As summer gives way to fall, the dorado begin to show off Southern California.
Whether you call them mahimahi, dorado or "dodos" (nobody on the West Coast calls them dolphin), these colorful, hard-fighting and extremely tasty game fish add an extra layer of excitement to every offshore adventure.
While anglers sometimes encounter schools of dorado in open water (it's always a good idea to troll some tuna feathers when traveling and/or prospecting), most dorado are caught under floating kelp paddies. Keep in mind that only one in 10 kelp paddies may be "holding" fish, so locating multiple paddies increases your chances of success.
Kelp paddies commonly stack up along the edges of deep-sea ridges and high spots. This is where a chartplotter with High Resolution Bathymetry fishing charts is very useful. helps you determine likely areas to focus your search and by marking the location of each kelp throughout the day (even unproductive ones), you'll see a graphic pattern develop that can indicate where more kelps are likely to be found.
Getting in the right neighborhood won't help if you drive right past a kelp paddy without seeing it. Have every possible set of eyes working the horizon for even the slightest glint of orange/brown. This is where a good set of gyro-stabilized binoculars can be worth its weight in gold. One crewman should be dedicated to glassing the water, looking for anything out of the ordinary -- spots of color, areas of slick water, and especially, sitting birds. Gulls and shearwaters will often rest on top of larger kelps, particularly paddies that have bait and gamefish under them.
Gaining the highest possible line of sight is advantageous. If you have a tuna tower, use it. Even on center console skiffs, anglers can gain a better, further view by standing atop the gunwale, assuming you have a T-Top to hold onto and the weather is smooth enough and don't forget to look behind you from time to time. Kelp paddies often break apart, creating satellite paddies. After finishing up on any kelp -- particularly a productive one -- take a good look around before you start running. There may be another potentially even larger paddy nearby.
The number one mistake made by novice anglers is running the boat right on top of the paddy. While some dorado may be spotted hanging right under the floating weeds, the bulk of the fish patrol a large perimeter. Besides, you'll attract the dorado to the boat when you put chum and bait in the water. I like to position the boat upwind of the paddy so I can drift past the kelp about a long cast away. As soon as I shut down, I'll chum with a couple of live sardines, along with some chunks of sardine or mackerel cut from used baits or ones that died in the tank. Keep a steady trickle of chunks going (along with the occasional live one) until you're hooked up or convinced nobody's home.
My typical go-to outfit for Southern California and Northern Baja dorado is a 7-foot live-bait rod and conventional reel spooled with 65-pound braid and a topshot of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. Dodos have surprisingly formidable teeth, so I start with 30-pound and a circle hook sized appropriately for the bait (typically a 6- to 10-inch sardine or mackerel). If the dorado seem line shy, I'll drop down to a 25-pound outfit. Circle hooks increase the odds of hooking the fish in the corner of the mouth, away from their dangerous dentures.
Tackle selection also depends on the size of the fish I'm seeing. It's common to encounter schools of like-sized fish, ranging from small "neckties" to sub 10-pound ?"Doritos" to 15- to 20-pound "knee slappers" to 20- to 40-pound "ball slappers."
Sometimes dorado charge the boat and eat everything in sight. But it's not uncommon for them to be extremely finicky, even though you can see them circling underneath you. I just experienced this during a mid-August trip aboard a friend's boat. We could literally see about seven 15-pound dorado following our hooked sardines around, but you could tell they didn't want to put out the effort needed to catch them. So we re-started our chunk slick and flylined chunks with 2/0 circle hooks buried inside. Once the first fish bit the chunk and got hooked, the commotion fired up the school and it was game on. When chunking, it's important to strip line off the reel so the hooked chunk sinks naturally and at the same rate as the surrounding chum.
Say you've pulled up on a paddy, done everything right, and have a few nice dodos banging away in the fish box. The bite dwindles and you find yourself a quarter-mile downwind from the kelp. Although it's usually a case of somewhat diminishing returns, it's absolutely worth making a second pass. It's also a good idea to slow-troll a couple of flylined baits as you idle back towards the paddy. I've often hooked up before making it even halfway back. And when it finally is time to leave a once productive paddy, make one last slow-troll in a 100-yard circle around the perimeter of the kelp, a tactic that frequently results in one last hurrah before you go back on the hunt.
When you do hook up, look for other fish following your catch. The thrashing and jumping of a hooked dorado ignites some sort of competitive feeding behavior. I've witnessed fish that had been swimming lazily around the boat suddenly get all lit up and aggressive, shadowing the hooked fish while trying to take the bait out of its mouth. Take advantage of this behavior by "leaving one hanging." That is, keeping one hooked fish around the boat at all times to keep the rest of the school interested. Once you get a second hookup, then you can gaff the first fish.