Well here we are again, the time of the year that most Keys anglers wait for, Dolphin season. While it is true that dolphin are caught all year in the Keys, it is now that the largest fish of the year are usually caught. As the spring season progresses into summer, the fish tend to get smaller and more numerous. Most seasoned anglers would gladly give a bucket full of school dolphin for one slammer.
Most of the time dolphin are hungry and will literally strike anything that moves. But it is those times, that dolphin are not feeding, that are the times that try the salt of an angler. The slow days are the ones that set anglers apart. The ability to get a fish to strike when they really don’t want to or to get a fish to come up after it has gone down for the day, is a true test of skill.
Coming across large fish that aren’t feeding is a common and frustrating occurrence. Many an angler has trolled by a floating structure or a weed line only to see fish that won’t bite. There are several tricks to get those fish to start feeding.
The first is to change up the bait. After you have trolled by fish that won’t bite your offering, pull up your trolled baits and do a drift by the structure. Throw some live bait at the fish, they will usually strike instinctively. You need to be as sneaky as possible when big fish are being stubborn. Use small hooks and a fluorocarbon leader tied directly to your main line. To help keep the hook as inconspicuous as possible you should use a bronze colored hook and keeping it to around 4/0 in size will help the bait swim a little more naturally.
Another trick is to try chunking with pieces of fresh bait. This form of chumming will often get the fish into a feeding mood. Throw a hand full of cut up ballyhoo pinfish or any other handy fish. Let the pieces sink out of sight and then throw another handful. In one of the baits hide a hook and let it sink naturally at the same speed as the other baits. Fish with an open bail and watch for the line to start off of the spool a little faster, then set hook on the fish.
When you find large fish around structure that won't bite, it is possible that you were not the first boat of the day to fish the school. Often one of the fish has been hooked and escaped that will often bring the feeding to a halt. If that is the case and you have tried all of your tricks you should just move on.
Some times when trolling around offshore, you will come across structure that looks “fishy“. If you come across a floating pallet, bucket, or any other structure that has bait fish around it but no game fish, you should try to plumb the depths to make sure that nobody is home. The first step is to troll by with a down rigger set to a deeper depth than it was on your first pass. Go from thirty or forty feet down to sixty or seventy feet if that doesn’t get a strike try going down to around a hundred.
If the trolled bait doesn’t work try sinking a live bait down as deep as it will go. If that doesn’t get any activity it might be time to get out the deep, vertical, high speed jig. Setting up a high speed rig takes a dedicated rod rigged with a spectra fiber line like Power pro. Use about fifteen feet of sixty pound fluorocarbon leader tied directly to the line with an uni to uni splice. A high speed jig like the five inch Abyss in blue from Williamson is a good choice. These jigs are capable of getting deep very fast. Dropping the jig down to two hundred feet or more will insure that you will come back through the deep holding fish’s territory. The jigs fast and wild retrieve back toward the surface will often get a strike or at least bring the fish up into the range of a cast live bait and in the mood to feed again.
Another condition that occurs while trolling that makes it appear that the fish are not biting is when the fish are tailing down sea at a fast rate. Often these dolphin are mistaken for a fast moving school of tuna. Many anglers will give up on tuna when they are seeking dolphin, so make sure you know what you are chasing. These fish are usually larger fish, so it is worth putting some effort into getting one. When the fish are moving like this you can often get a glimpse of them before they disappear down sea. Once you determine what you are chasing you can go about the business of presenting a bait.
These fish are sometimes moving at around ten knots which is faster than most dolphin anglers are used to trolling. If you are trolling at the traditional five or six knots it is hard to get your bait in front of a fish and keep it there long enough for it to get noticed. If you are lucky enough to find the fish under a frigate bird you can use the bird as a gage to determine the speed of the fish. You need to get your bait way out in front of the fish and keep it there long enough for it to find the bait and strike. Try to go around the fish rather than through them. Putting the fish down or getting them facing away from our bait as it goes by would be a shame. These fast moving fish often will strike when given the opportunity, making the added effort worthwhile.
When the fish are not playing nicely, a little extra effort on your part can make the difference between a good day of fishing and a great day of catching.
Captain John Sahagian