are fine to keep – just make sure you don’t eat large quantities in one sitting.
I hope this points you in the right direction and gets you a few bent rods and screaming drags for years to come. Until next time, stay safe and good luck.Reads: 399