May 04, 2022
By Willie Howard
The strength and beauty of large dolphin ranks them among the most prized gamefish available in the blue water that flows along both coasts of Florida.
Perhaps best known by their Hawaiian name, mahi mahi, big dolphinfish will test an angler's tackle, strength and patience—and his or her ability to respond quickly to airborne outbursts from a powerful, head-shaking predator.
Mahi live their lives in the fast lane. They grow exceptionally fast, reproduce like crazy and die relatively young.
University of Miami professor Daniel Benetti says a dolphinfish over 30 pounds is probably less than two years old.
The longest a tagged dolphin has been found to roam the ocean before it was recaptured was 557 days, or about 18 months. (The angler who caught that tagged fish and reported it to the Dolphinfish Research Program said it weighed 58 pounds.)
A growth-rate study conducted in Hawaii by Benetti and others found that juvenile dolphin grew by 10 percent of their body weight every day. The daily growth rate dropped to 4.3 percent of the fish's body weight after the fish matured beyond three months.
Tagging data from the Dolphinfish ResearchProgram (www.dolphintagging.com) suggest a growth rate of more than half an inch per week, about 29 inches a year, a rate the program director says is a conservative estimate.
Rapid growth means dolphin are aggressive hunters and voracious feeders. Their diet includes a variety of small fish, flyingfish, squid and crustaceans—even small sea turtles that seek refuge under mats of floating sargassum.
Aggressive feeding is hardly news to bluewater anglers who have watched fired-up mahi leap from bright-blue waves in pursuit of flyingfish.
Big dolphinfish might seem to be solo operators compared with groups of small “schoolie” dolphin. But they are almost never alone, Benetti noted.
Male dolphin, bulls, have been known to roam the ocean with harems of five to 10 cows.
Anglers who have hooked big dolphin know that, unlike small dolphin, they often sound near the boat, meaning a vertical tug-of-war can follow the excitement of the initial jumps.
C.J. Kaczor of Palm Beach Gardens spent an hour and 15 minutes fighting the 54-pound bull dolphin he hooked on a live sardine while fishing off Jupiter in May 2017. Much of the fight time was spent coaxing the powerful fish up to the surface.
After watching the big bull greyhound over and over again, taking almost all of his 30-pound line, Kaczor said he coaxed the fish close to the boat, then endured an extended vertical battle with Mr. Bull.
“He'd get up close and kind of see the boat and dive back down,” Kaczor said.
Kaczor's fighting tools: Steady pressure, patience, persistence.
“I always try not to let them jump,” Kaczor said. “If you feel like they're coming up to jump, pull down to the side to keep them down.”
The 20-year-old angler's 54-pound bull won him accolades as the largest dolphin caught in 2017 by a West Palm Beach Fishing Club member.
Satellite tagging by the Dolphinfish Research Program has shown that big bull dolphin routinely descend to depths over 100 feet at night, then move back toward the surface to spend their days within 30 feet of the surface.
The deepest depth recorded for a dolphin with satellite tags was 838 feet over the Blake Plateau (off the coast of North Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas).
Fishing for big dolphin involves hunting for the conditions that hold them. If you don't enjoy the hunt, stay home.
The ocean's surface provides most of the clues. Weedlines, floating debris, birds coming down near the surface, color changes and rips (current edges) all can lead anglers to big mahi.
Alan Salmi, a seasoned offshore angler from Port Orange, knows that covering a lot of water is standard procedure for finding big dolphin. Salmi didn't hesitate to run his 32-foot boat 50 miles into the Atlantic during the 2018 Central Florida Shootout tournament.
After leaving Ponce Inlet, Salmi followed a rip out to 1,300 feet and had circled back toward land before he found what he was looking for in 560 feet—a well-defined weedline along a rip with strong current flow.
Salmi caught several dolphin along that rip, including a 49.1-pound bull that slammed his surface-trolled ballyhoo rigged with a blue-and-white chugger head.
When his big dolphin sounded, Salmi kept his boat moving slowly in circles to keep it away from the props as the song “Dancing Queen” blared from the stereo.
After a 35-minute fight, his fish was below the deck on ice. Salmi went home, shot photos and loaded his fish into a cooler for the trip to the weigh-in, where it placed a close second in the Shootout.
Another angler, Harold Cook, had caught a 49.8-pound mahi the same day to take top dolphin in the Shootout, demonstrating the quality of spring dolphin fishing in the Gulf Stream waters that flow along Central Florida's east coast.
Capt. Dave McGaha, a veteran offshore angler from Daytona Beach, runs 30 to 40 miles off Ponce Inlet to find the western edge of the Gulf Stream, which he can recognize by an increase in sea surface temperature.
McGaha says it's not unusual to catch 10 to 20 dolphin a day in the spring and summer off Ponce Inlet by trolling chugger heads and jet heads rigged over small to medium ballyhoo.
Although finding current edges is important, McGaha said he doesn't always troll right along the rip. When the wind is blowing hard from the east, for example, he will present his baits west of the edge.
“They'll move around,” McGaha said. “They could be 100 yards to a half mile off the rips.”
Using planers to get horse ballyhoo trolled below the surface often produce the biggest dolphin, McGaha said.
“Sixty-five percent of my big fish are caught deep,” he said.
Surface ballyhoo that sink when the boat stops also conjure up larger fish, especially when the boat just begins to move forward and the baits begin to climb toward the surface.
