They leaped at the chance to hook mahi-mahi. But L.A.’s hottest fish is hard to catch

The Enterprise ferries anglers to warming waters near Santa Catalina Island in search of rare schools of dorado.
The Enterprise ferries anglers to warming waters near Santa Catalina Island in search of rare schools of dorado.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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The waning moon glimmered in the shallows of Rainbow Harbor, seagulls still blinking sleep from their eyes as the anglers huddled at the edge of the pier.

Some had followed friends’ fish stories to the small Long Beach landing. Others were lured there by Instagram.

All were chasing the dorado — better known by its Hawaiian name, mahi-mahi — a luminary of the sport fishing world whose sudden appearance last month off the Los Angeles coast has sparked a feeding frenzy among local anglers.

“I’ve been fishing since I could hold a fishing pole, and I caught my first dorado a month ago,” said Randy Roa, 30, of Long Beach, who wears his passion for the sport inked on his skin, from the bass on his thumb to the hook in his neck. “Normally they’re not up here. Until they’re gone, it’s a sprint.”

With the athletic prowess of a dolphin, the iridescent scales of a mermaid and the snub-nosed visage of a bulldog, dorado are among the most striking fish in the Pacific, and some of the most challenging to land. Mahi-mahi means “very strong,” and the fish are prized as much for their tasty flesh as for their acrobatics on the line.

Kurt Dahlin of Redondo Beach wears a shirt he purchased in Costa Rica depicting a dorado.
Kurt Dahlin of Redondo Beach wears a shirt he purchased in Costa Rica depicting a dorado, better known by its Hawaiian name, mahi-mahi.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“They go crazy,” said 20-year-old Jalen Moore, a barber from Bellflower. “Once you start reeling, they jump up out of the water. They give a strong fight.”

Though common off the coast of Baja California, the tropical predators rarely venture north of the U.S.-Mexico border. When they do, it’s typically to follow warm water left behind by El Niño.

But the Pacific has seen two winters of La Niña, when cold waters reign. That’s been a boon for L.A.’s anchovy, one of the “forage fish” that larger species such as dorado rely on, experts say.

“Anchovy are doing really well, and I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the large pelagic fishes,” explained John Hyde, a biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, referring to the category of deep-sea fish that live near the surface of the water.

As the summer’s heat waves warmed local waters — abetted partly by climate change — yellowtail, barracuda and dorado swam up to catch the bait.

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Now, barbers, nurses and steelworkers are giving chase.

The Enterprise fishing boat ferries fishermen to warming waters near Catalina Island in search of rare schools of Dorado.
The Pacific has seen two winters of La Niña, when cold waters reign. That’s been a boon for L.A.’s anchovy, one of the “forage fish” that larger species such as dorado rely on, experts say.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )

“This is a monumental moment, because usually people have to travel very far and spend a lot of money to target these fish,” said Marcus Fain, a scientific aide with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who has been cataloguing the phenomenon as part of his work on the California Recreational Fisheries Survey. “Now there’s a huge opportunity for local fishermen. It’s pretty much unheard of.”

Overnight, what would normally be a multiday, cross-border venture became an $80 day trip with a $3 parking fee. By 5:45 Monday morning, more than 40 everyday Angelenos were lined up to board the Enterprise, one of scores of deep-sea fishing boats chasing dorado full time.

Just days earlier, the same boat brought in 199 dorado. Two weeks before that, it snared almost 250.

“When I came out before, there were probably 100 boats within casting range,” said Daniel Dahlin, 27, a fishing bait-maker from Redondo Beach.

Burlap sacks used to stow caught fish aboard the Enterprise
Burlap sacks are used to stow caught fish aboard the Enterprise, one of scores of deep-sea fishing boats chasing dorado full time.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But a fisherman’s luck is notoriously fickle.

Despite her sudden abundance, the Pacific’s most coveted beauty is very hard to catch.

::

“If you’ve ever caught a dorado, you know they fight a lot,” 45-year-old Diana Vega explained as she strung her pole in the blue light of dawn. “You have to fight back. It’s exhilarating, even though it’s just a short amount of time.”

It was just after 6 a.m., and the Enterprise was speeding past container ships on its way out of Long Beach. The water was quiet and tranquil, the smell of bait fish and salt air overwhelmed by the scent of bacon frying in the galley.

