The gulf stream brings this rewarding game fish closer to shore this time of year.
Story by Bailey Gilliam + Photos by Collins Doughtie
Wahoo may seem like an expression of excitement, not the name of a delicious fish, but wahoo, or ono, means “delicious” in Hawaiian. Also known as the Pacific kingfish or the ocean barracuda, the wahoo is a pelagic, hard-to-catch, highly prized game fish. One of the fastest fish in the world, wahoo can travel up to 60 miles per hour. And now is the perfect time to catch and eat one, since they move with the Gulf Stream and are swimming closer to Hilton Head this month than they will be all year. The 2022 South Carolina Wahoo Series fishing tournament takes place through April, so you’re likely to enjoy wahoo’s firm flesh and sweet, delicate taste at local restaurants.
Catch of the day
“Wahoo can be the toughest fish to find, next to the bluefin tuna and the black marlin,” said local Hilton Head fisherman Roger Lee. “If you have all your ducks in a row, as well as a lucky horseshoe, you can have the best fishing experience of your life.”
Due to the speed and size of wahoo, these fish have to be trolled. If high-speed trolling, you troll with only a lure, no bait attached, at around 15-17 miles per hour. The advantage to high-speed trolling is that you can cover a lot of areas, but you can only have a few lines out at a time. Dead-bait trolling involves trolling at around seven to eight miles per hour with a horse ballyhoo with a lure in front of it. The lure should be blue and white, or orange, black and purple. These are the colors of the fish that wahoo eat. Dead-bait trolling allows for more lines out but doesn’t cover as wide of an area.
Grant Kaple, general manager of The Hilton Head Boathouse, said the rod and reel have to be of a certain caliber to handle wahoo and recommends using between a 50-wide rod with a 60-pound test to an 80-wide rod with an 80-pound test.
Jason Bullock, owner of Bubba’s Cabin Lowcountry Outfitters, said it’s important to have at least a 50-reel that is 100 percent metal because a composite reel will explode. “We carry a couple of these large reels in stock at Bubba’s and can special order different colored reels or up to 130-wide,” said Bullock. “We also have spools of various pound and color braid large enough to spool without having to splice. We also have a few trolling rods in stock and can order any specific things those who want to fish wahoo are looking for.”
“The wahoo is capable of swimming at speeds of 40-plus miles per hour, and this puts the pressure on the fisherman and also the boat captain,” said Lee. “It is a must to keep pressure on the fish with steady reeling as well as boat speed.”
A sight to behold
“Wahoo have amazing color when they first come out of the water, said Bullock. “The shades of blue and gray are like nothing else you have seen, absolutely beautiful.”
Atlantic wahoo is steel-blue above and pale blue below. They are covered with small scales and have a series of 25 to 30 irregular blackish-blue vertical bars on their sides. Their snouts are about the same size as the rest of their head, and their large mouths house strong, triangular, compressed and finely serrated teeth, allowing them to tear through fish bigger than their own size. These fish grow fast, up to 8 feet and 158 pounds, though they are commonly between 3.3 and 5.4 feet long.
“These fish have a severe set of teeth, they are razor-sharp,” said Kaple. “If the teeth so much as brush up against your skin, you will get gashed.”
Fathom the depths
It’s no surprise that to find wahoo, you have to find their food source. Wahoo eat bottom fish like mullet and ballyhoo as well as vermillion snapper and grouper. These fish are generally found near ledges.
“Wahoo are driven by a northern migration that starts in February,” said Kaple. “They are following the Gulf Stream, and as the southeast breeze hits the Gulf Stream in the spring, the stream starts to get closer to the ledges, which brings the fish in.”
Kaple said the main ledges are the South Ledge, the Triple Ledge, the Deli and Edisto Banks. These ledges go from about 180 feet to 250 feet very quickly, which seem to hold the fish. These are all about 50-70 miles off the Port Royal Sound, so you will need a boat to find them.
