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).
September 29, 1963
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."
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.
Different captains have different methods of defense. Roy Taylor sometimes uses a .45 revolver, but the shark must be very close to the surface or the water lessens the bullet's impact. Captain Russell Young of the Sea Wolfe has been conducting a lifelong campaign against sharks and hates them with a purple passion. When sharks appear while a customer has a wahoo on, Young throws over a big hook baited with fish and tied to a 250-pound-test handline. He hauls in a shark, slashes its stomach and returns it to the sea with a choice phrase like, "Take that back to your friends, you bloody-minded creature!" While the other sharks are busy dining on their confrere, Captain Young's customer reels in his wahoo unmolested.
Pete Perinchief has still another technique for the sharks. "We put out a 12/0 hook with a six-foot heavy wire leader and very heavy line," he explains, "and we hook a shark by hand. Then we tie a gallon jug to the line and throw the whole thing overboard. Now the shark is gonna submerge, and the pressure from that bottle's gonna bother him, the same as a rod and reel would do. So he comes to the surface and tows the bottle around. Now he's got less pressure, but that bottle's still worrying him; so down he goes again. All this takes a long time, and the other sharks will stay right with him, and as soon as he tires they hit him, and that takes more time. Meanwhile, we're catching wahoo."
The alltime record shark story (Bermuda division) belongs, however, to Roy Taylor, who is the sort of fishing skipper who collects both fish and experiences in equal proportions. Taylor, who doubles as an artist and shop owner in St. George, Bermuda, worked in his youth as an assistant under Louis Mowbray's father at the government aquarium, and so takes a keener eye to sea than most fishermen. One day he was trolling for wahoo when he spotted what looked like a small whale. He cut the engines and, cruising alongside, discovered that he had come across the largest fish of all: the whale shark.
Now, the whale shark is lazy, a plankton eater, an utterly harmless sluggard that attracts all kinds of sea life to its side and functions like a planned community development. "This one had suckerfish attached to him," says Taylor, "and algae flowing from him, and sea anemones attached to his back, and even a few loggerhead turtles swimming around him. He had a huge, square mouth and big white blotches all over him, and he was covered with scars and marks. I'd say he was 36 or 37 feet long and weighed maybe 20 tons. We watched him for a while, and then he spotted the boat, and he came swimming over lazily—they do everything slowly, or else they wouldn't have all those friends around them—and he tried to rub some sea anemones off his back against the bottom of the boat. I tried to harpoon him. I had a 16-foot lance with a rather dull iron, and it just broke off on his skin. He embarrassed me. He didn't even budge. He could at least have shaken his head a little." After a while Taylor and the whale shark got bored with each other and went their separate ways.
For a span of 10 years Roy Taylor's boat entered more wahoo and tuna in the annual Bermuda Fishing Tournament than any other. On one noteworthy day in 1956 Taylor took out W.P. Langworthy of Philadelphia, Leo Martin of New York and Perinchief. Langworthy caught a 25¾-pound blackfin tuna, then a world's record for 30-pound-test line (also an All-Tackle record). Perinchief took a 46-pound Allison tuna, at the time a world record for 12-pound-test line, and Martin landed a 78½-pound wahoo, biggest taken that year by any Bermuda visitors. At one time or another Taylor's boat has held half a dozen world records.
Taylor fishes with such skill that his clients are lined up for months in advance, and one of them, a shipping magnate, makes an annual round trip from Hong Kong for the sole purpose of catching wahoo. Gradually Taylor is restricting his clientele and turning his attention more toward his landward pursuits, and thus the new champion wahoo skipper of Bermuda has become Russell Young, a sturdy, stubby man with short hair, a brush moustache and the outward appearance of a retired sergeant major of rifles. A voyage on Young's Sea Wolfe is an epiphany whether you catch wahoo or not. The first oddity you notice is that you cannot understand a word spoken by the crewman, a jolly Bermudian named Allan (Sandow) Whitecross. He speaks in what might be termed a "crown colony accent," a cacophony of all sorts of accents, including Tidewater Virginia (Bermuda was first colonized by the Virginia Company), Jamaican, Australian, Cockney, Oxford and a touch of candied yams and sowbelly. But after a while you begin to catch on to him, and when he shouts to Captain Young, "Boot comin bahondos day-uh," you know that another boat is moving up astern.
