Dolphin Fish, Dorado or Mahi-mahi? Call it what you will, this powerful, speedy, and aggressive fish has been described as having the eyes of an eagle, the speed of a cheetah, and the mentality that made dinosaurs extinct.
One of the most exciting angling adventures available in Japan is lure fishing for dolphin fish. Not to be confused with the small toothed-whale of the same name, this is the middle-weight champion of offshore angling.
Drop a lure or bait into a school of feeding dolphin fish, and one will readily strike it. A hooked fish can put on an acrobatic display worthy of an Olympic gymnast—leaping, tail-walking, head shaking, darting first in one direction and then another. In short bursts, this fish can reach speeds of 80 kilometers an hour (50 mph).
Dolphin fish (Coryphaena hippuras) are also commonly known as Mahi-mahi which means "strong-strong" in Hawaiian. This name is especially used on restaurant menus to avoid confusion with its marine mammal namesake. In Japanese the name is shiira but, whatever you call them, dolphin fish put up a battle that won't soon be forgotten.
Dolphin fish are found world-wide in tropical and subtropical seas. In summer they follow the warm currents north from Okinawa, first appearing in the waters around the main Japanese islands in June.
These fish grow incredibly fast. At one year old, most weigh several kilograms. This fast growth rate keeps them eating constantly. Therefore they are voracious feeders, devouring sardines, anchovies, flying fish, squid and even smaller dolphin fish. Few live beyond their fourth year. The world record is almost 40 kilograms and 1.8 meters long. Here in Japan, a dolphin fish longer than a meter is considered a good catch. Another distinguishing characteristic of the species is the male's prominent blunt hatchet-shaped forehead protruding well above the body. Females are usually smaller with more rounded heads, but both have similar shaped bodies.
Typically found near the surface of the open ocean, dolphin fish have a peculiar affinity for floating objects of almost any kind: buoys, logs, boards, mats of seaweed, even dead whales. Anglers take advantage of this and charter boat captains will cruise about until they locate a floating object and then stop the boat close by, hoping to see the blue flashes of a school of dolphin fish.
Fisherman cast towards the object and, if the fish are in a feeding mood, a hit will come almost immediately. It can be an exciting time with reels screeching and lines crossing when several anglers have fish on at the same time.
The tackle favored for catching dolphin fish in Japan is quite sporty compared to the heavy trolling equipment used in many places. Because this style of angling came to Japan from the United States, rod lengths and line strength are usually given in feet and pounds.
Anglers need a reel capable of holding 200 meters of 16-to-20-pound line. The rod should be medium weight and from six and a half to nine feet long. The reel has to have a smooth, high-quality drag, or the fish will break the line.
Dolphin fish have lots of wicked little teeth that can chew up a light leader, so anglers will also need a one-and-a-half-to-three-meter nylon or fluorocarbon shock leader that is 50-pound test or stronger. Don't forget a ball-bearing snap-swivel to attach the lure to the line and to prevent the line from twisting.
Lures are of three basic types: top-water plugs such as poppers and pencil poppers from 11 to 16 centimeters long that cause a commotion on the surface; minnow plugs from 11 to 15 centimeters long that swim a meter or two under the surface, and quick-sinking 28-to-60-gram metal jigs that can be cast into the feeding frenzies caused when a school of predatory fish and a flock of seabirds rip into a ball of small bait fish.
Silver and metallic blue or pink are popular lure colors. It is best to take the barbs off your hooks; they can easily be crushed with pliers. This makes it easier to remove hooks from fish and from people should there be an accident. Use a rapid retrieve and hold on tight.
Dolphin fish can also be taken on flies. Small "peanut-sized" one-to-two-kilogram fish are real suckers for a streamer. Getting bigger fish into fly-casting range often involves using chum to get them close to the boat. Fly fishing is better suited to private charters since party boats are often crowded, making it difficult to cast a fly.
Fly outfits for dolphin fish should be at least 10 weight. A reel with a strong drag and plenty of backing is a must. Be sure to use a shock tippet of 50-to-60-pound test line.
Besides dolphin fish, anglers catch skipjack (katsuo), juvenile tuna (meji maguro), and mackerel (saba). Occasionally, tripletail (matsudai) and Spanish mackerel (sawara) are also caught. Off shore, you can expect to see plenty of sharks (same) and on rare occasions even marlin (kajiki).
Besides landing four dolphin fish from 85 to 110 centimeters and two skipjack on my recent outing, I had some extra excitement. I was casting a large pencil popper at a school of anchovies in hopes there might be a jumbo-size dolphin fish lurking nearby, when a two-meter shark took my lure.
I reeled it right up to the side of the boat but don't think it knew it was hooked. As soon as the shark realized what was happening, it took off, my reel buzzing like an angry bee in protest. With my rod bent into a U-shape, I twice got the shark to within 15 meters of the boat before its rough sandpaper-like skin cut through my heavy leader.
In addition to being a top-of-the line game fish, dolphin fish are considered by many to be excellent eating. In Hawaii, it is said that people who dine on mahi-mahi risk spoiling themselves for any other island dish.
Even though it is hard to beat when deep-fried, dolphin fish is not very highly regarded table fare here in Japan because it rates as “just OK” eating when served as sashimi.
In the Kanto Region the dolphin fish season generally runs from June through September with a few fish sticking around into November. The peak months in the main islands are July and August (May and June in Okinawa).
The price for an individual on a party boat charter (or noriai) costs from ¥8,500 to ¥10,000. Renting the whole boat runs from ¥50,000 to ¥80,000. Most charter services have rental rods and reels available, but anglers need to buy their own lures.
In addition to fishing tackle, you should take a pair of pliers and a small towel for unhooking and handling fish. Out on the water, the sun can be brutal, so be sure to bring plenty to drink, some strong sunscreen, a hat and some Polaroid sunglasses. The sunglasses will not only protect your eyes from the sun and flying lures, but will also cut the surface glare so you can see fish for sight-casting.
Here are a few charter services I have used:
Shousaburo-maru (Hiratsuka,): www.gyo.ne.jp/shou3/
Hiromi-maru (Odawara, Kanagawa): http://homepage2.nifty.com/hiromimaru/index.html
Kanshichi-maru (Numazu, Shizuoka): http://park5.wakwak.com/~kanshichi/top.htm
Some Web sites of Japanese fishing periodicals that list charger services throughout the country.