No one, regardless of his degree of expertise, is exempt from losing his head when a wahoo hits, and this includes the renowned Edward C. Migdalski, ichthyologist at the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory at Yale and one of the ranking authorities on both fish and fishing. Migdalski was jigging a handline off Bermuda when "a big wahoo hit the feather hard on the run and kept going," he wrote later. "I was quite excited and held onto the line until I felt something like a hot scalding iron run through my fingers.... I wore greased bandages the rest of the trip." Pete Perinchief recalls still another skilled angler who leaned the rod against the stern rail while he lighted a cigar. A wahoo hit, the rod tip jerked down, the rail acted as a fulcrum, and the butt end, $200 reel and all, went soaring. "The last we saw of that rig," says Perinchief, "it was traveling south southwest and making beautiful parabolas through the air."
All of this is not so much because of the heft of the wahoo—the world record is 149 pounds, and the average fish is 30 to 40 pounds—but because of its extraordinary speed. The black marlin is ordinarily credited with top speed of all the ocean fishes but, in fact, nobody knows exactly how fast any fish is. Louis Mowbray, curator of the Bermuda Government Aquarium and a renowned naturalist, will argue with anyone that the wahoo is the fastest of all. Says the soft-spoken Mowbray, "You just can't tell about things like this. When you observe a fish, how can you tell if he's going flat out or just idling along? And how can you clock him?" Mowbray's feeling that the wahoo is the speediest is based on observations going back to his earliest wahoo. He caught it in 1935, and it was the first ever taken in Bermuda waters. "There was no ocean game-fishing in those days, and nobody knew what was out there or how to catch it," Mowbray says. "We went out in the aquarium boat and we were trolling two flat lines [flat lines are trolled from the stern, in contrast to lines trolled from outriggers]. I was steering and looking astern at the same time, and I saw a fish break about 30 yards off the port quarter. I hollered to my companion, 'Look at that one!' and then I noticed my reel was running like hell. It was the same fish. He had come so fast that at first I didn't associate the sighting with the strike. They were practically simultaneous, and yet there was at least 30 yards between the bait and the point where I first spotted him. Since then I've seen this sort of thing happen hundreds of times."
Apparently the wahoo spots the bait from a distance and gets up a full head of steam before hitting it. Although not normally a jumper, the wahoo goes so fast that it will sometimes soar 10 to 15 feet straight up merely from the momentum of its run. Explains Mowbray: "This happens when they've been swimming 50 or 100 feet below the surface. They have incredible eyesight, and when they see that bait dragging overhead they'll come right straight up and out of the water. Now, if that isn't enough to shake you, they will sometimes miss the first bait, arc through the air and come right down on top of the other bait. Don't ask me how they're able to do this in mid-air, but they do it. And I'm not talking about an isolated experience. It happens quite frequently."
For years scientists like Mowbray resisted the temptation to explain the various characteristics of the wahoo in terms of intelligence. Too often in the study of wildlife, creatures have been credited with intelligence for acts that were purely instinctive. But in recent years Mowbray has swung to the conclusion that the wahoo is intelligent, that the fish learns by experience and that a good many of the wahoo in the sea have learned to associate a fishhook with evil and therefore have learned to avoid it. Says Mowbray: "There are days when you'll get a dozen strikes from wahoo without hooking one. They'll cut the bait just behind the hook every bloody time. If you put your hook up in the head of the bait, they'll cut the fish off without touching the hook. You can imbed the hook midway down in the belly of the bait and they'll cut it cleanly just behind the point where the hook sticks out. And if you get mad and you put the hook even farther aft and you say they cannot beat me there, they'll come up and just snip the tail off."
The fact that many a wahoo seems to avoid metal of any kind has been confirmed time and again by people like Austin Talbot, who plays guitar and harmonica at night as a member of the Bermuda band, The Talbot Brothers, and fishes every day commercially. Talbot puts live bait over the side of his boat and then watches through a glass-bottomed bucket to see what happens. Wahoo will actually stand off and study the situation. Slowly they will swim around the bait, and finally they will snip the line in one chop of their jaws. Then they will collect the bait and swim away.
