Pot-Hopping for Mahi

Trap buoys mark a trail to dolphin success.

Mahi caught along the Jersey Shore
Big mahi action gets hot off the Jersey Shore when the fish flock up on lobster pot buoys and lines. Bill Boyce

As my friend Driscoll edged the bow of his 32-foot Fortunate Son up to a high-flyer pot buoy, splashes of green and gold flashed around the underwater line keeping the floating marker in place.

“Dude, there’s mahi littering this pot,” I said over my shoulder. Seconds after flipping a 1/2-ounce white bucktail, 2- to 4-pound chicken mahi were frantically swiping at the undulating lure. Then a large, blue shadow came creeping from below. “Holy smokes! It’s a huge bull,” I yelled while cranking in my lure at record speed. With a flick of the wrist, I dropped the bucktail smack in front of the looming shadow. A quick pass was followed by a turn, then a swipe and a solid take. “Bull on!” I announced, marking the start of a wild air show that ended with a 25-pound dolphin on deck.

Floating Structure

Off New Jersey shores, commercial fishermen drop lobster traps and sea bass cages affixed to submarine ropes tied to high-flyer marker buoys on the surface, each with a flag waving from a 6-foot-tall PVC mast. The pot lines, which can extend from a couple of hundred yards to a few miles, are a welcome oasis in an otherwise barren plain, with the buoys offering prime opportunities to tangle with mahi, as well as wahoo, bar jacks, almaco jacks, triggerfish and other species.

Fishing for mahi offshore
You may need to run farther offshore after heavy rain to find the deep-blue water mahi prefer Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Watch the Water

“Whenever we’re out tuna fishing, we always stop on the pots to see who’s home,” states Capt. Freddy Gamboa of Andrea’s Toy. “Pots can be anywhere from 3 miles off the coast to the canyon 80 miles out. Generally, chicken mahi are closer inshore, and we find more 20- to 30-pound bulls the farther offshore we go.”

When deciding to hit the pots, Gamboa’s tactical plan revolves around water quality. “First, I check the chlorophyll charts to find the clean water. You want it crystal-clear. Water that holds major schools of mahi needs to be that deep-blue, almost-purple shade. After heavy rains, the water inshore near the Mud Hole—from about 8 to 15 miles—will get dirty from the Hudson River outflow. That’s not conducive to holding mahi schools, so we have to head out farther to find clean water.” Capt. Christian Palmisano of Knee Deep concurs with Gamboa regarding water quality, but also keys in on water temps. “Late July, August and early September, when waters hang in that 75- to 82-degree range, are prime time for mahi on the pot lines,” he says.

Pick Your Pots

When it comes to choosing the right pots to fish, the dirtier their ropes, the better. “You want the ones with lots of algae, barnacles and other marine growth on the tether lines,” Palmisano says. “I’ll creep up on a pot and peer under the surface, following the rope down some 50 feet. If it looks brand-new, it probably won’t hold much, so I hop over to the next pot.”

Pots are rarely solitary; they’re usually set in bunches, making it easier to maximize opportunity. “One pot could hold 50 fish and the next few nothing, so I search for long lines of 10 pots or more. Then it’s easier to hop from one to another to find congregations of fish,” Palmisano explains. “Many times, the beginning or end of a pot line will hold the most fish, as there is usually a big, orange poly ball connected to the high-flyer buoy, which creates even more structure.”

Mahi being gaffed
Lift gaffed fish straight into an open icebox to avoid chaos on deck. Tommy DiMattina

Palmisano relies on visual cues, and he will even dive on the pots, gaining valuable insight on the behavior of mahi relating to the pot lines. “Those high-flyer markers attached to big, orange poly balls usually have 30 feet of line connecting them, and the schools will move back and forth from one to the other. If you spook them, they generally come back to the original high-flyer buoy or poly ball where they were hanging,” adds Palmisano, who also notes that other species, like triggerfish, almaco jacks, blue runners, bar jacks and wahoo also gravitate toward the pots.

