How to catch Mahimahi - part 2

Meat lovers

Although a great many mahimahi are caught on lures, if there is a bait on offer, they will nearly always go for it in preference to an artificial, often racing through a lure pattern to take a single rigged, natural bait.

Research has shown that flying fish is one of the mahimahi’s most important food items (by weight), and I have regularly seen these predators racing along just under the surface, tracking airborne flyers, just waiting for their dinner to touch down. Unfortunately, there is often double jeopardy for the poor old flying fish – a frigate bird will also frequently be present, trying to pick them off from above!

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Flyers make great trolling baits for mahimahi – if you are able to get hold of some. They can be rigged as swimming or skip baits, with the further benefit of attracting regular by-catches of wahoo, yellowfin, marlin or sailfish.

For a decade in the 1990s and early ‘noughties’, I worked the deck or fished in Tonga’s International Billfish Tournament on a range of boats for several teams. Competition fishing can motivate you to get creative with techniques, and as a consequence we had good success, getting amongst the trophies nearly every year.

One tactic was to put aside a little time from chasing billfish to target mahimahi each morning, a section of the overall tournament that we won regularly. A key item (we will come back to other tactics later) was a chilly-bin full of frozen New Zealand piper baits I would bring up to Tonga with me. Rigged as skip-baits and trolled on light gear (to earn maximum points) around the FADs, they were diabolically effective – once the anglers learned to drop back the baits properly on the take, and avoid backlashes and burned thumbs...

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FADS and floaters

As already mentioned, mahimahi have a strong attraction to floating objects such as logs, debris (old, tangled-up nets for example) and, of course, FADs (Fish Aggregation Devices). If you are lucky enough to encounter some decent floating debris, it is well worth fishing around. The bigger it is and the longer it has been out there, the more action it is likely to produce. Fishermen call such drifting debris ‘a floater’ – and some can be absolute gold mines!

As encountering a floater is not an everyday occurrence, most Pacific Island nations have a FAD programme that involves maintaining these anchored-buoy devices for the benefit of village fishermen and charter boats. (International commercial boats also use the technique, running out a line of drifting, radio-signal-emitting FADS, before returning and putting a seine net around whatever fish have been attracted by them.)

But let us get back to anchored FADs. They are normally placed offshore, especially on deep-water structures, but within reasonable range of village boats and runabouts. When mahimahi are about (look for bird life around the FAD area), they are great places to target these fish with a range of lighter tackle.

If the FAD has not had much attention from boats for a while, or a school of ‘fresh’ fish has recently taken up residence, the most blatant approaches work initially. Tow some big marlin lures in the vicinity on 37kg, or even 60kg tackle, and watch the bright blue streaks screaming across the surface to crash the set! However, continued fishing for a bunch of semi-resident fish sees them become wary, and they very quickly begin to spurn such coarse approaches.

Time to bring out your A-game. Standard skirted lures may catch one or two fish from a group. Now try going to smaller lure sizes as the larger ones become ineffective. Following that, a change to minnow (diving) lures may catch a few more, after which rigged trolling baits (skip and swim types) need to be deployed to attract any action. And when that method begins to fail, stray-lined strip baits of tuna will usually still work. This is pretty much the same method used for stray-lining snapper here in New Zealand, and works even better when accompanied by berley; scraping scraps of flesh off a skipjack frame as you drift along is a simple way to do this. Stray-lining is very effective on mahimahi (as well as being simple to rig for) and the bait is usually easily come by – just catch a skipjack.

Mahimahi are slower to tire of taking juicy strip baits, so the method works for longer. You can also adapt stray-lining to the line-weight of your choice (although a section of 24kg leader is usually necessary, as mahimahi have quite sharp teeth inside those blue gums). A benefit of this method is that the single hook is normally safely lodged inside the fish, reducing the danger to the crew when handling these fish. Many boats will go straight to stray-lining if targeting mahimahi around a FAD.

Finally, when even strip baits are ignored, drifting or slow-trolling small live baits on light tackle is probably the most effective technique of all, but the hard part is capturing the live baits, then keeping them alive when in a remote area. Some charter operators and fishermen around the Pacific make the effort, and are markedly more successful than those who don’t.

