Dolphinfish are beautiful and fight hard. They are also very dumb, easy to catch, and quite delicious. Here’s how to find and how to Catch Summer Dolphin
The Copout sat in neutral, surrounded by Sargassum weed, gently rolling with the swells. “There’s a dolphin,” I said, as I looked to grab a rod. Unprepared, I was too slow. Andrea cast her bait out first, and was immediately rewarded with a very solid strike.
A Bit of Biology
Carl Linnaeus (1758) originally described the dolphinfish as Coryphaena hippurus. Since the fish is often confused with the dolphin mammal by the non-fishing public, it’s frequently called by its Pacific name of mahi-mahi, especially on restaurant menus. Other than both having backbones and living in the water, dolphin fish and dolphin mammals don’t have much in common.
The dolphinfish grows fast. They can reach a maximum of six feet in length, but are much more common at lengths under three feet. The record for Florida waters is 77 pounds, 12 ounces, and the world record is 87 pounds. Smaller dolphin, fish to about 20 pounds, school together, while larger individuals live alone or in pairs. Sexual maturity is reached in only four or five months, with spawning first occurring at lengths of approximately eight inches. Dolphin have a maximum life span of only about four years.
Fishing for Dolphin
Think about that. Dolphin can grow to seventy pounds in only four years. They must have to eat all the time! What a great fish!
The late, great Al McClane had this to say about the dolphin: “The riotously colored dolphin follows only the sailfish, marlin, and tuna as a desirable offshore gamefish; it is a spectacular gamefish in many ways. In addition to its brilliant colors, the dolphin strikes explosively, fights frantically, and performs beautifully in the air. The attack of a dolphin school at a trolled bait is one of the top thrills of Gulf Stream fishing. Often they will streak towards the bait from several hundred feet out, their stubby dorsals knifing through the surface of the water. It is not unusual when two or more baits are trolled to have a single dolphin hit all of them in a racing strike which seems to occur almost instantly.
“There are times during the spring and summer when school dolphin may be found concentrated by the thousands in the blue water off the coast. Seaweed rips are their favorite haunts, but they may be found hovering around almost any drifting object. When dolphin are in evidence around floating objects they can be taken on plugs, flies, and spoons.
“Although the school-size dolphin offer fine sport on light tackle, it is the big bull dolphin that is highly prized by anglers. Sometimes reaching a weight well in excess of 50 pounds, these heavyweights put up a terrific battle, and on a pound-for-pound basis probably match the hardest fighting gamefish.
“Dolphin are most frequently encountered by anglers trolling surface baits for other species. Once dolphin are encountered, however, an angler may switch to lighter tackle. Sometimes a school of these fish may be kept near the stern of a boat by keeping a hooked fish in the water. The presence of even one hooked fish will hold the school.”
What Do They Eat?
What do dolphin eat? The simple answer is, almost anything they can swallow. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History website, “Dolphin are generalists with prey varying according to season and size of the individual. They feed during the day on small oceanic fishes (flyingfish, man-o-war fish, sargassum fish and triggerfish), juveniles of large pelagic fish (tunas, billfishes, jacks, mackerels, and dolphin), and invertebrates (squid and crabs).
“Many observations have been made on the feeding habits of dolphin. They are swift-moving, agile predators and are able to overcome most prey items. This fish often associates with Sargassum weed in the Florida Current and Gulf Stream, where they prey primarily upon the smaller fishes and invertebrates associated with these tide lines.
“Adults feed mostly upon bony fishes, with flying fish constituting approximately 25 percent of the food by weight. Sargassum is frequently found in their stomachs, but this is probably an incidental intake associated with foraging in the Sargassum communities.
“Dolphin feed primarily during the day, as they rely upon the vision (as well as their lateral line system) to detect prey. There is evidence that they may also feed at night when the moon provides ample light. Males are apparently more active feeders than females, evidenced by the larger amounts of food found in their stomachs. Males tend to be larger than females of the same age, and thus probably need more energy to support their metabolism. Dolphin often hunt in pairs or small packs.”
Where Are They?
I asked this question of Capt. Jeff Brown, owner of Copout Charters (http://www.copoutfishing.com; 407.366.8347; 407.810.37340). He said, “The best months for dolphin out of Port Canaveral are April, May, and June. You can get them in March and also in July and August but it’s usually not as good then.
“We get them in as close as the 8A reef, in 80 feet of water. We also get them on the other side of the Gulf Stream. You have to go out and look for them.
“We look for any kind of floating debris like weedlines or logs. Any sudden temperature change, even if it’s only two or three degrees, will often hold them. Current rips are another thing to look for. Flocks of birds diving on bait are a great thing to find. If you see a frigatebird, a large dolphin is often lurking underneath it.
Jeff likes trolling while he’s hunting for fish. In his spread he prefers rigged fresh balao as bait. He likes using different colored skirts until he discovers if the fish have a color preference that day. He says he always keep a naked bait out as well. He generally rigs these baits with a heavy fluorocarbon leader and a 6/0 or 7/0 hook. He says to google “rigging ballyhoo” to see how it’s done.
Once a fish is hooked he uses the age-old trick of leaving it in the water to keep any other fish in the area. If there’s a lot of debris around he will chum with live bait to get them colored up. On his best day of doing this his fishermen got over 40 dolphin to 40 pounds. Someone had some aching muscles the next day.
A final tip he shared was to fish a live bait down deep under debris. The smaler fish stay near the surface. Often the biggest ones will be underneath them, as deep as 40 or 50 feet. Get a live bait down there and you may hook the best fish of the trip.
Dolphin are beautiful and fight hard. They are also very dumb, easy to catch, and quite delicious. Science needs to know more about their migration patterns so the resource can be better managed. We don’t want the stocks to collapse!
Dolphin anglers can participate in the Don Hammond Tagging Program (http://dolphintagging.com), tagging and releasing their catch to add to the knowledge base about these great fish. Participation is free. The knowledge gained is invaluable.