• Published:March 23, 2018
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There's no such thing as a sure thing in fishing.

About the closest thing you can get is bailing dolphinfish under lobster pot balls off the edges of the Mid-Atlantic canyons.
These beachball-sized floats are usually set between 50 and 100 fathoms and can be found during the same time frame that dolphin (also known as mahimahi, dorado, or do-dos) migrate up the coast. Though the fish may arrive as early as May or June, plan on them to show up any time the water temperature rises above 67 or 68 degrees. This fishery is most reliable from early July through September.


It’s not too often we recs have something to thank commercial fishermen for but in this case, their efforts give our type of fishing a serious boost. The poly balls and their mooring lines create a haven for small fish and shrimp, which in turn attracts predators. Some balls have small secondary floats five or 10 feet from the main ball and a “high flier” radar reflector. This increase in mass regularly holds larger schools of fish than single balls. The amount of growth on the bottom of the ball and on the line also has an effect. If the ball is fresh and clean, it may be deserted while those that have been out there a while with lots of growth offer far better prospects.

Interestingly, these fish don’t stay with any particular float for an extended period of time. Participating in the Dolphinfish Research Program, my boat has tagged several hundred mahi caught around the balls. Two have been recovered and in both cases, they were caught less than a week later from around a different ball – in one case, 6.2 miles from the tagging spot the very next day.

Many offshore anglers troll past these lobster pot balls, and catch fish using this tactic. Not nearly as many, however, as stopping to “bail” the fish. To bail the dolphin start by cutting butterfish (or any other readily available baitfish or squid) into domino-sized chunks and put them in a bucket. Then rig up 12- to 20-pound class gear, spinning or conventional, and tie on a four- to five-foot fluorocarbon leader of at least 30-pound test with a circle hook in the 6/0 to 8/0 range. Stick with circles, so the jaw-hooked mahi don’t saw the leader with their teeth. Then bait up with a butterfish chunk the same size as the ones you cut for chum.

Rig a heavier rod with 50-pound leader and bait it with a whole ballyhoo. Place this rod in a rocket launcher. If you see a monster mahi show up, clear the other lines and feed the bull the big bait. 
When you arrive, pull up to within casting distance of the ball, reach into your bucket and throw a handful of chunks up-current of the ball. If there are any fish around, you’ll see them dart up and chow on the chunks. Toss in another handful to put the fish in a swirling frenzy, and flip your baits into the mix.

On occasion (usually when there are a lot of boats at the canyons trolling back and forth across the balls all day) the fish will become finicky. You may see them eat chunks but bypass baits, or even swim up to the baits, stop at the last moment, and turn tail. In this case, try sliding a whole squid onto your hook. Most of the time, the fish can’t resist a squid or live bait. A well full of peanut bunker or finger mullet, procured via cast net, can shock a school of spooky fish into feeding mode. Hit the mahi’s buttons by bouncing a few livies off your outboard cover or the transom of the boat, with just enough force to injure but not kill them. When they start swimming in tight, panicky circles, the water will erupt with the mahi’s vicious attacks.


How the balls are approached is one of the things that separates casual anglers from sharpies who score big numbers on a daily basis. Boat handling is the most important factor in this regard.
Like any fish, dolphin can be agitated by boat noise and they definitely don’t like the metallic clunk of a transmission going into gear. Savvy anglers will plan their approach at idle, from the down-current (or down-wind) side of the ball, until the bow of the boat is 10 yards or so up-current of the ball. Then they’ll swing the wheel around hard, so the stern of the boat slides towards the ball, while shifting into neutral. Time it right and you’ll have the transom facing the ball, well within casting distance. Time it wrong and you’ll be tempted to shift into reverse, and back up closer to the ball. Don’t do it! This is the number-one way of shutting down the bite. Wait for the boat to drift a good 50 yards away from the float and reposition or try bailing from where you sit.

Another common mistake anglers make is pulling the fish too far off the ball, and then losing the school. Many anglers will leave one hooked fish swimming next to the boat, as they attempt to hook others. This is an effective tactic and it often holds the school alongside your boat, but be careful. If you drift a quarter mile from the ball with the school in tow and then break the chunk line, the school will scatter. If you stop chunking when you’re within 100 feet of the ball, the mahi will usually go right back to the float and you can pull in for another attack. Two or three passes will either decimate the school or pound the fish hard enough that they stop feeding.

Allow baits to fall for several minutes when there are still fish around, even if they’re not getting hit, because after a pass or two at a ball the fish may stop rising to the surface but will eat baits 20 or 30 feet deep. That said, if you don’t get any bites after five minutes or so, that usually means no one is home. Rather then spend a lot of time working the same ball, you’re better off moving to another.

Serious bailers will tease large fish up from the depths. Mahi over 25 pounds may swim down deep beneath a school of five- to 10-pounders. To make sure you get a shot at these fish, keep a large, heavy lure with plenty of flash (such as a Wahoo Bomb or diamond jig) tied to a high-speed reel. When you pull up to a ball, drop the lure to 100 feet and crank it back to the surface as quickly as possible. It’s rare that the fish will strike the fast-moving metal, but they will follow it back to the surface, see the smaller mahi in a feeding frenzy and join the party. The angler can then switch the lure rod for the big rig with a whole ballyhoo and target the biggest fish in the bunch.


Any other flotsam you encounter in the deep can hold a school of mahi. Use these exact same tactics, and you’ll fill the cooler.

Speaking of filling the cooler… Bailing at the lobster pots can lead to absolutely outrageous catches. At times, you’ll look up from the helm to see your anglers standing on a deck awash with blood, everyone hooked up or shoving a fish into the cooler while dozens more swarm the boat in a feeding frenzy. It’s all too easy to take more fish than you really need. Keep a good headcount and tag-and-release those you don’t need. Fish smart, and you’ll have a ball at the balls.