"Often I'll be still-fishing in 20 fathoms with monofilament line," says Louis Mowbray, "and a wahoo'll come along and I'll have an anchovy on and he'll cut that line just above the bait. So I'll put on a short wire leader, maybe five or six inches, because I know that he won't go near anything longer than that. So now he'll swim up, put on the brakes, and take a good look at that leader, and I swear you can practically see him thumb his nose at it. Throw a free bait over the side and he'll grab it in a second. Take off the leader and give him monofilament line again and he'll swim up and cut the line. Put the leader back on and he laughs at you."
Experiences like these have led Mowbray to the conclusion that the wahoo is a sort of quiz kid among fishes. "Somehow he knows that shiny pieces of metal are to be avoided. There is a theory that so many wahoo get hooked and then get off on cutaways that they have learned to associate the hook with trouble. This hardly seems possible when you consider how many wahoo there must be in the sea. Yet I've had their intelligence demonstrated so many times to me that I have come to the same conclusion. They must associate that hook with something unpleasant."
There are, of course, wahoo that grab the bait, get firmly hooked and wind up in the kitchen (where, incidentally, their firm white flesh can be prepared with reasonable palatability). But more common is the wahoo that will hit the baitfish smack in the middle, feel the wire leader inside and drop the bait immediately. A Bermuda fishing captain tells of another ornery habit: "Sometimes a wahoo will grab the bait broadside and take off with it a mile a minute. He isn't hooked, mind you, but he's got those jaws clamped down firmly on the bait. So the fisherman endures a couple of those long runs, finally brings the wahoo alongside with his last ounce of strength, and what happens? The wahoo opens his mouth, lets go of the bait and swims off. Oh, I've heard some pretty fancy language at times like that!" The wahoo has also been known to run with the wire leader, holding it like a stubborn terrier until pumped back near the boat. Captain David Martin of the Westwind, a Bermuda charter boat, tells of wahoo that come right up to the back of the boat, take a smack at a trolled foot-long metal spoon, bend it in half like a piece of tinfoil and run off without getting hooked.
But if the fisherman does sink the hook into the wahoo, and if the fisherman is patient while the wahoo runs off two or three football fields of line, and if the fisherman does not allow the wahoo to have any slack line with which to gain leverage and throw the hook or snap the line, then the wahoo becomes most accommodating. It swims toward the boat, following along in the one- or two-knot wake and sometimes even running up ahead, thus forcing the fisherman to balance his way along the side of the cabin and play the fish from the bow. By the time a wahoo does all this, it has had it, and often it will be dead before coming over the transom on the gaff. "He puts his whole life into those long runs," says Captain Roy Taylor of the Wally III, a man who has caught more wahoo than any other Bermuda skipper. "He dies right afterward. You can see those bars on his side fade before your eyes when you get him into the boat. Some wahoo stiffen up right away, and you can practically stand them on their tails."
The sworn enemy of the fisherman bringing in an exhausted wahoo is the shark—usually, in Bermuda waters, the dusky shark. According to Pete Perinchief, the shark also learns by experience and has long since found out that the quickest way to get an easy dinner is to hang around fishing boats. "You'll see them circling while you're playing a wahoo," Perinchief says. "Then the fish'll sound, and the shark'll stay right there. He seems to know that eventually that meal is going to be brought to him." This problem, so reminiscent of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, is all the more annoying to the Bermuda fisherman because of the unquestioned presence of so many world-record wahoo on the fishing banks. A single bite by a shark disqualifies a catch for record consideration (the theory being that the shark injures the wahoo and makes it too easy to catch). The tail end of a Bermuda fight with a wahoo sometimes becomes a race to drag the wahoo in before a shark can get it, and all too often the fisherman, himself wearied by the wahoo's long runs, cannot pump hard enough to keep the shark from severing the wahoo just behind the gill covers.