Beginner Dolphin Trolling Basics

Trolling for Dolphin (Mahi Mahi) Is Simple

Fish leaping out of the ocean on a line
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Owning a boat and deciding to head offshore -- maybe for the first time -- a number of readers ask about getting into dolphin fishing. That’s dolphin fish, incidentally -- mahi mahi -- not dolphin porpoise, a critically endangered and protected species! 

The Water

The first thing to remember is that dolphin, for the most part, are found in blue water. Along the southern Atlantic coast, that usually means the Gulfstream.

The Gulfstream begins moving away from the North American continent around the northern part of Florida. From Jacksonville, the run to the stream is sometimes 80 miles. For all but Florida anglers, that means small boaters are out of luck. 

But, because the stream meanders in and out, and sometimes warm water currents off the stream can move close, dolphin can be found as close as ten miles offshore during the summer months. There won’t be a lot of them, but they can be caught. You just need to pay attention to the fishing reports.

In South Florida and the Florida Keys, the stream runs from three to five miles off the beach. You can actually catch dolphin over the edge of the reef in forty feet of water or less. Again, it isn’t the norm, but it does happen.

So, take account of where you are and plan accordingly.

The Season

Watch and read the fishing reports in your area and see when and where the dolphin are being caught.

Dolphin can be caught year round, but in general, the hot season is from about April all the way through to the first cold weather.

Dolphin will stay in the warm waters of the Gulfstream when the surrounding water is cold. So, winter time means getting right in the stream to fish. In warm and hot weather, the waters surrounding the stream heat up and dolphin will wander in closer to the reef in search of food.

Feeding Habits

Dolphin are voracious eaters. They are virtual feeding machines. Although there will be some days when you can't get a school swimming under the boat to bite, in general, they live to eat. The lifespan of a dolphin is only five years, and in that time they reach weights of fifty pounds or more.

As far as a favorite food, the flying fish has to be close to the top of the list. Great schools of flying fish will leap into the air, gliding the wind currents for several hundred yards to escape a predator fish. They are all over the Gulfstream, and dolphin, among other fish, love them.

Dolphin also feed on ballyhoo, another baitfish common in the area, and on the small fish and crustaceans that live in and around floating Sargasso weed. This weed comes into the Gulfstream from the great Sargasso Sea, a sea within a sea, in the tropical Atlantic. It is home to a variety of sea life, and Dolphin will usually be found patrolling an area of weeds.

The Sargasso weeds are free floating. They provide not only food but shade from the sun (yes, fish need to stay out of the sun just like us!). The weeds tend to be found in long lines that have been formed by current wave action. Some of these weed lines can be a hundred yards wide and stretch for several miles.

Others are a few yards wide and only a hundred yards long. Whatever the size, remember that dolphin like them and feed under them.

The Tackle

Dolphin fishing is more fun on light tackle --  no bigger than thirty-pound IGFA class tackle. Some fishermen prefer twenty-pound tackle, because the vast majority of dolphin you will catch are under twenty pounds. The occasional big bull dolphin can still be caught on this light tackle; you will simply have to run him down and fight him!

Conventional trolling rods and reels work well, but medium to heavy spinning tackle will work equally as well. Just make sure the reel holds several hundred yards of line.

Twenty to 30-pound test monofilament line is a good bet when specifically targeting dolphin. Charter boats, however, often troll with 50 or even 80-pound line.

The beauty of trolling the Gulfstream is that you never know what you will find. So, charter boats – wanting to make sure their paying customers don’t miss a big tuna or wahoo because the line is too light – use the heavier tackle.

Terminal Tackle

This is an area that people spend a lot of money on, yet it’s an area that can be so simple. Remember, we are after dolphin. If something else jumps on our line, we want a reasonable chance at catching it, so we need terminal rigs – the business end of the line – to be beefy enough to handle them.

I use a five foot long, fifty-pound test, stainless steel, wire leader. This is the standard wire leader found in any tackle shop, including the big box discount department stores. Why wire? Remember – you never know what you might find. A roving king mackerel or wahoo may jump on your trolled bait, and a monofilament leader will be sliced in half before you ever feel the fish.

”But, you can see the wire in all that clear water”, he said. Yes, but you are trolling and skipping a bait on the surface (more on that later).

I use a number 3 swivel on one end of the leader and a 7/0 single O’shaunessy hook on the other end. When I wrap the wire leader to the hook, I leave a one-half inch tip of the leader at a 90-degree angle to the hook. See one of the pictures for an illustration. This tip is used to hold the ballyhoo bait in place.

Bait and Rigging

By far my preference in bait both because of availability and success rate is ballyhoo. Fresh or brined are best, but flash frozen work well if you can get them from a reputable bait source.

I place the point of the hook in and under the ballyhoo’s gill plate and run the hook down into the stomach. I force the hook point out the bottom of the fish so that the hook eye and leader are right at the mouth of the ‘Hoo and the hook is turned down under the belly of the bait.

This is where the leader tip comes in handy. I force the leader tip through the bottom and top jaw of the ballyhoo so that it protrudes just at the front of the top lip. With a tie wrap from an old loaf of bread, I wrap the bill and leader tip to keep the mouth of the ballyhoo closed, and then I break off the bill right at the leader.

Sometimes I may use a pink or chartreuse skirt available at most tackle shops. The skirt offers color and protection of the nose area of the bait, but it really is not necessary. Commercial nose cone type products are also available, but in my experience not really necessary. That leader tip works just fine.

Trolling

Dolphin usually prefer what I call a semi-hot bait. That is, not too slow and not too fast. I place a rod in a rod holder and let line back behind the boat. These are flat lines – ones that are not attached to an outrigger. I put one on each side of the boat back thirty to fifty yards. I run the trolling speed of the boat up until the bait is on the surface and “skipping” with the front of the bait just out of the water. Sometimes I will troll four rods, two-way back fifty to sixty yards, one half way back and one bait right up close to the boat in the prop wash.

Technique

Finding and catching dolphin is easy if you follow some basics.

  • Look for a weed line or any other kind of flotsam in the water. Dolphin will be under anything they can find to escape the sun.
  • Troll the edge of the weed line heading one direction and then crossing and heading back the other direction.
  • Vary the speed of your troll if you have not attracted a fish. Speed up or slow down – just break the pattern.
  • Watch for flying fish. If you spook some flying fish while trolling, chances are dolphin will be in the area. They follow the baitfish.
  • Look for birds – either a flock of birds diving or a solitary frigate bird. The flock of birds will usually be on a school of baitfish being chased by bonito or false albacore, but eh dolphin will be in the area as well. A solitary frigate bird will stay over a school of fish – sometimes solitary big fish – looking for an easy meal. It is wise to head their direction as well.

Simplicity

Everything we talked about can be done with minimal expense and literally no special tackle. Big rods, outriggers, and the like are generally not necessary. Dolphin are very cooperative fish and a bait that skips without spinning and twisting will catch fish if you fish where the dolphin live.