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Highly regarded as a spectacular looking gamefish, dolphin fish are also outstanding fun, especially on light tackle. DAVID GREEN reports.

EVERY angler I know wants to, at some time or another, catch a big dolphin fish, aka mahi mahi or dollie. These are close to the perfect pelagic fish. They grow big, jump, look spectacular, fight hard and make great eating. While in many places they play second string to marlin, there are few more brilliant looking creatures wandering the ocean currents. Dolphin fish are known as the fish with no home. They wander the ocean currents of all tropical waters, grow extremely fast and feed voraciously on almost any creature they find out on the wide-open ocean.

As a true pelagic species, dolphin fish are rarely found away from the warm oceanic currents they live in. Occasionally a few stray close inshore, and there have been reports of smaller fish in estuarine waters at times. But to have your best shot at a big dollie, you need to hunt the wide purple plains of cobalt current. On the east coast of Australia, the summer current generally starts to push warm water south in December, and this big band of tropical water often arrives with large brown scum lines often inaccurately referred to as “coral spawn”. This water comes from the Great Barrier Reef and throughout summer and autumn penetrates southwards, sometimes as far as the east coast of Tasmania. In recent years the water seems to have been one to two degrees warmer than normal, and the current this season arrived early, with water of 24 degrees being found off the coast of SE Queensland in October.

Dolphin fish generally are the first species we encounter each season when the current pushes in. Every season is different: some produce stacks of big, beautiful dollies; in other seasons they are few and far between. Most seasons we start to catch a few in late November, and by December through to January average a couple a day. The average fish is around six to nine kilos and the majority of early season fish are females. As they are quite thin through the body, a nine-kilo dollie is a lot bigger fish in appearance than most anglers realise. For a given length, they don’t weigh nearly as much as a tuna, for example. In more southern ports the dolphin fish are generally fewer in number and arrive a few months later than the fish of southern Queensland.

The Achilles heel of dolphin fish is their habit of staying close to floating objects. Fish trap floats, floating logs or almost any floating object will often see vast schools of dolphin fish in attendance. These are often juveniles from 30 to 60cm, and at times they are almost suicidal when presented with a bait or lure. FADs often hold plenty of fish, but it is important to not over exploit dollies in such places, and most states now have bag and size limits for these fish. Around a FAD the dolphin fish often wise up to anglers’ lures over time, but they never seem to refuse live bait. The further offshore you locate a floating object, the bigger the dolphin fish tend to be. Over the years we have occasionally found floating logs well offshore, sometimes in thousands of fathoms of water, and at times the dolphin fish were so prolific the water for hundreds of metres was flecked with their neon blue and gold flashes.

Trolling lures
We catch more dolphin fish on trolled lures than by any other method, and a lot of these fish are bycatch when we are trolling for marlin. I’ve found over many seasons that dolphin fish like their lures running in clean water and most of the strikes come from the outriggers or shotgun rather than the short flat lines. Dolphin fish have a liking for pink and purple coloured skirted lures and seem to prefer lures around 15 to 25cm in length, but bigger ones will attack the largest lure you can put out there. I’ve caught a couple of dolphin fish on live striped tunas over the years, so it shows they are quite capable of eating bigger prey. Small Meridians, Black Snacks and Pakulas all work well. Blue and gold is another useful colour scheme at times.

For skirted lures troll at around seven to eight knots so the lures “fizz” and leave a good bubble trail. A flashing mirror teaser such as a Witchdoctor also gets these curious fish interested. I’ve often seen dolphin fish come in and inspect a teaser before hitting a lure or bait, so it pays to get some advertising out there for your lure spread. Dolphin fish have amazing underwater vision, and will track down from a great distance any flash or disturbance they see. They are one of the fastest fish in the ocean and I’ve seen them line up a lure from several hundred metres away and come racing in like an underwater neon torpedo.

Dolphin fish are also partial to trolled stick baits and cedar plugs, but these are rarely used in this country. I’ve also caught a few on minnows such as Rapala CD18s but I’ve always had more success using trolled skirts. They also respond well to lures that have been sweetened up with a belly strip sewn in under the skirt of the lure, and once they get a taste they rarely leave the lure alone.

As far as terminal tackle goes, dolphin fish have small peg teeth and won’t bite you off. Thus they are fairly easy on leaders. As we are often targeting billfish as well as dollies, the leader is generally hard mono from 50 to 100 kilo breaking strain, but if I were only after dollies I’d drop this to 30 to 50 kilo leader. On light tackle we use two 10/0 Gamakastu SL12 saltwater fly hooks. These are excellent for dollies.

