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August 05, 2013

California Mahi Madness

When West Coast mahimahi grow finicky, these tips can incite a bite.

Southern California anglers still rave about last summer when hordes of mahimahi (aka dorado or dolphin) from 12 to 25 pounds migrated up from Mexico and stayed in U.S. waters for weeks. Floating clumps of kelp, known as paddies, swarmed with the mahi, some just a few miles off the beach.

Boats of all sizes from Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, Oceanside and San Diego pursued the acrobatic and great-tasting mahi in the summer of 2012. By most accounts, that marked the beginning of an El Niño cycle, indicated by higher-than-normal sea temperatures in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, and the appearance of tropical visitors such as the mahi.

However, West Coast mahi can become surprisingly picky when they’re as far north as California. It’s not unusual to find a paddy that’s holding fish, only to discover that the school has virtually no appetite.

But hungry or not, mahi will likely return to Southern California ocean waters this summer, as El Niño cycles span three to four seasons. Here’s how to prepare for their return.

Afternoon Action
Anglers try to be on the fishing grounds as early as possible in the morning, with the idea that the first boat to a kelp paddy stands the best chance. But last season’s experience proved that it’s sometimes better to fish in the afternoon. While fishing can be good around the offshore banks — such as the 43, 181, 182 and 209 — anglers who run out in the dark or gray light of morning miss out on action around the paddies closer to the coast.

Also, you’re often more likely to find mahi under paddies later in the day, as they seem to feed more aggressively in the late afternoon, perhaps because solar heating of the sea surface boosts their metabolism. It’s also easier to find kelp paddies in the afternoon, as they are more visible against the blue ocean once the sun burns through the coastal clouds.

Take It Easy
Search for paddies slowly, cruising at 15 to 18 knots, giving you and your crew a chance to scan the water. Try to get as much elevation as possible: Boats with towers have a distinct advantage.

Paddies range from doormat to garage-door size, with gulls or terns sometimes using them as rest stops. The bigger the paddy, the better; but don’t ignore a patch of floating kelp because it looks insignificant. A few leaves of kelp can attract bait and a school of mahi, especially in the afternoon.

Once you find kelp, slow the boat to idle before you get close. Try to set up a drift by the paddy, and shut off the engine. This prevents scattering the school.

Unlike California yellowtail — which also frequent kelp paddies — mahi don’t always mill in the shadows. You will often find the school on the move, circling as far as 50 yards from the kelp. Start your drift about the same distance from the paddy.

If there’s no wind, slow-troll live baits 50 to 75 feet back as you approach the paddy, and have an angler ready to cast forward to the paddy before the boat reaches it. The idea is to present a live bait to the fish under the weeds before the boat spooks the school.

Another productive technique is to slow-troll live baits in a 75-yard-wide circle around the paddy, particularly if you see free-jumpers leaping clear of the water. This indicates the mahi have driven a school of baitfish away from the paddy and have forced it to the surface. The free-jumpers are pouncing on top of the school as other mahi are pushing the bait upward. Pull baits close to the school by trolling around the feeding fish without driving through them.

Best Baits
Once they get finicky, California mahi seem to shun lures and dead baits. To consistently score, you’ll need live bait.

One of the best go-to baits is the Pacific sardine. These are available at bait barges in harbors along the coast. ­Pacific mackerel are even better mahi baits, and they are hardier than sardines in the livewell, but you usually have to jig up your own using a sabiki rig. Another hardy and productive bait is the Pacific jack mackerel — known locally as a Spanish mackerel — but as with Pacific mackerel, you need to catch these yourself. You can often jig these species under kelp paddies, particularly those that are not holding any game fish.

Go Light
As you upscale your bait, downscale your tackle. California mahi can become very line shy, so fluorocarbon top shots are a must. Most successful anglers fly-line with nothing heavier than 20-pound-test, but some scale back to 15- or even 12-pound-test.

One of the best ways to hook a sardine or mackerel is through the roof of the mouth and out the top of the nose. This will conceal the hook, allow the bait to breathe and prevent the hook burying itself in the bait.

Once a mahi bites, free-spool for a second or two, then put the reel in gear, point the rod at the fish and wind line as quickly as you can. Don’t wait for the running fish to set the hook. Mahi tend to feel the pressure before you do and spit the bait.