Bailing mahi-mahi from around lobster floats and other flotsam is a ton of fun, but you usually only catch relatively small fish in this way…right? Sort of, but on the Project Boat, running out of Ocean City, Maryland, we’d catch plenty of fish in the 15 to 50 pound class while bailing—thanks to the yo-yo technique.
At the time, we didn’t even realize that’s what we were doing. In fact, these big mahi weren’t even the target fish. My mate at the time was convinced that if he tossed out a heavy, shiny “wahoo bomb” each and every time we approached a float, eventually, he’d catch a wahoo. He never did get an attack from one of those toothy critters, but he did attract a heck of a lot of nice dolphin this way.
When you locate a large school of chicken dolphin in the two to 10 pound range, which is the common catch around the balls, larger fish are often lurking below. If you only bail near the surface you might miss a half a dozen of these big boys in a day, and never even know it. The trick to catching them is teasing ‘em up to the surface.
The traditional yo-yo technique, which in some ways was a precursor to speed jigging, is as simple as it gets: Throw out a jig, let it sink to bottom, then crank like mad until it’s back at the boat. This is what the packaging on the wahoo bomb said to do, so this is what my mate did. And every so often a big, hot mahi would follow the lure right up to the surface. Interestingly, they never hit the jig. But, that was perfectly fine with me. Since we were bailing, when the fish got close to the surface they’d see our chunks sinking through the water and go into a full-tilt feeding frenzy. I don’t recall a single fish ever getting hooked on the Bomb, but plenty of our guests swinging their bailing rods hooked into big fish that the Bomb drew up from the depths. In other situations or with other lures, like Californians who use this tactic when going after yellowtail, yo-yoing will produce plenty of strikes. But, if for no other reason then to bring those big mahi up from the depths, it’s a tactic worth understanding.
When you approach an item that you suspect holds mahi, be it a board or a polyball, make sure most of your anglers are armed with traditional mahi-mahi bailing gear: heavy-duty spinning rods rigged with 80-pound leaders terminating in an 8/0 circle hook, baited with fish chunks or whole squid. Toss out your chum chunks, and watch as the two to 10 pounders come rushing in. Watch the crew have a ball bailing them up. But before you move on, drop a jig down at least 150’ or so, then yo-yo it back up the boat as fast as you possibly can. Every now and again, a 20 to 50 pound gaffer will come charging to the surface, where it will usually slurp down everything in sight—including your angler’s baited hooks. Try and offer it the one that’s attached to your heaviest bailing rig, and hold on tight.
Angler’s Tip: Bait this big bailing rig with a whole large or horse ballyhoo, hooked through the jaw or eyes. Big dolphin love ‘em, but the smaller ones usually can’t choke them down so this prevents them from snapping up your offering before the big guy can get to it.
Have A Ball
Catch mahi-mahi by the millions (almost).
Mid-Atlantic canyon trips can result in astounding catches of tuna, billfish and mahi-mahi, or they can drone on for endless hours of fruitless trolling—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’ve had good action, a slow pick or a skunk-out, virtually every trip to the canyons during the months of July, August, and Spetember can be topped off with a frenzy of action at the lobster pot balls.
Multiple hook-ups and lots of action is the norm, at the lobster pot balls.
Catching the ball.
Lobster pots line the drop-offs at all of the canyons from Delmarva to New York, and the big orange polyballs floating at the end of their mooring lines create a haven for small fish and shrimp, which in turn, attracts mahi-mahi. Yes, the majority of the fish you find hovering under the balls will be relatively small; three to five pounders are average, with the occasional ten pounder mixed in. Visit a dozen or more balls in one day, and you’ll sometimes find a fish or two in the 25-lb class. Often trigger fish can also be caught from under the balls, and on occasion, wahoo.
Finding the balls is easy: just run to the edge of the deep, and usually you’ll spot one on the horizon before the bottom drops out. Often they’re set as shallow as 350’, and sometimes they’re out around 700’. If you don’t see any right off the bat, pick a course that runs along the edge in either direction and run for a mile or two. You can also spot them with radar, since many of the balls have radar reflectors perched on top. Most of the time you’ll spot them on radar before you will with the naked eye, but don’t expect them to provide a hard return until you’re within two to three miles.
Once you find the balls, they will usually be set in zig-zag strings along the edge of the drop. Some have small secondary floats five or ten feet from the ball, and some have two polyballs on the same line. This small increase in mass floating at the surface does have an effect; double-balls hold larger schools of fish, and hold them more often than single balls. The amount of growth on the bottom of the ball and on the line also has an effect. If the ball’s been out there a while and has lots of growth, your chances of finding fish under it are increased.
