Mahi Fishing Out of New York City

Sight-fishing for mahi-mahi on light tackle is more than a day-saver for tuna “wishermen”.

A set of headlights illuminated the darkness behind my resting eyelids, indicating that my fishing partner for the day had arrived at Moonbeam Gateway Marina. It was 5:45 a.m., perfect timing for a 6 a.m. departure. A few years ago, I found out the hard way that, like time and tide, Chris Landry waits for no man—even if that man is less than a mile away from the dock helplessly stuck in morning rush-hour traffic. When it’s time to push off, there is no hesitation. On this early September morning, I made sure to arrive well in advance of our scheduled departure to secure my spot on the Rock Steady II. Yellowfin tuna were being caught on jigs and poppers within 20 miles of New Jersey’s coast, and while we were well equipped for their popper-smashing feeds, our real plan was to spend the morning mahi fishing between the lobster pots around Monster Ledge. 

Mahi-mahi—known as dolphin or dorado in other parts of their range—travel as far north as Massachusetts in the summer. They typically arrive in early July and depart as late as mid-October, depending on the location. The biggest “bull” mahi, are typically found alone in open water environments and can grow up to 90 pounds. Larger females and smaller males tend to congregate around floating structure, whether natural or artificial. A lone lobster pot in open water is just as likely to hold a cluster of mahi as a blanket of sargassum.

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Anglers have to get creative when trying to entice line-shy mahi to take their lures in open water under bright, glassy conditions.

In the Northeast, mahi have a reputation as a mere consolation prize for tuna “wishermen” who would have otherwise come home empty-handed from hot spots like the Hudson Canyon, Suffolk Wreck, or in our case, Monster Ledge. But not today. Chris and I were in search of big mahi, and our best chance at success rested among the pots that pepper Monster Ledge. The day before, Landry had brought a 20-pound-class mahi back to the dock for dinner after an outing focused on pot hopping.

As we trekked our gear down the dock, the late summer sky took on a bright orange hue. Like nature’s alarm clock, the sun peeked over the eastern horizon and the water around us erupted with hordes of nervous peanut bunker fleeing bass and bluefish that had taken up summer residence in the bay. The desire to make one quick cast with a Jumpin’ Minnow crept over me, but we continued on to Landry’s slip. “We’ve already got a ton in the bait pen from yesterday,” he said, nodding toward the swarms of juvenile menhaden. “Live chumming is our move. It’ll bring the mahi right off the pots.” We scooped well over 200 peanuts from the bait pen to buckets before transferring them to the livewell aboard Landry’s 30-foot Solace HCS. 

A longtime New Yorker, Landry made his living as a DJ in the hip-hop scene during the 1990s and early 2000s, working with big names like Cypress Hill and Hot 97’s Funk Flex until fishing became his passion. His wife named their first boat, his father’s ‘87 Whaler, The Rock Steady as an homage to Landry’s devotion to music. The Rockaway resident spent years in the Whaler getting to know and love the bay in his own backyard, and recently began his latest endeavor, Rock Steady Charters, to share Jamaica Bay’s rich fishery with others.

The trip across Jamaica Bay to Rockaway Inlet is a quick one in Landry’s 30-foot Solace HCS, the Rock Steady II.

With a full livewell and 90s hip-hop blaring over the speaker system, we blasted through a glassy Rockaway Inlet and began the 35-mile trip south toward Monster Ledge. There, the sea floor drops suddenly from 120 feet into a 280-foot valley known to hold bluefin tuna and sharks-aplenty. The bottom composition is primarily sand and gravel, with scant vegetation, so the rocky ledges are what attract lobstermen to the area. The pots lining Monster Ledge attract mahi—from small “chicken” size to 30-pounders—when water temperatures reach the low 70s in the late summer. With supreme visibility on our side, we were ready to take advantage of this clear, windless morning on Lake Atlantic.

As we neared the first set of pots, I attached a 3-foot length of 15-pound-test Seaguar Gold Label fluorocarbon leader—their thinnest diameter leader material—to 20-pound-test Power Pro SuperSlick braided line with an Alberto knot. Because the forecast called for little to no wind, we needed to approach each pot with stealth and finesse to fool these keen-sighted, leader-shy fish. 

