For a wide variety of reasons, Northeast Florida is not known as a hot spot for catching dolphin – as in dolphin fish, or mahi-mahi (Hawaiian name) – not the Flipper version of the mammal.
Nevertheless, right now all things are ideal for catching one of the planet’s greatest gamefish, the dolphin, right in our own backyard. Unfortunately, this backyard is the Gulf Stream, some 50 to 75 miles offshore, the kind of long-range boat run only the largest of sportfishing craft should make, and even then only during the most desirable of weather days.
But the weather has been calm enough often enough, and the fish have been here long enough that anglers targeting dolphin (chiefly out of St. Augustine and Mayport) are enjoying stellar fishing. Some boats with good captains and crews (especially charter boats) are getting upwards of 20 dolphin per trip. While most fish are in the 8- to 15-pound range, plenty of 20-pounders are caught, and fish over 30 pounds, with some pushing 40 pounds, are being taken.
This is great action for one of the best fighting of all marine gamefish.
Dolphin are aggressive, they travel in big and hungry schools, grow big fast, are acrobatic fighters that run fast and far and they fight like bright-colored banshees on reasonable tackle. They also are superb on a dinner fork, as most seafood connoisseurs will quickly attest.
Dolphin are highly migratory pelagic gamefish offering consistent, good fishing off our coastal area for but a few weeks in spring, and sometimes in autumn. So when the time peaks for good dolphin fishing, anglers should jump at the chance to get them.
Although the dolphin is one of the most prized of all marine gamefish, scientific knowledge about the fish is limited.
South Carolina marine fisheries biologist Don Hammond arguably knows more about dolphin than anyone anywhere. He is head honcho of the Dolphinfish Research Program, funded by the Guy Harvey Foundation. Prior to that, for many years, he was with the state of South Carolina’s Dolphin Tagging Research Project in Charleston.
Hammond has been involved with tagging and learning about dolphin much of his life. And from an angling standpoint, what he doesn’t know about this great gamefish likely isn’t needed by the bulk of recreational dolphin anglers.
“Dolphin don’t know where they are, and they don’t care,” he says with a chuckle. “A dolphin is happy and at ‘home’ if it’s in water temperature it likes – and there is plenty of baitfish around for it to eat. This is one of the primary keys for finding dolphin, and that includes big fish – food, abundant food, which is why they are so often holding around large beds of sargassum weeds.
“Dolphin are eating machines, almost a non-stop foraging apex predator, which is why they so readily hit lures and baits, and why they can grow to 80 pounds in under four years.”
Hammond says one of the biggest challenges to ocean scientists today is how to manage fish that migrate as far and fast as the vagabond mahi-mahi. Recent dolphin tagging return data continues to amaze everyone involved with the science, he states, with some returns from dolphin tagged in South Florida and the Keys re-caught in Block Canyon, south of Nantucket – and they were collected in less than two months. That’s a huge, fast move, even for fish like speedy dolphin.
“My belief is dolphin may completely circle the Atlantic Ocean, rather than simply following a north-south migration along the East Coast of the U.S. It also underscores the need for international co-operation for dolphin management. If, for example, there’s a drift ocean net operation set up in the Yucatan Strait off Mexico, it could have far-reaching and devastating consequences for fishermen many hundred of miles away. That could impact dolphin stocks throughout much of the Atlantic, and certainly off major U.S. dolphin fishing ports.”
Few gamefish are as widespread and readily strike such a wide variety of baits, lures and flies as dolphin. Found in all tropical and warm temperate waters of the world, dolphin are among the fastest growing of marine sportfish.
They also have the ability to show up suddenly in areas that traditionally don’t have red-hot dolphin action when conditions change favorably. This is what happens off Southern California during El Nino years, when water temperatures soar unusually. One summer off San Diego, with surface water pushing 80 degrees, dolphin action was outstanding, and fish weighing to 30 pounds were not unusual.
High-leaping, fast, and good on the dinner table, dolphin rank with the most beautiful of all fish. Their gold, green, blue and silver bodies light up a clear ocean. Large schools of fish are commonly encountered, where they circle a boat and attack cast lures and baits like marauders from an old West movie.
Dolphin fill an important niche in the marine world. They spawn year-round, and because they are so prolific, small dolphin are a primary forage for many marine predators – including other dolphin. Because they’re can reach 20 pounds in less than a year, dolphin also make up a large part of the apex predator level in the open ocean, too.
Jimbo Thomas has been a Miami Marina charter boat captain specializing in dolphin fishing for over 30 years. In one year, he tagged and released over 300 dolphin.
“For overweight dolphin, break out the binoculars. That’s what my brother Rick and I do when looking for dolphin weighing 20 pounds or more. We scan the horizon with binoculars having a compass in them, so if we spot something a couple miles away we can take a direct heading to it.
“We look for weedlines, rip currents, color changes and flotsam, too, but the best indicator I know for big fish is spotting large diving birds – especially frigate or man ‘o war birds. Frigate birds don’t lie, and when they’re diving or close to the water, they’re working large baits, and that’s where big dolphin – fish over 20 pounds – are likely to be feeding.”