Trolled Baits
Dolphin fish love trolled gar, both skipping and swimming. This method is often more successful than trolled plastic lures, and while it requires a bit of preparation, the rewards are often worth it. We usually troll a pair of skipping gar from the outriggers and a swimming gar in closer. It is usually easy to tell when a dolphin fish is in the spread as the colours are quite distinctive. When the fish hits the ’rigger we let it take a bit of line before striking, but they generally wolf the bait down very quickly. At times there will be others in the school following and they will often pick up the other baits when the boat slows. A rigged livebait or pilchard ready to go on a threadline outfit will also often find a second fish.

My mate Mitchell Calcutt has recently developed a series of trolling heads customised to take baits such as gar or slimies inside the head of the lure. These can be trolled at a faster speed than most baits and dolphin fish are quite partial to these Black Snacks bait heads. They provide a snug fit to the head of the bait and give out a great bubble trail behind it. This is a great method to target big dollies.

Live Baiting
I’ve never seen a big dolphin fish refuse a well-rigged live slimy mackerel, and live baiting is a great method if you know where the fish are. It isn’t a good searching method. One technique we used to use that was very simple and effective was to find a current line, preferably with a line of thick coral spawn and plankton, and simply drift a few unweighted live baits along with the current while cubing with cut up pilchards. Dolphin fish tend to use current lines as a kind of fish highway in the ocean, and if you’ve ever looked in one’s stomach contents, you’ll see plenty of small toads and other tiny fish that they hunt in these vast plankton lines. By staying close to the line and drifting along it, the fish will eventually find you. Dolphin fish are surface feeders, so leave the baits free swimming. Slimies, yakkas or small bonito work fine, but at times they will eat anything with a wriggle to it. Use about 30-kilo leader and leave the reels in free spool. Sometimes after hours of no bites you will be attacked by a pack of dolphin fish patrolling the line. It gets very exciting when every reel goes off at the same time.

Alternatively, work slow trolled baits in conjunction with a mirror style teaser along the current line. If you find a big bait school, dolphin fish and other predators are always somewhere near by, but if you are specifically targeting dollies don’t weight your baits. We bridle rig our trolled live baits on braid snoods, but the drifted baits work fine hooked through the back.

Dolphin fish also respond well to “tease and switch”. Troll hookless lures with the belly strip of a tuna, dolphin fish or mackerel inside, and have a live bait ready to cast to the fish once it has found the teasers. This is a very exciting way to fish and having a bunch of lit-up neon gold and blue dolphins at the back of the boat is a great thing to experience.

If you find a floating object or encounter a school of active dolphin fish on the surface, there are a few tricks to lure casting that get you bites. Dolphin fish respond to high-speed retrieves, and will eat both poppers and stick baits. Metals sometimes work, but if you can change the trebles to singles and tie a thin strip of fish skin or belly strip to the hook the results improve greatly. Another good casting method is a pilchard on ganged hooks with a small squid skirt over the head. If you wrap a bit of sheet lead to the front hook it improves casting distance and keels the bait. These fish are partial to pillies, even around FADS where they get regular attention from anglers.

Seven-inch Gulp Jerk Shads wound flat out are another useful dolphin fish lure – they definitely seem to like something with a bit of scent. Rig the Gulps on a jig head or worm hook and wind as fast as you can.

Fighting & landing dollies
When you hook a dollie, it will generally start jumping before going on a sustained run. On eight kilo tackle they are a superb fish to catch, and this light gear has the added advantage of making the fish tired by the time it reaches the boat. Dolphin fish are one of the most dangerous and crazy fish to bring aboard a boat and are very difficult to control, so you need a plan. Even the longliners fear them, and over the years plenty of anglers have worn a hook from when an out-of-control dolphin fish comes aboard.

Play the fish out and don’t go too hard on the drag, as the mouth is relatively soft in comparison to billfish. Keep the boat in a slow idle and when the fish is tired and paddling alongside gaff it in the head if you plan to keep it. If you want to release the fish, remove the hooks with a long handled de-hooker with the fish still in the water. If you choose to gaff the fish, try and lift it straight into the kill tank and close the lid! If you don’t have a kill tank make sure you lift the head in and immediately get a hold of the tail wrist, and “fold” the fish with its head down on the floor so it stays bent. If it all goes pear shaped and you have a berserk fish on the floor, stand back. Clubbing is generally ineffective on these fish, but if it is out of control, just stand back and watch the show! It will generally slow down in a minute or two, but if the hooks are still in the fish stay clear.

Once you’ve got control of the situation, you can dispatch the fish with a sharp knife. There is a spot about 2cm above and then 2cm back from the centre of the eye that can be penetrated with a knifepoint that will instantly kill the fish. You’ll know when you hit the spot, as the fish will instantly turn an amazing silver blue colour. When the fish is dead put it on ice immediately. We usually trunk or fillet the fish straight away so the flesh sets well straight after capture.

I love catching dollies, and over coming months when the warm current heads south, these amazing fish will be riding the blue water all along our east and western coastlines. Get out there and find some!

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