Southern Tactics For Northern Mahi

Combining Florida and Northeast mahi tactics will make the most of any day offshore.

Southern Tactics For Northern Mahi

Combining Florida and Northeast mahi tactics will make the most of any day offshore.

I first started fishing for mahi on my 22-foot Mako, Predator, more than 20 years ago. I trolled spoons on planers and Japanese trolling feathers in the wash from the old Range Buoys off Sea Girt to the pots at the edge of the Mud Hole. We fished light tackle bottom-fishing rods, and it was a ton of fun catching the 5- to 6-pound “chicken” mahi that, though only five months old, were already sexually mature. I was captivated by these beautiful fish flashing mix of yellows, greens, and fluorescent blues.

In the Northeast, mahi are less often the primary target species and more often a backup plan for fishermen looking to salvage a slow day of fishing. This can be true of both fluke fishermen having difficulty finding keepers inshore and of offshore fishermen given the slip by tuna and billfish. In Florida, however, mahi are the main event, and their popularity has spawned tournaments and specialized tactics that are rarely used in the Northeast.

Bigger mahi are spooky
Bigger mahi are spooky, and they tend to hang out deeper in the water column. Drifting a weighted bait deep below a high flyer will often tempt the big boys to bite.

Since I’ve targeted this fascinating species in both regions, I now employ a mix of southern and northern mahi tactics. They are often so productive and fun that everyone on board forgets that the green hornets weren’t our original target species.

Simple Southern Trolling

My mahi education really picked up in the Florida Keys while fishing with Captain Jeff Rella of Superfish Charters and Jack Carlson of Two Conchs Charters. I was fortunate enough to be aboard Rella’s 34-foot SeaVee, Superfish, during a mahi tournament out of Islamorada. For bait, Rella rigged a medium-action spinning rod with a naked ballyhoo hooked under the chin with a 3/0 to 5/0 Eagle Claw bronze treble and secured with copper wire. It was fished on a 3- to 4-foot leader of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon attached to 30-pound-test braid mainline with a barrel swivel. To make the bait swim freely, Rella gently squeezed its stomach to remove its contents through the vent.

Rella used a rod with a flexible tip so he could feel if the bait fouled by picking up a piece of Sargasso weed—yet it needed to have enough backbone to subdue an acrobatic bull mahi. For reels, he used a medium-sized spinner like the Canyon Salt 5000, Shimano Baitrunner, or Penn Slammer.

Simple Three-Line Mahi Trolling Spread
Simple Three-Line Mahi Trolling Spread
BAIT: Naked rigged ballyhoo
TROLL SPEED: 4 to 6 knots

During the tournament, we trolled a weedline at 4 to 6 knots with three anglers fishing a staggered pattern. One bait was 35 feet back, one was 50 feet back, and one was set way back at the edge of the prop wash foam. We each held a rod, leaving the bail open and a finger on the line. When a fish hit, we dropped the line, counted two Mississippi’s, flipped the bail and set the hook. Even with far fewer lines than the typical Northeast spread, this simple technique was very effective.

Around the lobster pots in my home waters, I see many boats trolling 5 to 11 rods and lures from rigged, weighted ballyhoo, spreader bars, rubber baits, etc. What Northeast fishermen fail to understand when targeting mahi instead of tuna, you aren’t relying on a full trolling spread to attract the fish to the boat. A simple presentation of three baits trolled by structure is just as likely to draw a strike from a big mahi as a spread of six or more rods. Plus, when trolling around the weedlines likely to hold big mahi, a larger spread increases the chances of weeds fouling your lures.

The size of the fish dictates the best bait size. If ballyhoo are being ripped in half by short-striking fish, changing to smaller ballyhoo with smaller hooks will help turn those short strikes into hook-ups. Having pre-rigged baits on ice is also important for getting back into the water after a missed hit. When clearing the lines to run to another spot, put your rigged ballyhoo in a cooler with ice to keep them fresh.

I’ve used this small-spread trolling technique to help locate mahi in the Northeast, then stop the boat and go to work on them by chumming, chunking and live-lining.

