UL­TI­MATE MAHI

WHY THE WIDE-RANG­ING DOL­PHIN MAY BE THE PER­FECT GAME­FISH

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY PAT FORD

Whether trolling or “run­ning and gun­ning,” mahi are great on the rod and on the ta­ble. And pound for pound, a big one is a hand­ful on a fly rod. By PAT FORD

It’s plen­ti­ful, if you know when and where to look. It’s a sur­face-dwelling, mi­gra­tory, car­niv­o­rous crit­ter that roams off­shore pretty much ev­ery­where there’s a warm ocean. It will eat just about any­thing, an ap­petite that makes it an­gler-friendly. It has a long, slen­der body built for speed. It is sex­u­ally ma­ture at four to five months, with fe­males spawn­ing three or four times a year and pro­duc­ing 80,000 to 100,000 eggs each time. It rarely lives more than four years but can reach weights close to 100 pounds; while a 40-pounder is a tro­phy, the of­fi­cial In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion all-tackle record is 87 pounds. A pelagic wan­derer, mahi live fast and die young.

Its col­or­ing is mag­nif­i­cent: light blue when un­stressed, chang­ing to green and yel­low when hooked. If a mahi is photo-wor­thy, it’s go­ing to have to be gaffed, and when it’s on the deck, it can hurt any­one who gets too close. Capt. Randy Towe showed me how to get a great photo in this sit­u­a­tion: throw the mahi into the fish­box for three to four min­utes. As the fish starts to die, its col­or­ing will flash through bril­liant phases. A few min­utes in the box also re­duces the dan­ger of hold­ing a large green fish.

Al­most any­one who has ac­cess to an off­shore boat along Amer­ica’s south­ern coast has caught dol­phin. The sum­mer months seem to be the best, prob­a­bly be­cause of warmer wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, calmer seas and more boats be­ing on the wa­ter. In South Florida, July and Au­gust are known as tro­phy-catch­ing time, but mahi pop up oc­ca­sion­ally year-round. Smaller mahi travel in schools and tend to hang around float­ing de­bris; the big­ger the de­bris is and the longer it’s been in the wa­ter draw­ing bait­fish, the more likely it is to at­tract and hold mahi. I’ve found them around ev­ery­thing from a plas­tic jug to a float­ing palm tree.

The stan­dard prac­tice for mahi in Florida con­sists of find­ing a weed­line and trolling along it. The most com­mon bait is a bal­ly­hoo, usu­ally be­hind

feath­ers, but trolling with lures can be just as ef­fec­tive. When a dol­phin is hooked, the trick is to fight it to the boat with­out gaffing it. Keep it in the wa­ter, and the school will fol­low it to the boat. Chum­ming with live pilchards or chunks of cut bait will keep the school feed­ing. Lim­its can be caught with­out start­ing the en­gine. They can be caught on light tackle with bait, jigs or sur­face plugs, even on fly rods. As long as you keep one fish in the wa­ter, the car­nage can con­tinue.

It’s also fun to “run and gun” for mahi the way guides in the Florida

Keys do. Most guides run out­board-pow­ered cen­ter con­soles in the 25- to 35-foot range. The cap­tain runs the boat from the tower at high speeds un­til he spots some­thing fishy. Then he pulls up to patches of sar­gas­sum, float­ing de­bris, birds work­ing bait on the sur­face or what­ever else he spots. An­glers throw plugs or jigs or a bal­ly­hoo rigged on 20-pound spin­ning tackle. If a mahi is spot­ted, a lit­tle chum al­ways helps. If there’s no ac­tion after a few min­utes, the run­ning and look­ing re­sumes.

An av­er­age mahi in Florida is prob­a­bly 5 to 12 pounds, which is the size that trav­els in schools. When the mahi get big­ger than 15 pounds, they tend to travel in pairs — a bull and a cow. If one is hooked, the other will stay with it right up to the boat un­less the sec­ond fish hits one of the other lines that are out. Dou­ble hookups while trolling are com­mon.

Mahi are ex­cel­lent game on a fly rod. For large schools of smaller fish, a 9-weight rod is fine. It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re us­ing a float­ing or sink­ing line, and any bait­fish pat­tern or pop­per can pro­duce strikes. Over­sized Clouser min­nows are par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive. A 50-pound mono shock tippet is ad­vis­able even for the lit­tle guys be­cause they do have teeth. If you’re after the big­ger fish, a 10- to 12-weight rod is rec­om­mended, with a reel that holds plenty of back­ing. Mahi can hit 50 mph, and a big one on a fly rod will burn you.

