How to Catch Mahi Mahi on the Fly

Mahi-mahi are an absolute blast to catch on the fly. What’s not to like? Every dance card is filled in with aerial acrobatics, zippy runs, spectacular colors and wild boatside antics that are sure to plaster a smile on any flyrodder’s face–and these fish are tasty for dinner. Old-timers still call them dolphin, although mahi-mahi is considered more appropriate today to avoid confusing them with Flipper (the mammal) of movie fame. The International Game Fish Association calls them dolphinfish.
Mahi-mahi grow fast, ranging in size from 1- to 2-pound grasshoppers to hefty 20- to 30-pound bulls and cows. August is one of the best months to catch them, as local waters are warm and the fish are generally abundant around the 20-fathom line. They can also be thick as fleas around inshore lumps and ridges only a few miles from coastal inlets. Captain Joe Hughes of Jersey Cape Guide Service says, “The fishing is different every year. Last year, I didn’t see many fish at five miles, but the year before, there were dolphin everywhere and I didn’t have to travel far.” Joe suggests looking inshore for pot markers, weed lines and anything that floats. “Sometimes, the smallest debris can have huge numbers of fish.”

On the offshore grounds, Captain Frank Crescitelli of Fin Chaser Charters told me that last year was one of the best in recent years for canyon mahi. “Captain Dino Torino and I used to find a lot of fish around the BA buoy when we ran out of Staten Island, but it’s worth it to make the long run to the canyons. In fact, last year was the absolute best mahi fishing I have ever seen in my life. Quality fish from the Baltimore to the Hudson were eating flies and plugs for hours.”

“Keep in mind that every marker or weed patch won’t have a ton of fish on it,” Crescitelli says. “One pot in the chain may have zero fish, but a pot a few hundred feet away can hold a slew of fish for no apparent reason. There’s a force at work, but my human brain can’t figure it out, so just have work at it until you find fish. Look for signs of life like banded rudderfish or any small bait.”

Dolphin can be a pleasant inshore surprise and Captain Frank relates this amusing anecdote. “One time while fishing a bluefish tournament, I found a tree floating a mile off the beach and caught 27 mahi before heading to Barnegat Ridge, where we caught even more mahi!”

Whether you run long or short, it pays off big-time to follow a Marine general’s advice to be there “firstest, with the mostest.” At first light, the ocean can be vibrant with life and dolphin know it’s time for a breakfast feeding binge. Fly-rodders do best at dawn before the fishing grounds get crowded and the fish get pounded with lures and baits, boat noise and wakes.

Peter Jenkins
Peter Jenkins of The Saltwater Edge dialed the fun meter sky high casting a 3-weight to nab this beautiful dolphin.

Mahi feed so aggressively that you’d believe nothing can spook them, but a quiet approach to the pot marker or weed patch helps catch a lot more fish. Captain Jim Freda of Shore Catch Guide Service offers excellent advice. “When approaching a buoy, pot, or mahi-holding structure, I always use a stealth approach. I cut the engines approximately fifty yards away and just sit in the water to observe which way the wind and current are going to drift the boat, and then reposition so the boat drifts past the structure, bringing my client a fly-cast away.”

Captain Jim’s advice is right on target, and despite their aggressive behavior, dolphin can spook easily. When approaching a pot, debris or weed patch, it’s also a good idea to use the sun to your advantage by drifting past the marker so your boat doesn’t throw a shadow on the fish.

Mahi may seem as if they’re just waiting to bite the fly, and Peter Jenkins of The Saltwater Edge believes that, “The first cast is your best opportunity.” After the first hook-up, the rest of the mahi school will mill around their hooked brother and seem very inquisitive and eager for another fly to flash past them. You can often maintain a hot bite by keeping a hooked fish in the water while casting to entice the next bite.

“If they want it, they’ll eat it,” says Jenkins, but on some days, they can be finicky. “I may change flies a lot on some days and go through more patterns to find the one they like best.” That’s great advice because it’s not unusual to get a bite going, only to have it stop abruptly. Switching to a new fly may renew the mahi’s interest and get another bite going. “The same flies I use for albies are good to start with, and one of my favorites is the Tutti Frutti (pink over chartreuse) color pattern.”

