Use these tips to catch more fish.
April can be a windy month on Florida’s east coast, but when Mike Readling and I cleared the St. Lucie Inlet the ocean couldn’t have been flatter if it was frozen. It was a wideopen run to 100 feet of water where deployed our live baits and started the slow-troll crawl to deeper water.
At 140 feet we pushed up to an underwhelming color change, no grass, current or upwelling, so I wasn’t expecting much, until a wall of juvenile flyingfish went airborne. When I saw the skipping fliers I pointed the boat north, directly up the color change, and every few minutes we kicked up another school.
That volume of food is impressive on any day, and I knew that a large concentration of flyingfish would surely draw gamefish. We cruised the color change for almost a mile without a single knockdown, and I was starting to think about a move, when a school of flyingfish several hundred yards ahead of the boat got up.
We were obviously too far from the school to push it, so I bumped up the throttle and headed for the last splash of bait, but before we got there we could see four feet of green shadow cruising the edge of the color line.
1. Have A Pitch Bait Ready
“Grab the spinning rod,” I shouted to Readling. “The fish is going left to right after that school. I’m going to come up on the right of it. Cast the second you think you can reach it.”
There really wasn’t any reason to bark directions. Once we were up-tide of the fish and had it to one side of the boat you could have blind cast the bait over your shoulder and the fish would have rushed up and pounded it, it was so lit up. We also caught a cow dolphin that we never saw and was traveling down deep.
I can close my eyes and see that fish eat today, and I know deep in my heart that the reason we spanked those two 30-pound dolphin was because we were prepared for whatever scenario we encountered. That bull was traveling at a good clip and we may or may not have been able to speed up and get our live baits in front of it without spooking the fish, but with a pitch bait ready, we were locked, cocked and ready to rock when a moving dolphin came along.
And you should be too. It should be standard practice when offshore fishing to hook a bait on a spinning rod and put it in a livewell or 5-gallon bucket filled with seawater in the corner of the cockpit ready to throw to any fish that comes within casting distance. Some boats even come standard with “pitch wells” for just such an occasion.
And don’t feel like you have to have a live bait ready. A rigged ballyhoo, mullet or flying fish will give you almost the same odds with these opportunity feeders.
2. Tease Them In
The same goes for teasers. It should be SOP to deploy at least one, and optimally two teaser chains in your bait spread.
In case you haven’t noticed, a fish’s eyes are on the top of its head, so in cruising position it’s constantly looking forward or up. Six or eight small baits cruising in a boat wake are tough enough to distinguish, but a flashing string of baits or splashing chain of squids stick out like a hammered thumb.
Squid chains, live or dead bait teasers all work most efficiently when deployed in the boat wake, particularly tight to the boat using a clip system off the stern. The splashing and flashing of teasers draw attention to the baits in the spread and help the dolphin lock in on their target. I’ve seen dolphin swim up and eat three or four dead teaser baits ten feet from the transom before finally getting to a live bait with a hook in it, but eventually they find the right one.
3. Find The Bait
Keep in mind that a fish may weigh 40 pounds or more but it still has a brain the size of a pea and is driven by three basic concepts: food, comfort and reproduction, in that order. That being said, when you find the food, you usually find the fish, so just about any time you’re marking bait or seeing it in the area, you’re in a plus zone.
After all, it’s a giant ocean out there, and fish have to eat to survive, so they’re constantly on the move looking for an easy meal. Any time dolphin find an abundance of food, they’re more likely to stick around and “chow down” than eat and run. So whenever you find good concentrations of bait, you want to stick in that area and then try to add more positive factors to your fishing.
Whether the baits are flying fish, ballyhoo, threadfins, sardines or another bait food species, look for nearby structure that the fish might hold around when not feeding like floating sargassum, reefs or wrecks. Watch for baitfish scattering and run right to that location when it happens, and also watch for turtles or other large marine species.
4. Fish Every Turtle
Turtles typically hang out around the reefs and they’re constantly moving up and down in the water column. Dolphin will hang out around turtles, particularly those on the surface that are resting after being underwater for some time. I don’t know if it’s the shade, safety of structure or proximity to the reef that dolphin like, but a lot of big dolphin are caught off of turtles, particularly during the summer doldrums.
For that reason, you want to cast to or troll by every turtle you see, even if it means changing course and leaving a good rip, edge or weedline. Turtles aren’t easy to approach without having them dive down, so a lot of dolphin experts keep a spinning rod rigged with a big yellow jig or pencil popper to throw toward turtles from a distance. It’s nothing to grab the rod and make a cast at a nearby turtle before the boat even comes off plane, giving your team a shot at any dolphin or other species shadowing the turtle before it can dive.
5. Watch For Birds
Birds are another good indicator of dolphin, and not just diving frigate birds, but also the small gulls. You want to always be watching for birds diving on the water and the second you see them you want to react and get baits near them, but that doesn’t mean charging right to them and throwing out baits. Dolphin aren’t completely numb to the presence of boats, so you want to make the best of the opportunity. If you drive the fish down, you’ll likely lose them.
Take a second to observe the birds. Watch their movements and try to gauge the direction the birds are moving, then circle ahead of the birds, deploy your baits and wait for them to come to you. Diving frigate birds and small diving birds heading directly into the current typically mean big fish, whereas a concentration of small birds diving are usually over schoolies.
