“These Hard -Fighting Acrobats Add Fiery Action To Summer Fishing Off Baja California”
As the panga raced over the slick surface of the Sea of Cortez on this hot July morning, its bow pointing seaward and its wake flat and true, all eyes scanned the purple-blue water for signs of fish. Except for our pangero, Jose Pepe Lucero Gonzalez, who was looking up at the sky and shielding his eyes from a glaring sun with his hand as if he were saluting the dawn of a new day in Baja California.
Suddenly we changed course. Gonzalez was pointing an index finger upward. The roar of the outboard drowned out my questions, so I attempted to follow his gesticular directions. Finally; the object of his attention came into view, a dark speck about the size of a grain of pepper hanging in the sky about a mile away which he had sighted well before any of us could pick it out. “Tijereta?” I yelled. A subtle nod confirmed that the speck was a frigate or man-o-war bird, called tijeretas in Baja, which means scissors (attributed to the bird’s scissor-like split tail that it uses for precise, high-speed maneuvers when feeding or stealing forage from other seabirds.)
Frigates are excellent fish spotters as they soar high looking for a combination of baitfish and predators such as marlin, sailfish and dorado that may chase the bait to the surface where they can be snagged in the frigate’s sharp, hooked beak. Frigates often “mirror” the depth of fish. The higher the frigate, the deeper the fish. When a frigate starts a descent it means the bait, and most likely game fish, are rising to the surface. Anglers should be on the spot when this happens because the opportunity to intercept surface- feeding game fish may last only a moment. It may also turn into a prolonged feeding frenzy, if you’re lucky.
“Our" tijereta was now soaring in tighter circles, dipping its wings and losing altitude quickly as Gonzalez twisted the throttle wide open to intercept the anticipated action. The water below the bird continued to appear lifeless, but the antics of the frigate told us it saw something that we couldn’t. As we came to a halt underneath the frigate, it suddenly swooped down off our bow and a flurry of flying fish shot out in all directions like stones being skipped across a pond. A blunt-headed, gold missile was hot on the tail of one flyer and closing fast. The bull dorado was inches from a meal when the cunning frigate deftly intervened and plucked the flyer away at the last second. “Did you see that!” I marveled. The show of predators was captivating, so captivating that we hadn’t even put out a lure.
Surface-feeding game fish, especially aggressive dorado, means popping time. I cast a pink PILI popper to the spot where the bull was last seen. The noisy; splashy surface retrieve from the popper must have evoked a painful memory of lost food from the dorado because it smashed the lure with a vengeance. The leaping, cartwheeling dorado reflected gold from the morning sun as it put my Shimano Calcutta 400 reel and 15-pound line to a stress test. The fish dived deep and fought stubbornly as I slowly pumped it back to the surface. This time, the 40-pound bull brought up some companions.
“Look at all the dorado!” angler Linda Niles said excitedly as a virtual school of dorado followed my hooked fish. Niles quickly cast another popper for an instant double hook-up, and soon the dorado were in a frenzy chasing sardinas tossed out in handfuls by Gonzalez, as well as the flying fish that remained in this area about four miles from the beach at Las Arenas. The commotion attracted more frigates, terns and a few more pangas eager to join the action. The hot dorado bite continued for about an hour before it dispersed. We already had an exciting, successful day after this quick start, and all from a bird giving us a signal to follow.
Birds, including terns, pelicans, gulls, fulmers, tropics and albatross as well as frigates, will lead anglers to game fish such as dorado if you remember to study the skies as well as the water. Prevailing El Niño warm-water conditions increased the range of dorado beyond the north Pacific coast of Baja into Southern California in 1997, and forecasters anticipate similar migrations in 1998. Anglers, whether fishing out of an East Cape resort or on a private boat from San Diego, stand a good chance of finding fast action with dorado. Understanding dorado behavior, how to locate them and using effective tackle and techniques (with a few tricks thrown in) are the keys to successful dorado fishing.
Dorado (a.k.a. mahi mahi, dolphin, dolphinfish or dodo) roam the tropical and warm temperate seas worldwide. Most of Baja is within the temperate zone, so dorado are usually seasonal visitors between late spring to fall when the seas are warm. In northern Baja’s Pacific, dorado migrations become less predictable but they will usually arrive during late summer, early fall in warm-water years. Dorado travel great distances, reproduce prodigiously and grow fast, making them an ideal game fish to pursue without endangering their numbers.
Dorado have distinct characteristics that will help you catch them. They are very gregarious and often travel in large schools, especially when young. Larger fish are generally more independent, but will associate with schools at a distance. Dorado are not only attracted to each other but all manner of flotsam or structure, either as feeding stations where forage may be found or out of curiosity; protection from predators or as a reference point in a vast sea. No one knows for sure. Flying fish, squid, mackerel and sardinas are prime forage, yet dorado are true scavengers and will feed on crab, chunk bait and even each other. Known as a pelagic, open sea species, dorado sometimes will venture close to land where they may be caught from shore, especially in lower Baja. Male dorado develop high profile, vertical foreheads as they mature, while females retain a more rounded profile. Usually, large fish are males.
