Ask a group of anglers the most desirable characteristics they would seek in a fish to pursue and you can bet the farm that strong, colorful, acrobatic and aggressive would be at the top of most of their wish lists.
Dorado, sometimes known as dolphinfish, mahi-mahi or even “do-dos” (not to be confused with the air-breathing dolphin or porpoise), meet all four characteristics, putting them near the top of the list as one of the most sought-after gamefish on the planet … attracting conventional, light-tackle, and spinning anglers as well as fly-fishers who are willing to travel.
When given warm water in which to thrive and plenty of food, dorado grow at an astonishing rate. It takes only 40 hours for a fertilized dolphin egg to become a free-swimming larva; then the fry begins to feed and grow in earnest. By 15 days, the little dorado has attained about one-half inch in length and already has the blunt snout of an adult. By 30 days, the fish has doubled in size and features dark vertical bands along its body that make the one-inch fish look very much like a tiny feather.
Dorado are an attractive quarry regardless of the tackle. Their sheer numbers found in some schools along with a ravenous appetite have earned them the derisive title of “do-do’s”, implying that they are the “round heels” of fish – always easy and eager.
While amusing, nothing could be further from the truth.
Dorado are the professors of the sea, allowing anglers to fine-tune their techniques and tackle choices.
Want to learn to fish with a flyrod? Saltwater flyrodders consider dorado the rainbow trout of salt, only much larger and stronger. Prefer light tackle, spinning, surface poppers or trolling? Bring it on! Experiment with new tackle or techniques and they will be there for you.
If you want to teach kids, wives, girlfriends, mistresses, husbands or boyfriends to fish, dorado are your friends, allowing you to introduce your students to the best part of fishing: catching.
The Baja Peninsula is literally surrounded by dorado from the Southern California border all the way to the tip of Baja and back up into the northern reaches of the Sea of Cortez below San Felipe, accounting for their near-universal popularity. Beginning in early June, as the water temps in the Pacific begin to creep up above the mid-60s, schools are found in open water or huddled under anything floating from a single strand of rope to kelp paddies.
Farther down the peninsula, below Magdalena Bay, where water temps seldom fall below the mid-60s, dorado can be found year-around in varying quantities. The best time to fish for dorado is between April and late October before they begin to diminish in numbers as the seasonal north winds gain strength in the Gulf.
No other village in Baja has become as synonymous with dorado as Loreto (population-14, 724). Each spring, Sargasso blooms float to the surface of the waters off of Loreto, forming great clumps of matted debris. Usually by June, plankton and then small baitfish gather in the shade of these mats, in turn, attracting the eye-catching dorado, (which means gold in Spanish). Then the “gold rush” is on as more and more dorado take refuge beneath the Sargasso.
Like the California gold rush of the 1800s, the summer dorado bite in Loreto attracts anglers from far and wide.
Hotels lining the beaches fill up and Loreto’s large fleet of pangas and cruisers are reserved years in advance. Fathers, mothers, children and grandchildren all join in the annual pilgrimage. Old friendships are renewed and new ones are formed among the many repeat visitors.
The peak season only lasts a few months and during that time there are a handful of tournaments, usually held during July, with the primary focus on the golden ones.
The pangueros – in many cases second or third generation – have hosted visitors eager to capitalize on the world-famous dorado fishing. They have earned the respect of the anglers who have traveled long distances to enjoy the remarkable dorado fishery. Tricks and techniques have been handed down from father to son.
Many years ago, I fished with a captain in Loreto who had mixed modern age technology with old-fashioned common sense. When we met him on the beach and climbed into his well-maintained panga, the entire deck was covered with palm fronds. As we headed out to Sea, I asked him why he had the palms; he just smiled and said mas-tarde (more later).
An hour later, we coasted to a stop and he laid the woven mat of palm fronds on the surface of the Sea of Cortez. After marking the spot in his GPS, we wandered off in search of dorado. A short time later, he punched in the numbers and returned to where the palm mat had been laid on the water. Deep in the cobalt blue water beneath the palm mat were the telltale golden shapes of dorado milling about. After tossing a few sardina, the sea erupted as turquoise and gold fish streaked across the surface. My partner and I cast our flies into the melee and it was “fish-on!”… again and again. For more than an hour it seemed like a take on every cast. Finally, both of us – hot, tired and thirsty – sat down for a cold one while the captain gathered up his palm frond mat to use another day.
Many generations of anglers from near and far have come to Loreto to seek Baja’s gold … the golden dorado that made the town famous and seldom does an angler leave disappointed.
Even smaller communities farther to the north, Mulege, gateway to Bahia Conception and even smaller Punta Chivato, have cashed in on dorado’s popularity offering tournaments during the summer peak season that are also well attended.