Many years ago, my friend Tony No­bre­gas and I were fish­ing with Capt. Robert “R.T.” Tros­set out of Key West, Florida, hunt­ing big mahi. We found a cou­ple of schools of small fish, and around mid­day we came upon an ex­ten­sive weed line, but we couldn’t find any larger fish. R.T. put out a bal­ly­hoo and trolled. The plan was to have one bait in the wa­ter, hook a big mahi and lead its part­ner into fly-rod range.

An ex­pe­ri­enced an­gler, Tony had a 12-weight fly rod that he used for tar­pon and an 8-inch fire tiger bait­fish fly. He had a 15-pound tippet with a 60-pound shock — pretty much the same rig he used for tar­pon. We trolled that weed line for close to half a mile be­fore we had a strike on the 20-pound bait rod. It was a good fish. Mahi jump re­peat­edly, which adds to the fun and gives you a good view of their size.

As I worked the fish in closer, we could see that it was a cow. R.T. es­ti­mated it to be more than 20 pounds. Then we saw the trail­ing bull. It was huge. It made five swipes at the fly be­fore Tony hooked up, and as soon as he did, two things hap­pened: The bull took off on a long run, and I tried to horse the cow over to the gaff. The cow didn’t horse too well, and by the time it met the gaff, Tony was al­most out of back­ing.

As the mate threw the cow into the fish­box, I no­ticed that the fish was a lot big­ger than I’d thought.

R.T. lit up the en­gines and ran down the bull un­til Tony had the fly line back on the reel. Then the real fight started. The closer we got to the bull, the big­ger it looked. Tony would just get it into sight, and it would run off an­other 50 yards of line. At one point it jumped right next to the boat; it was prob­a­bly 5 feet long. R.T. had es­ti­mated the cow at 25 pounds and fig­ured the bull was more than 40.

Pound for pound, a big dol­phin is about as tough a fish as there is to catch in the open ocean on a fly rod. As the fight went on, Tony kept bring­ing the fish up to the boat but couldn’t get it into gaff range. Tony is an ex­pert at catch­ing 100-pound tar­pon on a fly, but this mahi was giv­ing him all he could han­dle. After sev­eral close en­coun­ters, Tony leaned back a lit­tle too hard and a lit­tle too high. The rod snapped, and the tippet parted.

Tony was ex­hausted and heart­bro­ken. Even R.T. was bummed, ad­mit­ting that it was the big­gest mahi he had ever seen hooked on a fly. When we got to the dock that after­noon, the cow weighed 38 pounds. The bull must have been close to 60. The moral of the story: Never pass up a chance to catch a bull dol­phin on a fly rod, and be pre­pared for a work­out.

Mahi that size are rare in Florida, and some years are bet­ter than oth­ers for find­ing them. The “slam­mers” used to show up in May and June, but over the last few years July and Au­gust have been bet­ter, says Capt. Randy Towe, who fishes for mahi out of Is­lam­orada. Even dur­ing peak sea­son, find­ing mahi is a hit-or-miss propo­si­tion; it’s a big ocean, and they are con­stantly mov­ing. It’s not like you can save a GPS po­si­tion and go back to it. Luck is al­ways a fac­tor, es­pe­cially with the big ones, be­cause find­ing some form of flot­sam is the first step.

The most con­sis­tent place I have found huge dol­phin is Piñas Bay, Panama, from mid-novem­ber through Jan­uary. If you check the IGFA fly-rod records, you’ll find that a lot of them came from the Tropic Star Lodge in Piñas Bay. In 1964, Stu Apte caught a 58-pound mon­ster on 12-pound tippet. Ariel Kane set women’s records there for 12-, 16- and 20-pound tip­pets in 2003 and 2004. The all-tackle record mahi came from Costa Rica, and Ru­fus Wake­man set the 16-pound fly record of 53 pounds, 8 ounces in 1999 in Isla Mu­jeres, Mex­ico. But if I were try­ing to set a fly rod mahi record, I’d go to Tropic Star.

