On the Water: Summer Sargassum mats lead South Florida anglers to mahi mahi

ABOVE: Doug O’Neal and Chris Deen hold a 30-pound bull dolphinfish, or mahi mahi, that Deen caught using a live goggle-eye near a large sargassum mat off Palm Beach in July 2019. Mahi mahi fishing tends to be good during July and August in the waters off Palm Beach County.
BELOW: A small dolphinfish leaps from the water after being hooked east of the Boynton Inlet.
Photos by Willie Howard/The Coastal Star

By Willie Howard

Summer is prime time for South Florida anglers to search the ocean for dolphinfish, better known by their Hawaiian name, mahi mahi, or simply mahi.
Floating mats of sargassum, the tan-colored marine algae that holds small fish and serves as feeding grounds for mahi, often appear along the coast of South Florida during the long, hot days of July and August.
Sargassum mats are floating habitat. They harbor tiny crustaceans and attract small fish such as almaco jacks, triggerfish and filefish, which mahi find tempting.
Many offshore anglers enjoy searching around sargassum mats for mahi, especially in the relatively calm seas of summer. Brightly colored, mahi are easily spotted in the clear Gulf Stream water. They fight hard, jump high and make excellent table fare if handled properly after being caught.
Unlike many other places where mahi reside, they’re often caught relatively close to shore in the waters off South Florida — though runs of 10 miles or more into the Atlantic are not uncommon for anglers searching for mahi during the summer.
Dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus) are renewable resources compared with other ocean fish. They start reproducing at a young age and can grow several pounds a month, which is one reason fisheries regulators allow anglers to keep a generous 10 mahi per person daily. (Minimum size: 20 inches to the fork of the tail.)
Anglers searching for summer mahi can troll along lines of sargassum that form along bands of current, or stop near sargassum mats and pitch out jigs, plugs and chum such as chunks of sardines or squid.
Mahi trolling baits include the classic rigged ballyhoo (often dressed up with a hooded skirt such as an Ilander) and trolling lures such as Billy Bait’s Mag Turbo Whistler or the C&H Rattle Jet.
If you catch a mahi while trolling, consider leaving it behind the boat and casting out jigs or hooks holding chunks of dead sardine or hunks of squid. Other mahi often approach the boat and linger around a hooked fish in the water.
Another popular method for finding mahi is running from one sargassum mat to the next, favoring larger, thicker mats that shelter lots of small fish. Cast out jigs, dead baits (pieces of sardines, ballyhoo or squid) and splash the surface with topwater plugs to attract mahi.
If no fish show up around the weed mat, move on.
Show courtesy to other anglers while fishing for mahi. Don’t invade a spot already occupied by another boat. Wait for the boat to leave or hunt elsewhere.
Similarly, don’t cut in front of a boat that’s trolling.
Keep an eye out for floating objects such as logs, wooden pallets or even buckets. They could be sheltering small fish that attract mahi. Sea birds circling or swooping down to the surface can point the way to mahi, which often push flying fish and small baitfish to the surface where the birds can snatch them.
Once you’ve caught a legal-sized mahi and decided to keep it, ice it well. Try leaving the plug in the fish box or cooler and adding ocean water to create an icy slush. Proper icing will make mahi easier to clean and better at the dinner table.
Any anglers planning offshore fishing trips should leave some type of float plan telling where they’re headed, who is on the boat and when (and where) they’re due back on land. A simple text message to a friend or relative will do.
For safety, boaters headed into the open Atlantic should carry quality life jackets, plenty of drinking water and a ditch bag holding a satellite beacon (an EPIRB) and hand-held VHF radio to use in case of trouble.
Anglers interested in tagging and releasing mahi for research can get started by going to www.dolphintagging.com.

