Spring traditionally has been the best time to catch dolphin in South Florida, especially in the Florida Keys. But over the past several years, the fall dolphin bite has been getting better and better, which means now is a great time to catch the colorful, acrobatic, good-tasting fish in the Keys.
“Everything has changed,” said Richard Stanczyk of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada. “Now, August, September and October are some of the best months for dolphin.
“As this moon builds up in September [the full moon is Sept. 14], we’re looking for a good push of dolphin. We may have a good push of dolphin into December.”
Dolphin — just to be clear, we’re talking about the fish (also called mahi-mahi), not the mammals — migrate north along the Atlantic coast in the spring and head south as the weather and water cool.
Stanczyk attributed the strong fall dolphin fishing to global warming in the form of slightly higher ocean temperatures. He said the warmer water has dolphin and other pelagic species swimming farther north in the spring, so those fish are returning to the Keys later in the year.
“A lot of pelagics have changed not necessarily their migratory route but the season,” said Stanczyk, adding that the tourist season has slowed, so there are plenty of charter dates available at his marina (305-664-2461 or www.budnmarys.com). “August, without question, was a much better month for dolphin fishing.
“Our captains were catching gaffers [dolphin that need to be stuck with a gaff to be lifted into the boat], which are fish 7 to 15 or 18 pounds. They can be all the way from the edge, which is 100 feet deep, out to 1,500, 2000 feet of water. My last trip on Catch 22 with my brother Capt. Scott Stanczyk, we caught 35 dolphin in 1,300 to 1,400 feet.”
Capt. Casey Hunt of Key West said anglers need to look for birds, jumping baitfish, grass and anything else that might indicate the presence of dolphin.
“You can always find schoolies on floating debris and weed patches,” said Hunt, who, along with Capt. Natalie Rarick, operates CN-it Adventures, which offers everything from fishing charters and eco-tours to snorkeling and shark feeding trips (954-683-7182 or www.cnitadventures.com). “A lot of the fish here, you’re looking for the birds and the flying fish getting chased. You’re running and gunning.
“Most dolphin this time of year are 10-15 miles offshore. That’s the daily average. Some days it’s a mile from the Key West sea buoy, some days it’s 10 miles and some days it’s 20 miles.
“A week or two ago [before Hurricane Dorian] there were a lot of 20- and 30-pound dolphin being caught, a lot of birds pushing around, a lot of bait schools. Fishermen were mostly just trolling in 800 to 1,200 feet of water. As soon as we get some more east wind, the fishing will pop off.”
Hunt added that bigger dolphin swim against the Gulf Stream current, which runs west to east along the Keys. Frigate birds follow dolphin in the hopes that the fish will send a school of flying fish airborne. When that happens, the frigates swoop down and grab the baitfish.
“You want to find frigate birds that are flying against the current,” he said. “The smaller fish aren’t going to be swimming against the current. It’s too hard for the smaller schoolies. The 20s, 30s, and 40s, they can keep up with it.”
If you don’t see any birds, Stanczyk said to look for patches of weeds that have baitfish such as small blue runners, or even fish fry.
“You’re looking for life in it,” he said. “What’s going on now is you can find all the weed you want, but finding bait in it is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Another option is to troll along a current rip or edge, where currents of different speeds meet up. Rips often attract baitfish, and they attract a variety of gamefish from dolphin to blue marlin. Stanczyk said anglers can head offshore with a box of frozen squid, hook the baits so they slide like a snake through the water and catch as many dolphin as someone using live bait.
Floating debris, ideally in the form of wooden boards, pallets and tree trunks, also attract bait. That debris might have dozens of dolphin swimming under it as well as around it.
“The fish might not be lying under the debris, they might be 50 yards off it,” Stanczyk said. “Take your ballyhoo, cast it out away from the debris and let it sink.”
“Dolphin don’t have to be on the surface, they could be 100 feet down,” Hunt said. “If you see some floating debris and you know it’s in good, clean water and you have good current and a little bait but you’re not seeing much, drop a butterfly jig down 200 feet and jig it all the way up. You might catch a big mahi, you might catch a wahoo.
“They’ll hang out 100, 150 feet down. They’re looking for something to ambush or they’re just sitting around enjoying the cooler water.”
When that strategy pays off, you’ll be enjoying fresh fish for dinner.