So, you've spent days on the front of a bonefish skiff and
decided that, as a whole, a more paranoid, schizophrenic fish
probably doesn't exsist. You've made perfect casts to schools of
tarpon and they've swam right past, paying no attention to your
offering. And permit, those ghosts of the flats, have given you
While the challenge in landing these species on fly remains one
of anglings most bragable accomplishments, at times everyone would
like to get some more cooperation out of a fish. Just have some plain,
old fun with a fish that will jump on a fly and run like hell.
Dolphin, (also known as Mahi mahi, the hawiian name for them, and in
spanish Dorado meaning Golden fish…I'm not talking about Flipper) are
a fish that go a long way to fill this bill and then some.
Found worldwide in tropical and sun-tropical oceans, they are one of
the most prolific and fast growing of fish. Though estimates vary,
it's believed a five month old "juvenile" can reach five pounds in
weight, and in another twelve months can be between twenty to thirty
five pounds. One tank fed specimen reached fifty pounds in just two
years! A juvenile female dolphin, (called a cow, males are called
bulls due to their pronounced forheads) can spawn up to three hundred
fifty thousand eggs, and do so starting about age three months, while
a full sized adult female may eject two million. The life term of
dolphin is belived to be six to eight years and in that time may reach
weights of close to ninety pounds.
Running in sometimes huge schools numbering almost a hundred until
in the fifteen pound range, then pairing off with one bull and a cow
or two, they are one of the most colorful of fish. They have a number
of different color phases. A pearl colored belly fades to a brilliant
yellow or gold flank, with a emerald green or cobalt blue back. The
entire body is peppered with bright blue spots. All this is subject
to their mood, as they can change color drastically and fast. Dark green,
powder blue, and stripes are all in the wardrobe.
Now let me give you some statistics more of interest to fly anglers.
A dolphins top speed is close to, if not more than, fifty miles an
hour. When they turn on the afterburners, they appear as a blue/green
streak in the water. When hungry, and ambitious, (when you're this
fast, you can usually chase down dinner more or less at will) I
believe them to have one of the fastest strikes of any fish. They
will chase down anything they can wrap their lips around, including
squid, flying fish, small tuna, and even relatives. In fact, a dolphin
can be a smaller dolphins own worst enemy. A friend of mine related
a story of finding more than a dozen baby sailfish in the belly if
one large dolphin.
The strike zone, (how far a fish will travel to hit something) is
line of sight. Say the strike zone of a trout is about four feet,
(I know I'm being generous, sometimes they won't move half that out
of a lie) and a bass may be twice that. If the water visibility is
a hundred feet, and offshore ocean water is often more than that,
a strike zone for a dolphin is two hundred feet. He can see a hundred
feet in either direction and nothing he sees is safe.
The whole trick in fishing for these gamesters is finding them. It's
a big ocean out there. Showing an almost obsessive affinity for
floatsome, dolphin hang around sargasso weeds and other floating
debris. Prevailing winds and current convergences cause this material
to form what is known as weed lines. Almost any object floating in good,
blue water may have them in attendance.
Once a likely area is located, there are a number of methods that
can be employed to get fish on the hook. If you find a choice piece
of debris like a floating board or shipping pallot, position the boat
with the sun at your back for the best visibility and just blind cast
the area. Use a moderate speed on the retrieve so as not to tire
yourself. But once a dolphin appears, and follows or shows an interest
in the fly, crank it up. And I mean warp speed. Just as fast as you
can go. There is no such thing as too fast a retrieve. Dolphin are
somewhat like cats, if it's not moving fast enough, it's not appealing.
This is the way they want a fly about ninety percent of the time.
If you find fish in a picky mood, a dead drifted fly may entice a
strike when speed doesn't work. Just be fast on the hookset, they
can eat and spit a fly amazingly fast. When, notice I didn't say if,
you have the opportunity to cast directly to a fish, lead him by a
considerable distance. And have the fly moving when it hits the water.
Most of the time, you wouldn't be able to get the fly away from him
if you tried.
If a large amount of debris or weeds is around, and finding the fish
is a little difficult, dragging hookless teasers fifty to eighty feet
behind the boat is a good way to bring the fish running. When they
start smacking the teaser, drop the boat out of gear, and with someone
ready to drop the fly in the water, reel in the teaser as fast as you
can. The caster should drop the fly in as soon as the fish are within
casting distance. Drop the cast and strip like mad.
