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June 29, 2009

Top Five Florida Keys Fishing Opportunities

Local experts offer up prime bets for July and August

Pat Ford

4. Mahi Madness

Dolphin, one of the most popular and colorful game fish, school in  great numbers during Keys' summers. And though the biggest bulls may be caught in April and May, Capt. Brian Cone out of Robbie's Marina in Islamorada (305-481-7689; www.islamoradafishing.com) sees good numbers of quality 30- to 40-pounders and flatter, friendlier seas in July and August.

Cone's game plan starts with a 20- to 30-mile run into the Atlantic, outside of the 1,000-foot line and away from major structure like the Islamorada Hump, where skipjacks crash the party.

"I'd rather find migrating fish in the open because they're aggressive," Cone says. "On weed lines, there's more food for them."

So Cone looks for current edges  and hunts birds like sooty terns and gannets that are working over bait. He trolls rigged ballyhoo and flying fish but prepares squid and bonito chunks to cast to schools of feeders. Once he raises fish with the trolled dead baits, he may switch to slow-trolling live goggle-eyes, blue runners or pilchards.

Keep the setup simple, Cone says. He uses 30- to 50-pound trolling outfits, doubles the mono (6 feet) with a Bimini twist and attaches a snap swivel. He rigs fresh naked ballyhoo on a pin-rig to 80- to 100-pound mono leader in case he happens into billfish.

To cast toward schools of smaller dolphin, Cone chooses spinning rods spooled with 12-pound-test, 3 feet of 40-pound leader and a 3/0 or 4/0 hook. He keeps a 20- to 30-pound spinner ready to cast to larger fish.

Expect 20 to 30 fish per day in  summer, says Summerland Key Capt. Jim Sharpe, who looks for water ranging in temperature from  78 to 82 degrees. Schoolies average 5 to 8 pounds, with a number of 10- to 20-pounders in the mix.

Sharpe wrote the book on dolphin, literally - Dolphin: The Perfect Gamefish. Order a copy for $39.95 at www.seaboots.com, or call 800-238-1746.