Targeting Dolphin in the Southwest Region with Capt. Ron Hueston

Captain Tips

From June through September the Gulf of Mexico is usually flat calm, and that’s a great time to run offshore and try to target dolphin in the Southwest Region. When you’re targeting dolphin, you can expect to run 60 to 65 miles before you get into deep enough water to consistently hold fish. I like to start in about 80 feet of water and then work my way out deeper, looking for scattered patches of weeds or other floating objects.

The real key to dolphin fishing is finding the bait. A lot of times the dolphin will hold around the bait schools offshore. We don’t get those big, thick weed lines you see on the Atlantic side of Florida. Instead, we get small clumps or patches of weed, but it still holds a lot of baitfish. Remember, it’s a big ocean and these fish are constantly on the prowl for food, so you want to watch for bait at all times. If you find weeds that have no bait on them, it’s usually a dead zone, and you should move on.

Any time you’re fishing for dolphin you want to watch for birds, particularly frigate (man-o-war) birds. Frigate birds gliding high are looking for feeding fish, but a low flying frigate bird is trying to catch a baitfish as it jumps out of the water to elude a dolphin below. If you see a diving frigate bird, get in front of its path of direction and allow the fish to come to your baits.

Dolphin tend to be spread out over a large area, the best way to target them in my region is to use the run and gun style of fishing, as opposed to trolling. Trolling does work, and if that’s what you like to do, you can troll rigged ballyhoo, but you’re better off pulling feathers or a feather and strip combination so you can go faster and cover more water. Then when you find fish, you can pitch baits or chunks of ballyhoo to catch the schoolies that come to the boat.

With the run and gun technique, you run from one good-looking object (a floating board or weed patch) to another, and when you see something good you pitch out some live baits around it. The majority of our dolphin are less than 10 pounds, so you can use light spinning rods, but we do get some larger fish, so you always want to have some heavier tackle on board. Give the spot five to ten minutes, and if you don’t get a bite, run to the next thing that looks good.

Binoculars will help you find the better floating objects and spot birds from a distance. What I’ll do is run for about a mile, then shut down and scan the horizon in all directions with the binoculars, and if I don’t see something I want to run to, then I’ll run another mile and do it again, until I eventually find what I’m looking for.

On occasion, you’ll find some pretty well-developed weed lines. When that happens, you can troll them looking for larger fish, but I really like to just shut down and drift with the weed line pitching out live pilchards as chum. If you have a live well full of small pilchards, you can toss a few of them overboard every few minutes and in no time you’ll have several hundred yards of small baits behind the boat. When the dolphin swim into the chum, they follow the baits, eating their way to within casting distance. Use small pilchards for this, so you don’t fill up the dolphin and they swim off with a full belly before you can get a cast at them.

Always have a Ziploc full of ballyhoo chunks or any kind of chunk bait or small pilchards or sardines ready to throw at any schoolies that come up to the boat. If you hook a fish, don’t pull it out of the water right away. Instead, keep the hooked fish near the boat. They’ll often draw other dolphin right to the back of the boat, so all you have to do is pitch a chunk of ballyhoo or a pilchard over to get the bite going. Then the entire school of dolphin will see the other fish feeding and acting aggressively and come over to the boat, giving you the opportunity to land multiple fish.

Just keep in mind that there’s a size and bag limit to dolphin, and you really only want to keep enough fish for a meal or two. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and start tossing fish into the cooler and then get back to the dock and realize you have a lot more fish to clean than you really need. 

Captain Tips