December 26, 2017
Your guide to finding and catching these colorful, hard-charging, high-flying summer visitors. By Larry Backman
In many respects, mahi mahi are the perfect game fish: they fight hard, they jump like mad, they taste delicious, they reproduce like rabbits and they come in a rainbow of surreal colors. It’s too bad you have to travel to Central America, Baja, Florida or the Caribbean to catch them.
Or do you?
While it’s true that the biggest mahi—specimens of 50 pounds or more—roam deep-blue tropical waters or the Gulf Stream far offshore, plenty of fish in the 3- to 10-pound range can be caught relatively close to shore in southern New England starting in July.
When 75-degree water spins off the Gulf Stream and pushes inshore, mahi can be found within 25 miles of Point Judith, Westport and Falmouth—and even closer to harbors on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island. In rare years, they have even been caught within five miles of Newport.
Locating mahi usually isn’t hard. Simply head south until you hit clear, warm blue water. In midsummer, this usually occurs near the 25-fathom line, some 20 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Once your temperature gauge shows water of 70 degrees or more, set out a trolling spread.
My standard spread comprises a pair of Joe Shute/ballyhoo combinations on the long ‘riggers (40 and 50 yards back), a pair of small squid bars off the short ‘riggers (25 yards), a pair of ballyhoo off the transom corners (5 and 10 yards) and a bird/Black Bart Tuna Candy combo off the center ‘rigger (100 yards). Trolling speed is around five to six knots.
This spread will work for bluefins, as well as mahi. In my mind, it’s more important to have a simple, weedless spread that’s easy to manage than having more lures in the water, especially if fishing short-handed.
As you troll, keep a lookout for any type of floating structure, such as logs, weeds and pallets. Mahi gravitate to any kind of object, and even something as small as a five-gallon bucket can hold several dozen fish. When you find any of the above, troll the spread within 10 yards of the flotsam and watch for gold and blue streaks.
QUICK TIP: Once you hook a mahi, keep it swimming next to the boat. This will draw its schoolmates within easy casting range and keep them in a feeding mood.
Of course, lobster pot buoys are among the most reliable mahi magnets, and there are a number of areas within 25 miles of shore where you will find good concentrations of pot buoys equipped with radar reflectors, also known as “high fliers.” Once you reach the 25- to 30-fathom lines, you will start to see the odd pair of fliers. If you run another 10 miles to the southern half of the area shown on charts as the “dumping grounds,” you will start to see long lines of fliers set around its borders. Find them and you will find mahi.
In addition to the spinning gear, bring a pair of slightly heavier conventional outfits filled with 40-pound-test braided line and rigged with 2 to 3 feet of 50-pound-test leader and a 5/0 bait or circle hook. Once the mahi school is chummed close to the boat, hook a chunk of bait, flip it out a few feet from the boat and leave the reel in free-spool. The idea is to let the hook bait sink at the same speed as the chum. Once a fish picks up the bait, flip the reel in gear and hang on.
If you can keep the mahi interested with a slow but steady stream of cut bait, you might be able to pull at least a half dozen fish off a single pot buoy before the school becomes wary. Once that happens, find another high flier and start the game all over again. Note that not every flier holds mahi, so keep moving if you don’t raise some fish after a throwing out some cut bait.
Hook Up! Now What?
Once you hook the first mahi on the trolling gear, bring in the rest of the spread and break out some buckets of fresh bait, such as squid, butterfish, pogies or mackerel. Cut the bait into two-inch cubes and toss out a few chunks every 30 seconds. This will hopefully draw the rest of the school close to the boat and keep them in a feeding mood.
Now grab some light spinning outfits filled with 12- to 20-pound-test line and rigged with a two-foot trace of 50-pound-test leader, to prevent cut-offs from the mahi’s small, raspy teeth. Tie a rubber shad on one outfit and a white or yellow bucktail on the other and start fan-casting the area. Small, metal and epoxy jigs also work well.
You can also find mahi by “pot hopping,” or running from one high flier to another and casting small lures around them until you locate a school of fish. In many cases, you can see the fish swimming around the pot line before you even make a cast. And if you don’t, try sending a small, shiny spoon or jig into the depths below the buoy and working it back to the surface with short, jerky motions.
If you succeed in hooking a fish, bring it close to the boat and let it swim around. This will often keep its schoolmates swarming around the boat for a minute or two while the rest of the crew casts spoons, jigs chunk baits—or flies.
Mahi on the Fly
Catching mahi on fly gear is a blast, and the fish are suckers for a variety of flashy patterns. Many anglers use flies tied on circle hooks, which are virtually guaranteed to set in the corner of the fish’s mouth.
Eight- or nine-weight rods rigged with intermediate or full-sink line are ideal for most of the mahi you’ll encounter, and a large-arbor reel makes it easy to stay tight to these frenetic, mad-dashing fish.
One last piece of advice: Bring a large cooler and lots of ice on a mahi trip. When you locate a concentration of fish, it’s easy to catch a bunch—and you’ll have plenty of takers when it comes time to hand out fresh fillets.