Throughout many of Florida’s offshore fisheries, summertime is generally synonymous with dolphin fishing. These revered pelagic predators are popular targets in the offshore world, and the calm, predictable weather patterns of the warmest months of the year yield excellent mahi conditions. This is particularly true down Florida’s east coast, where migratory mahi make their way north from the Keys. However, with the changing of the seasons from summer to fall, many of you offshore anglers will turn your attention away from dolphin to focus on other pursuits. Not so fast! The window on these fish has not yet closed for most Floridians.
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure the window ever completely closes for dolphin in Florida. Although these fish are highly migratory, there’s always a chance they’ll show up wherever and whenever the conditions are right, whether it’s miles offshore on a scorcher of a summer day or feeding along the edge of the Gulf Stream in the middle of January. These conditions include clean, blue water, the presence of bait, sargassum mats or weedlines, temperature breaks, current rips, and floating objects. Another notorious visual key for mahi below is active birds. Frigate birds are the most common dolphin followers, but any avian life offshore is worthy of investigation.
While many of the tactics you’ll employ this time of year should be the same as the ones you trust in the summer months, there are a few factors you should consider as summer fades to fall. Successful dolphin fishing in the fall, like virtually any other fishery, hinges on an angler’s ability to read the conditions. Patterns change, often one day to the next, and finding the fish is all about diagnosing what Mother Nature dishes out and using the conditions to your advantage. While one day you might hit the mahi jackpot doing one thing, the outlook may shift completely on your next quest for green and yellow.
Though summer has officially come and gone, this is Florida, and in the Sunshine State, you never know when you’ll be granted a hot, calm, summery day in the middle of the fall season. While this kind of weather does not bode well in other more common fall fisheries, it presents a great opportunity to search for late-season dolphin. When these patterns that closely resemble typical summer weather present themselves, dust off the binoculars and get ready to burn some fuel. While the current state of fuel prices may make you want to stick closer to shore, venturing toward the horizon to look for dolphin is likely to pay off.
For one, this late in the year, you may very well be one of the only boats that far off fishing for mahi. By the same token, we highly recommend targeting a weekday for your next dolphin trip, as that tends to yield even less competition. The early bird gets the worm here, as you’re in a better position to fool fish that haven’t been pressured by other anglers yet that day. This time of year, particularly on warmer days, the morning bite tends to be the most action-packed. As you’re headed offshore, keep your eyes peeled for signs of life. Weedlines and sargassum patches tend to hold lots of bait, with hungry mahi in hot pursuit. Additionally, birds flying low to the water are likely following fish, while floating objects and temperature breaks or current rips are also dolphin hot spots. Wherever you choose to fish, the presence of baitfish is an encouraging sight. Even if you’re motoring along and spot a scattering school of flying fish, don’t be afraid to deploy a few baits.
For many of us, dolphin fishing means trolling. Many modern anglers won’t leave the dock without a livewell full of bait, but don’t let them fool you. Trolling is still a very effective tactic, but you need to be mindful of how you construct your spread. A healthy mix of fresh rigged, skirted ballyhoo and a few flashy lures that displace water are recommended here, with a diving plug or a strip bait behind a planer also encouraged to catch the attention of dolphin traveling deeper in the water column. One note on the ballyhoo – if you’re purchasing pre-rigged baits and are targeting dolphin specifically, go with the mono-rigged offerings with double hooks. Even if you choose to troll, though, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t have a spinning outfit rigged with a hook for bait or a bucktail jig. You never know when or where you’ll come across these fish and having a rod ready to go can make the difference between landing a nearby bull or watching it swim away.
Speaking of spinners, many anglers like to use these calm days to “run and gun.” If you’ve never heard the term, it’s just a catchy way of saying you’re punching the throttles down until you find an area you want to fish. If this is your method of choice, be patient. You might run all day and not see a single thing, only to find a floating piece of driftwood holding a school of gaffers, or a surprise frigate bird following a hungry bull and cow. Pilchard are likely the most accessible live baits for most anglers and work well on feeding mahi, but some of the larger fish can be more finicky. These fish commonly hunt sargassum patches and lines for small jack that seek shelter on this offshore vegetation, so always be ready with a quill rig or two to capitalize on this fresh bait. Cut bait is also a great option, with bonito and ballyhoo chunks the best bets. If you see a larger fish cruising, don’t be afraid to throw a whole ballyhoo at it and work it like a lure to give it a lifelike action.
Fall weather can be unpredictable. So, while one day can give you illusions of summer, the very next can bring strong winds and passing frontal conditions. When this happens, you’re certainly not going to want to venture many miles offshore, but that doesn’t mean mahi is necessarily off the menu. Many anglers this time of year fish the edge of the Gulf Stream for early season sailfish, migrating kingfish, blackfin tuna and more. However, when an easterly breeze pushes clean water and lots of sargassum to the edge of the Stream, don’t be surprised if you’re covered up in dolphin every now and then.
If you approach “the edge” for your first drift of the day and see there’s a bounty of sargassum around, your mind should immediately jump to mahi. Think about it: strong current, lots of bait and clean water, classic conditions for dolphin. In fact, it may be a wise move to take some time to cruise along the concentrated weeds until you see signs of life. These endeavors often produce a surprise dolphin or two. If you prefer to drift and keep all options in play, that’s fine, too. In fact, you might be surprised at how many nice dolphin you can catch just by drifting live baits. When you hook a fish and see it’s a mahi, make sure somebody on board grabs a bait and pitches it in the general area of your hooked fish, as these predators rarely travel alone. Though you may not expect it, dolphin fishing is still alive and well this time of year. With a little preparation and some confidence in reading the day’s conditions, finding mahi can be your best bet on an otherwise slow day.
Conversely, don’t be surprised if you’re fishing for something else and a few trophy dorado decide to crash the spread. Always be ready for a surprise visit from the fish many would argue is Florida’s favorite offshore quarry. Just because summer’s over and fall has arrived doesn’t mean you can’t bring home some fresh mahi for the dinner table.