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One of the best light-tackle mahimahi sessions I have had in New Zealand waters came on a day when we encountered a drifting log off Te Kaha with a school of mahimahi in residence. By good fortune we had a tank full of small jack mackerel live baits. We slayed ‘em…

I have a cunning plan…

Another time, while fishing the Tongan International Billfish Tournament, we found ourselves competing strongly with another team for the mahimahi section.

Looking down from the flybridge as we approached the FAD on the first morning of the four-day tournament, I could clearly see and count a school of 17 decent mahimahi in residence. We got a couple of them on trolling lures, and our rivals, arriving behind us, scored as well.

The tactic both boats adopted involved trying to be first at the nearest FAD in the morning, and be first to present a hook to the fish after they’d had the night to settle down.

So each day we, and our competition, left port a bit earlier so we could be first to the FAD and ready to try these fish as soon as ‘lines in’ was called over the VHF. And each day the remaining members of the diminishing mahimahi school became harder and harder to catch, forcing us to resort to more and more subtle techniques (mentioned previously) to get a bite.

On the last day of the arms race it came to this: there was one lone mahimahi from the original school left at the FAD, and the points table was such that the team who caught it would win the mahimahi trophy. It was a very spooky, jaded and suspicious fish by now, having been exposed to almost every fishing trick in the book and seen its school-mates slowly whittled away.

After trying a number of methods unsuccessfully, our rival boat left for greener (or, in fact, bluer) pastures. However, I had one more trick I wanted to try.

We didn’t have small live baits available but, taking a leaf from the book of commercial tuna-poling boats – which spray water onto the sea surface to excite their quarry – I unlimbered our boat’s powerful wash-down hose. We then slowly trolled a skipjack belly-flap along the surface on a light spin rod.

The angler was on the fly-bridge so he could hold the line above the water. I had our Tongan deckie spray the area around the enticingly wiggling strip-bait with the hose, imitating a nervous school of small baitfish on the surface. The last of the Mohicans just could not help itself, and jumped the bait! We ended up landing it and consequently won the mahimahi trophy. Most of these tournament fish were donated to help feed the patients at the local hospital – but not all of them. I did mention that these fish are seriously tasty, didn’t I?

Coping with crazy fish

Billfish are called saku vorowaqa in the Fijian language, which roughly translates as ‘fish that break your boat’ (as they probably did when brave, old-time fishermen tackled them from canoes). But in my experience, it is mahimahi that do the most damage to anglers and crews these days.

This is due to a combination of the double-hook rigs often being used on trolling lures, and the difficulty of controlling these powerful fish when brought aboard. A thrashing, uncontrolled fish whipping exposed hook points around the cockpit has resulted in most long-term tropical anglers and crews having a horror story or two to tell.

Techniques have been developed to subdue these fish. For example, if you can bend the mahimahi in a U-shape, they can’t struggle much. An effective way to do this involves getting their head into the corner of the cockpit, then grabbing the tail and bending it towards the head. This controls them long enough to apply a tail noose – a cord with a loop at one end and a blunt, barbless hook on the other. The loop is taken around the tail and the hook slipped through, cinched up, then slipped into the corner of the fish’s jaw, which keeps it bent in a U.

Another way of quietening these fish down is by throwing a wet towel over their heads, covering their eyes. Both methods work, but applying the noose or towel can be the tricky bit.

A couple of years ago I fished with the crew of Denarau (Fiji) charter boat Synergy, who had their own method.

The first part of this was in the leadering technique: the deckie got down low, partly to present a low profile to the fish and partly to keep the leader angle low to the water to avoid pulling the fish’s head above the surface, as this can cause them to thrash and jump beside the boat, making the gaff shot difficult.

Part two was making a calm, composed gaff shot to the top of the fish’s head. This placement has the advantages of avoiding spoiling any of the delicious meat and giving good control of the part with the hooks in.

The third part involved getting the mahimahi smartly into the fish bin and shutting the lid on it – quickly! I have never found an effective iki spot for these fish, and clubbing them doesn’t seem to make much difference, either. The Synergy crew used wind-on leaders, with short lure traces of only a couple of metres. Once the fish was in the ice box, the lure could be unclipped and replaced by another, with the first lure safely retrieved from the fish once it has expired.

But, like any other method of dealing with the volatile mahimahi, make a mistake at any stage and you can pay a painful price! 

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

June 2017 - Sam Mossman
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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