Mahi Mahi are brightly colored and have a very distinctive body shape. They can be great fun to fish because they’re strong (Mahi literally means “strong”) and put up one heck of a fight. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this beautiful saltwater fish, discover where it lives, how to fish it, and how to cook it up once you catch it.
What is a Mahi Mahi?
Mahi Mahi is sometimes called dolphin or dorado, although it’s not related to the bottle-nosed mammal in any way. Its scientific name is Coryphaena hippurus and its only relative is the pompano dolphinfish, Coryphaena equiselis. The two have similar body shapes but wildly different coloring. Special light reflecting cells called chromatophores enable the Mahi Mahi to make subtle changes to their coloration. When alive, these fish are bright metallic blue and green with golden highlights and blue freckles. Soon after being caught, however, these fantastic colors fade and the fish becomes dull and brownish. Its cousin, the pompano, appears in hues of metallic silver and blue.
The average size of Mahi Mahi is around three feet long and thirty pounds, but they can grow to double this size. They have a blunt head and a tapered body that ends in a strongly forked tail fin. Both males and females have a dorsal fin that runs the length of their body, but mature males often develop a bony ridge on their heads. The anal fin starts at the fish’s midpoint and extends all the way to the tail. It has two pointed pelvic fins just below the pectoral pair, which can be compressed into a shallow groove against the fish’s body. The Mahi Mahi’s mouth is relatively small, not extending past the eye, but lined with many sharp teeth. They also have a round tooth patch on their tongues. Pelagic Gear has some great Mahi Mahi photos in this article.
Where to Find a Mahi Mahi
Mahi Mahi is a mostly pelagic saltwater fish. They can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and prefer to live between the tropic and subtropic latitudes. They’re fished in the Caribbean, the Mediterranian, and as far east as Japan and Taiwan. When they’re young, they will travel in schools of 50 or more. As adults, they prefer to either pair off or travel alone. You can find them hanging out under floating debris, trash, or patches of sargassum. They’ll even follow along behind boats. Since they hunt by eye, they’re most active in the daytime or when there’s a lot of light for them to see their prey.
Off the Florida coast, the best times for fishing Mahi Mahi are September and October when the cold weather has encouraged them to head south. St. Augustine, Amelia Island, and Jacksonville are great areas in the Northeast part of the state. The bigger fish tend to be caught in the Florida Keys area. Record-breaking catches of Mahi Mahi are made every year down in the Bahamas, if you’re looking to do some springtime fishing. Keep a lookout for flying fish and frigate birds to give you a clue to where the Mahi Mahi are hanging out.
For a world map of this fish’s range, check out the Florida Museum’s Mahi Mahi page.
Best Bait for Mahi Mahi
Mahi Mahi is a voracious predatory fish and an opportunistic feeder. Like most fish, their diet changes as they mature and as they attain the height of their growth, they go for larger bait. Males, because they are usually bigger than the females, tend to feed more often to keep up with their metabolism. A Mahi Mahi’s favorite meal by far is flying fish. They gobble up flying fish more often than anything else, constituting about a quarter of their normal diet. They’ll also eat baitfish like mackerel, sardines, and ballyhoo. Any smaller fish that’s active at the surface will attract the attention of a Mahi Mahi. They will even eat immature Mahi Mahi. That being said, don’t rule out crustaceans like shrimp and crab or cephalopods like Caribbean reef squid. When the Mahi Mahi stop striking on baitfish, it can be a valuable tactic to throw out a shrimp or two and see what happens.
As for presenting whole baitfish to Mahi Mahi, use a single long shank hook in through the gill slit and out through the throat. For a weedless version, just reverse the hook and stick it back into the fish. Adding a small skirt over the nose will make the setup more streamlined so it can slip through vegetation without a snag. The sharp teeth and strong fight of the Mahi Mahi means you’ll need a good line. 110-pound-test fluorocarbon leader of several feet is perfect when using larger bait.
A whole squid is hard for a large Mahi Mahi to resist and you’re likely to hook a lot of other large sea fish like mackerel or blackfin tuna, depending on where in the world you are, on the same bait. Set whole squid up on a panel rig, using two good-sized hooks. 7/0 Mustad 3407 or any standard trolling hook will work. Put the first hook through the head of the squid and draw it all the way through so the squid is on the leader. Then, hook the squid a few inches down the mantle so that the hook is pointing away from the bait and toward the leader. Pull the leader so the eye of the hook is flat against the bait. This is fine on its own, but to make it a panel rig, take your second hook and slide it down the leader until it’s a couple inches from the squid. Twist the leader around the hook about four times and put the point through the top of the squid. Now you’ve got two hooks, one on either side of the bait, that will hang onto a fighting Mahi Mahi.
