During the spring and summer months, specifically April through September, Florida's offshore water temps start heating up and so does the dolphin fishing. After spawning in the spring, schools of dolphin (aka Mahi-Mahi) are out in full force traveling through the tropical gulfstream waters on a continuous hunt for food. This provides offshore anglers the opportunity to cash in on the peak season mahi madness in depths anywhere between 100ft - 400ft. There's no denying that the pelagic mahi-mahi are one of the most perfect game fish out there. These incredible fish put on an exciting show from the get-go, aggressively attacking the baits, lines screaming, doing impressive aerial acrobatics once hooked up and lighting up the water with their brilliant shades of yellow, green and blue. The icing on top is knowing that with a few mahi in the fish box, you'll be eating some of the best tasting meat that the ocean has to offer. So get out there and stock your freezer up! To help guide you on your mahi quest, we've compiled a list of helpful pointers and whether you're a novice angler or not, the height of mahi season combined with these tried and true tactics will spell success for you on your next trip.
1. Locate The Bait
Driven by the basic extinct of needing to eat to survive, fish are constantly on the move looking for an opportune meal. So, naturally when you find the food, it's a safe bet you're going to find the fish. If you are seeing good concentrations of bait in the area that's a very positive sign and you'll want to work the spot. Watch for baitfish scattering or showering and run right over to that location. When dolphin locate a good supply of bait they're more likely to stick around and fill up as much as possible rather than eating and running.
2. Follow The Weedline
It's no surprise that dolphin like to feed around the weedlines, rips and color edges as they tend to hold a lot a lot of small fish, turtles, shrimp and crabs. When you find a good weedline, you can either choose to troll down it or power off your engines and let the current be your guide. Trolling covers considerably more water, but when you encounter those weedlines, rips or color changes that have an abundance of sargasm in one area and then taper off, it’s not a bad idea to post up at the best-looking spot and let the fish find you. There’s no telling when a dolphin is going to find the flotsam, unless of course you see one free jumping, 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 looking to satisfy its appetite are likely better than it seeing a handful of 10inch baits behind a single boat. In addition to weedlines, dolphin can congregate on many types of "floatsam". Always be looking out for boards, driftwood, even floating 5-gallon buckets...any sizeable floating matter is worth your while to troll by a few times.
3. Scan For Birds
Anglers know that birds can be a reliable indicator of dolphin, and not just diving frigate birds, but also the small gulls. You want to always be watching for birds working on the water and the second you spot 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 you're closing in on some big fish, whereas a good group of small birds diving usually indicate schoolies.
4. Mix Up Your Spread
When the summertime surface temperatures start their seasonal climb, everything from the baitfish to the big fish move deeper into the water column and start to hang around the reefs and wrecks. Rather than keeping all your baits at the same depth level, it is advised to mix your trolling spread up to maximize your results so that even when trolling rigged baits like ballyhoo, you have at least one bait swimming down deep at all times. Not all the dolphin are going to be on the top, so be prepared to put something down deeper.
5. Pitch Baits On Deck
One of your standard practices when offshore fishing should be to hook a bait on a spinning rod, or three, and keep it in a livewell or 5-gallon bucket filled with seawater in the corner of the cockpit, locked and loaded, ready to throw to any fish that comes within casting distance. If you suddently find yourself in a nice school, time is of the essence, so if you have zero pitch baits ready, you and your crew will be scrambling. Some fishing vessels will even come standard with “pitch wells” for just this occasion. Keep in mind that your pitch bait doesn't necessarily have to be a live bait. A rigged ballyhoo, mullet or flying fish will give you practically the same odds with opportunity feeders like Mahi.
6. Feathers and Skirts
When trolling, you want to cover as much water as possible, but it can be a tall order when you are moving at slower speeds to avoid washing your baits out. Instead of solely using natural baits, rig up some weighted and unweighted feathers or a skirted bonito strip in bright colors, think pink and orange, and let them out 100 to 150 feet behind the boat. Feathers and skirted strips can be fast-trolled at 10 to 12 knots, allowing you to 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 for multiple hook ups.
7. Chunk It Up
If you have successfully located a weedline, rip or area with a lot of bait, shut down the engines and chum the area up with whatever you have available whether it's live pilchards or chunks of ballyhoo or squid. This method is proven to draw the dolphin in and if you've already spotted a school in the area, nine times out of ten it will keep them hanging around your vessel. You will certainly see a great response doing this with schoolie dolphin but it can also bring in the big bulls that like to raid the chumline and chase the live baits down. Once a fish comes close, pitch a bait (live, dead chunk or even a lure) and within minutes you should have a dolphin hooked up. Once you have a schoolie on the line and there are others nearby, keep it in the water to encourage the other dolphin to stick around. This will give someone else on board the opportunity to toss another line in and likely, get another dolphin in the box.
For dolphin fishing regulations by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Comission, please click here.