As I was preparing to help deliver a brand new Passport 545 from Hampton, VA to the BVI, the proud owner emailed the crew to to let us know that one of our fellow crewmates, Geoff Mason, had ‘guaranteed’ that he’d catch us a large dolphin fish (aka Dorado or Mahi-Mahi) during our 1400 mile passage south.
“Great!” I thought. You see, although I’ve been a lifelong sailor — and eater of fish — I’ve never had much luck actually catching fish. Here was my chance to find out from someone who guarantees success. And I’d get to have a fresh fish dinner as well!
Note that the dolphin we were trying to catch are not the ‘Flipper’ type mammals. They’re fish and not particularly endangered as a species. But it’s the possibility of confusion has caused most English-speaking restaurants to use the menu term ‘Mahi-Mahi’ for them, which I’m told means ’very strong’ in Hawaiian.
So here’s the gist of Geoff’s advice for sailors plus some notes on the right kit to have onboard:
All my prior efforts at fishing under sail have involved a hand-line wound around either a rectangular frame or a ‘Yo-Yo’ type spool. We had a Yo-Yo on board this passage but it caught nothing compared to the equipment that Geoff specified: a relatively short 6’6″ rod and a Penn 114h2 reel holding up to 400 yards of 60lb test monofilament. The rod also had a holder mount on the boat’s stern rail and a holster for the fisherman to wear during the fight.
Geoff pointed out that while the ‘Yo-Yo’ style hand-line is obviously easier to stow aboard a sailboat, a rod acts as a built-in shock absorber when a fish strikes backward or out and away from a forward-moving boat and it also is a far better tool with which to fight a fish once it’s hooked.
Next bit of Kit: the ‘right’ lure and hook. Dolphin fish hunt by sight and they can’t bite what they can’t see so that’s why a lot of lures are vivid colours. But they won’t strike on seaweed so we needed to check the lure regularly to make sure the lure hadn’t snagged any. That was a lot of extra work given the large amount of Sargassum weed that we sailed through.
Geoff likes this one.
Tie the lure to the line with a fisherman’s knot that’s developed for monofilament line. These knots are not in most sailor’s usual repertoire as monofilament isn’t traditional sailing cordage.
Behind that, Geoff likes at least 6′ of heavy mono filament leader ( 100lb test) with heavy swivels. He prefers to double this by adding an extra 2′ or so of stainless leader since he’s seen a fish’s tail shred the thinner line behind a short leader as it fights for it’s life.
Try a mix of artificial lures, a single hook, lead head feather or plastic feathered jig. 6″ long or so.
The purple and silver ones got the best results on our passage.
Step One: Put the line out!
But when and where?
They are surface feeders with excellent vision which they use to catch their prey. Because they hunt by sight, you need to let out enough line so that the lure is behind the foamy white water of the boat’s wake: for most cruising sailboats, that’ll mean about 150′ of line. Of course, the faster your boat moves through the water, the further back the lure needs to be.
The best time to catch a fish? Well, since they hunt by sight, you can’t catch Dolphin at night, So put out the line well before sunup, then keep fishing (and checking for snagged weed) until you’ve either caught enough or until just after sunset — as dawn and dusk tend to be the best ‘feeding times’ for these creatures. Geoff’s ‘top tip’ is to look for some sort of visual stimuli in the optical void of the ocean. Dolphin fish love to hanging around these structures. Be it a large patch of seaweed, a log, or even floating garbage.
Then, sit back and wait…checking every half hour or so to make sure that there’s no weed on your lure. It can be a bit frustrating waiting and catching nothing but weed but the fish will come and then it’s on to the next step.
Step Two: Fish On!
At this point it’s important to stop the boat as best you can —- or at least slow it down. Exactly how you do this will depend upon what wind you have and what point of sail — and with what sail combo you have up. Unless you’ve got a spinnaker (symmetrical or otherwise) your best bet will likely be to heave-to.
Reeling in the bigger fish is a real workout.
Step Three: Fish alongside.
Time to call for one of the crew to get the gaff — another essential piece of kit if you want to get larger fish onboard. From my earlier attempts, I knew that this is when a lot fish ‘get away’. The momentum from the writhing weight of a large fish hanging in the air can easily tear a hook out of a fish’s mouth.
Action stations! Geoff recommends having three able-bodied crew members on hand when the fish is on—-even, as in our case, you have to get them up from their off-watch. One will need to hand steer, one to gaff and one to help kill and cut it up.
Hoist the fish on the gaff until it tires.
Step Four: Administer ‘the Priest’ — your choice of sharp knife through the brain, a blunt winch handle blow to the head or — our choice, a mist of alcohol sprayed into its gills — cheap rum will do but or in our case since, since we were a dry boat on passage, rubbing alcohol from a spray bottle worked fine.You’ll see the dolphin fish change colour rapidly from bright yellow (hence their Spanish name, dorado, “golden”) before finally fading to a pale yellow-grey.
Geoff fought and brought this one home. At around 40lbs, it was the biggest one that we caught, although our first fish — a blue marlin larger than this — was released as soon as we could get it alongside.
Step Five: Once deceased, get the hook out and have someone stow it safely while you hold the fish securely and get a ‘safety line’ through its gills and mouth to stop the still slippery beast from sliding over the toerail while you can go to…
Step Six: Prepare the beast for the galley. Here’s where you’ll need: a sharp fillet knife and gloves. Cleaning and filleting fish on a moving deck can be a work out so having a pair of fishing — or at least good quality fishing — or at least rubber — gloves for cut and stink-free hands during and after filleting. Do it on a wet cutting board (to make clean-up easier) and away from the cockpit if possible. Afterward, place fillets into ziploc bags and pop them into the fridge straight-away.
Finally, wash down the deck with lots of salt water using the ship’s bucket on its lanyard. You should still be hove-to at this point as it makes all of the above work so much easier and safer, but you still need to be very careful with that bucket – one or both of you can easily be pulled overboard. And you wouldn’t want to miss the fresh fish dinner, would you?