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Gold Diggin’ Dolphin

Rich veins of dolphin are storming the coast. It’s time to stake your claim.

Big dolphin are targeted by trolling baits and lures, but schoolies will climb on too.Big dolphin are targeted by trolling baits and lures, but schoolies will climb on too.

One thing can be said about most of Florida’s favorite offshore species: There’s not a wimp in the bunch. Speedy, brawny battlers one and all. But regardless of Florida’s deep and diverse offshore roster, bluewater folks tend to specialize. For some, it’s billfish or bust. Others salivate over big, strapping snapper. Or go gaga for gargantuan grouper. Then there’s that murderous missile of a mackerel that loyal followers consider king.

But do these worthy gamesters give dolphin a run for its money? Not if you’re talking across-the-board-popularity. Not when it comes to availability. And not in the looks department, either, if you ask me. When this gaudy, golden battler makes its spring appearance, it’s Katy bar the door. Anglers in everything from flats skiffs to flybridge sportfishermen beat a foamy path to blue water. Though a dolphin’s dazzling colors fade quickly after capture, for legions of anglers, its allure never does.

No fish packs the boat ramp like dolphin. By March, their numbers climb. By April, you can about count on them. And occasionally, lose count of ‘em. Once May rolls around, we’re talking fever pitch, folks. Seas flatten. Tackle shop cash drawers fatten. Serious green is happily shelled out by casual and avid angler alike.

The fervor is justified. Usually a snap to find, dolphin eat like NFL linemen, strike like lightning, leap and gyrate, fight to the finish, bring along their friends, and make you the hero at the neighborhood fish fry.

Pass me the tartar sauce while I tell you about the 60-pound bull that got away right at the boat. Again.

If there is an exasperating side to dolphin, it’s that they can be all over the ocean and nowhere at once. Dolphin devotees, you know this song by heart. You leave the ramp in pitch black, bagel in one hand, wheel in the other, make the reef by first light and go running and gunning all over the Gulf Stream. You peer through state-of-the-art binoculars, expertly deciphering the body language of frigatebirds, terns and gulls. You monitor your depthfinder, eyeball the temperature gauge for fluctuations, all the while searching for weeds, birds, boards, rips, color changes, slicks and even subtler fishy signs that escape the average eye. Meanwhile, Joe Novice enjoys a pancake breakfast, hits the ramp at the crack of noon, launches his ski boat stuffed with the wife, kids and the dog, and runs just beyond the reef edge where he blindly trolls a couple of pre-rigged, freezer-burned ballyhoo and nails a 50-pound bull. On a flatline no less.

Then he lucks into a school of 50 under a cooler top (which blew out of your boat while you knifed through the dark) and he and his tenderfoot crew pull two dozen 8- to 12-pounders over the gunnel. Then he heads for shore because the wife has sunburn, the kids are arm-weary, the dog’s got the dry heaves, he’s short on ice and there’s simply no room left to stash fish. Then he has the gall to offer you a couple dolphin at the ramp while you’re hosing down your $70,000 boat with the Starship Enterprise instrument console and matching set of custom rods and gold reels. The next morning, his name’s in the outdoor section of the Sunday paper.

Hey, that’s dolphin fishing. Everyone has a shot at greatness. You can be an expert today and a clueless, snake-bit bum tomorrow.

Unlike marlin, sailfish, wahoo or big tuna and the like, dolphin don’t separate the men from the boys. They are fair game for the expert and weekend family angler alike. Since young kids need to be catching more than fishing, dolphin are the consummate family fish. And a charterboat captain’s dream when first-timers are aboard. Some big-game specialists consider them pests. They tear up sailfish baits and jump all over wahoo lures. What many old salts won’t admit is that those pests saved many a day when the glamour boys failed to check in. And I’m bettin’ they like to whoop and holler just like the rest of us when the action’s fast.

But don’t be misled; it takes more than blind luck to score with dolphin consistently. There are time-tested plans of attack you’ll want to try. Like a good Boy Scout, you had better be prepared for absolute mayhem when every outrigger clip pops and the mahi-mahi quartet dances behind your transom. Or when a bull the size of an ironing board gulps every bait in your spread and makes tracks for Bermuda.

