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Springtime Mahi Tactics

High-jumping mani-mahi are beautiful, tasty prizes that have lured countless anglers over the years to the Gulf Stream waters off Florida's east coast.

But finding always-moving dolphin, as these share commonly known, in the flowing Gulf Stream current can be a hit-or-miss proposition a bet many anglers will take if they're willing to burn fuel searching vast expanses of blue water for the floating weed mats and debris that attract dolphin.

South Florida's offshore anglers were pleasantly surprised during the summer and fall of 2015, when they consistently found dolphin feeding along weedlines and current edges, usually 10 miles or more offshore.

“The dolphin bite was as good as I can remember for a while,” said Capt. Carl Miller of the Miller Time charterboat based at Boynton Harbor Marina, referring to the September 2015 action about 12 miles off Boynton Beach.

The consistent mahi bite produced plenty of opportunities for light-tackle fun as anglers put away trolling outfits and enjoyed drag-punishing action on spinning rods holding live baits such as pilchards, Spanish sardines and finger mullet.

A typical mahi game plan: Troll lures, rigged ballyhoo, skirted belly strips or rigged squid to find dolphin along weedlines, rips or general areas where fish have been reported. After hooking up, stop the boat and pitch out chunks of sardines or squid to attract more dolphin to the boat. Then pitch small live baits on 1/0 to 2/0 hooks and hold on.

Anglers who prefer running and gunning opt out of blind-trolling and use their dolphin-hunting skills to find patches of water or drifting debris that look like they'd be attractive to mahi. Some will chum with live or dead baits, while others will briefly set out trolling baits, in hopes that the fish will magically appear, as they sometimes do.

It's hard to beat the sheer beauty of a dolphin meandering curiously near the boat. The bright turquoise colors of a hooked dolphin's pectoral fins in the clear, Gulf Stream water is unmistakable.

“When they get lit up, they turn green and yellow,” said Capt. Mike McCormack, who operates the Angler Management charter boats based at Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores. “It's gorgeous.”

McCormack said his crew does not rely on finding long lines of sargassum when hunting for dolphin, even though weed mats sheltering small fish make prime dolphin feeding grounds.

Ballyhoo for trolling and bonito cuts for chunking.

Instead, McCormack and his crew watch the bottom machine for water temperature changes and study the ocean's surface for current edges, or rips, as they run east into the Gulf Stream.

“The most common thing we see is a rip, and it's always associated with a temperature change,” McCormack said.

In addition to trolling rigged ballyhoo staggered long and short on outriggers to attract dolphin, the Angler Management crew slow trolls a hookless Squid Nation dredge teaser close behind the boat to attract dolphin, then pitches baits to them. When the mahi first come up, McCormack likes to chum the water with cut squid and wait.

“The smaller fish come up first,” he said. Then he pitches out dead ballyhoo rigged with 6/0 circle hooks (bridled on top of the head) on 20-pound-class conventional rods or spinning rods rigged with 12-to 20-pound line and 6 feet of 40-pound uorocarbon leader.

To pull a bait down deeper when prospecting for big dolphin, the Angler Management crew uses an 8-ounce bank sinker connected with a rubber band about 20 feet up from the hook—far enough that the fish is not likely to use the weight to shake the hook. The sinker can break away, but usually doesn't.

McCormack said he's not shy about using relatively large blue runners to target big mahi, even though they have relatively small mouths.

“Some of the biggest dolphin I've had have come on really big runners,” McCormack said. “Dolphin have no business hit- ting the baits that they do.”

Mahi fishing styles vary with the seasons and the live baits available.

In the peak dolphin-fishing months of April and May, a freshly caught Spanish sardine allowed to roam freely around a weed mat or chunk of floating debris will prove tempting.

Pilchards are usually available throughout the summer and make excellent live chum and light-tackle dolphin baits when presented on 30- to 40-pound leader and 1/0 or 2/0 hooks.

Winter sailfish anglers often find dolphin hitting live goggle-eyes or horse pilchards dangled under fishing kites. McCormack's crew targets winter dolphin by setting up on a rip, temperature break or weedline and drifting with goggleyes or blue runners under kites.

Finding seaweed or other types of floating structure on the open ocean often translates into dolphin action, but finding that floating habitat isn't always easy.

Various skirted-lures, a favorite for dolphin.

Seasoned bluewater anglers train themselves to scan the ocean around their boats, sometimes with the aid of stabilized binoculars or towers that afford them a better vantage point for tell-tale signs of something on the surface that could attract fish.

Hints of dolphin-attracting structure include sea birds dipping down to the surface and the slightly different slop of waves as they hit floating debris, such as logs, lumber, stalks of bamboo and barely floating garbage, such as lawn chairs, swept up by the current.

The water near a frigate bird is almost always worth investigating. If the frigate bird appears to be following a fish, position the boat well in front of the bird before dropping baits in and let the fish come to the baits, advises Tony DiGiulian, co-founder of the IGFA School of Sportfishing.

