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How to Catch Dolphin

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Mahi-Mahi Mania

Target these colorful characters and enjoy life in the fast lane.

A fine-eating dolphin is headed for the fishbox.

Whether you call them dolphin, dorado, or mahi-mahi, these amazing fish embody the paraphrase “live fast, die young, and leave a good [tasting] corpse.” The most garishly colorful of the pelagic game fish, dolphin are capable of changing their hue from golds and greens to snow white with blue spots. They can spawn at three months, and do so several times a year. They can pack on almost a pound a week and very few live past the ripe old age of two years, by which time they can hit the scales at better than 70 pounds. A few years ago the New Jersey State Aquarium acquired a dolphin that was estimated to weigh about a pound and put it in the main tank. Within a year, it weighed 38 pounds, was eating them out of house and home, and had to be removed by aquarium workers. (Legend has it that they ended up eating the fish.)

Who doesn’t like a game fish that fights hard, jumps like crazy when hooked, and tastes great sautéed or cut up in a chilled ceviche? No wonder they get so much attention.

Summer along much of the East Coast is dolphin time. On a recent trip to Beaufort, North Carolina, I fished aboard Capt. Ricky Jones’s beautiful Harkers Island-built 42-foot Gillikin along with my buddy Don Butler, Capt. John Cawthern, and a few of their friends. We cruised past Cape Lookout shoals on our way to the edge of the Gulf Stream where, after an hour of looking, we found slicks, rips, and weedlines—dolphin territory.

When in North Carolina, we do as the natives do, which meant we were trolling ballyhoo. The ride out was a frenzy of bait-rigging, and most of the ballyhoo were simple, chin-weighted, pin-rigged baits under a variety of flashy nylon skirts. Cawthern put out two flat lines tight to the transom, two long outrigger baits, and a pair of short ’rigger baits run behind daisy chains of small Moldcraft plastic squids. A long center line was run from the bridge and tended by Jones. 

It didn’t take long before we had dolphin charging out from under the weeds attacking the spread en masse. Multiple hookups were the rule rather than the exception and most of the fish were in the 8- to 15-pound class, ideal for culinary experimentation. 

Dolphin are found in tropical and temperate latitudes and will ride the Gulf Stream as far north as New England some years. They can attack with total abandon or be as picky as a vegetarian at a barbecue cookoff. They often travel in large packs and if you come across anything floating on the surface offshore—weeds, flotsam, you name it—chances are dolphin will be hanging around. As summer waters warm they migrate well inshore, and in some areas they move within a few miles of the beach. 

If you really want to have some fun, try bringing along a livewell full of small baitfish. When you find a weedline or lobster-pot buoy, start tossing a few at a time into the water. When the dolphin show up, cast livies out on light spinning tackle and hold on because you will witness some great aerial acrobatics and line-scorching runs.

When I’m headed to the canyons for a tuna overnighter I bring along a couple quarts of live killies, the bigger the better. As soon as I see dolphin in the chunk slick I start tossing a few live baits into the water under the spreader lights and it always gets the desired reaction—feeding frenzy! Then it’s live killies on light tackle and some truly fine-eating fish going on ice in the fishbox. And it’s that moment when you understand the Hawaiians, who love mahi-mahi so much they named them twice!

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.