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September 21, 2007

Winning Ways for Super Summer Dolphin

Following the author's proven dolphin-busting tactics will help keep you in the action all season long.

If offshore anglers voted for their favorite game fish, dolphin would likely top the list. And for good reason. Unlike blue marlin, makos, tuna and other popular big-game pelagics, dolphin are usually readily available and quite dependable, especially from the Mid-Atlantic south. What they lack in size and prestige when measured against their bigger oceanic brethren, they more than make up for in abundance, sheer aggressiveness and strength, not to mention edibility. Hook a big one on light tackle and it'll test your skills with blazing runs, spectacular leaps and deep-fighting tactics.

When dolphin are solid, as they typically are during their initial migration in spring and early summer, catching them is relatively easy. In fact, their abundance and aggressiveness almost make them too easy a target, and just about any bait or lure will catch them. However, as the season progresses, they become increasingly difficult to find and fool. That's because many of the fish have either been caught or departed for other waters. Additionally, those fish that manage to survive the gauntlet of offshore anglers have become a bit more educated, having seen more lures than you'll find on the shelves of most major tackle stores.

When the summer heats up and your success rate with dolphin begins cooling down, the tips below just might help you catch more and bigger fish during the tail end of their run.

Finding the Fish

Water Temperature

Being a pelagic, migratory fish, dolphin travel with the Gulf Stream. Therefore, it's essential to locate the Stream's true edge or any eddies containing this warm, tropical water. The convergence of two opposing water masses, such as the warm Gulf Stream and its eddies meeting the cooler inshore waters, create zones that abound with nutrients. These nutrient-rich boundaries attract larger forage fish and ultimately dolphin and other game fish. They're usually identified by a sharp change in surface temperature, rips, slicks, weed lines, floating debris and even diving birds.

Having a fishing forecast, such as the satellite images provided by Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Analysis, (800) 677-7633, faxed to your home the night before a trip will reveal the exact location of the Gulf Stream or its eddies, as well as the most significant surface temperature breaks. Study them thoroughly for potential hot spots where bait and game fish concentrations are likely to occur and program these coordinates into your GPS.

Weed Lines

Locating a weed line remains the most elementary key to finding dolphin. However, it doesn't necessarily guarantee success. Seasoned dolphin veterans understand that it's the bait that thrives within these floating ecosystems that attracts larger game. Therefore, take a few moments to study a weed line before tossing out the baits. If the sargassum is devoid of bait, such as juvenile pufferfish, bar jacks and rudderfish, continue seaward in search of a "live" weed line. That's not to say fish can't be caught off a "dead" weed line. It's just that the odds of locating dolphin on weed lines packed with bait are better.

Birds

Providing you're within the preferred depth and temperature range of dolphin, diving birds can lead to fish. In addition to simply running or trolling over to working birds, take note of your position (e.g., the edge of the Stream, a weed line) or depth. Dolphin often travel along certain zones, and it usually pays to troll parallel to these zones rather than explore farther offshore.

The direction in which the birds are traveling may also indicate which way the fish are heading. Should this be determined, and providing you're not already into fish, retrieve the baits and make a fast, wide pass up ahead of the birds and redeploy the baits. This is a good tactic for intercepting both school and larger dolphin.


summer dolphin
summer dolphin
(top) Trolling big baits such as ballyhoo and mackerel helps select for larger fish by keeping the schoolies at bay. (middle) Live pinfish can save the day when the dolphin are proving finicky. (above) Juvenile rudderfish and other natural dolphin forage can be gathered along weed lines using quill rigs.

Big Baits

I prefer targeting large fish over schoolies. On the troll, this is accomplished by using big baits such as large ballyhoo. The concept is simple: "Peanut" dolphin are generally intimidated by big baits. They'll charge up to and sometimes nip at a horse ballyhoo, but will seldom destroy the bait. Therefore, when schoolies are abundant, the large baits remain undisturbed in an active area for much longer. This significantly increases the odds of finding a fish in the 20-, 30- or 40-pound range. The same concept applies when using lures.

Live Bait

When dolphin are off their feed due to intense fishing pressure, a frisky live bait will almost always turn them back on. Whether it's menhaden, finger mullet, pinfish, blue runners, Spanish sardines or pilchards, take time to acquire a dozen or so live baits before heading offshore. An ideal setup for pitching live baits includes a 12- to 20-pound-class spinning outfit rigged with 12 feet of 40- to 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and a 4/0 live-bait hook. Should a large fish refuse to eat your trolled offerings, or if you're in the run-and-gun mode, pitch out a live bait and hang on!