Knowing dorado are attracted to surface objects, are curious, prefer deep water and are opportunistic feeders should help you plan your dorado fishing strategy. Some effective methods include looking for objects that may concentrate fish. Commercial shark buoys, common in lower Baja, and free-floating objects such as wooden crates and other flotsam are worth checking out. Natural attractions — kelp paddies, sargasso weed and scum lines formed by converging currents — are old reliables, but don’t overlook more unusual objects such as whale carcasses, turtles, floating trees and slow-swimming whale sharks. During the storm season from late summer to fall, watch for flash flooding where arroyos will spill all manner of vegetation into the sea. Within days this storm debris may be a hotspot for dorado as it is concentrated and moved offshore by the currents. During stormy weather dorado may spend more time in off-color, dirty water, so don’t run over water that looks bad.
Dorado will sometimes reveal themselves as they greyhound above the surface pursuing flying fish. It’s a spectacular show if you’re fortunate enough to witness a flying fish encounter. Frequently, dorado will feed on tiny organisms and juvenile fish that are nearly impossible to detect in the water. So don’t be discouraged if you cannot see schools of big baitfish in the area. Other marine life, such as porpoise, shark, seals, sea lions, tuna and billfish, may be feeding on the same prey and can help you locate dorado.
Good dorado anglers don’t troll aimlessly. They look constantly for signs of fish, maybe a distant surface splash, a color spot revealing a weed line or a faraway bird starting to work an area. On a slick sea, a dorado cruising the surface will create a small vee wake from its dorsal, and this can be spotted by attentive anglers. Determine its direction of travel and intercept by trolling or casting lures or bait nearby. The lesson is to stay alert, and you will find more fish.
TACKLE, TECHNIQUES AND TRICKS
Dorado are a perfect light tackle game fish. Fly, spinning and light conventional tackle in the 10 to 20-pound class are well suited for most dorado. A big 60-pound bull, however, may make you think twice about fishing light. It’s a good idea to keep a variety of tackle on board to match the size of fish encountered.
Dorado are unpredictable feeders. When they are in a frenzy almost anything offered will get bit. At other times they may be super-selective. Usually, trolling swimming plugs, spoons, feathers and live or dead bait will generate hook-ups. Anglers can switch to casting lures or bait to get a bite going. When dorado are around but won’t hit, a hot trick is to stop the boat and to simply start dropping chunks of bonito or skipjack (always keep a few on board) overboard.
Dorado will beat a path to your boat. Hook a chunk with no leader and let it drop at the same rate as the chum, and this should result in a bent rod and jumping dorado. Once competition for the easy food takes over, you can frequently go back to using lures.
The gregarious and curious nature of dorado can work to your advantage. When a dorado is hooked, keep it swimming about 30 to 50 feet from the boat and check for followers. Often several companion fish will follow the hooked dorado. Keeping a hooked fish in the water will encourage the free-swimming dorado to stay around longer. I have seen large schools of dorado worked to perfection with bites lasting an hour or more using this technique.
When you spot a big dorado on the surface with schoolies, it can be frustrating trying to deliver a sardina or mackerel to it before a smaller one grabs the bait. Use something a small dorado can’t handle like a big bait slab or whole bonito. Chances are the bull will rush in and take it away from the juveniles.
Although dorado can get lazy keep in mind that they have the aggressive attitude and body design for chasing “fast food.” You can’t troll too fast for them. Speed helps conceal distractions such as leader and swivel, and can increase hookups. Trolling faster than seven knots also will cover more water while searching for dorado.
Unless you know what they’re feeding on, put a variety of lures out. Surprisingly, small lures often work better than large plugs or skirted lures, especially if dorado are feeding on krill, juvenile squid, small sardinas or similar forage. I always troll at least one small-profile, three or four-inch lure such as the Kalakoa Krayon from PILI or a Moldcraft softhead in the spread, since even big bull dorado have been taken regularly this way. However, even small dorado will whack a big marlin lure on occasion. Trolling belly strips from black skipjack or mackerel slabs will also attract dorado.
For the most fun, however, I prefer casting surface poppers, which tease and excite dorado into furious surface hits. Casting shiny spoons and yo-yoing metal jigs are effective methods as well. Whatever lures you use, single hooks are preferred over trebles. Singles hold well and are much safer than trebles when you’re trying to remove them to release a thrashing dorado. In fact, some long-range crews will not allow trebles during a hot bite, for safety reasons alone.
A DORADO BITE TO REMEMBER
Dorado fishing is often like panning for gold — lots of effort is expended for a few nuggets. Many anglers have never caught their fill of dorado because this pelagic species is often scattered over a broad ocean. Concentrations of big dorado are rare. Fortunate anglers sometimes will strike it rich with a virtual Mother Lode of dorado riches. Witness Dennis Braid of Braid Products, who reports: "Three years ago, in October, I was on a 10-day trip aboard the long-range sport-fisher Excel cruising toward the Potato Bank in purple-blue, calm water. We got a call from the Polaris Supreme saying they were ready to leave an amazing school of dorado and to come on over. When we got there, looking down you saw solid fish and they were all big, between 25 and 50 pounds. The only surface mark was a small floating log, and I don't know if that attracted all these fish or not.
"They were ravenous and bit everything, I mean everything, immediately. After catching six or seven big dorado on bait, I took the hooks off one of my Pop Dancers. I'd get hit, wind like crazy and get hit again within four cranks. After 20 minutes the lure had no paint and was pretty beat up. Some fish even ran with the hookless lure and almost spooled me before dropping it. It got so crazy I stopped casting and just dangled the popper off the stem corner and they still fought each other for it.
"The boat recorded 400 dorado caught or released within 1 hour and 15 minutes before we called it quits. The dorado were still arriving in the area because when we left there were two or three times the amount of fish than when we got there. I may never experience a hot bite like that again," says an awed Braid.
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The Roving Angler