They go by a number of names, but bluewater fishermen know them as the Jumping Jacks of the ocean and a worthwhile target for exciting fishing. Story by Laurie & Julie McEnally.
Dolphin fish have been badly named in this country, their overseas titles of mahi mahi (Hawaii) and dorado (Spanish for gold) are better suited and don't confuse the non-angling public with the hyper-cute marine mammal of the same
However to be fair to the Aussies, the 'dolphin fish' nomenclature is accurate in many ways too. The fish does porpoise through the water when chasing food.
They also regularly attack lures by making several surface stitching leaps as they close the range before striking.
When using this leaping and feeding pattern they do look like dolphins which feed in the same manner. However, whatever name they go by is only part of the story of this interesting sport fish.
On a recent trip to Hawaii we attended an aquarium in Honolulu and wandered around an aquaculture area breeding dolphin fish.
The most bizarre part about the dolphin fish is their huge growth rate with
hatchery fish growing from pinhead sized dots to 3 kilograms in six months or so. The larger fish of 10 kg and over are little more than two years old.
No wonder the fish are so aggressive, they spend all their time eating and
These fish are also highly effective feeders, converting about 90 percent of their food intake into body growth which is quite amazing for an active oceanic wanderer.
Once the fish reach maturity they spawn every six weeks or so in a serial event which sees about 400,000 eggs and milt mixed together to make more little dolphin fish.
This could also explain why the large adult fish float around in pairs. There's certainly plenty of work for both sexes in the dolphin fish world, and this probably accounts for the great abundance of small dolphin fish when the conditions are right.
On the whole, they are an amazingly fast growing and successful species of fish, found in tropical and temperate seas throughout the world.
Dolphin fish are also a prime angling target. They are a top rate table fish if iced promptly after capture. They fight like fury, take a wide range of lures and baits and are generally available in most warm water areas. That is areas north of Montague Island on the east coast, and north of Perth on the west coast.
When hooked the fish runs hard and they jump spectacularly, slugging it out all the way to the boat only to save a bit of energy to thrash about madly whilst the angler tries to either release, or land the fish.
To top it they're the most attractive of all the game fish with electric blues
turning to green and gold as they come to the boat.
The colours fade fast after capture, but enough usually remains to give
onlookers a good idea of just how pretty these fish really are.
When to Fish
Dolphin fish are most common in tropical seas where they can be found anywhere there's blue water and generally all year round.
On the east coast they are common from Brisbane to Port Macquarie from early December to late June. Further south they are more fitful, although they are regularly off Sydney from January to May and off Bermagui from February to May.
The fish also seem to 'turn up' as | an incidental capture at other times. | Our
two biggest dolphin fish, each around 20 kgs, have been taken in L August while trolling around the continental shelf looking for yellowfin tuna.
These incidental captures happen because the fish are great roamers of the open ocean and they do get swept along in the currents and carried to all sorts of places, including South Australia.
However, they are always most likely in warmer water from 20 degrees and higher.
Where to Fish
While dolphin fish can and do turn up in all sorts of places there are a few
rules that apply when targeting the fish.
The fish are rarely encountered inside the 20 fathom contour and the wider offshore the anglers work, the more likely you'll encounter them.
Open ocean fish usually turn up as a by-product of marlin or tuna trolling. They can also grab a live bait, pilchard or frigate mackerel drifted along in a Berley trail.
The real key to finding dolphin fish is to find floating objects on the surface of the sea. Dolphin fish are utterly addicted to floating surface cover. It can be something as simple as a piece of rope, or sawn timber through to the more usual flotsam and jetsam of the cobalt currents. Things like floating patches of seaweed, trees and man made rubbish that also floats around.
Other man made objects can be a real boon to anyone looking for dolphin fish.
Any fixed object set in the open ocean will attract dolphin fish and sometimes this attraction produces huge numbers of the fish.
In some areas there are wave monitoring buoys and other data collection
implements sitting on the ocean surface. Along much of the NSW coast there are the floats of fish traps set in depths out to about 100 fathoms.
These buoys and fish trap floats often build up plenty of oceanic growth which in turn sets up a food chain for the dolphin fish to feed on. Once this happens the fish may hang around the same trap for months, or until the trap is moved.
Many of these trap fish are small, from half a kilo up to perhaps two kilograms.
However, sometimes there is a better class of fish found with them with fish from 2 to 5 kilograms being common at times.
Bigger specimens of over 10 kilograms can also be found around the traps, but
the smaller fish are far more common.
Floating surface structures set in water outside 30 fathoms will almost always
hold dolphin fish when ever the water is blue and the temperature is above 20
Knowing this, many charter boats lay their own buoyage to guarantee some action for their customers. These structures are called FAD's, Fish Attracting Devices, and their effectiveness on oceanic species has been well documented around the world.
The location of these FAD's is often well known and can make finding and catching dolphin fish very easy.