Landry powered down the motor and put us into position, all while instructing me to scoop a handful of peanuts from the livewell and get to tossing. “If you get any dead ones, rip them in half to conserve bait until we find a loaded pot,” Landry hollered as I Hail-Mary’d baits from the bow. The surface dimpled with the panicked peanut bunker while they readjusted to open water. “Now, pitch a cast as close to the pot as you can without hanging up on it,” Landry directed. “We’ll know pretty quickly if they’re willing to chew here.”

I cast a 1-ounce JoeBaggs Peanut Resin jig, a near-perfect match for the length and deep-bodied profile of our live chum, and it plunked down just past the pot. As I ripped it back toward the boat, the single hook connected to the toothy maw of a juvenile bonito. Landry hooked one of the same, so we moved on. 

Mid-shore lobster pots were full of life during the late summer when water temperatures reached the low 70s. Small bonito competed with mahi for our jigs.

There were more than a half-dozen lobster pots in sight. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, cutting the glare and providing a better look at what was beneath the surface, Landry climbed into his boat’s cobia station. The raised platform, popular on boats in the Mid-Atlantic, allows him to captain the boat from a secondary helm situated atop the center console. When I joined him at the station, I realized it was a game-changing feature for sight-fishing surface-cruising fish like cobia or mahi. The higher vantage point let us inspect each pot from a safe distance without worrying about spooking any fish holding tight to the floating structure.

Chris Landry uses a higher vantage point to scout the scene at each lobster pot.

Polarized sunglasses revealed an array of subtropical visitors that sought refuge around the lobster pots. Schools of juvenile lesser amberjacks and banded rudderfish swam in tight schools around the pots 10 feet below the surface, moving only when we teased them away from the group with our jigs. But, no mahi. 

We continued south after the first field of pots left much to be desired. A short distance later, a second cluster appeared. As we slowly motored toward the first pot in the lineup, the unmistakable profiles and vibrant colors of mahi-mahi came into view. Eager to make a cast, I clambered down from the cobia station and did my best Aaron Rodgers impersonation with a handful of peanut bunker (a great way to throw out your shoulder). As if they were starved, a few 16-inch chicken mahi darted for the live chum. Landry rigged a fat peanut onto a circle hook and pitched it toward our quarry. “Tight!” he exclaimed moments after a fish swirled on his bait. 

The view from Landry’s cobia station gave us a better look at the life around each pot, so we didn’t waste time or chum on pots that were visibly lacking mahi.

As the current picked up, Landry employed his bow-mounted trolling motor to slow our drift and keep us tight to the lobster pot. After watching him connect with yet another mahi on live bait, I was tempted to switch my approach to a snelled 1/0 or 2/0 Gamakatsu octopus circle hook with a single peanut rigged through the nose. “I don’t like to hook them through the back unless they’re really chewing,” Landry explained. “The weight of the hook forces the bait to swim slightly downward and the forward hook orientation is less visible to the mahi than a hook through the back. The fish can be that picky.” Stubbornly, I stuck to the jig, determined to land a mahi on an artificial lure before switching to bait. 

Mahi Fishing with Peanut Bunker Jigs

Matching the profile and length of our jigs with the live chum was critical for success. Duping mahi into eating a jig after feeding them live bait was that much more difficult in glassy conditions. Chris and I opted for 2- to 5-inch, deep-bodied jigs with light-reflective qualities to match our live peanut-bunker chum.

JoeBaggs Peanut Resin Jig

Each armed with a single inline hook, these ¾- to 1-ounce jigs feature a vertically patterned reflective interior designed to catch and bounce light whether jigged or cast and retrieved. Their portly profile is a close match to wide-bodied peanut bunker.

Fat Cow Fishing’s Fat Minnow

Weighing between ¾ and 1 ounce, these 2½-inch jigs are not as deep-bodied as a peanut bunker, but their stubby length and rounded belly resembles an appetizing and attainable meal to mahi of all sizes. A reflective horizontal line catches sunlight and the red gill adds to the realistic appearance.