Rigging with live shrimp is a bit different from squid and not just because of the shrimp’s exoskeleton. On a shrimp, make sure to avoid hooking it through its brain, which is the dark spot on the back of its head. Hooking it through the brain will kill the shrimp and it won’t present as an appetizing snack for the Mahi Mahi. Instead, pinch off the tail of the shrimp and insert the hook through the back end. Work the hook through the shrimp and out its back. Avoid pulling the point out where the legs are or skewering it through the middle.
Best Lures for Mahi Mahi
Because Mahi Mahi put up a strong fight and are mighty tasty fish to eat, they’re one of the most popular fish with saltwater anglers. As with any popular target, lure and tackle companies have devised all sorts of options to draw strikes from Mahi Mahi. While everyone has their favorites and it’s good to try a variety of lures each time you go out, there are a few options that stand out from the crowd.
As always, it’s best to get a handle on what the fish in the area are eating and use lures that mimic that. So, if the Mahi Mahi where you’re trolling are eating loads of flying fish (as they probably are), use colored lures that mimic the blues and silvers of flying fish. Jet rigged lures are great as ballyhoo skirts and work well even on their own. The Boone Gatlin Jet in blue is a good option. These lures have little holes that produce a bubble stream when drawn through the water. Crane Lures 4-hole Jetted Bullet is another strong choice.
When you’re surface fishing, try a large chugger or popper. These will throw a lot of water and make plenty of noise to get the Mahi Mahi’s attention. Rapala makes a Chug Bug series that works well, especially the Ratlin’ Saltwater Chug Bug in metallic blue or silver mullet. A slightly pricey but still reliable choice is the Bill Collector by Jaw Lures. It’s got a ten-inch chugger chasing a seven-inch squid skirt. The “tuna” color is the best at mimicking flying fish, but it comes in “angry dolphin” and “bonito” which have more red/orange coloration. For in-depth coverage of rods and reels for Mahi Mahi, check out the Sportfishing Lures article here.
How to Clean, Fillet, Prepare & Cook Mahi Mahi
Anglers like to go after Mahi Mahi so much not just because they’re pretty fish that put up a challenging fight. They’re also a delicious fish to bring home to the dinner table. Its fairly firm texture is mild with just a touch of sweetness. Mahi Mahi is a white fish that some liken to grouper or halibut in flavor. It is not oily or fatty at all. The thick skin should always be removed before cooking.
To filet a Mahi Mahi, first remove the head and then cut into the skin all the way along the back. Then, cut the collar and a steep angle so you don’t miss the meat underneath. Starting at the tail, cut along the bone and use your thumb to pull the flesh up so you can easily separate it and see where you’re cutting. When you get down to the spine, continue to pull up on the fillet and cut through the rib bones. Drive the point of your knife out of the bottom of the fish right at the anal fin and, using a fluid motion, slide the blade out through the tail end. Once you have that fillet done, just flip the fish over and repeat. To skin it, make about a one-inch cut through the tip of the tail. Get a good grip on that last inch or so of skin and pull it taut. Then, just slid your knife down the fish.
There is a lot of good meat on a Mahi Mahi. Once it’s been filleted and skinned, there are a lot of different ways to cook this tasty fish. Remember that it’s a mild fish and easily overpowered by chili, onions, and other strong flavors. Butter and herbs are a delicious way to go, baked or pan fried. If you want something a little more adventurous, check out the two recipes below.
Seared Mahi Mahi with Zesty Basil Butter, from The Food Network, brings together the delicate flavor of Mahi Mahi fillets with a little garlic, some ground pepper, a bit of lemon juice, and some fresh basil. First, you make a warm basil butter by melting butter and adding most of the herbs. Then, you pan sear the fish with salt and pepper and serve it hot with the basil butter on top. Admittedly not the lowest calorie dish ever, but the leanness of the Mahi Mahi makes up for a little of the butter.
Brown Butter Lime Mahi Mahi with Avocado Salsa, from The Recipe Critic, is another butter-laiden dish, but with a tangy twist. It’s a quick fix too, at about thirty minutes. It involves a brown butter lime sauce and an avocado salsa with corn, cilantro, and tomatoes. You can bake, grill, or put the Mahi Mahi in a skillet to cook until golden. Then, douse in the butter sauce and garnish with the salsa.
Obviously, if you have a problem with butter, these two recipes aren’t the best for your diet. In most cases though, you can sub in olive oil or margarine. No matter which way you fillet it, Mahi Mahi is a pleasure to catch and a pleasure to eat. No wonder it’s such a beloved game fish.
Learn how to catch another delicious fish: How to Catch a Black Sea Bass