Trolling is a good way to find dolphin fish. While dolphin fish will hit almost any lure of any size they seem particularly attracted to yellow, lime and light green coloured lures.
While debates over lure colours and a fish's ability to see them can waste a lot of magazine space, the fact is that dolphin fish nail the yellow and green lures out of the trolling pattern too often for it to be a coincidence.
The size of lure does not seem to be important, although lures in the small to medium size range are the best choice.
Skirted trolling lures are the best style of lure for attracting the fish and
these do work better then the minnow type lures.
When any floating object is sighted while trolling it is always worthwhile to
alter course and run the boat and lures straight past and close to the object.
Close means about five to ten metres.
Don't circle the object, as a multiple hook up while circling will mean crossed lines and break-offs. Multiple hook ups are much easier to handle when the boat is going straight ahead although with wildly thrashing, leaping and running dolphin fish problems are always possible. Multiple hook ups are extremely common if a school of dolphin fish are holding under the floating object.
The 'patch' of fish will usually stay close by the object or floats they were
found under but they can be encourage to both bite better and stay longer with the boat by throwing cubed up pilchards on a regular basis.
Once the dolphin fish are found feeding around an object there are a couple of angling options available. Continued trolling will work and spincasting with chromed slices, or lead slugs will also provide plenty of action for a while.
However dolphin fish learn about lures fast and quickly realise that the lures they got so excited about at first are really dangerous and they can get gun shy very fast.
To avoid that situation and to maximise the strikes and sport, bait fishing and berley is used to keep the action going. The best bait by far is a small to medium size live slimy mackerel. Tossing a live mackerel hooked through the nose, or back towards where the dolphin fish are holding always brings a huge response.
The live baits will also draw any large fish that may be holding down deep.
These bigger fish may be able to pass up a lure, but they won't miss out on a live slimy mackerel.
Strangely, live yellowtail are not very popular with dolphin fish.
Casting whole blue pilchards is also deadly effective particularly if a few are tossed as berley to get things going.
When using baits of any kind always fish with the bail arm open if using a
threadline, or free spool under gentle thumb control if using a baitcaster. When the fish takes the bait let it move off for 10 to 15 seconds to swallow the bait and then shut the bail arm. As everything comes tight the angler just leans back
on the rod and the fish will be hooked.
Baitrunner type threadlines are the best reel by far for catching dolphin fish
on either live baits or pilchards.
Ideal line size is around 4 or 5 kg but it depends on the angler and the size of the fish being encountered. A light double handed spinning rod completes the tackle. Don't fish too light until the absence of any big fish is established.
The rig for casting pilchards or live baits is very straight forward. A 4/0 hook usually a Limerick or similar pattern is used with about 75cm of 20 to 25kg nylon trace and a small black swivel joins the line to the trace.
The trace is used to protect the main line from the teeth and wear and tear of the fish. It is also essential for lifting the fish from the water and handling
them in the boat.
Dolphin fish are difficult to handle once landed as they thrash around madly when swung over the side.
Big fish intended for the table are best gaffed and swung straight into the ice box, dropped off the gaff and the ice box lid slammed shut. The lure can be disconnected and left in the fish and another lure clipped onto the rod until the fish is dead. Big fish over 15kg can be a real threat in a small boat so take care handling them.
If releasing a big fish be careful as the fish seem to find it easy to drive
hooks back into hands and arms with their writhing, twisting and kicking. Double hooked marlin lures can be a major trap for the unwary.
The smaller fish are no less difficult to handle. Those headed for the table are usually cut off over the fish box and a new hook is tied on. Those to be released can also be cut off, they'll get rid of the hook easily enough or flicked off using a hook remover. Fish destined for release are best not handled as they just get injured in the struggle.
When a patch of dolphin fish are found and stirred into a feeding frenzy big catches can be made, so anglers need to work out a simple release plan using cheap hooks. There is no reason to kill big heaps of them, just take enough for a good feed.
The feeding frenzy also makes for some great fishing with screaming reels, jumping fish and anglers going over and under in the cockpit to keep the lines clear. It is genuinely exciting fishing and can be a great experience for young anglers or those learning the craft. Even experienced anglers usually get a rev out of a good run of dolphin fish because so much happens so fast.
Dolphin fish are first rate eating but their gut putrefies quickly if the fish
are not iced on capture. Without ice, they are very ordinary fish. Don't waste time catching these fish if ice is not available to keep them in good condition.
The fish from 2kg upwards make the best eating and are easily filleted and skinned ready for the fry pan.
Dolphin fish will also freeze very well and keeps up to six months if packed
Dolphin fish are a complete fish, run to catch, good to eat and worth chasing when they're around. The skills needed to catch them are easily learnt and few fish can generate as much action in the cockpit as a mob of dolphin fish. If the basics are right and the dolphin fish are around then good captures will follow.