It looked like the kind of hot, calm day when nothing much would happen. The seas were flat, dull and unruffled to the horizon as we dropped off plane and settled to trolling speed. Off in the distance, Key West lay shimmering under a blanket of heat and humidity. To the east, weed lines snaked off to the vanishing point as we eased a pair of skirted ballyhoo over the transom to follow in our wake. I wasn't feeling too sanguine about the day's prospects when all of a sudden the rods went off and we were surrounded by bright green-and-gold streaks. The dolphin had found us.
In came the rods and out went the chum bags, and for the next couple of hours we bailed dolphin on a variety of tackle, including light spinning and fly gear. The majority of fish ran from four to five pounds, but we managed to fool a picky 40-pounder by flipping a whole ballyhoo in front of its nose. So much for a lazy day of summer trolling!
That's the way it often goes with summer dolphin along the Atlantic coast, from Florida to the Carolinas. Midsummer dog days means dolphin days, and about all you have to do is put in the time and you'll find the fish ready to cooperate.
While dolphin are pretty much the same wherever they swim, there are different ways of hunting them, depending on where you fish and the kind of water you have nearby. One thing remains consistent though: summer is prime time to find dolphin throughout their range along the East Coast. And best of all, the seas should be calm and the weather right for running far offshore.
The Florida Keys
While it's true that most of the dolphin tournaments in the Florida Keys take place in April, prime offshore conditions don't occur on a consistent basis until June. Jack Kelly has been running the Windy Day out of Key West for more than two decades, and while he'll pick up dolphin almost year-round, it isn't until the seas settle down that he gets serious about targeting them. During the late spring, when he's fishing for sailfish, Kelly will often venture a bit farther offshore for dolphin, which tend to hang out in deeper water than the sails.
"If the sailfish are in 130 feet of water, then the dolphin will usually be in at least 150 feet," he says. "In the early part of the season, this is where the big singles or pairs hang out."
By June, stable weather has allowed weed lines to form, and conditions are good for running out to them. "The weed lines are the key to finding dolphin," says Kelly. "For that reason, the wind is important to your success. When the wind is out of the west, it tends to scatter the weeds and the fish. Same with a north wind. You want a southeast wind. That's the one that forms the weed lines.
"By June, the weather has usually settled down and there are eight or nine good weed lines formed up offshore. When I head out, I run way out. I don't even mess with the weed lines in 400 feet of water. I also run past the weed lines in 700 and 800 feet, out to 2,000 and 3,000 feet of water. That's where we find the schools of ten-pounders, and you can catch all you want." Kelly admits that the closer weed lines can and do produce fish, but they get hit more often and are less consistent than the weeds farther offshore.
Kelly's method of finding dolphin is to troll ballyhoo or lures while he's searching for the weed lines, then turn and troll along the weeds until he runs into a school of fish. Once he's into a school, he puts out the chum bags to hold the fish around the boat. "Once we have fish around the boat, we cast to them," he says. "All I ever do in July is fly-fish for dolphin. It doesn't seem to matter what we use. When they are feeding, they'll hit just about any fly you show them."
Kelly explained that when he is hunting bigger dolphin in the summer, he'll concentrate his efforts on the water between weed lines. This is where the bigger, solitary fish seem to travel, whereas the school fish tend to hang closer to the weeds.
The Palm Beaches
Farther north along the Florida coast, it's not so much the calmer weather of summer that determines dolphin season, but rather the appearance of the bait schools that draw and hold them. Because the Gulf Stream runs so close to shore off the Palm Beaches, dolphin can be caught throughout the year, according to Greg Bogdan, who has been chartering here for more than a decade. But the middle of summer, when the bait is thick and reliable, is when school-dolphin fishing really takes off.
"The midsummer is when you can really depend on the bait," he says. "And bait is the secret to finding dolphin off West Palm Beach. We don't have frigate birds to follow when we look for dolphin, so we just run out of the inlet, find a weed line and troll along it.
When he's targeting bigger fish, Bogdan likes to troll a horse ballyhoo rigged behind a blue-and-white Hawaiian I lure. However, if you're simply looking for fast action with schoolies, it's hard to beat a bonito strip fished behind a Sea Witch skirt. "That's the best bait there is for dolphin," says Bogdan. "Put one down on a planer and you can troll it all day. The dolphin can't bite it in half, and you can often catch 20 or 30 fish on a single rig before you have to change it. Bonito strips are gold here.
"Once we find the fish, we'll stop and chunk, or fish live bait for them. At this point I'll often break out a dead flying fish and pin the wings open with a piece of copper wire and drift it behind the boat. This is a great trick for bigger dolphin."
Originally, flying fish were fished from a kite, but Bogdan says the kite isn't really necessary. Dead flying fish drifted on the surface with the wings outstretched work just as well.
Fly fishing for school dolphin has gotten very popular off West Palm, much as it has in Key West. "When we fly-fish, we start off with a live well full of two- to three-inch pilchards," Bogdan says. "Then we troll along a weed line until we find the fish. That's when we stop and chum with live baits. After that it's just a matter of picking them off with a fly."
Dolphin are not picky about fly patterns, but Bogdan prefers a Clouser Minnow, a pilchard pattern or a small ballyhoo pattern fished on a nine- or ten-weight outfit. Virtually any fly that bears some resemblance to a baitfish will work.
It's especially critical to have plenty of outfits rigged and ready to handle whatever might show up. Ten spinning rods are not too many for Bogdan, and he likes to have a couple rigged with wire leaders in case a wahoo crashes the party. He also keeps a bigger outfit rigged for blue marlin, which sometimes appear when there are a lot of "bite-sized" dolphin in the area.
Another place where dolphin keep company with blue marlin is off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And summer is the best time to get into both species, according to Captain Jerry Shepherd of the Tuna Duck out of Hatteras.
"We generally find plenty of dolphin along the Gulf Stream edges while we are fishing for marlin during the summer," he says. "Sometimes we find them under floating grass, sometimes under birds and sometimes just out in the open. Just about anything you find floating in the Gulf Stream will have dolphin under it. This has got to be one of the most consistent fisheries in the world."
Shepherd catches most of his dolphin while looking for blue marlin, but even when he is targeting dolphin specifically he keeps an eye out for bigger game. "We do a lot of trolling for targets of opportunity, so I'll always pull a couple of big, naked ballyhoo. We usually catch the big dolphin on these baits. Sometimes the bigger dolphin attack the marlin lures, too. When you get into dolphin from 15 to 30 or 40 pounds and hook a dozen of those, chances are good you'll also have a shot at a marlin."
Shepherd likes to pull a No Alibi lure when fishing for dolphin along the weed lines. He says that the first weed lines of summer are usually loaded with fish. "I'll pull the nylon lures back where the long flat line usually goes, then troll along the weeds," he says. "Sometimes we get into them so quickly we end up filling up on dolphin before we even get offshore."
Shepherd, like Bogdan, insists on being prepared and keeps a number of rigs ready for when the dolphin appear. "Once we hook a couple of fish on the trolling gear, we keep them in the water as decoys and break out the lighter spinning gear. We try to match the tackle to the size of the dolphin. If we have a bonito, we'll use that for bait; otherwise we cut up some squid."
Whether you choose to fill the fishbox using spinning gear and cut bait, or take on the challenge of casting spoons, jigs and flies to individual fish, you'll usually find dolphin eager to accommodate a variety of tackle and techniques. The recipe for success is pretty simple: rig up a bunch of rods, slather on the sunscreen, find a weed line and start trolling. Just don't count on napping once you set the baits out. Summer dolphin have a way of keeping you awake.