“I grew up fishing because my father wanted only boys,” Vega added. “But my son loves deep sea fishing. He’s totally obsessed. If he could fish every day, he would.”

The Enterprise ferries fishermen to warming waters near Catalina Island in search of rare schools of Dorado.
The Enterprise ferries anglers in search of rare schools of Dorado. Crews use sonar to triangulate schools of game fish, trading tips and sightings over the radio. But most of the time, they’re watching the water.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The mood was sleepy but buoyant as the ship made its way through the dark azure water, which plunges some 2,000 feet. Most, like Vega’s 18-year-old son Preston Tran, were asleep. Others watched the sunrise in silence.

A garbled announcement from the cockpit warned of cooling weather and “tough fishing” over the last two days.

But few were awake to hear it, and the rest were too busy dreaming of dorado to heed.

“Just the way they look, they’re very beautiful, and their colors are striking,” mused Alex Rodriguez, 23. “And they taste pretty good too.”

“They’re really pretty,” 23-year-old Andrew Martinez agreed. “They’re green and blue and out of this world. The colors on them are one of a kind.”

Meanwhile, in the cockpit, all eyes were trained on the horizon. Crews use sonar to triangulate schools of game fish, trading tips and sightings over the radio. But most of the time, they’re watching the water.

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Fishermen stand shoulder to shoulder, becoming entangled with each other's lines.
Eager anglers stand shoulder to shoulder on the Enterprise, often becoming entangled with one another’s lines.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“This style of fishing is going from [kelp] paddy to [kelp] paddy, looking for schools,” said Dahlin, the bait-maker. “When you see gulls or pelicans diving, that tends to mean bait. Where there’s bait there tend to be game fish. A lot of it is cat and mouse.”

The Enterprise had been meandering after such signs for close to an hour when a pod of dolphins appeared in the distance. Radar showed there were yellowfin tuna just beneath them.

The ship made a hard turn to starboard. Anglers ran for their rods. A dozen dolphins leaped and spun alongside the boat as Capt. Sean Rubino — known to everyone as Bobby Hill for the cartoon character he resembles — shambled down to chum the water.

But the excitement was short lived. The tuna weren’t biting, and the mahi-mahi were nowhere to be found.

By 9:45 a.m., the boat had made three fruitless stops with nothing to show but a light dusting of sardine scales.

The crew decided they would head for Catalina Island, where the anglers could land bass instead.

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“Wind ‘em up!” the captain called over the loudspeaker.

::

Kurt Dahlin of Redondo Beach aboard the Enterprise fishing boat.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Most of sport fishing is not fishing.

There are exceptions, of course: abalone diving, fly fishing, the salmon run.

But for most anglers, fishing is 15% casting and 85% chitchat and Dramamine cat naps. On the hunt for dorado, stops can be few and far between.

“It’s fun and relaxing on the water — look how calm it is,” said Fred Jackson, a steelworker, who left his home in Corona at 3 a.m. to catch Monday’s boat. “A bad day of fishing is still better than a good day of work.”

Still, by 11 a.m., passengers on the Enterprise were growing restless.

“They need sonar,” groused a blond 20-something with a broad surfer accent.

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“Fishing is just wasting money and getting sunburnt,” his companion replied.

Even Fain, the Fish and Wildlife worker, was losing confidence.

“This is the first time in months I haven’t seen any,” he said.

Worse, by noon the bass off Catalina Island had turned shy. Bobby Hill hurled sardines overhead with the practiced arm of a softball pitcher, their silver scales clinging to hair and arms and T-shirts as the anglers crowded the stern of the boat.

Sean Rubino, aka Bobby Hill, tosses baitfish into the water as fisherman on the Enterprise troll near Catalina Island
Capt. Sean Rubino, a.k.a. Bobby Hill, tosses bait fish into the water as anglers on the Enterprise troll the waters near Catalina Island in search of Dorado.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Yet no sooner did the bait hit the water than the island’s pinniped denizens gobbled them up.

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“Sea lion — they’re our worst enemy,” grumbled Capt. Mitch Christensen. “They scare the fish and steal the bait.”

For the past hour, he and Easton Ito, 27, had been working the radio for a lead on the dorado. The prospects were dim. But if they planned to chase the glittering predator, they would have to do it soon.

The sea lion barked for more chum.