In the Panhandle, Capt. Chris Kirby of Destin said he typically runs 60 to 80 miles to find blue water, which can lead to blue marlin, wahoo, tuna and dolphin from May through October.
Kirby said the big Panhandle dolphin are 20 to 30 pounds, though 40-pounders occasionally show up.
Although the big mahi might not be as large as those caught in southeast Florida or the Keys, the action can be outstanding in the bluewater rips off the Panhandle.
“We do have a good ripline,” Kirby said, noting that mahi action there is “pretty much a guarantee.”
Farther south along the state's Gulf Coast, Capt. Kyle Harmon of Bluewater Offshore Charters in Fort Myers said he ran some 150 miles to catch one of his largest dolphin, a 50-pound bull.
Most of the dolphin he finds closer to shore are smaller. Harmon said it's difficult to find large dolphin off Fort Myers without running 100 miles to find large sargassum mats.
Most everyone who has spent time trolling for dolphin knows that a slight increase in speed can trigger a strike. Mike Fateaux was trolling off Palm Beach when he realized he'd forgotten to stop letting out line while dropping a rigged squid into the spread.
He lost so much line that he started reeling like crazy to regain lost line. That's when a 50-pound bull dolphin nailed his squid.
Sitting tight, chumming and waiting also can pay dividends.
Capt. Chris Lemieux of Boynton Beach has led his clients to several dolphin over 30 pounds by pitching out a live goggle-eye around smaller school dolphin and continuing to chum with chunks of ballyhoo, Spanish sardines or squid.
“Sometimes if you sit in a school of peanuts for a while, a big one will show up,” Lemieux said.
Lifelong dolphin angler Gary York of West Palm Beach says it's important to pay attention to things you can't see, namely sea mounts, deep ledges and temperature breaks, when searching for mahi.
York watches his boat's water temperature gauge carefully. A degree or two increase in sea surface temperature can indicate a current edge that could attract mahi.
On slick-calm summer days when it seems nothing is happening, York runs his boat to deep ledges in 1,200 to 1,400 feet off Palm Beach—places where the contour lines on his chartplotter do S turns.
York often finds boats targeting swordfish in these deep-ledge areas.
Capt. Mike Simko of North Palm Beach has caught mahi up to 45 pounds while fishing for swordfish in about 1,500 feet of water off Palm Beach County.
Simko dangles a live bait or two under a kite and chums, allowing the north-flowing current to deliver the hors d'oeuvres while he fishes deep for daytime swords.
“A lot of guys I know slay the dolphin like that,” Simko said.
Simko, who runs his boat Kite Keeper to the Bahamas regularly, also likes to fish the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream for big dolphin. He starts by locating a temperature break, then fires up his radar to search for birds.
When he finds a frigate bird, Simko trolls a bonito strip rigged on a pair of hooks behind a Sea Witch.
“Almost every single time we get a bait below the bird, wham, big mahi,” Simko said.
All the preparation and keen-eyed hunting in the world is not as important as getting a bait in front of a big dolphin during that few seconds when it's meandering beside the boat.
Many big dolphin follow a smaller dolphin taken on the troll to the boat. Jeremy Dooley of West Palm Beach found that out when fishing north of Freeport, Grand Bahama.
He and his friends had just caught a 30-pound mahi on the troll when a bigger bull appeared beside the boat.
Dooley grabbed a bait rod stored below the gunwale and pitched out a ballyhoo chunk on a jig to hook the bull. After an hour-long fight, a friend finally reached his 50-pound bull with a long gaff.
Captain Jay Pottlitzer's pitch-rod preparation paid off the spring of 2013 when he tossed a piece of squid on a hook to a bull dolphin that followed another dolphin to the boat.
Pottlitzer, of Lake Worth, had a spinning rod rigged with 50-pound braided line and a 7/0 hook ready when opportunity came knocking. The result: A 70-pound bull that set a West Palm Beach Fishing Club record.
Anglers targeting big dolphin need to think ahead about how they're going to get them into the boat to avoid the heartbreak of losing a big mahi.
Keep them in the water and keep the boat moving slowly to avoid loose lines and jumps that could dislodge hooks, advises Tony DiGiulian, an instructor with the IGFA School of Sportfishing.
If the fish has sounded and won't budge, try easing off the drag and slowly move the boat away to change the angle of the fight, DiGuilian said.
The goal is to position the fish alongside the boat, just below the surface, with the boat moving slowly, before gaffing it.
Come over the fish with the gaff, then take a stroke that buries the hook and brings the fish into the boat in one motion. In gaffing as in baseball, follow through.
How Big Can They Get?
The largest, documented dolphin caught off the coast of Florida arrived courtesy of Lady Luck.
Robert Vail of Lantana caught the current Florida record mahi, an 81-pound bull, while fishing a small tournament with friend Bob Tubbs in June 2007.
The two friends were fishing on the 45-foot charterboat Crowd Pleaser with Capt. Jed DuBois, dangling live goggle-eyes under fishing kites along a color change in 200 feet off Hillsboro Inlet.
They had just reset kite baits around 11 a.m. when the big bull hit. Vail fought the fish 45 minutes on a Shimano TLD 25 spooled with 30-pound mono and 8 feet of 80-pound shock leader.
Tubbs said it took all his strength to pull the big bull into the boat after gaffing it. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2019