6. Use Binoculars
Whether you’re blind trolling, drifting or doing the run and gun, the one essential element to calm water dolphin fishing should be a pair of quality binoculars on board. Use them to constantly scan the horizon looking for floating objects, edges or birds. A lot of quality binoculars now have a compass on them, which is advantageous for charting a path to diving birds a long ways off. A lot of times when you take the binoculars off the birds to steer the boat or plot a course it can be difficult to relocate the birds, especially if they are low on the water. Binoculars with a compass on them makes that a lot easier.
On calm summer days you should get in the habit of running two or three miles and then stopping and scanning the horizon in all directions for any indication of something that looks good, whether that’s a weedline, rip, edge or anything floating, including turtles. Don’t put out your baits until you find something positive.
If your plan is to run and gun, run a few miles, stop and scan the horizon and then do it again until you find something that looks good. Fish whatever it is you find, then do it all again. Don’t be afraid to move, it’s how you cover water and put your baits around the areas with the highest potential to hold fish.
7. Feather Up
Even if trolling is your game, you want to cover as much water as possible, and that’s a somewhat daunting task at 4 or 5 knots, but going any faster will wash out your rigged baits. To combat this problem, instead of trolling natural baits, rig up some weighted and unweighted feathers or a skirted bonito strip in bright colors and deploy them 100 to 150 feet behind the boat.
Feathers and skirted strips can be fast-trolled at 10 to 12 knots, allowing you to literally double the amount of water you cover. Have spinning rods rigged with hooks and lures, as well as one or two pitch baits so when you cross paths with a pair, quad or school of dolphin you’re ready to hookup in multiples. Keep in mind that if you’re using live baits as your pitch baits you want to drop back to the fish because they don’t swallow the livies as easily as a chunk of bonito or ballyhoo.
8. Put A Bait Deep
Some years back, Sandy Smith of Fort Pierce spent a lot of time chasing kingfish during tournaments, and the way to get good at that is to fish your home waters hard and learn everything you can about the species. Part of his everyday arsenal when slow-trolling with live bait was to deploy a set of downriggers to get some baits down deep, and those deep baits produced a lot of the giant dolphin he caught over the years.
When the summertime surface temperatures start to soar, everything from the baitfish to the big fish move deeper into the water column and start to hang around the reefs and wrecks. Smith liked to mix up his spread, even when trolling rigged baits like ballyhoo, so he’d have at least one double-hooked swimming mullet down deep at all times.
That deep bait caught everything from sailfish and smoker kings to dolphin over 60 pounds and monster wahoo on some of the hottest days of the summer at a time when other boats were begging for a bite. So just remember, not all the dolphin are on top.
9. Fish The Northerly Winds
On the east coast of Florida the Gulf Stream flows from south to north, so any wind blowing from a northerly direction bucks straight into the stream, stacking up the currents and forming those beautiful rips and color edges that hold dolphin. It also stacks the weeds and the bait, and we know dolphin like it when those factors are concentrated.
Northeasterly winds tend to push a lot of debris (and fish) from the western side of the Gulf Stream towards the Florida side, often steering a lot of the largest dolphin away from open water and toward our coast. Unfortunately northerly winds that blow directly into the current also stack the seas and make for rough fishing conditions, which is why a lot of big dolphin are caught on the snottiest days.
10. Drift The Weeds
We all know dolphin like to feed around the weedlines, rips and color edges that tend to hold a lot a lot of small fish, turtles, shrimp and crabs, so there’s two strategies to fishing weedlines: troll down it or become one with the current and flotsam. Trolling covers considerably more water, but when you encounter those weedlines, rips or color changes that have a large concentration of weeds in one area and then become sparse, it’s not a bad idea to sit on the best spot in town, knowing that your floating food chain is always in motion. Let the fish come to you.
There’s no rhyme or reason to when dolphin find the flotsam, so any time after you shut off the engine and put out baits you have just as much chance of finding fish as when you pulled up. The entire area is drifting with the currents, and the odds of a dolphin swimming along looking for food and investigating a large area of shadow above is probably greater than it seeing a handful of 10inch baits behind a single boat.
I know a lot of anglers who swear by shutting down and drifting with the weeds and current, and have had tremendous success doing so. It’s an effective technique, and also very economical, which for some anglers can lead to a second day of fishing.
Chum and Gun
One of my favorite ways to target dolphin in the summer months is to locate a weedline, rip or area with a lot of bait, shut down and live chum with pilchards or glass minnows.
There’s sure to be a lot of different species that respond to the chum, including bonito (little tunny), which are usually the first fish to show, but it’s their slashing and splashing around the boat that often draws the dolphin in.
I deploy a mix of live and dead baits, usually live juvenile pilchards or Spanish sardines and dead glass minnows. The dead baits drift down and into the current, while the live baits swim on top and bring those aggressive surface strikes that help you pinpoint fish in the chumline.
The chum-and-gun method will get a lot of response from schoolie dolphin, particularly around the weedlines, but it will also bring in the raging bulls that like to raid the chumline and chase the live baits down. Be careful with the live baits, as dolphin may chase a small school of live baits away from the boat and pursue them out of sight and casting range. For that reason, I like to wound all the live baits before I throw them over, or disperse them sparingly when the dolphin come into range.
Once a fish comes close to the boat, you can simply pitch a live bait, fly or lure at it and usually get a positive response. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2014