By now you discover that Captain Young speaks a fascinating brand of English himself—a mellow pipe smoker's blend of the Queen's English and certain early Anglo-Saxonisms with which, it is to be fervently hoped, the queen is totally unfamiliar. When the Sea Wolfe leaves the harbor of Cambridge Beaches for the wahoo banks, she leaves behind a white wake of water and a blue wake of air. "I am making up for the days I have women on board," Young explains. He whistles and sings all day long, and tends his baits like a doctor looking after a rich patient. He jigs the teasers himself, and more often than not he assigns Whitecross to steer the boat while he takes over the baiting chores. Soon one finds out the reason for all this frenzied angling activity: there is a case of cold beer aboard, and both Young and his crew are fond of the beverage, but it is their inviolable rule that no member of the Sea Wolfe's establishment may have a beer until the customer catches a fish. So one sympathizes with Whitecross when he leans over the side of the boat, gives it several sharp smacks and shouts into the deeps, "Awl roit, let's go, dee Sea Wolfe is hee-ah! Open fo' business! Let's go!"
A few minutes later when a wahoo hits the port outrigger, chops the bait in half and gets off, Whitecross says: "Dat was just a hors d'oeuvre for 'im." Soon a fish is boated, and the long drought is over.
Now the boat steers into a patch of shearwaters, ocean birds making their annual migration from the islands around the equator up to the Grand Banks, where they will spend the summer. "Look at them lying out there," says Young. "They have to fly a thousand miles over the open ocean. They get absolutely exhausted, and they come down to rest. Sometimes we find them dead of starvation." A flying fish rides down the wind in that peculiar slanting motion that makes his kind look like miniature helicopters. No sooner does the flying fish hit the water than it is out again on another flight. "Look at that!" Young shouts. "There's a bloody wahoo after him." The flying fish hits the water again and there is a swirl, but the panicked fish gets off on a third sortie. This time it is short; a swirl and a flash of dorsal are its funeral rites. Another flying fish spurts out, and a greater shearwater, roused out of lethargy by the sight of a free meal on the wing, gives chase and takes a midair peck at the morsel. "Does that seem fair?" observes Russell Young. "He gets it in the water from the wahoo, and he gets it in the air from the shearwater!" This particular flying fish winds up getting it in the water.
There are other sights, other sounds, before the day is over. A school of flying squid comes by like a purple cloud, then falls back into a caldron of blackfin tuna on their feed. Off on the horizon a humpback whale, all 40 feet of him, hurtles out of the water and flops back in a tremendous splash: a dump truck trying to do the minuet. And now and then a yellow-billed tropical bird converts itself into a rock and comes hurtling down from its vantage point 200 feet in the air to grab a fish dinner. "They never miss," explains Young. "When you see one of those longtails go down for a fish, it's a sure thing." Now evening is coming, and Young threads the boat delicately back through the reefs, picking his way from marker to marker, while Whitecross perches at the bow, looking for rocks. Nothing untoward is going to happen, because Russell Young is a Bermuda captain, and he can smell a reef a mile off. In his skills and his attitude toward life, Young is a throwback to the storied Bermuda fisherman who interrupted the visiting preacher's sermon about St. Paul. "We don't want to hear aboot Paul," the elderly fisherman said. "He run his ship ashore atween cross seas. Paul warn't no criterion." Bermuda captains like Russell Young are the criteria. As long as they are around, let the wahoo beware.
GETTING THERE: If you too want to catch a wahoo, there are daily jets from New York to Bermuda by PanAm and Eastern (first-class round trip $162, economy $120). BOAC has a $95 jet-prop special leaving Idlewild on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 9 p.m., arriving 11:40. Every Saturday afternoon at 3 the Furness Bermuda Line sails from New York, arriving in Bermuda at 9 a.m. Monday. Cabins are all first-class, with bath, and range from $160 to $400 per person.
FISHING THERE: There are II deep-sea charter boats in Bermuda, all fully equipped with tackle, fighting chairs, outriggers, ship-to-shore telephones and modern lifesaving apparatus. Rates are $75 a day and include tackle and bait. A half day costs $50, but successful wahoo fishing usually requires at least a day's effort. As a general rule reservations are not needed, but it would be wise to reserve the services of the top guides: Captain Russell Young, Ferry Point, Somerset, and Captain Roy Taylor, St. George's. The Bermuda Fishing Information Bureau, 50 Front Street, Hamilton, has details of charter boats and where they are located.
STAYING THERE: There are more than 60 hotels, guest houses and cottage colonies to choose from. The Carlton Beach Hotel (400 guests, double room with breakfast and dinner $17-$25 each) is the most luxurious. It is located on the south shore, which has the best swimming beaches, and there is a pool, too. Castle Harbour Hotel has room for 500 at about the same rates, and an 18-hole golf course. Cambridge Beaches is a cottage colony with room for 98 (double room, American plan, $19-$26 each). Rates go down a little after October 31. Most of the hotels are of the opinion that the wahoo, like the whale, is not a table fish. If the chef looks askance at your catch, try Bermuda crayfish, as succulent as Maine lobster.