When in season, you can find fresh wahoo at South End Seafood, Barnacle Bill’s Fresh Seafood and Benny Hudson Seafood. When buying fresh wahoo, make sure it has a mild sea breeze aroma and not a “fishy” odor. Fillets should have a distinct red bloodline with opaque white flesh, and a whole fish should have bright, clear and shiny eyes. Scales should be shiny and cling tightly to the skin, and flesh should spring back when pressed.
Wahoo is an incredibly versatile fish. It can be eaten raw as sashimi, grilled, seared, baked, steamed, barbecued, smoked, fried, baked or sautéed. Local home cooks and fishermen weighed in on their favorite ways of cooking this delicious fish.
“It doesn’t freeze well, so you have to eat it fresh,” Kaple said.
Wahoo also has a meaty, substantial quality that separates it from the rest of the school. Wahoo dishes deserve wines that will stand up to their special flavor profiles. These fish will cook and firm up quite nicely. If marinated or cured beforehand, the added spices on the fish will allow for a darker wine, although an oaked chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or dry rosé would be fitting in most situations.
How locals eat it
• Simple sear: It is great sashimi and is better if cooked medium-rare. When cooking, it will go from medium rare to overcooked instantly. Get a cast-iron skillet, set the oven to 400, sear one side, turn it, put it in the oven for 3 minutes, and it’s done. It’s good eating with yellow grits with stewed tomatoes. – Grant K.
• Wahoo tacos: 3/4-inch-thick slices of wahoo, blackened fish magic seasoning, cast-iron skillet: sear slices in butter, serve with black beans and rice and place on taco shells. – Dale S.
• Sashimi: Sashimi-style on a slice of cucumber topped with a little avocado, wasabi, ginger and a soy sauce dip. – Larry N.
• Sriracha seared wahoo: Very lightly seared, rubbed in sriracha. Slice and serve. – Mike R.
• Creative seasoning: Cut 2-inch steaks and cover with olive oil. Coat all sides with Everything Bagel Seasoning. Heat oil in a cast-iron skillet and cook 1-2 minutes per side. Slice thin as you can and serve with ginger and soy sauce. – Roger L.
• Bite-sized wahoo: Cut 1/2-inch pieces of wahoo and season with ‘Season All.’ Place bites in an egg batter then cover with House Autry Seafood Mix. Place in hot cast-iron pan with peanut oil just long enough to brown and turn. If using a deep fryer, the fish will start to float in the oil. Do not overcook. Serve with your favorite coleslaw and hush puppies. I tend to like a light dip of tiger sauce. – Roger L.
Local restaurants serve wahoo in many ways
• Alexander’s: Blackened wahoo served over a Yukon potato croquette, asparagus, heirloom tomato, Applewood bacon and finished off with a grilled lemon beurre blanc.
• Black Marlin Bayside Grill & Hurricane Bar: A char-grilled piece of wahoo paired with a cucumber and chili pico, sweet potato puree, fire-roasted squash and drizzled with cilantro oil.
• Charbar Co.: Blackened wahoo grilled and topped with tomato, arugula, balsamic and toasted focaccia.
• Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte: Wahoo, bacon grits and charred Roma tomatoes.
• Frankie Bones: Char-grilled wahoo with vegetables and potato roulette.
• Poseidon: Charcoal-grilled local wahoo topped with grilled watermelon salsa.
• The Salty Dog: Fresh Atlantic wahoo with tomatoes and rice.
• Skull Creek Boathouse: Local wahoo with peppercorn demi glacé.
• Skull Creek Dockside Restaurant: Hawaiian wahoo, sesame rice, braised baby bok choy and pineapple glaze.
• Wiseguys: Wahoo piccata with crispy capers.
• ELA’s On The Water: Bacon and shallot-encrusted wahoo over mango purée and wilted arugula finished with crispy beet chips (photo below).