Dolphin Fishing Success
Dolphin, mahi- mahi, dorado and of course dolphin fish - as if you needed the clarification. They are all one and the same and they are, without a doubt, the most requested fish of my charters clients. These are some of the most prolific and cooperative fish that dwell offshore of the Keys - usually. Some days it is a no brainer to get offshore, put a few trolled baits out and in no time hook up to the “World’s Greatest Gamefish” to borrow the title of Capt. Jim Sharpe’s exhaustive study on the subject. However, there are those other days, you know the ones, where nothing that you do seems to produce. There are several reasons for that, some we can attempt to work around while others we cannot.
First and foremost, we have to be where the fish are. As you are running offshore you should start looking for signs of fish as you cross the reef line. More than a few Keys anglers have come to the belief that farther is better for getting into dolphin. On the contrary. The vast majority of fish are taken between five and fifteen miles from shore. With the price of fuel sitting at well over $5 a gallon for marine grade at many marinas, you should not pass by fish to find fish.
As for what signs to follow, you should consider the magnificent frigate bird. The holy grail and neon sign of the dolphin chasers. Learning to read these great birds is actually more important than finding them. Spotting a bird high up in the air column lazily circling is of no immediate value in locating fish. The same bird swooping down to water level and going through maneuvers that would make a fighter pilot jealous, IS a guarantee that a gamefish is feeding under wing. One is better than two. This is because their other name is the Man o’ War Bird. They are easily provoked to fight with other birds of any species that might have a tasty morsel that is coveted by the frigate. If they are fighting they often lose their focus and your fish. If the frigates are feeding in the vicinity of terns, you are usually better advised to follow the terns who are not as easily distracted.
In reference to the terns, “less is better” when looking for dolphin. If you have a half dozen birds working, you are more likely to be over dolphin than tuna. The more birds in the flock the more likely that they are over tuna. To successfully read terns, you need to be able to differentiate a traveling bird from a working bird. If birds are traveling in one direction, whether dipping or not, they are most likely not feeding over a fish. Terns should be circling and diving to disclose the location of dolphin.
Floating junk needs to be investigated whether it is a couple of lobster balls or a whole pallet. There are many factors involved when trying to determine what will hold fish and what will not:
Length of time it has been in the water
. Something tossed in the day before may not have drawn the attention of bait fish and for that matter has not had time for any marine life to grow.
Percentage of structure under water
Large pieces of foam seldom attract fish. They blow too fast and don’t hold much bait. A few lobster buoys with a lot of trap rope hanging underneath on the other hand will often hold fish.
The Weed Line.
Weed lines form along wind and current breaks and gather sargasso and other debris. Sargasso weed will hold a veritable smorgasbord of marine life. It should not be confused with floating rafts of bay grass which is more two dimensional and seldom attracts many fish. When you find a weed line on an obvious current break you need to explore it very carefully.
Down riggers are invaluable in dolphin fishing. They give you an added dimension. Sometimes you can be fishing over fish that are unwilling to come up to make a meal of your bait, who might be willing to eat if the bait is presented in front of their nose. Dolphin also tend to follow a hooked compatriot up putting themselves right in the middle of your surface bait spread. This changes your outcome from zero fish to fish on every line.
But what about when you can’t find them, or worse, you find them and they refuse to bite? If I find fish that will not bite my trolled bait, I circle back to them and proceed to throw the entire pantry at them.
I start with live bait. Small live pinfish are one of my favorite baits. They are readily available, hardy and will often turn a sulking fish into a fish dinner. Cut bait and artificial jigs are next on the menu. If those do not work you have to decide between abandoning the fish for a chance at a few that will eat, or wait with the school until they decide to eat. Sometimes you are not the first to find a school of fish, if someone else has hooked and lost a few fish in a school they often become reluctant to eat again. If you suspect that to be the case, you might as well move on. If however, the fish are not biting because of variations in astronomy and meteorology you might as well wait for the fish you have found to bite.
The all time worst case scenario is that there are no fish to be found. Dolphin often travel in waves. Fish found here today can be many miles from here tomorrow. Just because they are biting in Key West does not mean that they are biting in Marathon. Unless you have unlimited resources and are willing to run thirty or more miles for the chance that they will still be active when you get there, you should have a backup plan.
Sometimes a trip back to the reef is in order where a few snapper and grouper will take the sting out of defeat. My recent favorite is to drop a bait to the bottom out in the Ups and Downs on a heavy spinning reel and do some deep dropping. For more years than I care to admit, I was convinced that you had to have an electric reel to deep drop. I was sorely mistaken. I have had more fun the last few years deep dropping manually. I keep hearing how physically tough it is to crank up from the great depths. I am here to tell you it is no harder than landing a medium-large dolphin and is just as, if not more rewarding, on the dinner table. One benefit to deep dropping offshore is that while you are drifting along, dolphin often come by to explore your boat and can fall to a surface bait drifted while you drop.
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