Florida has some of the finest fishing in the world, and contrary to many opinions it is still part of the United States and relatively simple to get to. If you are traveling to the state and are not a part –time or full time resident here and have no boat then your best bet is to charter one of the fine captains in the area and head offshore for a day of blue water, blue skies and hopefully lots of action. If you have your own boat and have long dreamed about leaving the sheltered waters of the bay and heading offshore in search of the many game fish that call these South Atlantic waters home but are not sure how to get started than this article is for you! If you are an accomplished offshore angler, adept at rigging baits and following thermo clines then pass this by, as you know this stuff already. I mean c’mon! We can write a whole article just on what knots to use!
To start off, ask yourself the question, “am I experienced enough to fish offshore and is my boat adequate for the adventure?” If you are not sure, then do not go offshore, or at least not without an experienced person on board. It is also a very good idea to carry a PLB or personal Locator Beacon, this is a device that when activated will send a signal to the search and rescue teams to come and get you, immediately. The great thing about fishing off the coast of Florida is that you really don’t have to go that far to catch a variety of species such as Sailfish, some Tuna species, King Mackerel, Dolphin and Wahoo to name a few. While there is a resident population of these species present pretty much year round, some times of the year are better than others. I’ll give a brief rundown of the usual suspects.
Sailfish can be had pretty much year round, but the best fishing is usually in the winter and early spring. When South Floridians feel those cold fronts of November and December you can be certain that the Sailfish wont be far behind. You don’t have to run as far offshore as one may think for them, as although they can be caught in almost any depth, they are typically caught between 90 and 200 feet of water. The simple way to catch them (remember this article is for the offshore newbies) is trolling with rigged ballyhoo, place a skirt in front of this and troll a few rods at varying distances behind the boat and you’re in business. When you get a bit more experienced you can also drift live bait such as Pilchard and Goggle eyes and if you really get going you can learn to fish with a kite to dangle your bait on the surface making it an enticing treat for a variety of game fish. Have a pair strong gloves and a pair of pliers to remove the hook while the fish is still in the water and pull him along until he regains strength and watch him swim away. This of course is after you all lean over and take pictures!
Dolphin, also known as Mahi Mahi can be caught year round as well with the best fishing taking place in spring and early summer. The methods used to catch Dolphin are pretty much the same as for sailfish or any of the other species we will mention with the subtle differences primarily coming in depth, color of skirts and thickness of leader or wire line. If you are not skilled at rigging, a newbie to this type of fishing can just purchase rigged ballyhoo at the bait shop and be done with it. Slip a skirt over the rigged bait and go for it! Don’t forget to buy some non rigged bait as well because small to medium sized dolphin travel in schools and if you troll one up, keep him in the water for a bit and look for some of his friends to be lurking near the boat. If so, tie a hook to the end of a line, place a chunk of bait on the hook and you can limit out in just a matter of minutes. Dolphin are usually found in deeper, cleaner blue water, and although they can be caught blind trolling along currents and just about anywhere, they do prefer weed lines and flotsam. Larger dolphin can be caught with live bait under the weed lines and around floating objects trees, cargo pallets and even abandoned crab trap buoys.
King Mackerel or Kingfish as they are sometimes called are another year round resident but as with most of our South Florida Game fish, some seasons are better than others. They can be caught using the same methods as Dolphin or Sailfish but require a wire leader as they can bite through most lines like they were butter. King Mackerel are predominantly found in 60-200 feet of water and tend to hang around structures or changes in the bottom contours which cause current variations. In Summer months when trolling seems to work best you may try using a planer or trolling weight to get your baits down a bit further, but during the spring there is nothing more fun than drifting live baits while listening to some tunes and munching on some chips. If you have trouble finding live bait (pilchards, Pinfish, etc.) dead ballyhoo will produce as well. Wahoo can also be caught in the same areas you fish for all these fish; they are incredible fighters and one of the tastiest fish in the ocean. You would need a bit more expertise to actually target them with bigger rods and lures. To target Wahoo, many anglers do what is know as High Speed trolling, in excess of 12 knots with lures covering the surface and deeper into the water column. Wahoo seem to be most active around the full moon.
As for Tuna, most of the species that you will catch in the areas you can safely fish will be Blackfin Tuna; they are tasty, great fighters and can be part of a mixed bag while fishing for the above-mentioned species. For the bigger Yellowfin Tuna, well, if you are reading this article, you are probably not ready to go out on your own, as they require long-range trips, better equipment, bigger boats and a good crew. But the thrill is amazing as line rips off the reel and you are holding on until that initial run has subsided. When fishing the far offshore trips there is also the possibility of running into a big Blue Marlin or a White Marlin, but that’s for another story!
So, You have some basic information now on how to fish for some of South Florida’s favorite offshore game fish. Keep in mind that in most parts of South Florida the depths you will fish may be only 2-5 miles from shore. Pick out your favorite rods in the 20-50 lb class grab a friend and some rigged baits and head out for a great adventure! A friend once asked me when is the best time of day to catch Sailfish and the others, my reply was quite simple, “anytime you can get out there!”
