The giant bull dolphin struck the skirted ballyhoo rig with a vengeance, catching the fishermen by surprise. They were already locked in battle with two other large dolphins. Half an hour later, the big bull lay on the bloody deck of Salty Intentions, a 25-foot Contender owned and captained by Michael Bell. His friend James Roberts caught the fish using a Star Rods Aerial Stand-Up Rod paired with a Penn Squall 16VS reel.
Angler James Roberts (L) and Michael Cahoon (R) with new Georgia state record Mahi-Mahi.
Bell and Roberts had been fishing with Michael Cahoon, Shaun Bragg and James Bashlor approximately 90 miles off the Georgia coast when they landed the prize mahi-mahi on April 26. The Georgia DNR officially certified the fish to weigh 68-pounds, 1.6-ounces—a new state record.
Mahi-mahi, also known as dolphinfish, dolphin and dorado, typically range from 10 pounds to 30 pounds when boated. The world record mahi-mahi, caught off the coast of Costa Rica in 1976, tipped the scales at 87 pounds. The previous Georgia state record for mahi-mahi was 67-pounds, 9.6-ounces, caught by fisherman Will Owens in 2019.
Run to the Gulf Stream
St. Catherines Sound is located on Midway River, between St. Catherines Island and Ossabow Island, approximately 28 miles south of Savannah, Georgia. For more than 20 years, Captain Michael Bell has been making the 80-plus-mile trip from the sound to the Gulf Stream, where he chases tuna, wahoo, mahi-mahi and other bluewater gamefish.
The long distance requires an extra early start, so on April 26, the group of anglers met at Captain Bell’s house at 2:00 am. They left the Georgia DNR Demere Creek Ramp onboard Salty Intentions around 3:30 am, heading east toward the Triple Ledge in the darkness.
“We’ll go to the Triple Ledge and try to catch a wahoo and a blackfin tuna to start out. They normally hang out on that ledge, so we’ll put out some wahoo and tuna gear,” Bell says.
Trolling Triple Ledge
Breezy conditions that day limited the Contender, which is powered by twin 200-hp Yamaha outboard motors, to a top speed of 30 miles per hour. The sun had just started to rise when the group reached the Triple Ledge. They began trolling along the structure and soon caught a pair of amberjacks down deep using a planer. After catching a few mahi near the ledge, they decided to run further offshore. Captain Bell scanned the horizon, looking for a temperature break, weed line, feeding birds—anything that would hold fish or indicate feeding fish.
At around 400-feet deep, the fishermen crossed a long weed line that a couple of boats were already working. After scanning the area, they continued on until they reached a depth of 1,800 feet. Despite a thorough search, they couldn’t find any fish, so Bell decided to head toward the Deli Ledge. On the way, they again crossed a weed line in about 400- to 450-feet of water, approximately 85 to 90 miles offshore.
“I’m assuming it was the same rip that I had seen south of there, so we stopped on that rip and then we set out a spread,” Bell recalls. “We didn’t do anything for the first few minutes, and then the next thing you know, the bite was on.”
The Salty Intentions crew had found a Mahi motherlode.
Fish box aboard Salty Intentions filled with the days catch, including the new state record dolphin fish.
“They just started tearing it up. I had a Squid Nation bucket dredge out and it got to where we were catching so many fish that I couldn’t even run it, so I put that in the boat,” Bell says. “We started tearing the dolphin up. We caught dolphin nonstop, all day. We loaded the boat with dolphin.”
Shortly after 2:30 that afternoon, a double-header of dolphin hit the starboard long and short riggers. Bell slowed the boat in order to manage the spread while they fought the two fish. On the opposite side of the boat, James Roberts grabbed a rod and began to reel in line in order to free up room for the other anglers. That’s when a large bull dolphin hit the skirted ballyhoo—and then dropped it.
“When I picked the rod up, I snatched it out of the outrigger. It fell back probably two seconds before the boat’s momentum caught up with that lure and started snatching it again. That activated that fish. I don’t know where he came from—but he came from hell, buddy. He came out of the water and knocked the bait out of the water twice,” Roberts says. “Each time he’s doing it, Captain Bell kept hollering, “Drop it back! Drop it back!” I would hit the free spool, drop 30 to 50 feet back, lock it back down and it snatched it again.”