The lodge has ac­cess to the best mar­lin wa­ters out­side of Aus­tralia. It runs a fleet of Ber­tram 31s. A typ­i­cal day con­sists of catch­ing bonito in the 5- to 12-pound range, then slow-trolling them for mar­lin. A 40-pound mahi, to these cap­tains, is a pest. Big mahi come into the spread and at­tack the live bonito, which are too big for mahi to swal­low (or swal­low quickly). A big mahi will kill the bonito, and live bonito are pre­cious. The tuna tubes hold only six baits. When you run out, you ei­ther have to troll lures or run back in­shore to re­stock, so a mahi killing a bait is un­ac­cept­able.

Mahi don’t tease up to the boat on hook­less baits the way sail­fish do. Mahi have sharp teeth and usu­ally make one pass at a tease bait, cut it in half, then lose in­ter­est. How­ever, they will stay on a live bonito and fol­low it up to the boat as the mate fran­ti­cally tries to save it. Usu­ally, a Tropic Star crew­man will drop a strip bait back to the mahi — a tech­nique that will pro­duce an in­stant strike — but I’ve found that a big mahi will hit just about any­thing you drop back to it when it’s in hot pur­suit of a bonito that just dis­ap­peared into the boat. And they’ll go after a fly, if it’s the right fly.

The first time we had a big mahi chase a bonito, I threw a stan­dard bait­fish pat­tern at it. Noth­ing hap­pened. The mahi was chas­ing a 10-pound bonito, and a pilchard-size fly didn’t get its at­ten­tion. The strip baits that the mates had rigged got in­stant strikes, but the baits were more than a foot long. If the fish keyed in on some­thing big, you needed to feed it some­thing big.

The next chance I got, I threw the stan­dard pink and white Cam Sigler sail­fish fly, which is sort of a pop­per. No bites. That fly works fine in Gu­atemala, but the Panama mahi were unim­pressed.

I never did catch a tro­phy mahi on that trip, so I did some fly re­search be­fore my next visit and found Rainy’s 6/0 Ocean Candy, a dou­ble-hook fly that’s 12 inches long. I put an 8/0 Owner hook on as the trailer, added an 80-pound shock to a 20-pound tippet and was set. I chose the same 14-weight rod I use for sail­fish but soon re­al­ized that no mat­ter which line I used, I wasn’t go­ing to cast the Ocean Candy very far.

The good news was that I didn’t have to get it more than 30 feet be­hind the boat, and the cast didn’t have to be pretty. Tech­ni­cally, the boat has to be in neu­tral when the fly is cast for a fish to be a le­gal IGFA fly catch. The Tropic Star cap­tains have no con­cept of neu­tral. They are sim­ply try­ing to save the bonito as mar­lin bait. If you’re not after record fish, it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter. But if you’re a stick­ler on rules, you need to ex­plain the pro­ce­dure to the cap­tain in de­tail — and, prefer­ably, in Span­ish.

Just be­fore my next trip to Tropic Star, a friend re­ported that the mahi bite was in full swing, so much so that the an­glers de­cided to have a one-day dol­phin rodeo. My buddy’s boat caught a 5-foot mahi right off the bat, and they fig­ured they had the con­test in the bag, so they went back to chas­ing mar­lin. At the end of the day, their dol­phin weighed 64 pounds — and came in fourth. The win­ner was 73 pounds.

Man, do I want a shot at one of those mon­sters on a fly rod. As it turned out, the Ocean Candy was magic. We caught sev­eral mahi in the 30-pound range and hooked up one that was prob­a­bly more than 50 pounds, but it spit the hook after sev­eral jumps.

I’m con­fi­dent that a fly-rod world-record mahi could come out of Tropic Star in the near fu­ture. The only real chal­lenge is that the crew will have to ig­nore mar­lin and spend the ma­jor­ity of their time search­ing for dol­phin. That’s a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to make. If you want to set a record, you’ll have to get one of the few cap­tains who un­der­stand fly­fish­ing, and stay fo­cused on the prize. That’s my quest.

BRIAN GROSSEN­BACHER PHOTO

Mahi tend to hang around weed lines and float­ing de­bris, any­thing from trees to plas­tic jugs.

The mo­ment of truth ar­rives first as a shadow. The au­thor says he’s still search­ing for a mon­ster mahi on the fly.

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