Sea Striker Got-Cha Jigfish

The angled sides of this fast-sinking jig generate an enticing flutter and kicking action whether fished vertically or cast and retrieved. Once the action draws in the mahi, the metallic shimmer and bulbous, lifelike eyes seal the deal.

Monomoy Tackle Peanut Hard Shell Jig

Designed to look and swim like a peanut bunker, these metal jigs are highlighted by their translucent resin coating, which protects their reflective paint coating. They have stocky, deep-bodied profiles that closely resembles the size and shape of peanut bunker.

By the time we reached the next pot, we had a rhythm in place. We slowly coasted in, and if Landry spotted mahi from the cobia station, I chucked a fistful of peanut bunker where he directed. “Three mahi, 2 o’clock,” Landry said. The peanuts splashed down and immediately drew the attention of the finned wolf pack. This time, I pitched a ¾-ounce Fat Cow Fat Minnow toward the boils and connected with my first mahi. Before releasing it, I took a moment to admire its colors. The fish I reeled in was a bold green and yellow, adorned with electric blue spots and turquoise-tipped fins, but the fish I was about to set free was pale gold with dark spots. Like chameleons of the sea, a mahi’s skin contains chromatophores—cells that allow them to alter their pigmentation. For this reason, harvested mahi tend to lose their color shortly after being bled out. I liken it to the famous film The Wizard of Oz returning to black and white after introducing viewers to a world of color. 

A mahi’s skin contains chromatophores, which are cells that allow the fish to alter its pigmentation like a chameleon.

Although I released my first one, we didn’t feel bad about our plan to keep several for the table. Mahi are prolific spawners and grow at an accelerated rate, with a lifespan of only 5 years. According to NOAA, they can reproduce at 4 or 5 months old, and do so every 2 to 3 days during the height of their spawning season. 

With the skunk fully out of the boat, we pressed on in search of more life and, boy, did we find it. The next several pots saw more fired-up mahi in the 20-inch-class than we’d seen all day. Fast retrieves had them chasing our jigs off the pot until they retreated after noticing the boat. Slow retrieves were largely ignored by the mahi, but not the jacks and rudderfish. 

mahi fishing with peanut bunker jigs
This mahi wacked a 3/4-ounce Fat Cow Fat Minnow on the drop after chasing it to the boat on a rapid retrieve.

It didn’t take long to realize that mahi frequently swipe at the jig on the pause. So, to combat their finicky nature, I quickly ripped the jig in and opened the bail when it reached the boat. Instead of retreating, the inquisitive mahi went ballistic over the flutter of the jig as it fell through the water column. Finally, I watched a sizeable mahi circle my falling jig before inhaling it 15 feet below the boat. I set the hook on my largest mahi of the day, around 7 or 8 pounds. The fish went airborne several times, with four curious mahi in tow, prompting Landry to drop a jig straight down.

In most instances, there were multiple mahi on each pot. Once one was hooked, the other fish remained close together, making it easier to drop a jig and pick off any followers. Here, Landry’s falling jig can be seen enticing a second mahi in the background.

A few seconds later, we doubled up. For the next several hours, mahi from 12 to 25 inches smashed our yo-yoing jigs. Once we realized that a vertical presentation was key, we deciphered their preferred retrieve cadence and mahi came over the gunwale at nearly every pot we hit.

mahi fishing on Monster Ledge
Most of the mahi we encountered were in the high-teen to low 20-inch range, and all of them had full bellies.

Retrieve Cadences for Mahi

Despite the fast action from mahi on loaded pots later in the day, each school took some figuring out. On one pot, the mahi were intrigued by the frantic stop-and-go action of our jigs, while they were hesitant to give chase at the next pot.

Fast and Furious

In one or two instances, mahi preferred an extremely rapid retrieve. Cast and retrieve the jig at an accelerated rate, keeping it barely subsurface all the way back to the boat, then watch mahi in hot pursuit lunge for it with such force that their dorsals are exposed.

Slow and Steady

Allowing the jig to sink lower in the water column proved successful around some pots where we spotted only one or two mahi. By running the jigs lower and at a slower speed, we enticed several curious mahi toward the boat that were previously invisible to us even from the cobia station.