Then there’s the real hook for most folks-the inevitable, intoxicating bedlam in the cockpit when a dolphin is reeled to the boat escorted by half a hundred of its school chums.

Break out the light tackle! You’re the Keystone Cops.

Yes sir, for this dolphin drill, you need cool heads and crack choreography. Problem is, a boat full of eager anglers gets as lit up as the fish themselves. So aim for organized chaos. I’d advise that someone aboard plays first mate, a designated driver if you will, to keep things halfway orderly. Any semblance of order goes right out the porthole when all hands on deck are bending a rod. Then, everybody’s giving the orders.

“Keep that hooked fish in the water!”

“Okay, I’m hooked up! Now get yours aboard!”

“Somebody grab the gaff!”

“Where is the gaff?”

“Somebody toss in some chum!”

“Well, then somebody cut up some chum!”

“Flip open the fishbox!”

“Somebody shut it!”

And it gets way more colorful than that.

A big dolphin needs to go from the gaff to the fishbox in one fell swoop.

Once the fish lose interest and the smoke clears, if all went to plan, you’ve got a few nice fish for dinner and no serious casualties. It’s time to take inventory, swab the deck, wipe the sweat out of your eyes, re-rig your lines and leaders, take a swig of something wet and resume the hunt. Or just go do something else if you have the energy left.

If you’ve never chased dolphin and this sounds like the game for you, understand that there is but one place to find
them: where the water’s blue.

Doesn’t pinpoint much, but that’s as pointy as the pin gets until the fish pour through the floodgates and “pattern up,” that is, show a preference for a general depth. Then, word gets out, the fleet makes tracks, and the finding part gets a lot easier.

On the Atlantic side, you can figure on the bulk of the fish-from 2-pound “grasshoppers” to 30-pound “slammers”-to patrol the color change out to about 400 feet during early spring. In March and April, some of the biggest bulls and cows are taken by sailfishermen dangling kite baits in no more than 150 feet of water from the southeast coast to the Keys. May and June are solid months for fish of all sizes, anywhere from the reef out as far as you care to range, but by July, the fish are farther offshore and the party winds down. By August, you may need to run 20 miles before you come off plane. And you’ll probably already be eating your freezer stocks.

Once cold fronts are history, it’s spring’s prevailing southeasterly breeze that gets the ball rolling, pushing sargassum and floating debris shoreward, forming weedlines along rips and current edges.

Of course, it’s not depth for depth’s sake that determines where the fish are. A dolphin is the Pac Man of the sea. Release a 5-pounder and next week it weighs 10. Because of the fast-growing dolphin’s caloric needs, it is never far from the food and the havens that harbor it. So you gotta find the food. Nothing holds a food supply in that giant blue fishbowl better than a sargassum weedline or large piece of floating debris, such as a big log or shipping pallet. Even smaller junk can be a godsend. Something as small as a cooler top may attract an assortment of forage fish, and consequently the attention of roving dolphin schools. To this day, I do double takes when I pass Styrofoam cups.

While fishing offshore of Miami with friends years ago, I spotted an orange life vest tangled up in some weed in the distance. We circled back and to our delight, over two dozen 6- to 8-pound dolphin (they’re “lifters” by the way; any larger and they’d be “gaffers”) were suspended six feet under that algae-coated PFD. Out on the perimeter swam a pair that pushed 15 or 20. The vest had a smattering of tiny minnows in its shadow. But could that have been the attraction? Or had this school already decimated bigger baitfish before we arrived? Whether they were resting after a feed or not, those schoolies liked our yellow bucktails just fine-at first. When they got wise, we switched to white and they lit up again. After that, topwater plugs renewed their interest for a spell. The pair of gaffers mostly yawned at the buffet, then disappeared. We fired big chuggers in the direction they swam to no avail, and dropping our jigs deep didn’t produce, either. A live bait sure would have come in handy.

If floating debris represents a fast-food stop for dolphin, then sargassum weedlines are four-star eateries. Weedlines are dynamic, rich microcosms of eat and be eaten. When you come across this floating food chain, don’t leave any stone unturned. But you don’t want too much of a good thing. If the lines are long and unbroken like the yellow brick road, you’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Here, trolling makes more sense, unless you see surface activity, or concentrations of bait. If you happen across floating debris embedded in a big weedline, give that area special attention. Trolling both the inshore and offshore side of a line for a spell is also a good idea.

