Connect the Dolphin Dots

How do you find those scattered mahi-mahi?


May 5, 2011: Kevin Sweet, right, with father Mike, landed a 61-pounder off Big Pine Key on a lure-ballyhoo combo. The Stuart, Florida- based anglers were fishing over a dropoff in 1,200 feet.

What started as a nearshore reef trip for mackerel and snapper morphed into a mahi mission as word spread that the bite was heating up outside Haulover Inlet. Captain Dennis Forgione maneuvered the Free Spool outside the cut in northern Miami-Dade County and soon had us humming east, searching for signs of dolphin in 500 feet of water. South Florida anglers are spoiled by how closely the Gulf Stream wraps around the peninsula, flowing just a couple of miles from shore.

With only a seasonal hunch or secondhand report to go on—which is all it takes for most anglers—how do you find scattered dolphin? Better yet, how do you increase your chances of a slammer? Sometimes it’s as easy as locating a healthy sargassum weedline, commonly formed by a strong current edge.

Anglers Joe and Carey DeRogatis manned the rods as Forgione and mate Leo Lombera were the first to spot birds above a classic weedline. The sargassum clumps meandered indefinitely along the northerly current edge. Then the pack of dolphin appeared, feeding aggressively. Forgione went from trolling to chunking cut-up pilchards in a heartbeat.

Joe and Carey tried to keep pace, taking the 12-pound Penn Torque spinners and casting live pilchards at the green neons darting all around. A double hook-up squared into a quadruple, and 15 dolphin were landed in about 5 minutes. The cockpit turned a glorious, gory red. Joe and Carey were ecstatic at the success of their trip with Dennis, which they’d won from a morning radio show.

If only every dolphin trip was that easy and inexpensive!

Reports from the docks or from floridasportsman.com can alert anglers when the bite’s hot as well as what size fish to expect. But they’re not always available, or reliable. Sometimes boats just haven’t been out because of high gas prices, nasty weather or just a slow season. Those willing to get the jump on that fresh run are often rewarded with some of the largest fish of the year.

In general, dolphin head away from the equator as spring warms the waters to the ideal 78.8- to 82.4-degree range. That’s the water temperature to look for the night before on a sea-surface temperature map (Terrafin, ROFFS, Hilton’s or Weather at www.floridasportsman.com). The majority of ‘phins encountered by anglers are schoolies—just a few weeks old. Northbound schoolies far outnumber the gaffers in the spring, but by fall, larger slammers—which have had a year to chow down—head south to warmer waters. During the summertime, mahi-mahi become available statewide (and grow, grow, grow up to four feet and 40 pounds in a year).

Don’t rely on finding an untouched piece of flotsam to catch your dolphin on your next trip. When a pallet or log appears off the bow, it can be dynamite—but that just doesn’t happen every time (schedule trips after major storms in Central America to increase the likelihood of coming across debris in our neck of the woods). Should sight fishing be your game, get your head in the clouds. A circling frigatebird tells no lies. On the other hand, some birds aren’t worth chasing at all. Most commonly, it’s less about the bird of a particular feather and more about the way it’s behaving.

Last summer, fishing with Capt. Joe Petrucco, we were trolling toward the Islamorada Hump (24-48.175’ N; 80-26.674’ W) from Duck Key in search of dolphin. Vicious swells and wind—unusual for that time of the year—kept all but the largest center consoles inside the reef. The severe water conditions made it tough to spot fish or meaningful current breaks. Sooty terns led the way, so that each pass underneath the diving terns led to hookups on trolled naked ballyhoo. These dark-backed, small seabirds were clearly in a feeding mode. Birds that are not diving or hovering at the surface are no different than the angler searching out a meal—they’re just looking. It’s best not to waste time on them.

When Petrucco spotted some dolphin busting flyingfish at the surface, he slowed the troll to crawl. The crew cast “squidies” (small, weighted skirts with a single hook) at the marauding dolphin. Captain Petrucco threw ballyhoo chunks at the school to keep them close. Angler Benny Blanco sight-fished a massive dolphin among the barely-legals and hooked the bull. The fight was on as a prolonged battle began on light spinning gear. At one point, Blanco lost tension on the line, and we thought the fish came unglued. But the fight quickly ensued and the struggle continued. Captain Petrucco finally gaffed the fish to everyone’s delight and that’s when we saw the catch up-close. It turns out the hook had come loose during the fight but became re-snagged near the dolphin’s anal fin.

Anglers not casting to the dolphin eyed the trolling rods still in the water. The decreased boat speed acted as a hands-free dropback, allowing the naked ballyhoo to fall in the water column. Schoolie dolphin quickly found the baits.

Keep one boatside to attract the others.

Smart procedure is to troll toward a specific destination such as bottom structure or a drop-off, or a particular GPS waypoint that’s identifying a bluewater current or temperature break. In Atlantic waters, that edge is often the Gulf Stream itself, but can also be an eddy tailing away from the Stream or a rip bouncing off dramatic bottom structure. On the Gulf Coast, it’s often the Loop Current or an eddy breaking from it. Common practice among offshore anglers is to head to 100 feet and look for blue water. Keep trekking deeper until you find that dark blue color and coinciding current.

