South Florida Dolphin
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.”
**Wait for the Bait
**Fishing out of the Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores, Capt. Greg Bogdan does it all, from fishing inlets to swordfishing, in his 27-foot center console Permitted, and he knows how to score dolphin.
“Where I look for dolphin depends on the wind,” says Bogdan. “An east wind in May, June and July stacks weeds and bait in along the Juno-Jupiter edge in the 110- to 150-foot zone. Bonito also school heavily beginning on the full moon in May, and they stay through July. Very early in the morning along that edge when there’s an east wind, you stand a good chance of catching a large dolphin in the 40- and 50-pound class.
“I also find dolphin around our swordfish grounds, 12 to 14 miles off Lake Worth Inlet. The seven-mile area between Lake Worth and Jupiter inlets has good bottom structure and drop-offs. And there’s the Palm Beach Canyon, Palm Beach Hump and Catch-All Canyon, which all have upwellings when there’s a strong current. There’s a lot of bait and impressive dolphin fishing between 1,100 and 1,200 feet on out to 1,600 feet of water.”
For schoolies, Bogdan runs well offshore to distant weed lines with abundant bait and little angling pressure. “Don’t bother with a weed line unless it is loaded with bait, like triggerfish and bar jacks,” says Bogdan. “Before you decide to troll a weed line, look it over for bait. If there is none, head offshore until you find one that is loaded, and you’ll find the dolphin.”
Bogdan’s preferred dolphin baits are Boone Birds in blue-and-white, to mimic flying fish, and green-and-yellow, to mimic small dolphin. He rigs the Birds on a foot of 130-pound-test monofilament, adds a couple of spacer beads and another ball-bearing snap swivel at the back end and attaches a 5-foot leader carrying a SeaWitch or squid skirt in the same color as the bird. One of his favorite trolling baits is a bonito strip. “It’s hard to beat a bonito trolling strip for dolphin,” says Bogdan. “You can catch one fish right after another on the same bait — that’s how tough it is.” Bogdan favors 80-pound-test leaders for dolphin. Yet when it’s calm, he’ll drop to 60-pound-test, believing the fish can see the heavier leaders in a slick ocean. Scaling down his leaders also works on fish that have been pressured by other anglers and become wary.
South Florida Dolphin
Rods: 12- to 30-pound spinning rods for casting jigs, cut bait and live bait; 20- to 30-pound trolling rods.
Reels: Look for smooth drags and moderate capacity. Light to medium trolling outfits; 12- to 20-pound spinning rods for casting.
Lines: 50- to 80-pound fluorocarbon leader on 20-pound mono line for trolling.
Lures: Bucktails, ballyhoo or live baits on spin tackle; teasers and dredges, or cone- or slant-head Mold Craft lures, on 100-pound mono leaders for trolling. A Wahoo Whacker, a C&H Chugger and a C&H Rattle Jet in pearl finish or blue. A blue-and-white Ilander-ballyhoo combination and a plain ballyhoo. A Boone Bird in blue-and-white, to mimic flying fish, and green-and-yellow, to mimic small dolphin. Bonito strip trolling baits.
Other: Carry plenty of chum, and use it generously when you find a cooperative school of fish.
When: Late spring through summer.
Where: Offshore, edges of Gulf Stream.
Who: Dolphin fishing is well within the capability of anyone with a boat large enough to venture offshore. It helps to go with an expert as you develop your own skills and game plan.
**Capt. Jimmy Gagliardini
High Caliber Fishing Charters
**Capt. Steve “Pumpkin Eater” Huddleston
**Palm Beach Shores
**Capt. Greg Bogdan