Similar to sailfish and other gamefish, mahi-mahi will often initially strike a bait and drop it. They will then circle back and, if the bait appears to be dead, proceed to try to eat it.
Captain. Michael Bell with state record fish.
“The fish hit it, struck out and commenced to peeling drag,” Bell remembers. “At this point, we got a triple hookup. We’ve got two mid-20s dolphins on the right side of the boat and him on the left side of the boat and it’s burning out. I see the fish charging away and it was a huge bull dolphin. I had no earthly clue that it was that big. I just knew it was a nice one. I’m thinking an upper 40s fish, just a really nice bull dolphin.”
As Roberts continued to fight the monster Mahi, the rest of the crew cleared the remaining empty rods and finally landed the other two fish. Everyone then focused on the Mahi that Roberts was tangling with.
“We reeled him in and he burned the drag out. We finally got him in sight. We got off the braid and onto the mono. I usually run about 60 yards of mono on there,” Bell said. “You could see him out there. He was like a giant planer board. You couldn’t make up ground with him when he turned sideways in that current, so I had to start easing in his direction and we’d reel up to him.”
Bell handed the wheel over to James Bashlor, another seasoned fishing boat captain who was fishing onboard Salty Intentions that day. Bell then grabbed a gaff and continued to coach Roberts who had been fighting the big fish for nearly 30 minutes.
“It was straight battle. It wasn’t no playing alongside the boat. His ass was back there tailing and walking and hauling ass,” Roberts says. “He kept taking line. I just kept fighting him back in until he finally wore out.”
Captain Bell gaffed the mahi, but the tip of the gaff accidentally lodged in the boat’s rub rail, leaving the fish hanging precariously over the water. Roberts grabbed a second gaff and hooked the fish in the tail. At the same time, Bell finally cleared the boat’s rub rail with his gaff and slung the mahi into the boat. That’s when the fishermen realized that they possibly had a record mahi on their hands. They stowed their gear and Bell set a course for St. Catherines Sound sea buoy, which was 94 miles away at that point.
“It was literally the best fishing trip I think anybody on that boat had ever had in their life,” Bell says. “We caught 44 dolphin that day, and we had some monsters. We had that state record, but we had several fish in the 40s and a ton of fish in the 30s. It was epic. We had five 60-quart coolers full of fillets.”
After returning to shore, the fishermen had the mahi officially weighed at the Georgia DNR Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery. Although James Roberts will go into the record book, he credits everyone on board for making the catch possible, especially Captain Michael Bell.
“I attribute this entire day to Captain Bell and his crew because he’s got his shit together. He knows what he’s doing. I’ve been fishing offshore off and on for over 20 years, and I’ve never had the pleasure of fishing with people as good as Captain Bell,” Roberts says. “We caught 44 fish that day. Ninety percent of the dolphin we caught tail-walked across the water, so it was a thrill all day long.”
Star Rods Continues to Set Records
Michael Bell began using Star Rods exclusively onboard Salty Intentions after fishing with the rods on James Bashlor’s boat.
“Honestly, I love them. They’re a fantastic rod for the money in comparison to other rods,” Bell says. “My rods are three years old now and I haven’t missed a beat with them. I troll the Gulf Stream with them. I also bottom fish with them. I’ve caught a truckload of fish on those rods—big sharks. I got videos and pictures of 200- to 300-pound sharks that we caught while we were bottom fishing with those rods. Not to mention huge red snapper, grouper and 30- to 40-plus pound amberjacks. I mean I’ve worked them.”
Both Bell and Roberts are quick to praise the Star Rods Aerial Stand-Up Rod that landed the new Georgia state-record mahi. The six-foot Star Rods EX1530C6 features a medium action and a line rating of 15-30 lbs.
“It didn’t let me down at all. That’s all that he’s got on his boat is Star Stand-Up with Penn 16VS’s and I was impressed,” Roberts says. “I had no problem at all fighting that fish. I believe that rod could have handled something twice that size.”
Learn more about Star Rods and find an Official Star Rods Dealer at StarFishingTackle.com