“Mahi Madness:” Some tips on taking advantage of dolphin fishing in the Florida Keys

“Mahi Madness:” Some tips on taking advantage of dolphin fishing in the Florida Keys

By Steve Waters
Special to the Miami Herald

Almost as fast as mate Hunter Barron could cast a live pilchard behind the transom of Catch 22, that’s how quickly a dolphin was hooked up and pulling line off the reel.

As soon as one of us reeled in a dolphin, which some people call mahi-mahi, using the Hawaiian term for the colorful fish to distinguish it from the mammal, Barron would take that fishing rod and hand us another one, the bait already in the water and the spinning reel’s bail open.

When line began peeling off the reel, Pasta Pantaleo and I would close the bail and start reeling to set the hook. Meanwhile, Vic Gaspeny was busy fighting a dolphin on his 10-weight fly rod and Barron was casting a live pilchard on another spinning rod.

“Mahi Madness” is how Capt. Scott Stanczyk describes the craziness when all of his anglers are fighting schoolie dolphin at the same time. Unlike “March Madness,” the dolphin fishing in the Florida Keys remains good throughout the summer, although May and June are traditionally the best months to catch the hard-fighting, good-tasting fish.

“It’s getting better and better,” said Stanczyk, who fishes out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina. “We’ve been catching enough fish to make our people happy. There have been enough schoolies to make it worthwhile. The big fish are a bonus.”

Schoolies are dolphin that weigh 5-15 pounds. The smaller fish are known as “lifters” because anglers can swing them into the boat with their fishing rods. “Gaffers” are bigger fish that require the use of a gaff to get them safely into the boat. Barron, who kept an eye on everything going on in the back of the 54-foot Carolina boat, was always ready with the gaff whenever one of us had a fish that big coming close to the transom.

The goal of most captains and anglers is to catch a “slammer,” which is a dolphin weighing 20 or more pounds that will slam the inside of the fish box. Stanczyk said they have been scarce so far this year.

“The fishery’s very healthy,” he said, “and the big ones may be around the corner.”

The schoolies were fun to catch, especially for Gaspeny, a retired inshore guide who hadn’t been offshore in a long time and who loves to fish with a fly rod.

He used a multi-colored streamer fly with lots of flash that imitates a small fish on a 9-foot, 40-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 10-weight Ugly Stik Bigwater Fly Rod. When a school of dolphin was behind the boat, Gaspeny would strip out his intermediate fly line and drift back the fly, then tighten the Fin-Nor fly reel’s drag and wait for a dolphin to strike.

Our trip this past Wednesday also was restorative for Pantaleo, a talented marine artist with a unique style and perspective. The former sign painter from Hollywood specializes in painting offshore and inshore gamefish and coastal lifestyle scenes.
“Lately I’ve made an effort to go back to my roots and fish more,” said Pantaleo, who also plays the drums in a local band.

He moved to Islamorada 14 years ago and has done his part to make the self-proclaimed “Sportfishing Capital of the World” also known for its artwork. He is a president and founder of the village’s Morada Way Arts & Cultural District, where his Pasta Pantaleo Signature Gallery is located. A painting based on his experiences from our trip might soon be on display in the gallery.

One of the keys to the success of the trip was having plenty of live pilchards to use as bait. Barron had thrown a large cast net at least 10 times, which would easily exhaust a less fit person, to catch several hundred baitfish.

Stanczyk trolls rigged ballyhoo, plastic squid and feathers to locate schools of dolphin. When a fish is hooked, he stops the boat and Barron puts out lines baited with squid or bonito chunks. On this day the dolphin were picky and wouldn’t eat the dead bait, but the pilchards were hard for them to resist.

The key to knowing where to troll was spotting flocks of birds. Frigate birds will follow schools of dolphin, but they weren’t around on Wednesday. Fortunately, Stanczyk was able to see flocks of sooty terns, which also can be a sign of dolphin.
“You more or less are going on a hunting trip in the ocean, but we don’t kill the birds, we don’t harm a feather,” said Stanczyk, who uses Fujinon 7x50 rubber-coated binoculars to scan the ocean for birds from Catch 22’s bridge. “You don’t have to see the fish to catch them. Just find the birds.

“Some birds you’re hunting, instead of schoolies, it could be a three- or five-bagger of big fish.”

And sometimes a dolphin trip will produce sailfish, wahoo, blackfin tuna, white marlin or blue marlin.

But when you’re having a blast catching schoolies one after the other, big fish don’t really matter.