Here in Key Largo during the late spring, summer, and fall, one of our favorite outdoor adventures is fishing for dolphin, also known as mahi-mahi. No, these are not the sea mammals like "Flipper"! Our dolphin are an exciting off-shore gamefish ranging in size from 6 to 60 pounds!
Under the right circumstances, dolphin fishing is almost easy! Our local charter captains know these waters well, and (even more importantly) the habits of these delicious fish. If you're our to catch fish on your own, here's a few tips to get you started...
First rule: Dolphin feed mainly during the day. Unlike many other fish, they are rarely caught at night. Rule number one in dolphin fishing is get out early, 'cause these fish are going to be hungry at daybreak! Most dolphin are caught before noon for this reason. I'm not saying you won't catch a few late in the day, but the longer you wait, the more the odds are going to be against you.
The second important rule is: There are no set rules! What do I mean by this? Be flexible with your plan. Some days a pink lure works best, some days blue is better. Sometimes live bait is necessary, sometimes frozen ballyhoo (a common local bait) is best. If you're not getting bites, try something different.
I like to start with rigged ballyhoo using brightly colored "skirts" over the bait. Any of our fine local bait shops can set you up with this inexpensive combination. I'll generally start my day using green/yellow skirts, but always keep an assortment of colors on hand. The bait is rigged with a large hook (sometimes two!) - size 5/0 to 7/0, and a long wire leader (3-6'). Medium weight monofilament line (20#) completes the setup.
Head out to deep water to search for these fish. 7 - 20 miles offshore is a general range. Dolphins are found at the edges of the Gulf Stream, often (very often!) near floating weeds or debris. Keep your eye out for anything floating - weeds, lumber, even litter. These objects in the open sea attract smaller baitfish for shelter, and they in turn attract dolphin. You'll find dolphin under the strangest things. Watch for birds too. In deep water birds will often follow the larger fish (which they can spot from the air).
Dolphin are attracted to moving bait, so trolling is our preferred technique. Let your bait waaaaay out behind your boat - out of it's wake or propwash. If the fish don't hit while you're trolling fast with your bait skipping along the surface, slow down and let it sink a little. One way or another you'll find them!
Once you've hooked your fish, you're on your own! Have fun with him! Play the fish for a while - set your hook with a single hard tug, then let him have some line. This part isn't just recreation for you - it serves to wear the fish out. You don't want to get a 40 pound fish back to the boat until he's lost some of his moxie!
One last thing. Just because there is no season, size, or bag limit for dolphin, please don't get greedy. There are plenty of large fish in the sea, so don't keep all the small ones you catch. Dolphin grow incredibly fast, so that 5 pounder you let go in June might become the 30 pounder you'll be fishing for in September! Common fishing etiquette is to just keep a few of these small fish (called "schoolies") and return the rest to the sea...
Mmmmm, I can taste them filets cookin' already....
Bob Curtis (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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