Inshore anglers who fish for sea bass can also get in on some low-key bailing action. Most of the mahi around inshore bass pot floats, which look just like large crab pot floats and are usually set in 60’ to 120’ of water from eight to 30 miles offshore, will be under three pounds. Some seasons, however, plenty of five to 10-pounders can be found under the bass pots. Small amberjack and triggers can often be found around them, as well.
While it’s impossible to predict what any specific summer will bring, most years, the fishery under the big canyon polyballs is extremely reliable. In the past decade during the worst season, on an average day of fishing you would find a school of five to ten fish under every tenth ball. In the best season, there were twenty fish or more under each and every one. Usually the mahi-mahi will be present in good numbers once July hits, although a couple of seasons back when the canyon water was cool and dirty early on, they didn’t show up until mid-July. Once these fish do arrive, you can plan on them being available in good numbers at least through August, barring a hurricane or other major weather shift that can throw the fishing off-kilter.
Average lobster ball mahi may not be huge, but they're plentiful - and tastey!
The orange polyball means fish.
Be careful - it's possible to over-harvest by accident, when everyone's swinging fish over the rail.
Many offshore anglers troll along past these lobster pot balls, and you will catch some mahi-mahi using this tactic. Not nearly as many, however, as you will if you stop and “bail” the fish. The tactic is simple: cut butterfish into domino-sized chunks, and put them in a bucket. Then rig up 12- to 20-lb class gear, spinning or conventional as you please, and tie on a four to five foot fluorocarbon leader of at least 30-lb test. If you want to land the big ones, up-size the leader to 40- or 50-lb test. Mahi-mahi have rows of small but sharp teeth, and during en extended battle they will eventually wear through light leaders. Hook a 25-lb. fish on 15-lb spinning gear and it can take as long as half an hour to land it, so you’d better be prepared.
Smaller mahi will be leader shy at times, and won’t hit the heavier rigs. If this is the case go light, but keep a heavy rig prepared at all times, sitting up in the rocket launchers. You will often spot the big bull dolphin as they attack your bait, and if a really large one approaches you can quickly reel in, reach up, grab down the heavier rig, and toss it to the fish. It’s a good idea to bait this line with a whole ballyhoo, which large mahi will usually swallow with abandon, yet smaller fish will usually leave alone.
Your rig should terminate with a hook in the 6/0 range. Long shank hooks give you a bit more protection from the teeth, but short shank hooks are easier to hide in the bait and may get taken more often; pick your poison. Bait up with a butterfish chunk the same size as the ones you cut for chum, unless it’s the big ballyhoo rig.
Approach the ball at idle, from the down-current (or down-wind; whichever is stronger) side, until the bow of your boat is 10 yards or so from the ball. Swing the wheel around hard, so the stern of the boat slides towards the ball, and put your boat into neutral. Time it right and you’ll have the transom facing the ball, just a few yards away.
Next, toss a handful of chunks right next to the ball. Watch them closely as they sink, and often, you’ll see the neon blue-green missiles dart in and go into a feeding frenzy. When you do, have your anglers throw their baits into the middle of the fray. Baits should be fished with an open bail, in free-fall. Since you pulled up to the ball from the down-current side your baits will drift away from the ball and line and you won’t have to worry about snagging them—unless a feisty mahi runs back in that direction, of course.
Baits should be allowed to free-fall for several minutes, because the fish will sometimes hang down deep. If one gets hooked up the rest of the school will often follow it to the boat; in this case, leave the fish in the water. Land it now, and the school will disappear. But keep it swimming right next to you, and other anglers can hook up one after another. When a second fish gets hooked the original fish can be boated, when a third one is hooked fish number two can be gaffed, and so on. You can also keep the school next to the boat by continual chunking. Be careful, though. If you drift a quarter mile from the ball and hold the school at your boat, then break the chunk line, the school may scatter. From that distance they usually won’t go back to the ball but will merely disappear. If you lose the school, or try a drift or two at a ball with no takes, it’s time to move on.
When trigger fish are spotted beneath the balls, cut off your leaders and go to #4 or #6 hooks, tied directly to the end of your line. Not 4/0 or 6/0; but the really small ones. Triggers have tiny mouths, and it’s impossible to hook them on mahi-sized gear. Bait up with similarly tiny chunks.
You should also keep a rod rigged up with something heavy and flashy, like a wahoo bomb, in case a wahoo suddenly appears. Cast it out, allow it to sink 50’ or 100’, and crank it back to the boat as fast as your reel will spin. More often then not you won’t spot the wahoo because they will be hanging well below the mahi, so savvy captains will assign one angler in the crew to take a shot with the bomb on the initial approach, then switch over to mahi chunks with everyone else if the gamble doesn’t pan out.
