Dolphin fishing is trending up

Fishing for dolphin, or “mahi mahi,” along the Miami-Dade/Broward coast has seen its ups and downs over the decades. But right now the catching is in the “up” phase.

Recreational and charter fishermen report limit catches of large “schoolie” dolphin in the five-to-10-pound range and even some bruisers of 30-plus. But they are having to motor 15 to 20 miles offshore to find them.

For those who don’t mind burning the extra fuel, this summer’s calm weather has allowed plenty of boaters to make the long run east to find large patches of sargassum weed harboring hungry mahis.

Captain Dick Russell of Dania Beach, former IGFA president Mike Leech and I got in the action last Wednesday, finding large weed patches floating in waters 1,400 to 2,200 feet deep between Port Everglades and Haulover Inlet. Not all were productive, but the ones with diving sooty terns were most likely to yield dolphin, which were chasing small bait fish toward the surface and catching the birds’ attention.

Russell, a veteran light-tackle charter captain and tournament competitor, takes a decidedly low-tech approach to dolphin fishing — with great results.

Instead of painstakingly rigging ballyhoo for trolling, he baits the hooks with the bellies of dolphin from previous harvests. The strip baits are so durable that we reused them after catching multiple fish. And instead of outriggers, Russell trolls two lines from the Dusky center-console’s tee top and two from the gunwales.

To catch live bait, Russell deploys a Sabiki rig on the edges of the weeds, catching filefish, small blue and rainbow runners, and tiny ocean tallies. They’re what the mahis are eating when they congregate around the sargassum lines, so it makes sense to use them.

On our trip Wednesday, we first trolled a weed line about 20 miles offshore, where several sooty terns were wheeling and diving. After catching a dolphin in the 10-pound range and reeling it up to the side of the boat, we were swarmed by the rest of the school — mostly “heavy-lifters” or small “gaffers.” They refused to bite artificial lures, so Russell baited a couple of spinning rods with the little runners he caught in the weeds. The fish didn’t hesitate to chomp them, and we caught all nine in the school.

We followed the weed line south before spotting three man o’war, or “frigate birds,” circling and diving — widely considered an absolute indication of the presence of a large dolphin. The frigate birds led us away from the weed line, circling tantalizingly, but we never got a strike as we trolled beneath them. Eventually, we gave up and headed back toward the weeds.

The rest of the day was a steady pick — catching a large “schoolie” mahi here and there wherever the busy terns directed us. We ended up with 13.

At one weed patch, a fat tripletail swam boldly toward the transom of our boat, and Leech caught it using a chunk of squid. Then we headed back to shore with more than enough fish for a banquet.

Russell and other charterboat captains say the offshore weed line dolphin action has been pretty consistent all along the Gold Coast since about mid-July. But there’s no telling how long it will last.

Best to snag your fried dolphin fingers and other treats while the seas are still flat.