How To Catch Mahi Mahi With Basic Gear

Florida Mahi Mahi Season Driven By Warmer Weather

As the cooler winter weather starts to retreat from the Florida Keys, Mahi Mahi (or Dolphin as they are called there) start arriving in droves. With their arrival, the large sportfishing fleet starts to switch over from chasing sailfish to these much sought-after and delicious fish. But the question is, do you need a large boat, trolling gear, and live wells full of live baits to catch Mahi Mahi in the keys? All of these things help, but no, they aren’t necessary.

During the late spring to summer months, by picking calmer weather days, you can have a lot of success finding and catching Mahi Mahi from a 22-foot rental boat and a few fishing rods. 

The Mahi World 

Let’s first explore where Mahi Mahi live first which explains why they are often the targets of large sport fishing boats. Mahi Mahi live in deep, open water, this means they are considered “pelagic” species. In the open ocean near the Florida Keys you quickly reach the northward traveling gulf stream. This giant current of water brings warmer water from the south all the way up the east coast of North America. Mahi Mahi use the gulf stream as a travel corridor, eating the bait fish that travel in it as well as small crustaceans found in the weeds and flotsam floating in the water. 

Without any obstructions from land, wave action can quickly build to dangerous levels in the gulf stream, especially when the wind direction is blowing against the current (winds out of the north) which is typical in the winter time. Small fishing boats are generally advised to avoid the open water when the winds kick up, especially a north wind in the gulf stream. 

Large sportfishing boats can mostly handle moderate wave action and are thus able to fish the deeper water more days out of the year. Because they don’t move particularly fast compared to center console fishing boats, they often slowly troll from place to place, picking up whatever happens to be biting that day.  This could include Mahi Mahi, mackerel, tuna, wahoo, and other large game fish.

During the warmer months, the winds are generally calmer and generally from the south and east, giving periods of calmer seas, perfect for smaller boats to chase fish in deep water. 

Where To Find Mahi In The Open Ocean

Like any other predator fish, Mahi Mahi can be found where there are other, smaller fish to eat. They are constantly swimming from place to place, looking for food. Oftentimes, their prey can be found in the large mats of sargassum weed that form in the gulf stream near the keys in summer. 

The general rule is that any object larger than a couch has the ability to hold some bait fish and their predators. It’s not uncommon to see trees, refrigerators, wayward buoys, and other “sea junk” floating around out there; and all are worth a look as a possible fishing spot. 

Sargassum weed is the most common type of cover and can form acre sized mats which can hold dozens of fish. Not all week mats and objects hold fish, however, you have to put in the time to find the right spots. 

The Minimalist’s Approach To Mahi Mahi

You can successfully catch Mahi Mahi with a single “pitch rod”, a 5/0 J-hook, and cut bait, preferably ballyhoo. This and a boat are all that you need to catch them. The technique is to drive the boat round looking for large mats of Sargassum weed or “sea junk”, the bigger, the better and search for life. What you are looking for are schools of small bait fish, jacks and other fish swimming around the weed lines. Toss 3-5 bait chunks into the water and watch them fall. If after a short time you see fish big enough to eat the cut bait whole, like banded rudderfish as an example, you are likely in a spot that has some Mahi nearby. Keep tossing “freebies” and see what shows up. 

Florida Keys Mahi Mahi

Pitch Rod For Mahi

An ideal pitch rod is a spinning reel in the 5000-6000 size range that is spooled with 20 pound monofilament. Pair this with a medium-heavy 7 foot rod and you are all set. Many will attach 6 feet of 30lb monofilament or fluorocarbon leader to provide a little extra abrasion resistance from the small teeth lining the Mahi’s jaws. 

Beyond Minimalist, The Perfect, Simply Set Up

If you are able to expand a little beyond the single rod, minimalist set up, what should you bring? I would add one more pitch rod first, this allows you and anyone else in the boat to hook up simultaneously with fish at a good spot. Mahi Mahi rarely travel alone unless they are very large and the comotion created by hooking one will often attract others. Many professional captains will encourage their clients to leave one smaller fish hooked next to the boat to attract other fish when they find the fish.

Next, add 1-2 trolling rods. Trolling rods are usually heavier than pitch rods, but they don’t have to be. You can troll with a medium action pitch rod. Typically, trolling rods will be spooled with 30-to-50-pound monofilament and would be 6000 plus spinning reels or heavier bait casting reels. 

Troll with 2 different lure types, one would have some weight and swim under the surface, this type of bait attracts tuna which are often found patrolling the sargassum weed mats as well. The second lure would be a surface type lure designed to create a “bubble trail” which will help get the Mahi Mahi’s attention. Some will add ballyhoo or squid strips to these baits for extra attraction power, but this isn’t necessary.

Adding live bait to your pitch rod set up is also a great way to increase your success once you locate the fish. Although cut bait does work, Mahi Mahi like to chase their prey and the live baits will get them excited and eager to eat. Pilchards are the most commonly used live baits, but pinfish and live ballyhoo work too. A good sized Mahi bait will be 4-8 inches long. 

More Ocean Coverage = More Fish Found

Like anything in life, the more you put in, the more you get out of this type of fishing. If you are able to cover lots of water in a day looking for the perfect floating object or sargassum mat, you will have success. Many days you might spend several hours without any results, but the one spot you do find yields a cooler full of fish. And success isn’t guaranteed of course, sometimes they just aren’t there. 

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