For those of you that are not familiar with the southern waters, when someone says they went dolphin fishing, they may also refer to it as fishing for Mahi Mahi (which is how you see it referred to most often on a menu), or dorado fishing. Now that I have cleared that up and know that I won’t have Green Peace sending me hate mail, I can pass along what I think is good information for anyone new to South Florida sport fishing, while also telling the tale of a great day out on the boat.
We were heading out for a great day of Dolphin fishing off the coast of South Florida; more precisely, Boynton Beach. It was a relatively late start for us, and the sun was already heating up this fine summer morning as we finally pulled away from the gas dock around 8am. Normally, we would have been fishing by first light but a string of strange events caused a slight delay in our departure. On a good note, it allowed me to throw the cast net on a passing school of Pilchard which gave us enough live bait to use both as chum and as bait if needed. I enjoy trolling for Dolphin. It is the first type of offshore angling I had done as a boy with my little 20’ Aquasport. When Dolphin Fishing, we always like to have a wide assortment of both live and artificial baits, but I have also had just as much success trolling store bought ballyhoo rigged with a skirt.
Our gear was all set as we made our way through the Boynton Beach inlet for this offshore Dolphin fishing experience. Ordinarily I fish a bit further South out of Haulover Cut in the North Miami Beach area, which is a much wider inlet and makes me feel a lot better when it’s a bit choppy! The plan was to get to the edge of the blue water and head southeast in hopes of finding some good patches of weeds or floating debris that hold Dolphin and other fish. It’s essential when Dolphin fishing to find clean blue water, although I have caught them in as little as 60 feet of water when targeting King Mackerel, but that is a unusual. This usually occurs when a strong east wind blows the weed patches closer to shore and the fish chase in bait such as flying fish. We are lucky in South Florida that the gulf stream comes very close to shore, (as little as a few miles in some spots), which makes it a short trip to the blue water when compared to those fishing further north.
We use very common tackle for Dolphin Fishing; trolling rods in the 30 lb. class should do fine, equipped with reels spooled using 25 – 30 lb test monofilament. I have been very happy using my Shimano TLD 20’s for this purpose. Bass Pro Shops, as well as Cabelas, sell a very nice combo that will serve this purpose well. The easiest way for a novice to begin dolphin fishing is to set up a rigged ballyhoo with a skirt. When Dolphin Fishing I have always like the Green with Yellow colors, but try other combinations such as black and purple as you never know what the fish are preferring, or what other species are lurking in the deep gulfstream waters. You should also bring along some spinning tackle of the same or lighter class, as you may have the opportunity to pitch some baits to a number of dolphin that occasionally follow their hooked school mates right up to the boat. By keeping a hooked fish in the water and tossing in some chunked pieces or live bait, you may keep them around the boat for some time. For rigging my trolling bait I will use between a 6/0 and 7/0 hook and pretty much the same but in a shorter shank, or a circle hook for pitching bait. Many people will use a wire leader when instead of a 50-70 lb. test leader as it is not uncommon to hook a Wahoo or large Barracuda when trolling for Dolphin.
Trolling speeds can vary with sea condition and the types of baits used, but usually average about 4 to 7 knots. Make sure your baits are working properly and swimming naturally. Above all, keep checking them to ensure that they do not pick up any floating weeds along the way. The baits should be swimming (not spinning) just under the surface or can be seen skipping on the surface. Just because you are Dolphin fishing doesn’t mean you can’t try for other species or use other methods to catch fish. On many occasions we have taken big Dolphin and Wahoo by using a down rigger to fish a bait deep. A rigged ballyhoo on a skirt with a wire leader is a great choice for this.
This was a very hot day and due to our late start we were concerned that it was going to be a long one. The weed patches were scattered and we were on constant look out for any flotsam. We passed a large crate that held a few Tripletail and tried pitching a few live Pilchard in hopes that something may be lurking a bit further down the water column, but to no avail. A bit later we spotted a log floating in the water and made several passes and were lucky enough to pick up one Dolphin in the 8 lb range. Far from being a monster, but when you are fishing this far offshore, we knew he was coming home for dinner!
If the weed patches and floating debris are not present it’s also a great idea to keep your eyes peeled for birds working the surface. We had just about given up for the day and the strong Gulf Stream currents had pushed us far north despite our Southerly initial course. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the folks at Delorme, as my handheld PN-90 GPS helped me to win a bet with my buddy on the correct heading back to Boynton Beach inlet.
We were within sight of land but still fairly far offshore when I saw about 10 birds working a small piece of ocean. There was nothing floating but I could see flying fish taking off in all directions. We began trolling the edges of where the birds were and in no time all the rods were bent over with fish on! Dolphin fishing at its finest! Now that the majority of our day’s catch were brought to the boat within 10 minutes, we could head home triumphantly, so we rinsed the boat down and headed for home; another successful day for The Outdoors Guy and friends.
If you have the urge on a calm summer morning or afternoon to learn and enjoy offshore fishing, Dolphin fishing in South Florida is perhaps the easiest way to begin. The tackle is not significantly heavy or overly expensive and you may already have most of it from your inshore adventures. Just head out to where the waters turn a clear blue and begin trolling some baits. If there are fish in the area they are usually eager to take a properly trolled bait. Remember to be prepared for all eventualities when Dolphin fishing, keep an eye on the weather and you will be sure to have some great tales to tell when you get home. Fishing for Dolphin is definitely a great way to begin your offshore angling experience.