Farther south, while the dorado action is similar to the neighbors to the north, the summer months at East Cape offer a variety of species including striped, blue and black marlin along with sailfish, yellowfin, wahoo and even roosterfish from the beach diluting the impact of the dorado.
With the exception of the Van Wormer family, owners of three hotels in Los Barriles, most tournaments held from La Paz to Los Cabos don’t restrict their contests to only dorado. The Van Wormer’s “Dorado Shootout” held every July features a brand new shiny pickup truck as first prize and has grown in only a few years to become the largest dorado tournament in Baja Sur, attracting teams from as far as the mainland, to participate in the dorado action in the East Cape area.
As I mentioned before, dorado can be found under almost anything that floats, from a piece of rope to seaweed. Several years ago we had a group fishing at East Cape. Boats had spread out looking for anything floating that would provide shade for the baitfish to gather and, in turn, attract dorado. After looking for about an hour, the VHF radio crackled to life. One of our boats had found a floating log. Even though a handful of boats were surrounding it, the dorado where thick! A quick calculation on the GPS told us that we were three miles from the spot, so it was pedal to the metal and off we roared. As we slid into the group of boats, we saw all the anglers were hooked up, and it was obvious that the bite was on. Hardly containing their enthusiasm, the two anglers on my boat tied on poppers. Casting from each corner of the stern, their poppers hit the water on the back cast. Before they could pick up the poppers, dorado had grabbed them and were headed for the horizon. Even though we were the last to arrive at the party, the anglers were tired and quit before the bite shut off.
Another hot spot that is often overlooked is Magdalena Bay. Several years ago, during one of our annual trips in late October searching for striped marlin, we were ‘running and gunning’ from one bait ball to the next. Twenty miles or so offshore in an area famous for billfish sunning themselves on the surface or tailing down-swell as the afternoon breezes kick in. Suddenly, high flying frigate birds began swooping down in free fall to snatch unsuspecting baits driven to the surface by pursuing billfish, dorado and yellowfin tuna. A few feet above the water, terns, seagulls and pelicans were hovering and diving over huge bait balls, fleeing from ravenous schools of fish.
While fighting a striped marlin on a fly, the angler and fish were only a flyline apart as the fish frantically attempted to increase the distance while the angler used every trick he knew to bring the 8-foot+ fish close enough to retrieve his fly and release it.
While the angler and fish continued their dance, what happened next changed the entire focus of that Magdalena Bay season! We realized that our boat was completely surrounded by the largest school of dorado we had ever seen … not the “chicken dorado” variety; these fish were all in the 15- to 50-pound class. We tossed a few live sardines into the water and the ocean erupted as the dorado chased down every sardine. Seconds later, the flies hit the water and the bite was on!
The angler soon subdued the marlin and it was released while everyone else whooped and hollered as they hooked dorado after dorado. The bite continued until mid-afternoon when it was time to head for the beach. How many were caught? Quien sabe! But all agreed that it was the best dang dorado bite they had ever experienced.
Each morning thereafter, as we roared out to the zone, we worried that the bite would shut off, but as we slowed down to begin fishing, we were pleasantly surprised as the schools of dorado would appear along with a sprinkling of marlin. We fished throughout the month of November; the weather remained good and the dorado bite was over the top.
Throughout the trip, we fine-tuned our presentations using 12-weight rods with poppers whenever we were in the middle of the huge schools of fish. Initially, we tossed a few sardines into the water and of course the dorado charged. Tentatively, our anglers began casting poppers and doing that little short ‘pop-pop’ routine. The dorado didn’t buy that routine at all! They continued streaking back and forth so close to the boat that you could touch them the tip of the fly rod. However, once we began introducing them to ‘commotion in the ocean’ by shortening our cast and sweeping the popper across the water as fast as possible, it was fish-on!
Another trick was to sight-cast to a dorado and after getting look after look with no takes we began teasing them by making short casts in front of them…then picking the fly back up when they turned on it. Casting again a little farther out and repeating the process worked. It was seldom that they did not track the fly down by the third cast.
One more thing…leaving one fish in the water to keep the school around is a popular trick that works. Also some local captains will try to convince you that releasing your catch will spook the school, but we haven’t found that to be an issue.
Others fishing in the area grumbled that there were too many dorado and that it was difficult to get a fly past them to catch a marlin.
Our groups were happy to take advantage of the action and let the marlin take the backseat.
Once again, Baja proved that it was still full of life and tricks: The marlin “go-to” spot was magically transformed into a memorable “rope a dope dorado” event.
Dorado in Baja are as common as chips and salsa or margaritas and salt. The old adage about “just eating one” comes to mind. Try catching just one dorado. Come to think of it I can’t ever remember an angler frowning while catching one. However, I can remember many laughing out loud …