Tricking Picky Dolphin

Coast to coast, specialized dolphin fishing techniques can help make the day
Dolphin might be the most popular fish, and big bulls (males) are especially prized. Bill Roecker

Dolphin consistently land near the top of every angler’s hit parade of species. Certainly the star in tropical offshore waters, they are just as popular elsewhere, under any number of names: Mahimahi, dorado and dolphinfish all identify one of the sportiest and tastiest fish in the ocean.

Often dolphin come along when you are fishing for something else, a fallback when the marlin or tuna are scarce. But scratch the surface of any hard-core offshore fisherman, and you’ll find not only a fondness for dolphin but also a honed bag of tricks developed especially for them.
“Often dolphin are a trip saver,” says Cape May, New Jersey, captain Steve Bent, who charters the Free Spirit and, despite local custom, refuses to refer to these fish as mahi. “Most of the time, they are targets of opportunity.”

But when the tuna fishing is tough, Bent is quick to create that opportunity, inshore and off. “All the inshore pot buoys hold chicken dolphin,” he says. “When we troll inshore for albacore, 10 to 12 miles off the beach with light tackle, spoons and feathers, we’ll find a half-dozen dolphin around each pot if we’re the first boat there.”


For the bigger dolphin that run offshore from July through September, Bent searches for weed lines and temperature breaks starting at the 20-fathom line. “Prospecting for dolphin, I put out a ballyhoo, some feathers and little Mold Craft Hookers or Softheads,” he says. “Draggin Eyes makes an abalone head that works well. Then once we find them, we try to bait them.”

But dolphin won’t always eat butterfish chunks. “You have to experiment,” Bent says. “I have caught them on Hopkins jigs when they wouldn’t eat the chunks.” Another simple trick often fools them when they get picky on bait. Cut up small butterfish pieces, Bent suggests, “then lay the bait flat and work a 6/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook on 30-pound leader under the skin. Just slip the hook between the meat and the skin so if you were to lift it by the line, the hook would pull out. Flip the bait out gently so it never gets any tension on it, and feed it line as it drifts. It’s a neat trick, and it works.”

Recent experiments with a kite have proven successful as well, says Bent. “Last year we flew a kite, using a whole butterfish. We circle-hooked a dead butterfish behind the eyes, hooking it where it balanced out and looked like it was swimming. We caught a lot of dolphin like that while we were fishing for tuna. It worked like a charm.”
Gulf Near and Far**
Dolphin are a year-round proposition in the Gulf of Mexico, says Capt. Bill Platt of Galveston, Texas. You just have to know where to look.


“In the summertime, it seems like the bigger ones are farther out in the Gulf,” he says. “We catch them when we’re marlin fishing during the charter-boat season from May until August and September. The smaller chicken dolphin we sometimes catch 10 miles off the beach when the clean green or blue water pushes in.” But for the bigger fish, he says, he may run 100 to 150 miles out, where he hunts for weed lines or “floaters,” meaning floating oil platforms.

“You drag along the weed lines with a ballyhoo and get the 20- to 30-pounders, up to 35 pounds or so,” he says. “I troll skirted ballyhoo — red, blue and green skirts. Green is my favorite. You drag ballyhoo on the clean side of the breaks and weed lines, and you get the bigger fish.”

Casting to the weed lines is also deadly, says Platt. “I must be getting soft, because I’ve never told anybody this, but my favorite lure is a yellow MirrOlure with black dots on it, a sinker 4 to 5 inches long. I always fish that and a 4-inch chartreuse black-spotted Rat-L-Trap. I have never seen a dolphin that wouldn’t eat those when you cast them to a buoy or a weed line. I’ve won a lot of tournaments with those lures.”


Platt also finds winter dolphin far offshore when he’s fishing for wahoo on the Flower Garden Banks. “I use bigger baits then, the Mann’s Stretch 30s on the wahoo, and drag some ballyhoo too and get 30- to 40-pound dorado. And I drag a lot of skirted ballyhoo, as always,” he says.

California Dreamin’
First things first: “We call them dorado or mahimahi. Dolphin won’t be recognized out here,” says San Diego-based Barry Brightenburg of Always an Adventure charters. Dorado in southern California are seasonal, and prime time is August through October.

“When we are trolling for albacore, they are incidental,” he says. “We troll a small green-and-yellow feather, looking for tuna, and lately we’re trolling more cedar plugs because of the squid explosion in our waters.” When targeting dorado, kelp paddies hold the key. “We have caught them [off paddies] from three miles out to as far as 120 to 150 miles,” says Brightenburg. “Primarily we look from three to 40 miles offshore.”


Once he locates a promising paddy, Brightenburg keeps his distance. “Pelagics swim within 100 yards of the kelp. I troll in the vicinity, go around the kelp paddies, slide up on it and drift down, and get in the tower and look for fish. If that doesn’t work, we’ll hook a bait sideways and troll it with the rod high so it skips on the surface.” The object is to trigger the initial bite. Even when mahi are wary, they get competitive once one bites, he says.

On pressured fish, Brightenburg has started fishing a kite. “I get upwind of the paddy and slow-troll the kite with a rubber flying fish or a live sardine. Getting the leader out of the water helps a lot.”

Dolphin Trip Planner

What: Dolphin, aka dolphinfish, mahimahi and dorado.

When: Summer or in warm-water currents.

Where: The world’s oceans.

Who: Everyone from rank novices to international tournament champions welcomes dolphin, and the fish accommodate.

Brightenburg is a true believer in fluorocarbon leaders. He prefers a fluoro top shot of 30- to 50-pound-test on top of 20- to 30-pound main-line mono but often drops down to 20-pound fluoro. With light leaders, circle hooks become necessary so the leader stays away from the fish’s teeth.
Rods:_ 20- to 30-pound trolling rods offshore; 12-, 15- or 20-pound casting tackle inshore and on weed lines. Casting, spinning and fly tackle all work on dolphin.
Reels and Lines:_ Full gamut to match the size of the fish and the method of fishing.

Lures: Start by trolling artificials. When you locate fish, stop the boat and switch to jigs and lures, then to bait as fish grow wary.

Dolphin might be the most popular fish, and big bulls (males) are especially prized. Bill Roecker
A green dolphin on the gaff can wreak havoc on a boat and its crew. Doug Stamm /