Roaming tropical seas worldwide, dolphinfish represent the epitome of blue water sport fishing and alone drive tens of millions of dollars in tourism and tackle sales to industries around the globe. Powerful, beautiful, delicious, fast growing and abundant, there really is no better game fish. However, as aggressive as dolphin can be, they can at times display super finicky tendencies, mood swings and unpredictable behavioral patterns that rival the most spontaneous ocean going predators.
In Florida and the nearby Bahamas, dolphin are available year-round, although during the spring and summer migration their numbers increase dramatically and encounters are much more likely. With that being said, we all know targeting promising signs of life such as distinct current breaks, diving birds, weedlines and floating debris will put fish in the box no matter the season. Fish effectively to the best of your abilities when you can rather than planning and waiting for the opportune time and you will greatly increase your catch ratio no matter the species you are chasing. And while there will certainly be times when dolphin are challenging to find and catch, like towards the tail end of their migration period when most have moved off and the remaining fish have seen heavy pressure, when the summer sun heats up and the action cools down the following tips will keep the bites coming.
Not only does an early start offer encounters with unpressured dolphin, but early morning conditions keep baitfish and predators closer to the surface…
From an outsider’s perspective, fishing is nothing more than an excuse to relax and drink beer in the sun. Enthusiasts who find consistent success know this is far from the truth, as a tremendous amount of effort goes into each and every outing. The work actually starts long before you leave the dock, with time spent studying satellite based imagery extremely beneficial. Subscription based services like ROFFS and Terrafin offer data and analyses that display convergence zones of opposing water masses, which are often associated with temperature breaks, slicks and floating debris among other forms of structure—all of which provide favorable conditions for predator-prey interaction.
While doing some homework will help point you in the right direction with tactical and strategical predictions, if you want to be successful you also need to beat the crowd out of the inlet. With increased angling pressure along the coast during the upcoming months, the early bird really does get the worm. If you can have baits in the water before most leave the dock you are doing the right thing. Not only does an early start offer encounters with unpressured dolphin, but early morning conditions keep baitfish and predators closer to the surface before climbing afternoon temperatures send them racing to the depths.
Once on scene and actively fishing, it’s important you regularly check and freshen up baits to invite action to your trolling spread. If your catch rate is lagging you shouldn’t blame the moon, tide or lack of sargassum, rather there’s no one at fault but yourself. Anyone can blind troll and eventually run over a dolphin, but proactive anglers who work hard throughout the day almost always come home with the spoils.
VARY YOUR SPEED
When targeting dolphin anglers often overlook one key element—trolling speed. Volumes have been written about ideal billfish trolling speed, but the proper pace for the prevalent conditions will make any spread more appealing, no matter the target. There’s no magical trolling speed and it all depends on the current, sea state, whether you are going down sea or into it, and which offerings you choose to pull. In general, baits and lures benefit from a speed increase when trolling into the waves, while slower speeds keep offerings running true down sea. Dolphin have an insatiable need to feed and nothing beats natural temptations like ballyhoo, rigged squid and flying fish, but that isn’t to say dolphin aren’t attracted to various imitations. To appeal to all of their senses it’s best to troll a mixed spread of natural baits and artificial lures. A speed of 7- to 10-knots is considered fast trolling for dolphin and often used to cover ground and search for promising stretches of water. At this speed, chin-weighted ballyhoo will run true on the surface next to skirted lures.
Once a fertile stretch of water has been located, most pull back the throttles to 5- to 7-knots and fine-tune their spread. Split-beak ballyhoo perform well at slower speeds, and to keep baits and lures more effective you’ll want to fish them closer to the boat. It’s also important to make sure your rigger baits are raised all the way to the top of the outrigger to facilitate more angle off the water’s surface. Hi-vis monofilament line will make it easier to monitor baits coming off the outriggers.
At slower speeds, chugger style trolling lures create an enticing bubble trail. Slowing it down also enables you to pull a lipped plug in your prop wash to get a bit deeper in the water column. Rapala’s X-Rap Magnum is a killer! Another trick that works well once you’ve thoroughly scoured a weedline is to pull the throttles back and let the boat sit in neutral for a moment. Let your baits and lures sink into the depths and when you put the boat back in gear the spread will mimic a school of frightened baitfish fleeing from deep water.
While it’s always nice to break the ice with a few fish no matter their size, peanuts can only keep your interest for so long. If you are looking to weed through the cookie-cutter schoolies or if you’re searching for that one tournament winning bull, you should pull large baits and teasers. Horse ballyhoo, Panama strips, Mold Craft Wide Range….go big or go home! Whether it is a big bull or cow, or a wahoo or blue marlin lurking in the shadows, there are bigger predators below and you never know what you’ll encounter offshore. By fishing larger offerings you will be able to eliminate juvenile dolphin that might be intimidated by such large baits. A pack of hungry green hornets will definitely investigate larger offerings but they likely won’t commit, giving your baits greater soak time for increasing your odds with slammer fish.
It’s also important to note that big dolphin aren’t always found directly under floating debris or circling birds. On occasion the largest fish in the bunch will be a few hundred yards from the action, so it’s best to troll a few wide patterns around areas of prominent life. In addition, bigger, solitary singles and pairs are often found roaming open stretches of water, and these fish are almost always more aggressive than the dolphin found in the vicinity of weedlines. Big, mature dolphin can also feed into the current better than juvenile schoolies who have trouble chasing bait into a powerful current, so keep this in mind when chasing and observing active fish.
END IT RIGHT
While every captain has his/her preferred approach for finding big dolphin, one thing is common among anglers and deckhands with experience fishing the tropics—stories of the one that got away. Dolphin only reach trophy status once they’ve successfully run the gauntlet of angler and predator. The life of a dolphin requires a constant lookout, with nearly everything in the ocean willing to chase down and consume a frisky ‘phin. As a result, increasingly rare bull dolphin eclipsing the highly coveted 50 pound mark represent one of sport fishing’s most difficult and prized accomplishments.
With any size dolphin, you want to take your time when it comes boatside. Most dolphin are lost at the very last moment, so when you get the opportunity to swing the gaff do not hesitate. While some anglers believe you shouldn’t gaff a green dolphin, this is simply bad information and the longer your fish is in the water the greater chance it has of escaping. While coercing a hooked dolphin within gaffing range it’s important the angler doesn’t lift the fish’s head out of the water. The angler should stand right up against the gunnel and the gaff man should be in position right alongside. After planting the gaff in the head or shoulder area of the fish swiftly lift it out of the water. To avoid a raging bull in a china shop it is highly recommended you put the ravenous fish directly into a fish box or cooler and slam the lid shut!
You may have caught big dolphin so frenzied to strike a bait or lure that nothing would stop them, but it’s the anglers who can turn the tide on finicky fish that routinely bring home the bacon. Set yourself apart from the bunch and become that slammer pro everyone wants to be.