Most dolphin fishermen love it when sargassum is concentrated in tighter “rafts” with plenty of open water in between. That allows them to take the run-and-gun approach, stopping at each one to check if anyone’s at home. Many anglers can fondly recall golden days when a single raft of sargassum seemed to hold every dolphin in the ocean.

Most serious dolphin hunters would rather take the wife to the opera than blind-troll in open water. It’s far more exciting to run on plane, then toss live baits, rigged dead baits, jigs or plugs at a likely spot. However, some anglers swear by “spot-trolling” with multiple lines and offerings to thoroughly check for fish. The standard spread has long been Japanese feathers on flatlines in the turbulence just off the stern, and skirted ballyhoo or plastics from the outriggers. The idea is to make a pass or two close to features such as a raft of sargassum, a board, a slick, or a circling frigatebird. To cover all bases, a couple of rigged baits, live baits, spoons or lipped plugs can be trolled from a downrigger to entice any big dolphin or other bluewater interloper sulking down deep. If there are no takers, you can reel ‘em up, hit the throttle and resume the search.

If you do choose to run and cast to floating debris, if there are no apparent fish in the water, don’t roar off for greener pastures right away. By doing so, you risk passing up the dolphin of a lifetime. Drop down a live baitfish, a ballyhoo-and-jig combo or a pure deep jig. Depending on your experience level and the amount of grunting and groaning you care to do, tackle up for this task with gear in the 15- to 30-pound class. Most anglers opt for 20-pound spin or 15- to 20-pound conventional as a minimum. Should there be tiny grasshopper dolphin on the scene, your chances of a big one skyrocket. While plumbing the depths, keep the little guys fired up. Hook up a few, keep one in the water at all times, and feed them sparingly with cutbait or glass minnows to keep them happy. You may be pleasantly surprised by a wahoo or billfish that’s watching the commotion from the cheap seats (good reason to have a 50-pound rod handy with a mambo hook and leader for on-the-spot livebaiting).

The size of the dolphin you encounter will range from a pound to 50 and beyond. Since the primary goal is to bring home some bacon as much as enjoy a little sport, consider that a 20-pound fish yields a lot more meat than ten 2-pounders. That 20-pounder provides a lot more sport, too, unless it’s over-tackled, although a big dolphin will put up a respectable fuss on just about any rod on your boat. Just remember that the days of unlimited dolphin catches are over. And it’s a good thing-the 10 fish per person per day limit provides plenty of bacon for the freezer, unless you’re out robbing the cradle. Those 2- to 4-pound chickens are anything but. It’s amusing to watch them climb aboard trolling lures and baits bigger than they are. But you don’t want to do it all day. I’ve always wondered whether their eyes are that much bigger than their stomachs, or if it’s amorous interludes they seek?

If your big-fish tactics fail, and it’s babies all around, it’s time to break the golden rule (never leave fish to find fish). You’ll probably find bigger dolphin as you proceed offshore. An old fishing partner from high school used to say that dolphin increase in size at the rate of a pound per mile. I remember days when that estimation was right on the money. But then there are those days when big bulls and cows raid the reef. Nothing is etched in stone.

Big-dolphin specialists are avid birdwatchers with big gas tanks. You can see birds a long way off, something that can’t be said about weedlines and floating objects. And the birds often point you to those objects anyway, and the biggest fish of all. The right bird is the majestic frigatebird (a.k.a. man-o’-war). It uses its phenomenal eyesight to lock in on any formidable gamefish cruising near the surface. During the spring and summer months, a pair of big dolphin is usually the attraction. When the fish go on the feed, the man-o’-war power-dives to intercept baitfish-flyingfish more often than not-that are flushed to the surface. This sight makes a dolphin fan’s heart flutter. However, frigates will show you schoolie dolphin, too. As will scattered terns or gulls. Don’t be fooled by big, chattering flocks of terns or gulls traveling at warp speed. They’re almost always on a school of small tuna or bonito, which feed at the surface more than dolphin.

