Mahi-Mahi: Colorful Acrobats

by Brian Horsley


Dolphin, dolphinfish, mahi-mahi, dorado—or whatever name you wish to call them—are almost the perfect quarry to target with fly tackle. These colorful fish are extremely aggressive feeders, and also are known for making acrobatic jumps and blistering short runs when hooked. Sound like fun? Read on.

Mahi-mahi inhabit tropical and warm water seas all over the world. Though they are usually found in deep water, they sometimes wander close to shore. A migratory schooling fish with an amazing growth rate, experts have reported dolphin as young a three weeks old being reproductively mature. Mahi-mahi are wonderful on the table and have a starring role in many a fish taco. The best part is their high growth rate and almost continuous spawning make them a reasonably sustainable food source.

While they are found all around the globe, some of the better hotspots for mahi-mahi fly anglers are in the Western Hemisphere. Florida’s east coast and the Keys host good mahi-mahi fly fishing, and the Sea of Cortez off Baja Sur Mexico has long been an established hotspot for mahi-mahi. The fish are known as dorado in many Latin American countries.


Mahi-mahi are attracted to floating structures, such as Sargasso weed, buoys, building lumber, or any kind of flotsam that serves as both a hiding place and source of food. The first creatures that usually show up around the floating objects are small fish. Then, the mahi-mahi move in to pluck off any careless baitfish that wander too far from protection. Mahi-mahi can also be attracted with chum.

Anglers enjoy the best mahi-mahi hook-up rates when the fish first show up in the chum slick, or when you make your first few casts to a floating object in the ocean. The first few times they see a fly they will attack it with reckless abandon, but they can become wary after seeing a fly over and over again. Mahi-mahi will often react better to a super-fast, two-handed strip, so the farther from the boat you can place the fly the better—the longer the retrieve, the more chances you’ll have at hooking up. Poppers, such as crease flies, gurglers, and other foam patterns are perfect flies for mahi-mahi. Other fly patterns, such as chartreuse-and-white Clouser deep minnows and Lefty’s Deceivers, also work well.

RIO's Tropical OutBound Short is a great line for mahi-mahi fishing. This line will let you quickly deliver a long cast. Use the floating version for poppers and the intermediate for bait fish patterns. RIO's Coastal QuickShooter XP will also fill the bill. if you prefer a line with a less aggressive taper, try the General Purpose, Tropical Floater or Intermediate. Spool these up on a Sage 6210 reel and a sage salt, X or Method rod, and you've got the tool to get it done. Nine to 10 foot saltwater tapered leader has a medium stiff butt section that will let you turn over unruly flies like Crease flies. it is a good idea to add a foot or so of RIO's Fluoroflex Saltwater tippet in 25 or 30 pound test. this extra bite tippet will protect your leader from the mahi-mahi's teeth. Their teeth are not that big but will wreck your tippet on a prolonged fight. 

Once hooked a mahi-mahi will give you a high-flying show and a blistering run, so the first few seconds are intense—be ready by always making sure your fly line is clear. If you plan on releasing your mahi-mahi, be careful when the fish comes to the boat. They can be tough—thrashing and surging about—so be careful not to get a hook in your hand. Barbless is the way to go. If you decide to harvest your mahi-mahi, get it to the ice quickly. Most fly anglers release almost all of what they catch, for various reasons. Even though they are an acceptable source of sustainable seafood they deserve our respect and should not be abused. The fun of the chase and thrill of the hook-up are what these fish are really about.