Mark Twain said that Bermuda was heaven with one drawback: you had to go through hell to get there. That was in 1877, and "hell" was the stormy ocean between New York and Bermuda, four days apart by steamer. His fellow shipmates took infallible seasick remedies, Old Salt Twain observed, and then stayed below decks in misery till the ship reached port.
Today one can still make the trip to Bermuda by ship, but one also can go by air and get airsick, and in much less time. Thus there are twice as many travel sicknesses available as in Twain's day. There are other improvements in Bermuda itself. Big hotels, pink and modern and American-planned, have sprung up. Bermudians are permitted to own low-horsepower autos (not more than one to a family), and open taxis with-a-fringe-on-top will take you from one end of the island to the other, 22 miles, for something like $5. The tourist is not allowed to rent a car, but he may rent a motorbike and enjoy the fun and challenge of the British-style system of left-hand driving (bandage and splint material is available in Apothecaries' Hall, Heyl's Corner, Hamilton). Otherwise, and happily, Bermuda is little changed from the paradisaical island described by Mark Twain. The surrounding waters remain a balm to the eyesight; just off shore, the water is a pale greenish brown, almost the color of ginger ale; then it gets greener and darker as it gets deeper, and out over the depths it turns suddenly to a vivid electric blue, a blue so different that it bears its own name: Bermuda blue. And the pink sand remains, and the quaint buildings, and the bobbies ("We always refer to ourselves as policemen," one of them explains patiently, "but the Americans insist on calling us bobbies"), and the deep-water harbors, and the bright, waxy flowers, all of them making up a scene almost as colorful as they seem when viewed on a travel poster in a snowstorm.
But to the right-thinking American, to the well-bred citizen with a proper sense of values—in other words, to the fisherman—all these attractions are as nothing. He will give you the old buildings along Front Street in Hamilton, all the palm gardens and hibiscus borders and a 99-year lease on every shipwreck on the reefs, and in return he asks only for a crack at a fish with a silly name and dazzling speed and high IQ: the thinking man's fish, the wahoo.
The wahoo is found in nearly all warmwater oceans, but it is as fond of Bermuda as any elderly matron from Park Avenue or Chestnut Hill. Probably this is because Bermuda is set in the middle of a vast stretch of water, which is just where the wahoo wants to be. The wahoo is pelagic, like the marlin and the tuna, and this means it needs spaces. A wahoo in a lake, or even in a bay, would be as unthinkable as a cheetah in a closet. It is a hunter in the sense that an eagle is a hunter, using highly developed senses to spot the quarry and then chasing it down inexorably and swiftly (up to 40 mph, or twice the Bermuda speed limit for autos).
Observing the habits of these deepwater wolverines decades ago, early fishermen decided that they were oversize barracudas and hung on them the name ocean barracuda. But there is nothing that simple about the wahoo. Not even the scientists can agree on matters like: Who is the wahoo? What is he? Look at him down there, sprawled across two pages, five times smaller than life. Those little finlets running from the tail forward mark the wahoo as a member of the Scombridae family, which includes fish-with-finlets like the tuna and the mackerel. But when you study the wahoo more closely, you discover certain internal similarities to big billfish like the marlin and the swordfish, and the wahoo's upper jaw looks suspiciously like the vestigial remnant of a bill or a beak. So is it a finlet fish or a billfish? Ichthyologists argued for years and finally decided to put the wahoo in a class by itself, Acanthocybiidae, and they reckon that it is a link between the Scombridae and the billfish. There the scientific matter rests. Uneasily.
The layman has not been able to settle much about the wahoo, either. For decades the poor fish did not even have a name, except locally. It was called ono off Hawaii, ocean barracuda or kingfish (mistakenly) in U.S. waters, queen-fish in the Caribbean, springer off Brazil, peto off Cuba and, in the waters of its greatest profusion, pride of Bermuda. Then one day an excitable fellow hooked into one and watched 300 yards of line peel off his reel in a matter of seconds. "Wahoo!" the excitable fellow cried, and the name stuck. (The wahoo has a close relative in the Fiji Islands: a heavier fish called the walu. Some argue that "wahoo" is merely a corruption of "walu," but with men who know the wahoo best it's the first story two to one.)
Like most warmwater oceanic fish, the wahoo comes in five or six decorator colors, depending on its mood of the moment. Sometimes it is dark, almost black, sometimes a sort of bluesteel color shading into a greenish yellow. Sometimes it runs to silver, with blue-gray bars along its sides. The bars are more or less prominent, according to how excited the wahoo is, and they fade away almost completely when the fish is boated. The belly is silver, and the entire body is coated with a patina of silvery bronze, almost as if each fish were Aerosol-sprayed with the glittery stuff before presenting itself to the hook. The gloss rubs off easily, and a few minutes after the wahoo is caught it becomes just another fish named Joe, with all its gaudy colors gone.
Not that you will get many opportunities to see the wahoo in such dishabille. The average fisherman loses out to the average wahoo more than half the time, and the more wahoo there are around, the lower the percentage that will be caught, until you reach the ultimate, mathematically speaking: in the thickest of wahoo schools, about one strike in 20 will result in a boated fish. The other 19 will get away, most of them with terminal tackle trailing gaily from their mouths. Except for the dolphin, there is no fish to rival the wahoo in its ability to guide itself to a bait. And there are few fish with the wahoo's bite once it gets there. The wahoo's teeth are triangular, close-set, joined at the base to form a sort of semicircular saw blade. This is why no other fish gets off so easily and so often, and why there is more than one expensive big-game fishing rig gathering rust in the deeps around Bermuda where some fisherman flung it in disgust after the 10th wahoo in a row hit and got off. What has occurred is called the cutaway, and when you say "cutaway" to a wahoo fisherman, smile.
The cutaway occurs when you have a wahoo on and another wahoo sees your line swirling through the water in a trail of bubbles set up by the fast-running fish and the bait and the swivels and the hook. The second wahoo comes full tilt at the bubble line, maybe thinking it is a school of baitfish, or maybe just for kicks, and chomps down on your line, neatly slicing it at the height of your fun. One second you're screaming "wahoo!" in the fighting chair, and the next second you're holding a dead fishing rod. The more wahoo there are, the more likely this is to happen. Ergo, the wahoo fisherman is the only angler who is leery of schools. The cost in terminal tackle and patience can be too stiff.
But the wahoo has endearing characteristics as well. Its opening run is unexcelled, pound for pound, by I any other fish in the ocean. And the fisherman is absolutely powerless to stop it without snapping the line. It is standard for wahoo to run 250 yards after taking the bait, and it is not unknown for them to go twice that far and strip a reel clean. More than once a fisherman has gone to the beer cooler and returned seconds later to find his reel empty. S. L. (Pete) Perinchief, who represents Bermuda in international fishing tournaments and has the glazed eyes of the fully addicted wahoo fisherman, says: "That opening run is so fast that it mesmerizes even experienced fishermen. I've seen them get a strike and not take the rod out of the holder. They sit there popeyed, watching the reel and listening to it scream, and you have to shout at them three or four times before they'll pick up the rod. Then they forget everything they know. They tighten down on the drag sometimes, and that's an absolute guarantee that the fish'll break off. Or they'll thumb the reel instinctively. I did it myself on one of my first wahoos. You could smell burnt flesh."