“Dolphin are abundant May through November, but I’ve caught them in January,” says Capt. Kevin Deiter, of the Feeding Frenzy Sportfishing and Boating Academy out of Sarasota. “I usually won’t start fishing until 100 feet of water, which is about 30 miles out.

“I’m a big believer in satellite imagery maps. I’m looking for currents that are traveling east, often an eddy that’s broken off from the Loop Current. Besides ‘side-to-side’ currents, with altimetry, I want currents that are moving from deep to shallow, bringing nutrients to the surface.

“Temperature breaks are not as important in the Gulf. It’s hot everywhere out there, with less current than the other coast.”

The run to dolphin water differs dramatically across the state. Trolling in East Central and Northeast Florida might begin with a 30-mile run toward the Steeples, the Rolldown or the Ledge. On much of the Gulf Coast, as Deiter points out, anglers must make equally lengthy runs. Panhandle anglers can find dolphin as close as 10 miles out.

“I’ll usually head for the Nipple, which is the closest structure to that 100- fathom curve,” says Capt. Jeremy Williams, of Pensacola. “We feel some effects from the Loop Current there, but that Current can be as far as 100 miles out.

“I’m looking for a good temperature break, something a couple of degrees. Also, I’m looking for a current break or water color change. A water color change is almost always associated with a temperature break. Wahoo and kings you can catch in green water, but for dolphin, you really want that blue water.
“Usually we’re trolling no more than a 5-line ballyhoo spread. In the morning it’s dark colors, like purple and maroon. During the day, it’s light colors like pink and white. In the evening, I switch back to dark colors.”
Trolling is not the most glamorous style of dolphin fishing, but it works—often when nothing else will. Take a page from Capt. Dennis Forgione’s playbook if you know dolphin are in the area, but you’ve lost sight of them, or they just aren’t showing at the surface.

Dennis likes to troll a pair of bird rigs 10 yards back from the propwash, give or take a couple yards, depending on trolling speed and surface conditions. The rig consists of a “bird” teaser with two wings that flutter at the surface, such as the Boone Bird or Boone Baby Bird. Attached to the teaser are two feathers or plastic squids, depending on your preference. No ballyhoo rigging is necessary. The baits are quickly in and quickly out of the water with no prep work.

But this style of trolling only works when you’ve spotted the dolphin or you absolutely know you’re in the right area. Often trips don’t play out that way. Sometimes you have to put in the miles of trolling across different depths and current edges to find the fish. A recent trip with Capt. Ron Allen, out of Islamorada, is a textbook example. The editors of Florida Sportsman magazine were targeting slammer dolphin. It was late April, the verge of the big dolphin season in the Keys.

Captain Allen plotted his 50-foot sportfish Fish Tales toward the 409 Hump (24-35.5’ N; 80-35.5’ W). The current was ripping—sometimes as much as 6 knots—and we had to alter our route frequently to stay on course. Heading southeast, the northerly current continued to push us away from our destination.
“Sometimes there is too much current,” explained Allen. “Just imagine once you spot those dolphin. There’s no way to keep them close to the boat if you don’t have the engines moving.” In the Keys, dolphin tend to hang around the boat most of the summer. In spring, fall and winter, they’re usually moving fast.
Our trolling spread consisted of four lines—30-pound-test mono on the 30s and 50-pound on the 50s. “Starboard side, I like to rig a green-and-yellow bubbler and Hawaiian eye-style header combos, plus a horse teaser to attract that possible white marlin,” said mate Ross Early. “Port, I rig a blue-and-white Hawaiian-style Ilander ballyhoo combo—my favorite all-time bait—plus a Halloween (black-and-orange) ballyhoo combo and a Halloween horse teaser.”

When we finally hit the 409, it was obvious. The current was kicking, forming large swells atop the hump like oversize upside-down egg cartons. There was absolutely no chance to drop a jig down deep for tuna. Instead, we headed toward a few terns diving on some scattered weeds near a whirlpool of current. First, a skipjack hit. Then Editor Jeff Weakley nailed a dolphin on a small skirt trolled from the tower. He’d downsized a bait after noticing all the small flyingfish nearby.

Trolling saved the day. Few birds were around, and even fewer were diving on baits. We never came across flotsam at the surface, and even one of the Florida Keys’ most famous bottom structures wasn’t yielding fish.

Yet our slow morning turned into an afternoon delight.

Nineteen miles southeast of Whale Harbor we trolled up a steady number of dolphin to fill the cooler. When one fish was hooked on the troll, Capt. Allen slowed the boat as we tossed out live cigar minnows to see if any other dolphin were around. Ross passed rods around as a triple hookup added a refreshing chaos to the cockpit, a feeling all offshore anglers hope for when targeting dolphin.
Now get out there and find those dolphin! FS