TRUTH: Nothing gets a fishing boat messier than a fast-paced bite on chicken dolphin. But it’s a good mess – a great one, actually – with fish flip-flopping uncontrollably, blood spraying every which way, and slime splattering across the deck. As anyone who’s experienced the chaos of landing multiple mahi-mahis at the same time can attest, it makes just the kind of a mess we anglers live for. Second truth: a cooler full of chicken dolphin also makes the kind of meal we live for.
One of the reasons dolphin fishing often leads to utter bedlam is that you’ll have a shot at multiple hook-ups at once more often than hooking individual fish. Loners of this species are rarely encountered, and it’s much more common to come across pods of a half-dozen or so fish, or larger schools of dozens of fish. And those dolphin stick together – reel one up to the boat, and in most cases the entire horde will follow. Play your cards right, and you can often catch most or all of the school.
The real secret to turning one fish into a free-for-all is preparation. You may spot mahi-mahi hovering beneath flotsam or you may get a fish on the line while trolling through open water, but either way, from the first moment you know there’s a dolphin around, you need to be ready to react to the entire school. Whenever dolphin are a possibility you should have a bucket of chopped fish or squid pre-prepped and in an easily accessible cooler or fishbox. The moment you realize the fish are there, someone should be assigned the job of tossing a small handful of bait chunks over the side of the boat. The school will usually rush in to feed, and the rest of the crew can then commence bailing the fish by threading a couple of those chopped baits onto a 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook tied to a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. Flip those bait into the frenzy (with either spinning or conventional gear in the 20- to 30-pound class) and it usually won’t be long before everyone aboard is knee-deep in fish gore.
If slinging lures is more your style than slinging bait, don’t hesitate to try ripping a four- to six-inch spoon through the water. Soft plastics can be effective at times, too. Just remember that mahi-mahi have excellent eyesight and usually follow and then reject a slow-moving lure;
ripping it at full-tilt usually leads to more hook-ups with artificials.
To make sure the action doesn’t stop prematurely, the crewmember tossing chunks should watch the fish as they eat. When all the chunks in the water have been consumed, don’t let more than a minute or two go by before sending another handful of bait over the side.
If you’re short-handed or running out of chunks, keep one fish on the line and in the water. As long as it’s swimming next to the boat, the rest of the school usually hangs around. This tactic is less reliable than feeding the fish, but it does work most of the time for at least a few minutes. Then you can set up a chain; when a second fish gets hooked the first can be landed, then the angler keeps fish number-two in the water. Then when a third gets hooked the second fish can be swung aboard, and so on.
How will you locate a school of chickens in the first place? Trolling while keeping a sharp eye out for flotsam is the usual method. Remember that mahi can be found hiding under just about anything: a weedline, buoys, a tree limb, or even an old pizza box floating around out there can harbor fish. So as you troll someone should always be positioned as high on the boat as possible and in a tower if applicable, with a pair of binoculars. He or she can then call out directions for a new course to the captain, as flotsam is spotted.
Much of the time dolphin are encountered by trollers targeting other species, so no matter what you’re after, if there’s a shot at mahi make sure you have at least a couple of offerings in the water which they’re inclined to hit. Small rigged ballyhoo are certainly a top pick. Small (four- to six-inch) soft plastic squid are another good bet. When choosing colors, remember that these fish love to strike at blues and greens, but pink-colored lures often seem to be their preference.
A word to the wise when you have chicken dolphin on your radar: make sure your raw water wash-down is working, keep a scrub brush handy, and when the bite slows sluice away the slime and blood before it has a chance to bake on in the hot sun. Otherwise it’ll be a serious chore to clean up the boat, after that hot chicken dolphin action has created the sort of mess an angler’s dreams are made of.
Bonus Tip: Occasionally you’ll spot a big bull among the chickens, which out-classes the relatively light rigs you’re using to bail the chickens. Always have a 30-pound class or heavier rod rigged up with a 60-pound leader and a 10/0 or 12/0 hook ready for action, for this specific fish. When you spot it, inform the crew to get the light lines out of the water, because a 30- or 40-pound bull will usually shred 20-pound spinning gear or chew through 40-pound leader in short order. Bait up the big rod with a whole fish that’s too large for the chickens to eat (a horse ballyhoo is excellent for this purpose) and cast it as close to the big fish as possible.
Double-Bonus Tip: Sharpies also keep a rod ready and rigged with an eight to 10 ounce fast-sinking speed jig at the ready. When a school is located, this spoon gets dropped deep beneath the fish then cranked back to the surface at full-tilt. While it rarely gets hit, this spoon does on occasion get followed to the surface by a monster mahi. Those bigger ones sometimes sit down deep and shadow a school of smaller chickens, and while they usually don’t strike the spoon it does get them curious. They follow it to the surface, and when they see the bait bits hitting the water, they get fired up and start chomping.
This video from Daniel Ledet shows how fast and furious a chicken dolphin bite can get.
—story & photos by Lenny Rudow