Of course, any other flotsam you encounter in the deep—two-by-fours, cargo nets, trees, or anything else the size of a five gallon bucket or larger—can hold a school of mahi. Use these exact same tactics, and you’ll often fill the cooler.
Speaking of filling the cooler: Fishing around the balls using these techniques can lead to absolutely outrageous catches. At times, you’ll look up to discover that every angler on your boat is hooked up or shoving a fish into the cooler—which is already brimming over with fish--while a hundred or more mahi swarm around you in a feeding frenzy. Be careful! It’s all too easy to over harvest these fish. Keep a good head-count on how many go into the box, and determine how many you’ll consider the maximum catch ahead of time. Fish them smart, and you’re sure to have a ball at the balls.
PART II, Wahoo & Mahi Trolling Tactics Q & A
Last week, we answered the downrigger part of this question, which we was sent in to FishingGearGuru.com by a reader:
Hello Lenny - I started fishing nearshore 5 to 10 miles out, had some succes around the rigs and jetty with kings, macks and cobia using ribbon fish on top and sometimes with weight. Weather permitting I go out 30 to 40 miles out to the rigs, and my boats is rigged with two down riggers. I have tried some top water lures, but with no results yet. I need some suggestions to effectively troll with lures and bait on top as well as how to effectively utilize my downriggers, especially for wahoo and mahi-mahi.
-George, in Port Aransas, Texas
Today, we'll answer George's question about surface lines and mahi-mahi.
Hi again, George - Okay, let's get onto those surface lines, and catching mahi-mahi. You mention ribbon fish, which will work well for kings and cobia but aren't great for mahi-mahi, because these fish may shy away from larger baits. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to catch mahi is using baits that are too large. Ballyhoo trollers, for example, will catch a heck of a lot more fish if they're using smalls then if they're using mediums.
When you really want to put mahi on the menu, rig up some relatively light lines (60 pound leaders are about right) with three or four inch pink rubber squid. Blue works well, too. I know a three inch bait sounds way too small, but trust me - the mahi will chase it like it was candy, and since it's so small they'll inhale it on the first swipe. Run these lures pretty close to the boat, maybe one at 40' and one at 60'. Tuck an egg sinker into the squid (rig it right above the hook; usually a quarter to half an ounce is plenty) to keep it in the water.
Next, rig small ballyhoo and/or squid on a set of lines with similarly light leaders, and set them 20' to 40' farther back in the spread. You can add a skirt to the ballyhoo if you like, but it really isn't necessary; leave the squid plain, so it looks natural. If you're not sure how to rig these ballyhoo, click over to the FishingGearGuru.com Tuna page at http://www.fishinggearguru.com/tuna.html and scroll down to the article that says "Pinless Ballyhoo Rig". We don't have up an article on rigging squid yet so stay tuned and we'll get one up in the next week or two.
Always remember to look for flotsam when trolling for mahi. Items as small as a 5-gallon bucket are all it takes to attract and hold these fish. When you find a larger item, such as a log or tree branch, and catch a fish or two trolling by, you may want to consider pulling in the lines and "bailing" around it for a while. (Go to the Mahi page, http://www.fishinggearguru.com/mahimahi.html for specifics on the bailing technique). Generally speaking, if you catch one or two by trolling past you'll get four or five more if you stop and bail.
Good luck George, and send us an e-mail to let us know how you make out trolling for those wahoo and mahi-mahi!
Last Week's Answer, PART I:
Hey George - you're in a great area for fishing; I've been out of Port Aransas many times, and love it there. Let's start out with those downrigger, because they're going to effectively double your catch if you put them in play. They're highly effective for both kingfish and wahoo. Rig up some trolling lines with wire leaders, terminating in ball-bearing swivels. Then clip on spoons - lots of spoons. When you're in deep water and want to target wahoo I suggest 6" to 9" Crippled Alwive, Tony Acetta, or drone spoons. Silver with red or pink flash tape is a great bet for this species - as you can see from the picture! In discolored water use a deep red color and in clearer water, a lighter pink shade. Set the spoon a solid 100' behind the downrigger, set your speed to seven or eight knots, and set one downrigger to 15' and the other to 25'. Twenty five feet may sound pretty deep for this speed, but try using a Z-Wing planer instead of a cannonball and you'll find it works well. Once you're on the troll, remember to keep a lookout for flotsam. Wahoo in particular are known for hanging around floating logs, buoys, and other items. And of course, probe around those rigs!
When you're closer in and are on the hunt for kingfish, pull back your speed to four or five knots and swap out the big spoon for a small four or five inch Clarke spoon or Drone. Different anglers have different opinions on this, but I think plain gold and plain silver are the best color choices for these fish. Check back next week, and we'll discuss those surface lines.
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