May is traditionally the best time of the year to catch big dolphin in South Florida, and anglers don’t need to travel far offshore to find them.
“The main thing is don’t overshoot the fish,” says Captain Bouncer Smith of Miami Beach, explaining that water temperatures are below 80 degrees on the western edge of the Gulf Stream, which is about 200 feet deep. “A lot of dolphin are in close now because of the cool water. It’s very conceivable that the best fishing is 3-4 miles offshore rather than 12-15 miles offshore.”
Dolphin — the fish, not the mammals — are highly prized by anglers. In the water, their colors are a glowing electric blue, yellow and green. The acrobatic, hard-fighting fish often go airborne and people love their firm, mild-tasting flesh, which lends itself to a myriad of recipes.
The fish can be caught year-round in the region, but now through summer is typically when dolphin fishing is best, although in recent years the fall bite has also been quite good. There is no season on dolphin, but the daily bag limit is 10 fish per person or 60 fish per boat, whichever is less. The fish must measure at least 20 inches from the tip of the mouth to the fork of the tail.
Smith, a longtime charter captain who fishes on Bouncer’s Dusky 33 out of Miami Beach Marina, says watching frigate birds is a great way to locate dolphin. Frigates often soar overhead following the fish in the hopes they will chase flying fish. When that happens, the birds will swoop down and try to snatch a fleeing flyer out of the air.
It is important to read what a frigate is doing. If you follow a bird that isn’t on dolphin, you could end up miles from where you started fishing.
Smith says one good sign is a bird that is flying to the south. That usually means the frigate is following big fish, because bigger fish are strong enough to swim against the north-running current. Small dolphin typically travel with the current.
Watch, but don’t necessarily follow, a frigate that is high in the sky, because that means the bird is looking for dolphin.
“If they’re way up there, they’re taking advantage of their eyesight to look for something to play with,” Smith says. “If they’re 200 feet high, they’re probably onto something. If they start to dive, then they’re really in the game.”
Another essential bird-watching tip is to stay ahead of the frigate. In other words, if the bird is flying south as it follows dolphin, your boat needs to be south of the bird so the dolphin swim to you. If you’re behind a frigate, the fish have probably passed you and they’re not coming back to eat your baits.
Anglers can also catch dolphin by fishing the edge, where the water goes from green to blue, for other species with live baits such as pilchards, herring and goggle-eyes.
“One of the key things this time of year is on a lot of days, instead of going off searching for the dolphin, put up the fishing kites and let the dolphin crash the party with the sailfish and tuna,” says Smith. “A lot of times the edge will be in 100 feet, and there’ll be a very faint edge that’s much harder to see that might be in 180, 200 feet. A lot of times that edge will be where you find dolphin and sailfish. The shallower edge has sailfish, kingfish and tuna.
“To get the day off to a good start, you need to probably go farther to the south than normal because of the strong north current, and because the wind is generally out of the eastern quadrant, start fishing in 250, 300 feet and let the wind push you inshore.”
When you start hooking dolphin, take note of the depth and use your boat’s motors to stay in or return to that depth and continue catching fish.
“A lot of times, from now all the way into June, the guys who run offshore 7-8 miles will have great success catching schoolie dolphin,” says Smith of fish that are typically 4-8 pounds. “The guy who stays in shallow won’t catch as many fish, but he’ll have 20- and 30-pounders.”
If catching or buying several dozen live baits to go kite-fishing isn’t for you, don’t despair. Smith says anglers can fish dead ballyhoo very effectively for dolphin.
“Use a ballyhoo with the backbone very thoroughly broken and hooked through the nose on a 50-pound fluorocarbon leader,” he says. “Cast it and retrieve it fast across the surface with a spinning rod and keep the rod tip high. These dolphin, their No. 1 target is flying fish. Just as that dolphin is nailing that bait, drop the rod tip and open the bail and give him line to run.”
After several moments, close the bail, start reeling and enjoy the fight. If all goes well, you, your fishing companions and your families will all be enjoying fresh dolphin for dinner.