FADs & Dollies

Mick Chalker targets mahi mahi (aka dorado or dolphin fish) off the New South Wales coast

Mahi mahi (Hawaiian for ‘very-strong’) are unquestionably one of the most beautifully coloured fish on the planet, and just the mention of their name conjures up mental images of bright summer sun reflecting hues of gold, blue and green in a cobalt ocean. Mahi mahi, dorado, dolphin fish or ‘dollies’ as they are referred to on my local fishing grapevine, are a perfect fly fishing target. Highly visible and curious, they are sometimes aggressive to the point of reckless abandon, although when spooked by increasing summer holiday boat traffic, they can demand a more refined approach. In New South Wales when the East Australian Current (EAC) sweeps in close to shore bringing these magnificent sports fish within range of the small boat brigade, fly fishers can access some truly world class fishing. The consistency of this fishery is largely thanks to the Department of Primary Industries dedicating a portion of the recreational fishing licence revenue towards the deployment and maintenance of Fish Aggregation Devices or FADs. Mahi mahi lend themselves perfectly to this habitat through their natural tendency to school around flotsam, often sharing their temporary home alongside kingfish, tuna, marlin and even dolphins. Although I say sharing, it would be more accurate to say taking their place in the oceanic food chain. In tropical waters, mahi mahi are a year round prospect, but in the sub-tropical climates of New South Wales they usually appear in spring and depart to warmer climates in autumn. This is great news for the increasing number of visiting anglers during the major holiday periods. My home port of South West Rocks is blessed with a geography that sees the EAC slam right into the coastline. With its convenient proximity to the continental shelf, Hat Head is just a short drive along the beach from Smoky Cape, a local landmark. This is a prominent feature on the map, extending east and capturing the warm ocean currents to bring a smorgasbord of marine creatures including hungry predators to the inshore waters. This can occur outside of the accepted norms of the fishing seasons, and 2020 provided some champagne fishing well into the heart of winter. Rugged up in outdoor wear more appropriate for a snow skiing holiday, my regular crewmates joined me in some memorable trips to the FAD. A tip-off on the Friday before the June long weekend set things in motion — dollies up to 80 cm were on the bite. David Prestwich, the only dedicated fly fisher among the regulars, joined me in a trip to the FAD on the Queen’s Birthday public holiday Monday. Conditions were challenging, as a moderate southwesterly wind opposed the south flowing current. Eventually, after some careful boat positioning and employing the spot-lock feature on the electric bow-mounted motor, we were able to cast and stack-mend line using the current to deliver our flies right onto the FAD. By stripping back line with varying speeds and pauses, we enticed enough bites to make it worth the wet ride home. Well, at least I felt that way after taking my best mahi mahi on fly to date, a beautiful golden fish of 76 cm, caught on a big Deceiver that I’d tied to look like a juvenile of the same species. Dave caught fish on his favourite bluewater fly, a white Deceiver with a red throat, but he couldn’t improve on his previous best. Earlier in the season Dave had racked up his first mahi mahi on the white Deceiver, when he enjoyed some success on spooky fish by using pilchard cubes as berley. I was facing down a skunking that day, but in a moment of inspiration I remembered the pelagic crabs I’d seen swimming around the FAD, and tied on a fly more at home on a tropical flat than in 105 metres of deep blue open ocean. Using a very light leader, I had instant success on the crab fly, only to break off after a prolonged fight. This seemed to have a very negative effect on the fish in the berley trail, as they vanished the moment my crab-eating opponent won its freedom, abruptly ending our session. A week after the June long weekend Matthew Ryan was crewman. Again rugged up against the wintery pre-dawn air, we set out early and collected some live yellowtail and slimy mackerel for Matt, who is yet to take up the fly rod but has expressed enough interest to make me hopeful for his future. The plan was for Matt to swim live baits out on conventional tackle as teasers, and for me to sight cast to fish attracted by his bait, or to any companions of hooked fish. Mahi mahi have a habit of swimming with other hooked fish, perhaps in the hope of an easy feed. On this occasion we noted on arrival that the water temperature was 23 degrees, much warmer than the surrounding air. Thankfully, as the day progressed, it warmed up and we shed layers to enjoy some of the best conditions imaginable. The fish were biting freely and the teaser baits enabled me to sight cast to multiple fish. The Deceivers worked again, and with a hot bite underway, I rested my favourites and went through my selection of flies, enjoying the process of observing which styles provoked the most enthusiastic reactions. Foam headed poppers with feathers in the tail were the pick. The natural movement of the white feathers seemed to induce more excitement than synthetic materials. The fish were cooperating and bent rods were the order of the day. During the frantic action we both laughed in turn at each other’s struggle to control the fish, even after netting — several made successful escape bids as we tried to measure them using the fisheries stickers on the gunwale. We had more than enough fish for the table, and enjoyed sledging each other as we fumbled the energetic dollies over the side. The following weekend Matt joined me again, this time with his son Angus. As a very interested young angler, Gus had researched our target species and enlightened me with some interesting facts. He told me that mahi mahi grow at an incredible rate of up to 7 centimetres a week, reaching a maximum length of 200 cm, are sexually mature at just six months old, and continually reproduce from that stage, rarely living longer than two years. With the mortality rate at around 98% on a yearly basis, my mind boggles at the life cycle of these amazing creatures. We employed the same tactics as on the previous outing, with Gus taking up the fly rod with eager hands and enjoying his debut. It was an even better day with bigger fish on average. Now armed with the knowledge from Gus’s tutorial, I wondered if perhaps any of the 61 cm fish Dave released two weeks previous were the 77 cm fish taking the prize for our biggest of the day. Matt, Gus and I enjoyed a morning that was more balmy autumn than winter solstice, with brilliant sight fishing, multiple double hook-ups, close encounters with migrating whales and plenty of great angling memories in the bank. We celebrated what would be the last visit to the FAD for the season with lunch and a few cold beverages at the tavern adjacent to the boat ramp, a ritual that was sorely missed during the Covid-19 restrictions. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries website lists the current status, GPS coordinates and distance from the nearest access points to all the FADs deployed in NSW, as well as information about the species encountered, etiquette and safety for recreational anglers. The South West Rocks FAD is approximately 16 km off shore and, if launching in the Macleay River, crossing a notorious river bar is required so please ensure that your vessel and crew are adequately skilled and equipped.

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