Mahi are a fun and tasty gamefish that we only rarely get to play with here in Southwest Florida. It’s a shame, because these colorful predators are a favorite target for anglers all around the world.
You may know this fish as dolphin or dorado. I prefer to call them by their Hawaiian name, mahi, because we already have something else called a dolphin (as in bottlenose, as in Flipper). Dorado (Spanish for “the golden one”) is a beautifully descriptive name, but it’s also used for a South American salmon relative.
Mahi doesn’t mean anything else — at least as far as I know — so I’ll stick with that. Plus Hawaiian words are just fun to use (like mahalo, which is an expression of gratitude). Did you know their state fish is the humu-humu-nuku-nuku-apua’a? Yeah, of course you did.
Mahi are the fastest-growing fish in the ocean. This explains a couple things, such as why there always seems to be lots of them despite the fact that huge numbers are harvested every year, and why they are always hungry whenever you find them.
They live fast and die young, with none lasting more than four years. Mahi become sexually mature at about 20 inches long, which is usually an age of 4 to 6 months. However, as with most fish that mature early, small females produce only a tiny fraction of the eggs a bigger mama does.
In many areas where mahi are sought, fishermen will focus their efforts on weedlines or floating debris. While such flotsam attracts many open-water species, it’s especially magnetic to mahi, which will even swim up to a drifting or anchored boat. Most of the mahi local fishermen catch are under these sort-of-accidental conditions.
When mahi show up, it pays to be ready. If all your rods are rigged for grouper digging, they’ll probably be gone by the time you get prepared to catch one. Have a light spinning rod ready to go, with a simple small hook for a chunk of cutbait or a small spoon or bucktail jig. That way, you can take advantage of the situation if Lady Luck smiles on you.
If you need a minute to get a rig ready, quickly chop up a couple sardines and toss the bits overboard. The smell of food in the water will usually be enough to hold them nearby.
Summertime is mahi season along our coast. Generally, we see little ones — less than 5 pounds — in nearshore areas from 3 to 25 miles offshore. These little fish, which are often called peanuts, are fine sport on ultralight tackle and the fillets are the perfect sandwich size. There is no size limit on the Gulf side of Florida. Sure, they’re not exactly trophies, but they can be a lot of fun.
If you go out deeper, into water more than about 150 feet, you can start targeting larger ones in the 10 to 20-pound range. This is still not very big for the species — they commonly grow to 50 pounds and can reach 90 — but the large adults are fish of the open ocean. Florida’s west coast simply doesn’t offer the habitat they live in, unless you go all the way out to the continental shelf. In the Keys and on the East Coast, bull mahi can often be caught within sight of shore.
These bigger mahi can be caught the same way as the little ones, or you can troll a rubber-skirted bubbler or popper for them. Cedar plugs are also a good choice. This type of fishing can net an entertaining mixed bag: Mahi, little tunny, blackfin tuna, kingfish, wahoo and even a sailfish if you’re just that lucky.
As I mentioned, mahi are always hungry, and there is intense competition for food within the school. Keeping a hooked fish in the water is a good way to ensure the rest of its schoolmates stick close, because they sense its excitement and assume it means food (about the only thing mahi get excited about). It’s often possible to keep the fish around until every one has been caught.
Now, I’m not saying that you should. The bag limit is liberal (10 fish per person up to a maximum of 60 per boat), and mahi freeze pretty well. But that’s still not enough reason to go all Viking and pillage everything you can. Take what you need for now, and leave the rest for someone else.
So say aloha to a mahi the next chance you get. Just remember that aloha means both hello and goodbye, which is actually very appropriate considering these fish won’t hang around our area for very long. By September, they will have mostly migrated to warmer seas. Enjoy them while you can.
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.