Pictured above: Mahi are one of the most beautiful offshore fish, and they can usually be found in good numbers during the summer months. -photo by Andy Nabreski
Don’t despair when tuna disappear – set your sights on summer mahi!
A visit to the Jersey Shore in the summertime can mean much more than hot, sandy beaches, miles of boardwalk and amusement rides, especially if you are a saltwater angler with an appetite for catching pelagics. Every summer, bluefin tuna, skipjack tuna and mahi-mahi venture within 15 to 25 miles of the coast. The king of the catch is the bluefin, but bluefin can be hard to find on some days. A spot that held tuna the day before may be barren the next as changes in water conditions, temperature, wind and bait movements can influence where the tuna will move. So what can you do if you go from hero to zero and end up 15 to 25 miles from port with no tuna in sight? Enter mahi-mahi.
Every summer, when our mid-shore water temperatures approach 74 degrees, it is a given that large schools of mahi-mahi will migrate into our waters. Their numbers build throughout the summer, and by the end of July finding them is usually a sure bet. They will remain off New Jersey well into September and usually only exit after a big tropical storm.
Mahi are a dazzling, rainbow-colored fish that will take up residence around any lobster pots, buoys, weed lines, sargassum, partially submerged pilings, floating timber, dead sea turtles, or anything else that serves as a source of structure where a food chain can develop. Mahi use these structures for refuge from larger pelagic predators and as feeding stations, since many small organisms hang near this floating debris as well.
The name mahi-mahi means “strong-strong” in Hawaiian, and this is no doubt a reference to the great fighting ability of these fish. It is not a reference to their flavor, as mahi are a mild-tasting, sweet-flavored fish with a firm texture. Mature males, referred to as “bulls,” are particularly striking, their sides draped with a mix of gold, metallic blue and green, with a white and yellow belly. The males are easily distinguished from the females by a prominent forehead that protrudes well above the body.
Catching mahi-mahi on light spinning tackle or fly gear can be a thrilling experience. Although mahi won’t double you over the gunnels of your boat like a runaway bluefin tuna, they will surely make up for this with their acrobatic aerial displays.
When running an offshore charter, my game plan has always been to try to get the tuna first, but if this fails, we go after the mahi. These fish can save a trip, because a boat load of mahi will have everyone going home with big smiles, tasty fillets and brilliant photographs.
Seek and Find
There are literally hundreds of lobster pots on the mid-shore grounds, any one of which could be a mahi hotel on any given day. You will find that the mahi vary in size at the pots and buoys, with the majority falling between the small 2- to 3-pound “chickens” to fish of 10 pounds. There exists the possibility of catching a bull in excess of 15 pounds. This is what makes mahi fishing so exciting. That first leap, when a big bull rockets into the air, removes all doubt that you have hooked into a trophy.
When setting up to cast to a pot or buoy, it will be best to do so as stealthily as possible. This means drifting toward them with your engines off. To do this you will need to size up both the wind and current to see which way your boat will drift. When you get a feel for the drift, bump your engine into gear and reposition your boat on a line that will intercept your target. It is best to be about a cast away from pot. If you are drifting around a string of pots, try to locate a line of three or four pots that your drift will take you across before you have to crank up the engine to reposition your boat.
To see if mahi are holding on a target, all you need to do is toss a handful of baitfish chunks in the direction of the target. What I like to do is take my sardines that I brought out for the bluefin and cut them into 1-inch squares. I will then toss these in the direction of the pot or floating debris that I am approaching. As I said, it is common to find a school of mahi of mixed sizes hanging on one target, but when there is only a single mahi or a pair of mahi present, most of the time they are big. I highly recommend wearing a good pair of polarized sunglasses so you can easily see and spot the mahi as they come up to take the chunks. I wear Costa Del Mar Sunglasses with the 580 blue lenses which are specifically made for offshore fishing to cut the glare on the ocean’s surface.
Don’t Waste Time
It’s a big ocean out there with plenty of opportunities to find feeding mahi, so moving around from location to location is another key to your success. For this reason, I do not spend too much time on any one piece of structure. After finding a suitable target that could hold mahi, it is often the first drift that produces a strike – if you have been successful in approaching quietly and not spooking the fish. If I fail to get a take on the first drift, I make several more passes along the same route before moving on. Moving quickly from one pot to another will also help to conserve your baits and chum.