Pot Shots

Set a proper drift and use stealth when approaching pot lines to avoid spooking fish. Gamboa’s game plan includes three tactics to entice dolphin from the pots. “I’ll have the first angler toss out a 3/0 Octopus hook baited with a 1-inch chunk of sardine, live peanut bunker or 4-inch squid strip. A second guy will fan-cast a popper around the pot, causing a commotion to get fish to come investigate. Even if the popper doesn’t draw strikes, it will bring the fish closer to our boat, where you can see them. That’s when we set up to drift and bring the party to us,” he says.

Mahi jumping out of the water
Late July through early September is prime time off New Jersey. Bill Boyce

“Many people pull up to a pot, don’t see any mahi under the waterline and will then leave. That’s a big mistake, as the fish could be hanging 50 feet down,” Gamboa continues. When that’s the case, he likes to drop 1- to 3-ounce metal jigs, snapping them all the way to the surface to draw the fish upward. “Even if you only bring one up, you know there are more down there. So, repeat the jigging process until you finally pull the school to the top of the water column.”

Palmisano’s strategy starts by setting up to drift past the buoy at a safe distance of about 20 yards. “Before I make the first cast, I toss five or six live peanut bunker toward the buoy to rile up any fish and draw them up from the depths,” he explains. “Then I send out 1-inch chunks of cut butterfish, sardines or squid on 2/0 to 3/0 octopus hooks with 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. Usually, I’ll position four guys on the bow, two tossing the baits and two working green, pink or silver Joe Baggs 1/2- to 1-ounce epoxy jigs or 1/2-ounce bucktails tipped with squid heads.”

Bonus Pot Luck

“Amazingly, we also find wahoo holding on the pot lines. ’Hoos stay up high in the water column and won’t go deeper than 50 feet,” Gamboa says. “If they’re around, wahoo are the first species to hit when we drop jigs, and they usually cut the line. When that happens, we scale up to 60-pound fluorocarbon to land some fish.”

Next time you fish offshore off Jersey in the summer, don’t pass up the high-flyer pot buoys. Be prepared with an arsenal you can quickly deploy, and make a few passes along a pot line to boost your chances. Pot-shotting mahi and other pelagics can turn a good day into a great one fast.

Read Next: All About Dolphin

Mahi caught using a snap jig
Working snap jigs below buoy structure can pull up bigger fish. Jim Hendricks

SWS Planner: Pot-Line Dolphin

  • What: Dolphin, wahoo and more
  • When: July through September
  • Where: High-flyer pot buoys off the New Jersey coast
  • Who: These two captains are experts at the pot-hopping game:
    • Capt. Freddy Gamboa, andreastoycharters.com, 732-672-1561
    • Capt. Christian Palmisano; Brielle, New Jersey, Knee Deep, 973-954-1216

SWS Tackle Box

  • Reels: Shimano Stradic spinning reels, 4000 series for small fish up to 15 miles out, 6000 series for 20- to 30-pounders farther offshore
  • Rods: 7-foot moderate to fast action, medium-power spinning rods rated for 10- to 30-pound line
  • Line: 20- to 30-pound braid; 20- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader; use 60-pound if wahoo are around
  • Hooks: Gamakatsu 2/0 to 3/0 Octopus hooks for bait, or equivalent
  • Lures: Joe Baggs resin jigs in 1/2- to 1-ounce; Savage Gear Panic Poppers in sardine or green mackerel schemes; Stillwater Smack-It poppers; 5.75-inch Fin-S Fish in Bubblegum Ice color (rigged on 1/2- to 1-ounce jig heads); 1- to 3-ounce Mustad Daggerman jigs; 100- to 150-gram Shimano Benthos jigs; and white or pink 1/2- to 1-ounce bucktails

Light-Tackle Mahi Lures

  • Epoxy Jigs: Long casting lures like a Joe Baggs Resin Jig help you reach distant fish without spooking them with your boat.
  • Fin-S Fish: Soft-plastics fished on lightweight jig heads fall slowly and stay in the strike zone longer.
  • Mustad Daggerman: These 1- to 3-ounce vertical jigs are useful for prospecting in deeper water below buoys and lines.
  • Panic Popper: The frantic topwater splashing action on this great bait from Savage Gear draws heart-stopping strikes.
  • SPRO Bucktail: Low-cost, versatile and easily sweetened with bait, it’s hard to beat this old standby.

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