CCA/Florida’s STAR tournament
CCA/Florida is hosting its STAR summer fishing tournament again this year, with big prizes for registered anglers who catch tagged fish and smaller prizes for anglers who submit photos of their catches to benefit fisheries research.
The first tagged dolphinfish caught by a 2020 STAR-registered angler wins $10,000 or a scholarship. A registered angler who catches one of the tournament’s tagged redfish could win a boat.
Participating anglers can win prizes by submitting photos of fish, including redfish, snook, sea trout, grouper, kingfish, dolphinfish or tarpon. Any fish photographed and submitted by registered anglers can be entered in the Power Pole Conservation Division.
To promote conservation, fish can be released after photos are taken.
Anglers are encouraged to collect plastic and garbage from waterways while fishing and to submit photos showing 5-gallon buckets of rubbish (photographed with the 2020 STAR fish measuring device).
Registered anglers who submit photos of collected trash will be entered in a drawing to win prizes, including a three-day trip to Key West to visit the Hemingway Rum Distillery.
The STAR entry fee is $40. Participants download the CCA/Florida STAR smartphone app and must pick up a 2020 STAR measuring device at boating stores such as West Marine in Delray Beach, Marine Connection in West Palm Beach and Tuppen’s Marine & Tackle in Lake Worth Beach.
To register or learn more, visit www.ccaflstar.com or call 844-387-7827.

FWC extends survey of reef fish anglers
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is extending its Gulf Reef Fish Survey to the waters of the Atlantic and Monroe County.
As of July 1, recreational anglers who fish on Florida’s east coast for reef fish such as snapper, grouper, amberjack and triggerfish will be required to add a free “reef fish angler” designation to their saltwater fishing licenses.
The designations were not available until July 1, so law enforcement planned to take an educational approach to the requirement at first, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said.
“We suggest you get it as soon as possible,” Nalley said.
The FWC plans to use the system to improve data collection about recreationally caught reef fish. Every month, a group of reef fish anglers will receive a short survey about their fishing trips in the mail.
Any place that sells fishing licenses can add the reef fish angler designation to a license, including the phone-based system, 888-347-4356, or the online fishing license portal, www.gooutdoorsflorida.com.

Restrictions eased on dive boats, pier anglers
Palm Beach County eased coronavirus-related restrictions slightly on operators of commercial dive boats and on pier fishing.
Effective June 11, county officials amended earlier restrictions to allow dive boats to operate with the same capacity as other recreational commercial boats, meaning they must comply with CDC social distancing guidelines.
Restrooms on commercial recreational boats must post CDC guidelines and offer soap, water and/or hand sanitizer for patrons.
Operators also must mark seating areas with tape to separate passengers by at least 6 feet.
All boaters still must maintain social distancing. Boats still must remain at least 50 feet apart and cannot raft up or engage in other activities that result in gatherings of 10 or more people.
A previous restriction that required dive shops to fill tanks by appointment and deliver tanks curbside has been lifted.
Anglers at fishing piers must stay 6 feet apart under the updated order. A previous order required pier anglers to stay 10 feet apart.
Details on the latest emergency order can be found at www.pbcgov.org.

Coming events
July 11: Second leg of West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s Full Moon Wahoo Tournament Series. (Third leg set for Aug. 1.) Entry fee $60 per boat. Catches must be verified on video. Weigh fish 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 6 to 9 p.m. at Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores. Each team must include at least one fishing club member. Entry fee $60. Call 561-309-1397 or register at www.westpalmbeachfishingclub.org.
July 11: Big Dog & Fat Cat KDW Shootout fishing tournament is planned, based at Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores. Captain’s meeting July 10 at Sailfish Marina. Entry fee $200 per boat through July 6 or $250 thereafter. Details: www.bigdogfatcat.org.

Tip of the month
Summer is nesting time for shorebirds and seabirds. They often nest on mangrove islands and other relatively quiet beaches. Boaters and beach-goers can do their part by staying at least 300 feet away from posted nesting areas and trying not to disturb nesting birds, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission advises.
If birds become agitated or leave their nests, you’re too close. Birds calling loudly or dive bombing are signs that you should back off.

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