::

It was 1 p.m. and the galley was doing a brisk business in Coors Light and despair. In another 90 minutes, the Enterprise would turn back to shore. Most anglers had long since abandoned any hope of catching a dorado.

But the crew was steadfast.

Christensen steered the ship, his stomach turning the wheel, his binoculars pressed to the glass of the cockpit. Rubino and Ito took turns on the radio.

“It’s a little slower, but you have to look for [dorado],” said Roa, who’d stripped off his shirt in the midday heat. “I’ve been up there with [the crew] and that’s all we’re doing — trying to find them.”

The shadows of anglers aboard the Enterprise are cast in the boat's wake as they search for the elusive Dorado.
The shadows of anglers aboard the Enterprise are cast in the boat’s wake as they search for the elusive Dorado.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Suddenly, in the distance, a ray of sunlight seemed to leap out of the water.

“We got a pack of dorado!” Christensen called over the loudspeaker. “Let’s hope they want to bite!”

The anglers rushed for their rods, elbowing one another for position. Bobby Hill hustled down to man the bait barrels. Marcus Fain grabbed his clipboard.

Only Fred Jackson was calm. The steelworker sat with his arms crossed, waiting to see what would happen.

In the water, dorado shimmered like a mirage, their aqua and chartreuse scales mimicking sunlight on the waves. Then, half a dozen passengers were being dragged around the boat by their reels.

“Follow your lines!” Ito shouted, as Fain ran to guide an angler around his fellow fishermen. Lines tangled into one another, catching shoulders and sunglasses and the buttons on top of baseball caps. As fast as fishermen hooked them, the dorado broke loose.

“That was a big bull that came up right next to the boat,” Fain said breathlessly, as he gestured into the melee. “These people are getting bit and don’t even realize it. These fish are mean.”

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“Hot rail, hot rail!” Roa shouted from the lower deck of the boat. Ito rushed in with the gaff, helping to clear his way through the crowd. When they wrestled the 10-pound female onto the deck, the boat burst into cheers.

Fisherman Randy Roa shows off his catch with Enterprise fishing boat crew member Easton Ito.
Randy Roa, left, shows off his dorado catch with Enterprise crew member Easton Ito. “The adrenaline you get when you hook that fish — it’s like a football player who scores a touchdown,” Roa said.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“The adrenaline you get when you hook that fish — it’s like a football player who scores a touchdown,” Roa explained, his bare chest and khaki shorts still covered with blood from the kill.

“That’s a bucket-list fish,” Monty Smalls, 45, of Long Beach agreed when he caught his minutes later. “I’ve been trying to catch that fish for 15 years.”

But from the moment she leaves the water, the dorado’s beauty begins to fade.

“It’s by far the most beautiful fish in the Pacific — the colors on their fins are just absolutely spectacular, “ Fain said. “The problem is they lose their color immediately.”

California Department of Fish and Wildlife official Marcus Fain carries a hooked Dorado to be measured and weighed.
Marcus Fain with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife carries a hooked dorado to be measured and weighed aboard the Enterprise.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Roa’s fish shone fluorescent before she was speared. By the time the crew filleted her an hour later, most of her scales had oxidized to a dull gray.

By then, the adrenaline had worn off, and the sun and Dramamine had lulled most of the anglers to sleep.

Moore, the barber, splayed on a bench with his T-shirt pulled over his face. Ito dropped his forehead on his arms. Fain nodded against the side of the cockpit.

The final fish count was four.

It wasn’t the triumph they’d dreamed of. But Vega had spent all day bonding with her son. Roa had a new fish to add to the school inked on his arm. Fain got to measure and weigh a dorado for his project.

And Nathan Camarena, 15, hooked the biggest dorado he’d ever fought, his long but ultimately fruitless battle with the fish caught on camera.

“We’ve done a couple Mexico trips to catch it, but to catch it in our own backyard is really special,” his father, Mike Camarena, explained.

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A heat wave was predicted the following weekend. The tropical storm in the Pacific, the anglers hoped, would bring more big game.

As the Enterprise headed back to shore, they reassured one another.

Next time would be better.

The Enterprise heads out of Long Beach toward Catalina.
The Enterprise heads out of Long Beach toward Catalina. For most anglers, fishing is 15% casting and 85% chitchat and Dramamine cat naps.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
VIDEO | 06:50
LA Times Today: What’s driving the mahi-mahi craze off SoCal shores

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.