Live bait can also be caught offshore by slowly retrieving a Sabiki or quill rig next to weed lines or floating debris. Small rudderfish and bar jacks will pounce on the tiny quills, and it's usually a simple matter to procure a dozen or so within minutes. These local baits are usually significantly smaller than the "imported" nearshore baits you bring with you, but they're exactly what the dolphin are looking for. Simply scale down your tackle and terminal system and either free-line or cast these smaller baits to dolphin.


Get Out Early

A late start near the end of dolphin season is a major disadvantage, given the intense heat that tends to drive both bait and game fish deep, not to mention the fishing pressure generated by hundreds of boats. If you want to score, you've got to beat the fleet!

During my late-season dolphin trips off South Florida, for example, I try to clear the inlet before dawn. Usually, by the time the sun comes up, I'm cruising well offshore, soon to be trolling along a weed line or tossing baits or jigs around floating debris. On many occasions I'm into fish before most boats have left the dock!

The advantage of an early start is two-fold: As water temperatures cool during the evening, bait and game fish rise closer to the surface and remain there until mid-morning. Furthermore, you'll be one of the first anglers to hit the fish, which practically guarantees success. Between the intense mid-day heat and the number of boats targeting the fish, your best odds of catching late-season dolphin occur between sunrise and 11:00 a.m., and then again between 4:00 p.m. and sunset.

summer dolphin
summer dolphin
(top) While all weed lines have the potential to hold dolphin, careful observation of baitfish activity-or the lack thereof-will reveal much about the prospects of a particular location. (above) Floating debris, such as this rusty oil drum, provide a base camp for all sorts of dolphin food.

Think Deep

Warming surface temperatures and intense fishing pressure become major factors that keep dolphin down. You can counter this by adding a deep bait to your spread. A wire-line outfit or high-speed planer will improve your fishing by taking a bait down to depths approaching 20 feet. However, it's often necessary to fish a bait 50 feet or deeper during the heat of summer, and that's where a downrigger becomes invaluable.

A jethead or rocket-style lure, skirted strip bait, ballyhoo or swimming mullet are good downrigger baits for dolphin. One trick that has worked for me after a few unsuccessful passes by weeds or a floating board is to let the baits sink by shifting into neutral for about a minute. I'll then immediately resume my trolling speed to make the baits appear like they've been startled and are racing back to the surface. Nicknamed the "sink and swim," this tactic has an uncanny way of provoking strikes from wary fish.

Another trick if you have hardy live baits such as blue runners, goggle-eyes, menhaden or mullet is to deploy one on a downrigger and power-drift it along a weed line or rip. Because the boat is being bumped in and out of gear, the bait can be fished at a much more precise depth. With this tactic, a live bait can be lowered 100 to 150 feet deep to probe beneath dolphin-holding structure.

If the dolphin are deep, a four- to ten-ounce jig dropped a couple hundred feet under floating debris and large weed patches is a good way to catch a solitary fish or perhaps bring a school to the surface. Rig the jig with a short length of wire (there's a good chance of catching a wahoo this way) and either reel it steadily and rapidly to the surface or impart short jigging motions along the way.

Keeping Them Hot

Once a dolphin school is located, watch the outskirts for a bigger fish. Should one appear, toss out a live bait or fresh ballyhoo. Remember to use a big bait to prevent the smaller fish from stealing it. While a bigger, solitary fish sometimes travels with a school, most of the time you're stuck with fish of the same size class. If you've got your heart set on a bigger fish, leave the school and move on.

If you want to get the most from a school of dolphin, try a systematic approach. My crew begins by casting yellow bucktails. After the fish become wise to that offering, we switch to white bucktails. It may not seem like a big change, but it's amazing how the excitement returns when a different color is introduced. When the dolphin tire of white, we switch to chunks of ballyhoo or squid, and begin chumming to rekindle their interest. When they finally wise up to natural bait, we pitch out the live baits and get them going once again.

By starting with artificials, progressing to natural bait, and ending with the live baits, a school can be thoroughly worked over. This way you can boat a few fish for dinner and have a blast catching and releasing the rest on light tackle. Now that's my idea of hot fun in the summertime!

> ¿P>>Spinnerbaits are available in tackle stores throughout the country, as well as through mail-order houses. However, you can easily create your own by buying some add-on "safety-pin" spinners and attaching them to your favorite jigs. Hildebrant, Cabela’s and Bass Pro all sell add-on spinners. Be sure to buy big-blade models (size 4, 5, 6 or even larger) in both willow-leaf and Colorado shapes. ¿/p>> ¿p>>If you want to get fancy, try adding some strips of prismatic tape to your blades or the safety-pin arms. This can work wonders at drawing fish from long distances. The tape is inexpensive, and is available through mail-order catalogs. I’ve found that red, chartreuse, silver and gold are good colors for reds. ¿/p>> ¿p>>— Bob McNally ¿/P>> ¿/td>> ¿/tr>> ¿/table>> -->

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- Ed