Fishing in the Florida Keys never gets dull. When one species isn’t biting, another one is. When conditions are unfavorable offshore in the Atlantic, there are always fish to catch in the Gulf and Florida Bay. And when the summertime pelagics begin their exodus to warmer waters, the wintertime fish swim in and give us an entire new group of exciting game fish to target.
Right now we’re holding in a transition pattern. The winter pelagics, such as the sailfish and large kingfish, have yet to arrive in steady numbers. However, a slight drop in water temperature has forced the dolphin (mahi mahi) into the shallows as they move towards the west chasing large schools of ballyhoo.
Over the past week we’ve seen dolphin in as close as 25 to 150-feet of water spraying bait up and down the reef and we’ve been able to land quality gaffers in the 8 to 15-pound class.
Pursuing inshore dolphin is one of my favorite types of fishing because you not only get to search for and chase after the fish, but you also get to fight them on much lighter tackle then you would frequently use offshore.
Aboard the Best Bet boats we use 15-pound spinning gear with a splice of 40-pound leader. Often the dolphin will be much more acrobatic when caught on this lighter line and will provide an entertaining aerial display and quite the challenge for our anglers.
To target these fish we first head to the reef and load up on live ballyhoo. A good way to do this is to anchor up, put out a block of chum, and then catch the bait one by one using hair hooks tipped with squid or shrimp. You may also throw a cast net, but the ballyhoo will generally get beat up in the net and will not survive nearly as long as the baits caught on rod and reel.
Once we have a few live ballyhoo in the livewell we search for any signs that a pack of dolphin may be near. Bait spraying on the surface, as well as frigate birds working the deck, usually indicate dolphin pushing through. When we’ve located the fish we bait a ballyhoo on a 3/0 or 4/0 size hook, pitch it out, and wait for an aggressive dolphin to make its charge!
If the dolphin bite is slow, or if I’ve gone an hour or so without seeing any fish, I will usually hang around the edge of the reef (with an eye always glued towards shore), and target the snapper and grouper species. Dolphin often travel in waves, so it’s a good idea to anchor up on the reef or drop some baits on a few wrecks while you’re waiting on another school to pass by.
On the reef, we continue to catch large flag yellowtails, up to 20 inches, and on the wrecks, the mutton snapper bite remains consistent, with the kingfish becoming more and more prevalent each day.
When targeting the yellowtails use the lightest fluorocarbon leader you can get away with, and pitch your free-lined bait back as far as possible to keep the rainbow runners and other chum bag gatherers from eating your bait before it can get to the yellowtails. As for fishing the wrecks, drop down one of the live ballyhoo you caught, with a large splice of fluorocarbon to target the muttons, and a stretch of wire if you encounter the kingfish.
Just remember to keep an eye out for bait spraying or frigate birds and be ready to pull up your anchor or crank up that bottom rod so you can chase down the dolphin. You need to be quick as the schools swim through rather fast.
For those of you interested in heading offshore, the tuna fishing is fantastic at the humps. Best Bet Captain Nick Borraccino says they’re as thick as he’s ever seen them, and last week he loaded up the box with blackfins and skipjacks in a matter of minutes.
Inshore, the tarpon bite has been exceptional, with fish up to 50-pounds actively feeding on sardines and other baitfish that have congregated around the beaches, channels and cuts. On the flats, we continue to hear good reports of bonefish and permit being caught in the mornings and evenings, with the falling tide often being the best time to pursue them.
Your Best Bet for the Week Ahead: Target shallow-water Dolphin with Best Bet Sportfishing. Anglers of all skill levels will enjoy the thrill of catching a hard-fighting dolphin on light tackle. And you don’t have to travel miles offshore to find the fish. They’re only minutes from our back doors!
Dolphin and yellowtails: Patrick (left) and Clay from San Angelo, TX with a nice catch of yellowtails and dolphin.
Mutton: Keep an eye out for frigate birds and bait spraying while out catching muttons on the wrecks-they’re a good indicator that dolphin are around.