Witnessing the aerial displays of a hooked mahi  never gets old.
Witnessing the aerial displays of a hooked mahi never gets old.

The Northeast Pot Hop

Last year, I headed deep for two and a half days in the 100 Square. Between hooks pulling on tuna and a boat running over our line while hooked up, we lost four fish in two nights. The daytime trolling stunk, and we broke off three wahoo, with the last breaking off boatside. We were smelly, tired, sunburnt, and heading back in while thinking about buying golf clubs. To salvage the trip, we decided to work the lobster pot buoys on the way home along with the rest of a defeated fleet.

break out the Sabiki rigs
When chunking or casting around pots, you might see some small fish, but no mahi. This is the time to break out the Sabiki rigs to catch live bait. Put as much in the livewell as time will allow before prospecting the next pots. The jacks and small baitfish you catch could be the ticket to a large mahi at the next pot.

In the open ocean, baitfish gather in the shade and structure of anything floating on the surface. In the shade, the silver scales of baitfish are harder to see from a distance. Mahi also lurk around floating structures, both for protection and the feeding opportunities they provide.

We hit a good 16 pots that were barren until we spotted one with fish under it. We drifted past and dropped small chunks of bait on small hooks with 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders. Immediately, we had three 4- to 6-pound fish on. We brought them up over the side and they went into the cooler. While we had three fish on, I noticed some flashes farther down in the water column.

Gaffing Mahi

Gaffing Mahi
When gaffing mahi, go for a head shot at the top of body by the dorsal fin. Gaffed mahi can twist and contort in ways not possible for a tuna, so when heading offshore, pack along a separate gaff if you plan on catching mahi.

For smaller mahi, I use an old broken rod with a gaff hook attached. For larger fish, I use a 30- to 50-pound-class fiberglass trolling blank with a very small diameter gaff hook. When you sink the gaff into a mahi, it goes wild, so a large gaff hook can end up leaving a wound in your fish and filets that look like they were hit by a shotgun blast. Aluminum fixed gaffs are too rigid to control a mahi and then flick it off the hook once inside the cooler. The flex of a fiberglass shaft is much better suited to sticking a mahi, quickly flipping it into a cooler until it expires, and then dealing with the hook.

Smaller mahi form large schools close to the surface. As the fish grow, the school size shrinks and the fish often hang deeper. Larger mahi are wary and easily spooked, but if you spot one following your hooked fish, start throwing some small chunks to get it feeding. I carry at least 3 to 5 gallons of spearing when heading offshore, as the goal isn’t to feed them, but to get their attention and draw them in. Throw chunks in between the fish to make them more aggressively compete for the bait. After hooking and boating a few fish, the school will become more cautious so you’ll have got to keep the momentum going.

After landing a few mahi, the boat has probably drifted away from the floating structure holding them. As you circle around for another drift, prepare to drop a larger dead bait. Use a larger spinning rod with a 10- to 12-foot leader with a barrel sinker or fish-finder to get your rig down. Before you drift past the buoy, calculate your drift and drop the bait. Don’t drop it too fast or it will helicopter around and foul the leader on the running line. As you approach the buoy, look for fish, and start throwing small chunks before arriving in the strike zone. Get the smell of bait in the water and start fishing with bait, bucktail jigs, plugs and poppers. This is a different presentation than your first approach – the deeper bait that is out of sight will bring up the larger fish.

That Monday afternoon, I was working the cockpit, gaffing the 6- to 10-pound mahi being caught after leaving my larger spinning setup in the rod holder with a whole butterfish set deep. Suddenly, the rod doubled over and, with that, we caught another six mahi to 16 pounds. The larger fish were out of sight, but when the first big mahi was hooked, the others became more aggressive and less cautious. I told the crew they could thank me later, but they are not that kind of crew, and they promptly made sarcastic remarks while we quadrupled-up on mahi. The whole episode lasted almost an hour before we picked that pot clean. We tried another half-dozen pots, but nothing happened. Overall, it wasn’t a great trip offshore, but our successful Plan B made it fun nonetheless.

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