Early summer is extremely busy for offshore anglers in southeastern Florida and the Florida Keys. The annual dolphin migration is in high gear, providing anglers with easy opportunities to post both high numbers and big fish. If you doubt the popularity of this fishery, just try finding room to troll along a perfect weed line on a gorgeous weekend day. And don't even think about parking your trailer close to the local boat ramp unless you arrive before 5 a.m. Dolphin time here is huge.
One of the core dolphin locating tactics amounts to tracking the whereabouts of the Gulf Stream's western and eastern edges, hot zones in the dolphin's migratory trek. I look for warmer-water fingers spinning off the Stream and overlaying shallower depths and prominent bottom structure, for surface temperature breaks, and for eddying within the Stream itself. I get this information from an ocean temperature chart the evening prior to a trip.
Radar is another outstanding dolphin tool. I set a six-mile outer range on my 6 kW Lowrance with 4-foot open array antenna to identify birds. Even with radar, the more eyes on board, the better; have everyone scan for birds, weed patches, flotsam, flying fish and fish wakes. A pair of quality binoculars is always a great addition when dolphin hunting.
All my tackle and baits are rigged the evening before, so our main concern when we clear the inlet is searching for fish, whether that entails running and gunning to pitch bucktails, ballyhoo or live baits on spin tackle or involves trolling an enticing spread complete with teasers and dredges.
Following is a look at how three heavyweight dolphin anglers catch fish from their home waters during early summer.
Capt. Jimmy Gagliardini operates High Caliber Fishing Charters from the Hammocks in Marathon, in the Florida Keys. Down here, May is the month for big fish, and most of the action is inside of 20 miles.
"This time of year, there is a lot of bait and dolphin activity between eight and 16 miles offshore," says Gagliardini. "As summer deepens, the fish are generally beyond 20 miles, and runs of 18 to 30 miles are common then. The Gulf Stream also shifts farther offshore in the summer, but it meanders, and when it comes closer to shore, so do the dolphin."
Gagliardini says wind is major factor in locating dolphin: "As we get deeper into summer, slick days cause the fish to move farther offshore. Two years ago we had three weeks of slick-calm weather, and I routinely ran 28 to 30 miles to find them. Yet if the wind is blowing 20 knots, the fish move closer in, and we'll catch them eight to 10 miles out."
Of the three dolphin indicators, weed lines, debris and working birds, Gagliardini focuses on the last. "I can tell if the dolphin are small or large based on what the birds are doing," he says. "Bigger fish don't have as many birds on them. Three or four fish can't drive up enough bait to draw a lot of birds like a school of smaller dolphin can. You might have two to six birds on three or four big dolphin."
When it's calm, Gagliardini prefers to run and gun. When it's rough, he'll drop back a Wahoo Whacker and either a cone- or slant-head Mold Craft lure on 100-pound monofilament leaders and troll between 8 and 10 knots, searching for fish.
"One trick: When you're looking for big fish, whether you're trolling or running and gunning, is never approach them from behind," says Gagliardini. "They'll spook fast. Let them come to you, and they'll be way more aggressive."
Another tactic that separates the catchers from the boat riders is feeding dolphin their natural forage. "I'll pull up to a weed line and sabiki small jacks and other fish from under the grass mats," says Gagliardini. "When we run across finicky dolphin, they'll eat those baits right up. That's part of their natural food out there, and rarely will they turn it down."
Chum and Gun
Capt. Steve "Pumpkin Eater" Huddleston runs out of Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades Inlet. A noted evening and daytime swordfishing specialist, Huddleston knows the local dolphin fishing just as well and stays busy with charters seeking fast fishing and good grilling afterward.
"My go-to dolphin zone out of Port Everglades begins roughly 12 to 14 miles offshore,"says Huddleston. "On your fish finder, you will see the bottom, around 600 feet, drop to 800 feet within a short distance. It's a little drop, but weeds and debris often accumulate here. Once you locate flying fish, everything will be behind them. It's an excellent place to troll zigzag patterns.
"Plus, when you get a good southeast wind pushing with the northbound current, it creates a significant upwelling, as the water strikes that 800-foot bottom and pushes up into that 600- and 500-foot flat. Dolphin seem to linger here because of the abundance of bait, which includes everything from flying fish to tinker mackerel. And the rougher it is out here, the better the dolphin fishing."
Huddleston trolls four to five baits. His spread often features a C&H Chugger fished approximately 150 feet back and a pair of C&H Rattle Jets (one pearl-finish and the other blue), a blue-and-white Ilander-ballyhoo combination and a plain ballyhoo. All lures and baits are rigged on 50-pound Sufix fluorocarbon leader and pulled on 20-pound tackle.
Huddleston deploys a Capt. Mark's Marker (captainmarks.com), a bright buoy, when he finds a school. He'll then troll the fringe of the school and even a bit away from it, trying to pick off bigger fish that might be hanging around the outskirts. After a bit, he'll move back toward the marker, relocate the school of dolphin, shut down and catch them on spin tackle. His trick here: He puts out a block of Capt. Mark's Pure Pacific Sardine Fishing Chum. "Off south Florida, you have to outchum the other guys," says Huddleston. "Once a boat sees a dolphin leaping behind your boat, you've got company. I'll outchum those other boats with the sardine chum and tidbits of ballyhoo and squid and keep the school behind my boat. Not only do dolphin go crazy for that sardine chum, but it slicks out the water and gives you great visibility."