Ok, so now you've got a school of dolphin around the boat and you
want to keep them there. Leaving a hooked dolphin in the water will
keep the rest of the school near by. They pretty much refuse to leave
their bretheren. Also, nothing is better than having several dozen small
live baitfish such as glass minnows, pilchards, sardines or menhaden in
a live well to do this. A handful of baits thrown into the water periodicly
will make the dolphin crazy and keep them close. Just a handfull now and
then if the fish look like they want to wander away. You can fill up
dolphin with chum baits and end the feeding frenzy if throwing too much,
(as opposed to tuna which will feed and feed then regurgitate so as to
feed more) so just enough to keep their interest.
To set the hook into a dolphin, Don't use the rod. All you do is keep
stripping the line hard. You'll set the hook on the strip. Once you feel
him on, pop him a couple of times with the rod. If you use the rod on the
strike, and the fish misses the fly, you'll then have the rod straight up
in the air. The dolphin rushes forward way faster than you can react and
is all over the fly with you unable to do anything. And while the little
ones are not too bright when hungry, the big guys are not stupid. Give
them a taste and they will probably not hit that particular fly again.
A fly change may help, but I've often seen a fish not hit anything with
a hook in it, including live bait, after getting "cheesed."
Once you're hooked up, hang on for one of the best rides in fishing.
Dolphin do it all. Blistering runs, towering jumps, grey hounding
across the surface, diving for the bottom like a broken elevator
cable. I've seen them tailwalk a hundred yards. And they don't come
to the boat willingly. Just about the time you're hoping they're done,
somewhere a burst of energy that resembles the initial run comes along.
Many an angler has been caught napping when they do this and pop goes
the leader. They go from zero to top speed in about three body lengths,
so they don't give you much warning.
And when you do finally get them to the boat, the real fun begins. They
really go nuts when taken out of the water. And they don't stay still
in the water for you to remove the hook. Releasing them is a trick,
and heaven help you if you drop a big one on the deck. Think of thirty
pounds of muscle ricocheting around the boat with no regard for you,
the boat or your tackle. Getting them under control makes a pig scramble
For tackle, the small ones under ten pounds can be done on light rods,
four to six weights are great. A dolphin will make them jump like nothing
else. Eight weights can cover the ten to twenty range and ten weights for
the big ones. The nice thing about dolphin is that they won't fight to
the point of exhaustion like tuna will, so you can do them on a relatively
light rod and release them in good shape. That is, if you want to release
them. They eat very well. If you're trying to deal with a big one thrashing
around you intend to keep, popping him into ice water will just about drop
him in his tracks.
Occasionally, you'll hook a fish that puts all his effort into running.
And they will cover a bunch of territory in a hurry. Reels should hold
two hundred fifty yards of backing minimum. Direct drive reels with
palming rims and a good drag are a must.
Bright colored streamer flies with plenty of flash in the two inch to
shop rag sized are what to use depending on what size the fish are.
They will take both a surprisingly small and surprisingly large fly at
times. They also blast poppers, a really neat visual experience. Use
a bite tippet for their teeth. Even a small dolphin thrashes around
enough to go through twenty pound test in short order. I generally
use forty pound bite tippets, unless the fish are large and then I
may go as high as sixty.
A sinking line is usually more versatile than floating line because
they cast better in the ever present wind. And having some fast sinking
stuff is handy when the dolphin are holding deep. Just get the fly as
deep as you can and scream it back to the surface. Dolphin find an
upward racing fly very offensive and usually make a point of running
it down and blasting it.
Dolphin are a treat. They're cooperative, hard fighters that for
the most part do everything we want them to. Since they are my very
favorite fish on fly gear, I may be a little biased in thinking them
to be the ultimate fly rod fish. All of the people I know who have had
a chance to do them on fly agree they are an absolute riot. Be sure
to put them on your fish species "to do" list. Capt. Scott Hamilton
Captain Scott has the oldest and most experienced Fly Fishing
charter service working out of the Palm Beach Florida area. His twenty-one foot
center console boat, Time to Fly, is specially outfitted for the fly angler.
He is fully qualified to teach any level of the sport, enhancing a memorable fishing trip
for all kinds of exciting fish. For information on charters, call 561-439-8592 or