Twitch and Tease

This cadence was one of the most productive. Reeling in rapidly with the occasional twitch and pause, only to resume a rapid retrieve, got the mahi fired up. When you think about a fleeing baitfish, they often stop intermittently to change direction, which is why many of our hook-ups came on that quick pause. Between pause and retrieve, a simple twitch of the rod tip triggered strikes from mahi taking advantage of a split-second bite window.

Yo-Yo Jigging

When it became apparent that mahi were especially interested in our jigs on the drop, yo-yo jigging became our primary technique. The water clarity was prime, so we could watch our jigs flutter downward, with mahi swiping and circling the whole way. If they didn’t get to it on the drop, a few pumps of the rod and quick turns of the reel handle had them chase it up halfway, only to be dropped back down again. This cadence drove them wild and became our go-to tactic upon reaching a new lobster pot.

On-The-Boat Mahi Ceviche

by Anthony DeiCicchi

Once I’ve readied the tackle and gear for a trip offshore, I shift my focus to the kitchen, pulling together all the ingredients (except one) to make a boat snack for the crew that rivals anything you can find on land.

On-the-boat mahi ceviche is as fresh as fresh fish gets.

Ceviche is a popular seafood dish that originated from Peru, where fish is marinated in lime juice and salt, then served with a mix of vegetables and fruit. By having the ingredients diced and ready, I can make an on-the-boat ceviche to be enjoyed on the ride home or later in the trip as soon as we catch the main ingredient.

I like to call mahi the “consolation prize of the canyons,” as they regularly bail our anglers on slow trips when tuna and billfish are scarce. Since catching a couple mahi is usually a given on an extended offshore trip, I center my on-the-boat ceviche around these fish.

Before the trip, I fill a large Tupperware with the following:

  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • Handful of cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 mango (or any sweet fruit), diced
  • Pepper (serrano chile is the best, but bell pepper works)
  • Jalapeño, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 cup orange, pineapple, or lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste, dash of hot sauce, drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
  • Bag of your favorite tortilla chips

I use equal amounts of the first 4 ingredients, then ensure I add enough juice for a soup-like consistency. There must be enough liquid to totally cover fish when I add it.

Then, as soon as we catch the first mahi, I skin and fillet it, rinse it, and cube it up into 1/2-inch chunks to toss in the Tupperware. I mix the ingredients well and let the whole thing sit for 3 hours in the cooler. Once its ready, the mahi will appear “cooked” and opaque on the outside. I pop open a bag of tortilla chips, and everybody digs in and enjoys with a cold cerveza!

A couple hours later, my cooler was getting full, our peanut bunker were dying off, and the breeze was picking up. Landry aimed the bow in the direction of the Big Apple, and as we motored back toward our first stops along Monster Ledge, I noticed patches of nervous water on the surface. Not long into the ride, Landry pointed out flocks of tuna chicks to our starboard side and a pod of dolphins off the port. I daydreamed of surface-smashing yellowfin while we scrambled for our popping rods and rushed to the bow. 

After placing several casts in the wake of the dolphin pods to no avail, we made one last stop at a stretch of pots we had yet to try. My jig came within inches of the pot, and as I dragged it away, a hulking shadow nosed the lure. The broad head was unmistakable; it was an enormous cobia. Unfortunately, the fish spooked and retreated to the depths.

Although I remained a tuna wisherman at the end of another offshore season, I was satisfied with having checked mahi off my bucket list while fishing off the coast of my home state. These acrobatic and surprisingly powerful pelagics took some figuring out, but they were a ton of fun to catch on light inshore tackle and their firm, mild fillets fed my loved ones. Mahi-mahi have certainly earned the title of “most valuable consolation prize” in my book. However, the hunt for tuna continues, maintaining my excitement for the next time Landry’s headlights catch my tired eyes on an early morning in Brooklyn. 

Call (917) 900-8617 to book a trip with Rock Steady Charters.

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1 thought on “Mahi Fishing Out of New York City

  1. Stanley Grayson

    I live in Brooklyn and have been interested in catching Mahi- Mahi for many years.Thank you

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