Mahi often hit just about anything you throw at them and there are many good patterns to choose from. Captain Crescitelli uses a 5-inch bead chain and wig-hair fly called the Fluffy created by Captain Dino Torino. His favorite colors are chartreuse/pink/white and chartreuse/pink/blue. He also uses Clouser Minnows and Half and Half patterns dressed up in the same colors. “Some kind of weighted fly is best, I think, because it adds action when you pause on the retrieve.”

hooked up on the fly
After hooking up near a high-flyer, bumping the boat into reverse helps keep a hooked fish from getting tangled up in the pot’s line.

Regardless of the pattern you decide to throw, have a good supply ready to go. When the bite is hot, it’s not unusual to go through a dozen flies or more. On a yellowfin tuna canyon trip, my plan was to hit several pots on the way home to top off the coolers with delicious mahi. One of the charter guys was a fly-fisher, and after catching several 5-pound mahi, he got broken off in the pot rope. He had used up the few flies in his tackle bag, so to keep him going, I cut feathers off a Zuker tuna lure and tied them on a chum hook with bait-rigging floss. Surprisingly, the ugly fly caught a few more mahi.

Captain Hughes strongly believes that working the fly on the retrieve is a critical factor. “You have to read the fish,” he says. “When they’re lit up, they’ll eat anything, but after the initial bites, they start to get finicky.” Captain Joe varies his retrieve speed and the length of the pauses while watching the fish to see what best catches their attention. “One of my favorite patterns is the Electric Chicken (pink over chartreuse) tied about 2 to 3 inches long on a 1/0 hook, but I also use poppers like a Crease Fly.”

The most serious mahi hunters use chum to be sure they get a feeding frenzy going—seeing the fish glow like neon lights and going bonkers is half the fun! There are several choices to effectively chum. If dolphin are the final target at the end of a tuna trip, just save a 5-gallon bucket with some butterfish and dice ‘em up really small, or cut up leftover ballyhoo baits. If the dolphin are on a pot, you’ll see them flash at the baits right away. Make sure your outriggers are up for maximum casting space, and toss your fly near the marker and work it. The strikes are usually quick and hard.

“Chicken” dolphin like this one are great fun on light tackle.
“Chicken” dolphin like this one are great fun on light tackle.

According to Captain Crescitelli, “Live chumming with peanut bunker is the best way to get them going.” Ditto for Captain Hughes, who says, “Fresh chunk baits are good and they’re readily available. It’s more work to get live baits, but the livies make a big difference. Even a good supply of killies like you’d use for fluke can be terrific bait.”

One of my favorite flies when throwing chunks at a pot or weed line is a marabou chum fly tied in all-white, all-red or a mix of purple, orange and red. The waving, pulsing motion of the marabou feathers seems to be irresistible to mahi.

It’s a good idea to rig at least two outfits, and anything from a 7- to a 10-weight is okay. Many of these beautiful fish will be pint size at about 1 to 3 pounds, so you don’t need a heavyweight outfit. In fact, Peter Jenkins has had some incredibly sporty action using a 3-weight. Talk about fun – that’s it!

And then, there’s the potential surprise visit from a big guy. On another offshore trip, I had a good bite going with pint-size grasshoppers, when suddenly a big bull—maybe 25 pounds—crashed the party and my charter client could not hold that fish on his 8-weight. Oh well, it was great fun for about 30 seconds.

Full Episode: Light-Tackle Mahi Madness

Capt. Hughes likes a floating fly line when the water surface is very calm, but switches to an intermediate if there’s any chop. The first few fish you catch will probably be near the surface, which is perfect for the floater or intermediate line; however, the school will eventually go deeper and stop feeding on your near-surface presentation. Before moving away to the next pot marker, make a few casts with a 350-grain sink tip to catch another fish or two before the school totally shuts down. An added bonus is that the deep presentation may also score larger gaffer-size dolphin.

The little guys don’t run far, but if you get tight on a mahi better than 10 pounds, you’ll definitely be into the backing. Therefore, a reel with a smooth, jerk-free drag is essential, like a Tibor or Van Staal matched to a rod with some lifting power. Even the little guys will try to go deep. Ten-pounders require some short-stroking to lift them from the deep after they sound. Short rods like the Loomis PRO4x Shortstix are good choices and so are 9-footers with some muscle in the butt section.

An 8- or 12-pound-test-class tippet is fine if you’re looking to seriously test your skills, but most flyrodders opt for 15- or 20-pound, which is a better choice if there’s any chance of hooking much bigger fish. Dolphin don’t have large teeth, but they’re razor sharp and can quickly snip a class tippet, so a 20- or 30-pound mono or fluoro bite tippet will protect from bite-offs.

All credit for these awesome tips goes to On The Water.

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