Close-In Gulf Dolphin

Usually categorized as solely a blue-water species, these fish can be found closer to shore than most anglers realize. What's the best way of locating dolphin during the summer?

The name for it that's ordinarily used in American sportfishing and scientific circles is "dolphin." Accordingly, we're not going to mimic the anxiously trendy restaurateurs who (seeking to avoid confusion as to whether marine mammals are suddenly items on the menu) label it "dolphinfish," "mahi-mahi" or "dorado." But whatever moniker is applied to it, this fish simply couldn't be any better for saltwater anglers in search of both fun and fillets.

Even relatively small boats can reach "schoolie"-sized dolphin in the month of May. Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.

Dolphin are prolific, fast-growing (though short-lived), quite speedy, wildly acrobatic, and awfully hard to beat when fresh from a hot skillet. They're also common in the clear offshore waters of the Gulf Coast.

The largest members of the tribe are almost invariably found in either blue or blue-green water. Conversely, smaller dolphins may be surprisingly abundant in "clear-green" water, which is frequently much closer to shore and therefore more accessible to more anglers. If you own a reasonably seaworthy rig in the 22-foot class or larger and the weather is forecast to be favorable for an offshore run, these fish are accessible to you.

Nearshore fish typically inhabit these waters from early May (or a tad earlier) into October and range up to 10 pounds, though larger ones are occasionally caught. Again, those rare bigger catches depend on the proximity of clear water, and the best way to locate that is to put the land off your stern and go!

On a reasonably typical day, you cross one or more "color changes" before you have gone far enough. These are created by opposing currents or eddies with slightly different surface temperatures. Once you cross one that has 10 feet or more sub-surface visibility on its outside edge, that's the spot.

Such color changes -- "rips," as they're sometimes called -- should have noticeable current moving along them. The best ones carry an abundance of flotsam: sea grasses, logs and other forms of wood, and human artifacts. Finding coconuts in the debris makes a rip almost a sure-fire bet. Also, look for schools of silversides or ballyhoo, baitfish that are great dolphin attractors.

Initially, you might be tempted to troll along such a rip, and a pair of 1/4-ounce single-hook feathered spoons might get the attention of a dolphin in such a situation. But those lures are guaranteed to attract hordes of hardtails, or "blue runners," which are common along such a rip.

Personally, I prefer sight-fishing for dolphin. This is best done from the boat's bow platform while idling along the side of the rip that offers the best visibility, but stay back perhaps 20 feet from it. A 6 1/2-foot medium-action casting rod is suitable, though the reel should hold a minimum of 150 yards of 15-pound-test monofilament line. The line should be tied to a 3-foot 40-pound fluorocarbon leader with something like an Albright knot. The other end of the leader is best tied directly to either a 1/4-ounce jighead dressed with a 3 1/2-inch plastic grub or to a swivel attached to a spoon via a stainless steel split ring.

While "running" a rip in this manner, it's almost inevitable that you will encounter a surface melee. Most often those are created by either hardtails or Spanish mackerel, but dolphin can be present around the periphery of the madness. They can be differentiated from the other predators by their yellow pectoral fins, which can be plainly visible at some distance. Cast the lure right at the dolphin and begin a fairly rapid retrieve -- and hope that a hardtail doesn't get to it first!

Spotting those yellow pectoral fins at a distance offers the best shot at catching the dolphin. Then you can make long casts to retrieve the lure past the fish. You can't do that if the fish are close to the boat -- where lots of folks tend to look for them. Jigging for dolphin under the boat isn't very effective. The exception to that rule is when a dolphin is hooked and you keep it in the water at the boat. That fish often attracts the schooling fish in close and gets them excited, thus making jigging practical.

Anytime you encounter floating debris, such as a tabletop-sized patch of Sargasso grass thickly matted along the rip, first work your lure along the length of the weeds. Even if no fish show themselves, this is a good situation for trying a natural bait. Have a rod ready to bait with a freshly thawed menhaden that's been cut into pieces the size of your little finger. Toss a half-dozen or so of the pieces to the clear side of the patch, quickly followed by another half-dozen or so. If dolphin appear, the next couple of pieces should have a hook embedded in them when tossed.

Scattered grass, particularly Sargasso, can be really aggravating. The fish can be virtually anywhere. Still, such stuff does hold dolphin, as was proven when I caught my largest ever. That fish was taken on a fly rod!

If you locate the fish, casting flies to them is actually a pretty successful method. A combo of a 10- to 12-weight outfit, a 20-pound-test leader finished with a 40-pound fluorocarbon shock tippet, and a size 2/0 to 4/0 Deceiver-type fly in chartreuse or green and yellow will be a smart option. While the rod may be a bit of overkill for the dolphin, it's not uncommon to encounter larger cobia in such a setting, and these fish will hit the same flies.

A mat of floating grass isolated from scattered vegetation is a prime piece of structure for holding dolphin. However, the fish may not be visible or susceptible to blind-casting. In that case, you want to toss your lure or bait blind; prospecting may result in naught, and a couple of handfuls of chunks may appear to go unappreciated. In this case, it's heartily recommended that you toss your lure just beyond the target, let it sink for at least 10 seconds -- longer may be better -- and then rip it back up. The same procedure also works around anything else drifting randomly across the Gulf's surface -- a 4-foot-long 1-inch-by-6-inch board produced a very nice fish that had been holding quite deep beneath it!

Without a doubt, this fish is fun to catch! But the best treat that it offers -- along with sautéed fillets and aerial acrobatics -- is the visual spectacle of its attack on the lure. Its fondness for flotsam often keeps them shallow enough for that to happen.

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