The easiest way to catch mahi is to bait your hook with whatever chunked bait you are tossing in the water. When I am tossing 1-inch chunks of sardines, I will simply put a chunk on a 1/0 Gamakatsu circle hook and toss it into the mix. To get the most excitement out of the mahi fishing experience, I like to use light tackle. There is no need for the heavy spinning or conventional gear that I use for the bluefin. For my light-tackle mahi setup, I use the St. Croix 7-foot Premier surf rod with a Shimano Baitrunner BTR6000D that is spooled with 30-pound-test Fins XS green braided line with a 4- to 5-foot 15- to 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Since the waters mahi frequent are usually clear green or blue, the fluorocarbon leader will help your hooked bait look more natural as it mixes in with the tossed baits.
I like to use a Baitrunner for ease of casting as it is much easier to deliver the bait with these spinning reels than with conventionals. The Baitrunner is also very practical when it comes to setting the hook on the mahi. When a mahi takes your chunk, it will do so with a vengeance, quickly moving in, inhaling the bait, and swimming away in a flash. With a Shimano Baitrunner, the baitfeeder allows the fish to take the bait with little resistance, and all the angler has to do is turn the reel handle to engage the drag and bury the circle hook right into the corner of the mahi’s mouth.
To absolutely drive mahi into a feeding frenzy, have some live baits on board. Typically, at this time of year, peanut bunker are available in the back bays, rivers, or around boat slips in the marinas, so this is the bait I look to bring to the mahi grounds. However, in late July and early August, peanuts can be scarce as they are not tightly schooled up yet. This can make obtaining them quite a chore and very time consuming. For this reason, I always bring along live killies with me when I suspect I might have trouble netting peanuts. I purchase live killies the night before at my local tackle shop and keep them in killie pots in the water overnight. I will usually purchase 8 pints, which is enough to get me through a half-day trip.
To fish the killies, I like to hook them live on a small bucktail jig. For this application, I use the 3/8-ounce Spro Mudkicker bucktail in the crab color. Fishing the killie attached to a bucktail allows you to work the bait with some added attraction and keep it from swimming back toward the boat. The killie should be hooked through the bottom lip and out the top lip. This allows the tail of the bait to provide the action.
Plenty of artificials will draw strikes from the mahi. Usually, brightly colored prismatic 4- to 6-inch plugs like the Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow and the Spro McStick110 work very well, as do small poppers. I have also had a great deal of success with a Spro bucktail tipped with a Berkeley Gulp 3-inch swimming mullet in pearl white or glow color. Also, don’t overlook small soft-plastic baits such as Hogys, Tsunamis, Fin-S Fish, or DOAs.
Getting mahi on the fly is a big attraction for many of my clients. Before they cast their fly, I toss out baitfish chunks to get the mahi into a feeding frenzy. Casting a fly into the melee usually gets results fast. I have found that brightly colored, flashy flies work best. Colors such as bright orange, yellow, florescent green, pink, white, or a blend of these colors will work well. If I am tossing peanuts that have a wide profile, I will fish Geno’s Baby Angels or wide-bodied Deceivers. If the bait’s profile is more slender in appearance, like when spearing makes up the majority of my chum, then Popovics’s Simpleclones or Skok’s Mushmouths will be my first choice.
I normally fish these flies on 9-foot, 9- to 10-weight St. Croix Elite fast-action rods. My hope is always that a big bull, weighing in the teens, is waiting under the structure to pounce on the fly. But if the mahi of the day are only small chickens, then I will break out the 7- or 8-weight rods for some real fun. My preferred fly reel is the 9500 Mako Reels by Jack Charlton, spooled with Rio’s Outbound sinking or clear intermediate lines.
To maximize the amount of hook-ups, it often pays to leave a hooked chicken mahi in the water next to the boat as this will draw more mahi into range. Simply cast near the hooked mahi until the school disperses, then retrieve your catch and toss it on ice.
The End Game
It is always great to hook a big mahi, but you will be missing part of the allure of these fish (their delectable flesh) if you don’t get them into the boat. Here are a few things to remember to help ensure that this happens. When a big mahi is hooked, it will take to the air several times during the fight. The mahi will run at blazing speed under the water and then come up like a missile out of the water into the air. To make sure that the hook doesn’t pull, the angler needs to follow the flight of the fish with the rod tip. Most importantly, you will need to lower the rod tip when the mahi is re-entering the water.
Big mahi are what we refer to as “gaffers.” But in my opinion, due to the shape of its body, gaffing a mahi is more difficult than trying to gaff a bluefin, which has a much broader and easier target to hit. So if you are gun shy about gaffing, simply use a wide-mouthed net to secure the mahi.