You will inevitably hit a day when the ocean and sky are scrubbed clean. No weeds, junk or birds. Blind-trolling is the only option. At this point, you might go bottom fishing. Or you might hang in there and take a few measures to up your odds. First, always blind-troll an east-west leg, covering a variety of depths. If you hit a fish, note the depth, and troll that line for a while to see if there are more fish around. Troll at a fast clip, too-perhaps 8 to 10 knots-to cover maximum ground. Don’t worry, a dolphin can outrun lures going much faster than that. At that speed, forget using natural rigged baits. They’ll wash out, spin and spend more time in the air than in the drink, particularly if the seas are up.

Dolphin are the darlings of small-boat, light-tackle anglers for good reason. Stand-up conventional tackle handles the biggest of them, and even bass tackle has its place when you’re working a school. You are well prepared for any dolphin trip with a mix of 20- to 30-pound trolling outfits, 20-pound spinners, 12-pound spinning or plug outfits, and 8- to 10-pound gear for fish in the single-digit weight class.

Pull out the spinners when a school of dolphin marauds the boat, double hookups and even triples are common.

It’s fun to play school dolphin on light gear, but it’s easy to underestimate them. Fun becomes grueling work when that 8-pounder turns out to weigh 15 and that little flashing gold speck now has 150 yards of 6-pound line under your hull, showing no sign of budging under the pressure of your limber bonefish rod. Play that kind of game too long under a scorching summer sun, and there may not be enough Gatorade in the world.

A school of dolphin gives a flyfisher lots of fish-fighting practice. And they’re suckers for just about any streamer and popper under the sun. Flyfishers who have tangled with dolphin before use 8- or 9-weight rods as a minimum. And you’ll need that class of rod if you’re tossing sinking stuff, particularly to load up for the rather short casts you’ll be making. Floating lines are fine, although I prefer an intermediate monocore. It sinks below floating grass-which you hopefully found-and gets your fly to the fish when they sulk a few feet under the boat. Some sports use light rods, but honestly, any dolphin that inspires you to break out a 6-weight is too small to fool with anyway. If the fish exceed 10 pounds, a 10-weight will control them and give you the lifting power you’ll need if they slug it out down deep. For fish in the 15-pound class, a 10-weight for sure. With fish bigger than that, your 11- or 12-weight tarpon rod is not out of the question, especially if you’re tossing bulky streamers or poppers tied on 3/0 and bigger hooks.

Whether you’re using spinning, conventional or fly gear, mono shock leaders in the 25- to 60-pound-test class are sufficient. Wire is not a must. However, wire is still standard when trolling various rigged natural baits. In boats under 30 feet or so, consider keeping wire leaders to three feet or less so that they can be handled in close quarters without undue kinking. Trolling with artificials can be done exclusively with mono shocks.

Dolphin fishing has long been considered “meat fishing.” Dolphin are among Florida’s top table fish, but once you limit out, or box enough for a few meals, it’s time to hit the reef and catch a few bottom fish or just call it a day. If you find it tough to leave the action, catch-and-release dolphin fishing can be practiced if you take a few precautions. First, use artificial lures with single hooks, and preferably debarbed so that you can quickly unhook a fish boatside without taking it out of the water. A boated dolphin will beat itself to death, and it bleeds profusely in the process. Hardly a good candidate for survival. So it’s best not to handle a dolphin at all if you plan to release it. Big fish, especially, should not be brought aboard, but for fish under 6 pounds or so, lift them out of the water, get a good grasp of ‘em, and unhook them. Clip the leader as close as possible to the hook if you have trouble removing it rather than performing major surgery.

When the dolphin fleet is out in force, try to share the water. When a boat is working a school, oftentimes you’ll be welcomed to join in on the action. Other times, you may not be. It’s always okay to ask. Same goes for trolling. There’s a lot of ocean out there. If you think you might be crowding someone, you probably are. And there is no written rule that you have to take home 10 fish for every person aboard your boat each and every time out. Show a little restraint. That will go a long way to ensure that we have plenty of Gold Rush days to come. FS

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  • Allen

    Great read, especially for a northerner like myself!!