Flying High

Make a splash with an exhilarating approach to an old favorite

Pat Ford September 16, 2014

In addition to holding the crown as Florida’s most available pelagic game fish accessible by anglers fishing nearly any craft, dolphin are also an excellent quarry for both novice and advanced fly-fishing enthusiasts. However, no matter your experience hunting these highly prized game fish or ability to cast a fly, you are not going to catch a dolphin on the long rod by accident. It takes a certain amount of planning, patience, skill and the cooperation of everyone on the boat, not to mention the appropriate tackle and approach to come out on top. However, when everything comes together, hooking, fighting and landing a big dolphin on fly is an incredibly exciting and memorable experience.

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Photo: Pat Ford

What makes dolphin such great targets for both fly and conventional pursuits is the fact they are abundant in both Gulf and Atlantic waters and typically aggressive and willing to strike a wide variety of both natural and artificial offerings. Additionally, no matter what ocean they swim in, dolphin have explosive growth rates fueled by an insatiable appetite.

…no matter your experience hunting these highly prized game fish or ability to cast a fly, you are not going to catch a dolphin on the long rod by accident.

The most common way to catch dolphin is to troll a spread of ballyhoo or lures along weedlines, floating debris, current rips, temperature breaks and in the vicinity of diving birds. If your only goal is to put fish in the box you can run a traditional six or eight line trolling spread, but if you are seriously focused on fly-fishing you’ll want to reduce your presentation to a bare minimum. The goal is to hook a dolphin on a traditional lure or bait in the hopes a partner or group of fish follow the tethered dolphin to the boat. With a full spread you could hook multiple fish and end up with a chaotic situation…and one that’s not conducive to waving a fragile fly rod through the air. Big dolphin often travel in pairs and smaller schoolie fish travel in aggressive packs, so if you have multiple hooked offerings in the spread you’re probably going to hook multiple fish.

When fly-fishing for dolphin the trolling system I like best consists of only three hooked baits in the water—one long, one middle and one short. When a dolphin is hooked, you’ll need to have enough anglers ready to quickly reel in the remaining baits and pull them away from additional fish in the spread while you prepare to make a cast. If there are followers, a handful of live pilchard or ballyhoo chunks will get their interest and keep them around the boat until you are ready. The one thing I’ve found that doesn’t work with dolphin is teasing them up with a hookless bait or lure. With this approach they seem to make one pass and then lose interest.

Because dolphin aren’t boat shy, long casts aren’t often required so you should only strip about 25 feet of line onto the deck. Offshore boats typically aren’t ideal for fly-fishing and have numerous obstructions where the line or fly could snag. Timing is everything here and it’s important you are ready when a fish comes within casting distance. If you are busy fixing a tangle or fumbling with a snag, you’ll miss your chance. Whether you’re heading offshore in a bay boat or custom sportfish, it’s critical you take the time to put away any unnecessary gear that could snag a fly as it rips through the air.

If you don’t care to troll you can run and gun while looking for surface debris and diving birds. When you pull up to a significant piece of structure that offers shade and has visible baitfish below there’s a good chance dolphin are hunting in the depths. Toss a few live chummers or chunks and see if anyone shows up to the party. It usually doesn’t take long to find out whether or not there are dolphin around.

Since the open ocean doesn’t provide coverage from the wind you’ll want to pick and choose your days wisely. With stiff 25-knot gusts offshore you’ll have difficulty projecting your fly even a few feet. If at all possible, you should also avoid stripping your fly in the direction the boat is drifting. Conversely, you should use the wind and the boat’s drift to your advantage to increase your fly’s speed in the water.

Most everyone knows that dolphin vary greatly in size from three pound schoolies to 30 pound slammers, either of which can show up at any time, so you must always be ready to capitalize given an opportunity. Because dolphin streak through the spread and approach drifting boats with incredible agility, you’ll want to have two fly rods rigged and ready at all times. For school fish a 9 weight is perfect, but for the big boys a 12 weight is more suitable. Even so, a big dolphin will really work you over on a 12 weight. Because offshore flies are larger than what you typically throw inshore and there’s generally more wind to deal with, anglers often step up one line weight to help propel larger flies and increase casting distance. Even if you’re calmly casting to a school of five pounders a monster can appear without warning, so proper preparation is key to success.

Leader construction is quite simple. Since it is highly unlikely that you’re going to break an IGFA World Record any tippet is fine, but you will need a shock of at least 40 lb. for the smaller fish and 60 lb. for larger bulls and cows. Because most strikes come close to the boat you should be able to see the take. When stripping your fly and a dolphin comes in to strike, stop stripping at the moment of impact so the fish has a chance to choke down the hook. As the fish turns with the fly in its mouth, strip strike and carefully guide the line as it rips through the guides and the fish heads for the horizon.

In summary, I think the most important aspect when specifically targeting dolphin on fly is being well prepared. You must also make it very clear to your fellow anglers and captain that you really want to catch dolphin on fly, which requires a team effort. If an excited angler is going to toss a bait or jig at a fish that’s being set up for fly, everyone’s going to miss out on a ton of fun. Keep in mind that fly-fishing definitely isn’t the most effective way to put fish on ice. However, the reward of landing pelagic game fish on fly is an accomplishment you won’t soon forget. Tight loops!

Sweet Treat

The size of your chosen fly should be in direct correlation to the size of the fish you are casting to and the size of the outfit you are using, but don’t forget to observe the prevalent forage. When they are in a feeding frenzy, dolphin aren’t selective and nearly any baitfish imitation will attract attention. However, at times dolphin will grow stale of any offering so don’t be afraid to mix it up. Color isn’t a major issue, but it’s highly recommended you throw a fly that includes a lot of flash.

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