Searching around current edges can bring luck in finding floating objects. After cruising around the ocean for half an hour one day last summer, finding nothing but waves, my son and I happened upon what appeared to be a wooden trash can lid on the surface. A chum bag was attached. Dolphin were not far away.

When sargassum mats are plentiful, be picky. Look for broad weed mats that are sheltering baitfish. No bait under a sargassum patch? Move on.

After finding a good looking patch or line of sargassum, don't charge up to the edge to start fishing. Slow the boat before reaching the weed line, DiGiulian recommends, and start trolling with the closest bait about 30 feet from the edge.

“A lot of times, the bigger mahi are out away from the weed line,” DiGiulian said.

Major Sargassum Bloom

One of the keys to the solid late summer and fall dolphin bite off South Florida in 2015 was the relatively consistent, well defined weed line that was forming 10 to 14 miles offshore, far enough to keep crowds of boats away but close enough to make fishing practical.

Sargassum, a type of floating marine algae, has been blooming throughout the Caribbean in recent years, causing problems for resort towns where clumps of the decaying seaweed have stacked up on beaches and turned tourists away.

Bulldozers were used to clear a 3-mile stretch of beach in Galveston, Texas, that was clogged with tons of sargassum in May of 2014. Offcials with the Galveston Island Park board even launched a seaweed PR campaign, with signs encouraging visitors to participate in a scavenger hunt by sifting decaying sargassum to find shrimp, crabs and sea horses.

Because sargassum that washes ashore helps stabilize beach sand and helps feed sand-dune plants and sea birds, scientists have warned beach managers against constantly scouring beaches to remove it.

“There's a difference between achieving a naturally clean beach and an over-sanitized beach,” the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute notes in its sargassum fact sheet.

The Sargasso Sea, a region in the middle of the North Atlantic framed by four ocean currents, takes its name from the floating marine algae. The seaweed, in turn, was named by early sailors who thought the tiny air bladders that make it float looked like sargassum, the Portuguese word for a type of grape.

Scientists at Texas A&M University at Galveston are trying to help resort managers and the public cope with excess sargassum.

Working with NASA, they developed the Sargassum Early Advisory System (SEAS), a smartphone app that combines satellite images with wind and current data to predict when drifting mats of sargassum will wash up on beaches.

Don Hammond, Director of the Dolphin fish Research Program in South Carolina monitors dolphin tagging reports coming from all around the western Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. He's also tuned into reports of sea conditions and general observations of anglers participating in the program.

Hammond said many anglers in the Caribbean basin were reporting excellent dolphin catches during the winter

of 2015-16. In addition, they were not fishing a continued profusion of sargassum weed, a promising sign, as the small fish, shrimp and other organisms associated with the leafy, drifting habitat add to the availability of forage for dolphin.

Might these observations indicate things to come for Florida anglers? Hammond thinks so.

“These reports indicate that the large amount of sargassum and presumably the dolphin associating with it—in the Caribbean is being pushed to the west where the Caribbean current should carry it northward ultimately through the Yucatan Straits into the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

At caribbean tourist ports such as Costa Maya, Mexico, workers have been raking nonstop to clear beach of sargassum.

Hammond said that sargassum mats entering the Gulf join the Loop Current and eventually exit the Gulf by way of the Florida Straits off Key West where the current becomes the Florida Current. However, the actual pathway and timing will vary.

“The Gulf of Mexico is noted for having multiple long-term eddies that can trap sargassum mats for extended periods,” he said. Ultimately, Hammond predicts that the vast quantity of grass reported in the Caribbean will “surely result in a large volume of sargassum entering the Florida Straits in 2016. The big question will be whether the flow pattern of the Florida Current will allow the grass to move up the west side of the current where fishermen can easily access it or will it be pushed offshore to the east side of the stream beyond reach of most fishermen.”

In either case, Hammond concluded, there is a good likelihood that there will be large numbers of dolphin passing the east coast of Florida in 2016. “The question will be how far o - shore they will be.”

Let'em Go, See'em Grow

Dolphin anglers should practice conservation by not taking more fish than they need and releasing small dolphin, which grow at an astoundingly fast rate. A Louisiana Sea Grant study noted a dolphin growth rate of 5 inches a month.

The minimum legal size for dolphin taken from Atlantic waters is 20 inches (fork length), but expect to get dirty looks at the dock if the tails of your dolphin are barely breaking the top of a 5-gallon bucket. The daily bag limit is 10 dolphin per angler, not to exceed 60 per boat.

Capt. Scott Hamilton of Jupiter said he won't allow his charter clients to keep small dolphin on his boat, Time to Fly. He releases all of them after his anglers have enough dolphin to feed their families.

“I don't agree with the state (size) limits,” Hamilton said. “I think 25 or 30 inches would be better. It's to everybody's benefit to let them grow up.” FS

Published Florida Sportsman March 2016

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