It’s time for the annual dolphin run in the Lower Keys, which, hopefully, coincides with great weather. Dolphin fish, or mahi, are everyone’s favorite offshore species in the Keys--especially big ones. They put on a great show, are great to eat, but, most importantly (and unfortunately for them), they are voracious eating machines.
As they move into our waters off the Middle to Lower Keys, it starts with a trickle of large to mid-sized fish as the waters start to warm up from May through July. As we move into summer weather, the large fish start to get hard to find, but schools of larger sized fish will be here in force.
There are a myriad of ways to target dolphin, with a lure and ballyhoo combo, or a naked rigged ballyhoo, probably the most popular tactic. This likely accounts for more large dolphin than any other. I’ve said it many times; the only drawback to trolling ballyhoo is contending with scattered grass that will constantly collect on the typical downturned hook rig. A quick search on the ol’ inner web on how to rig a weedless ballyhoo will save you a lot of time ungrassing your lures all day.
When buying ballyhoo, spend a few minutes making sure they have no air or ice in the bag. Most good tackle shops can get you fresh ballys; all you have to do is ask. When prepping baits, fresh or frozen, I fill a bucket with half a bucket of saltwater; two big handfuls of salt and a handful of baking soda. Next, I top it off with ice, stir up the mix, and put the baits in for 30 minutes or so. The worst thing that can happen to a natural bait is to let it sit in freshwater (melted ice water in your cooler) as this will wash out the brine and break down the baits and they will turn to mush pretty quickly. I found that a bait tray custom built for my Engel cooler keeps the baits out of the freshwater and organized.
As far as what dolphin will eat, well, the biggest one I’ve ever seen in person had a 5-pound dolphin in its belly, so don’t get too hung up on any particular bait. As far as colors for the lures or skirts go, if you asked 10 fisherman what they liked, I bet six would say blue and white. This can get pretty technical, but I believe it has to do with contrast with the sky more than anything. So, on overcast days, I use darker colors than bright sunny days. You can get as fancy as you like in regards to baits and rigging, but if a mahi sees your lure or bait, it will try to eat it. Trolling really isn’t my bag, but I will do it when it’s called for to locate fish.
Birds, birds, birds. I’m not saying every mahi swimming in the ocean has a bird following them around, but if, like me, you’re not wanting to troll all day, then birds are the ticket. Even better than just birds, is water with life in it; turtles, flying fish, anything swimming around in a particular chunk of water, can be the place to be on any particular day. I can’t tell you how many days the little white tuna birds have saved the day for me and my crew. Frigate birds are what most anglers dream of seeing, but just finding them is only part of it; you need to learn to read them before swinging in for the action. I’ll normally spend a few minutes jogging parallel to them to try and get an idea of speed and direction so I can get baits in front of the fish without running over them. These birds create quite a few arguments offshore between boats of whose bird it is to fish. I agree that first on scene is typically the boat to lay claim, but it’s not worth arguing over. If we work together, there are usually enough for everyone to make a good day without the heartache.
Once you get hooked to a mahi, remember, if they have friends with them, keeping one in the water is a great trick, but I find that having a bag full of cut bait to throw out as freebies really helps keep them around the boat. Don’t overdo it with freebies, though; just enough to hold their attention. Always keep an eye out for anything unusual. The smallest of wind breaks or current edges can be the key to locating fish.
One of the biggest tips I can give with regards to fishing structure offshore is to never give up on it till you’ve dropped a jig deep, or trolled a lip plug around it a few times. I’ve seen boats troll by a floater, pick up one fish or two, and move on thinking that’s all that’s home. But, in deep water the main body of fish could be over 300 ft. down and, some days, they won’t come to the surface until a deep fish is hooked.
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