It was a “fudge up” that still haunts me to this day. Many, many moons ago, two friends and I were enjoying a solid day of dolphin fishing off Key Largo. With a boxful of fish, we began the 22-mile cruise back to the boat ramp. To save cleanup time, I put my friend behind the wheel and unrigged our trolling baits, save for one large mackerel and an unrigged ballyhoo that might serve as a pitch bait.
About 15 miles from shore, we spotted an excited frigate bird low on the water, and under it was the largest bull dolphin I had ever seen. I’m still embarrassed to guess its weight for fear people won’t believe me, but it appeared to be as large and nearly as wide as a screen door. To be conservative, it was an easy 70-plus pounds.
I grabbed a 20-pound-class spinning outfit, impaled our one and only fresh ballyhoo on a dolphin jig, and stood ready to cast, just behind the console. My heart raced when the huge dolphin swam toward the boat. I reared back to make a cast, thinking, “I’ve got this fish now.” But when I launched my cast, something terrible happened: I snagged the outrigger and halyard. Line, leader and outrigger were so tangled that I couldn’t undo the mess. The big dolphin swam out of sight. We trolled the big mackerel around that spot for at least 30 minutes but never saw that fish again. Had I taken one brief second to calm down and look behind me before casting, I swear that fish would now be hanging on my office wall.
Paying attention to what is around you before casting is paramount to averting disaster, like my flubbed cast. I learned the hard way; I’ve never made this mistake again. There is a lot to fine-tuning your casting, to consistently place a lure or bait smack in front of a fish’s snout. Here are some of the fundamentals necessary to transform your casting into a fish-producing art form.
Offshore fishing provides latitude, and sometimes even forgiveness, when casting to individual and schooling fish. That’s mainly because there are few fixed obstructions and confined areas that demand precisely accurate casts. Land a bait near an offshore game fish, and it will usually swim to it. For those reluctant feeders, reel that same bait up ahead of the fish, and try teasing it into striking. Rarely do inshore anglers fishing in tight confines have this luxury, save for locating schooling bluefish, striped bass, jack crevalle and, occasionally, red drum and tarpon in open waters.
Ready, Aim, Fire!
To precisely deliver a bait to within inches of your target, think of your rod as a gun, and imagine the front guide is the sight. Hold the rod vertically in front of you, and then lower it until you line up the tiptop with your target. Wind the lure to near the rod tip, open the bail, bring the rod back to vertical, and make a quick, sharp and straight cast. This tactic delivers more accuracy than a side-arm cast.
Of course, the velocity of the cast and any directional compensation should be determined by wind direction and strength, and the speed of a cruising fish. In a stiff breeze, it’s essential to put more power behind the cast to drive the lure through the wind. A slower, softer cast will be influenced greatly by strong winds, causing the lure to miss its mark like a Florida State field-goal kicker aiming for the uprights. Also, when dealt a brisk side breeze, compensate by casting a bit more into it, so the wind will still deliver the lure on target rather than downwind from it.
When pitching to a cruising fish, calculate the fish’s heading and speed, and any wind, and then aim to place the lure in front of it. The goal is not only to intercept the swimming fish with your bait, but also to prevent the splash from spooking it. This is most crucial in shallow water, where fish are ultrasensitive to threats.
Lead distance varies with species and depth of water. As a general rule, inshore cruising fish require greater lead — roughly five or six feet — than offshore fish, which often pounce on a bait dropped a few feet in front of them. When a fish is rooting on the bottom, it becomes a matter of casting a few feet in front of and beyond it, and slowly working the lure into their path of travel.