On calm summer days, a live bait under a float is deadly.

Bait struggling against a float rings the dinner bell for dolphin. The float itself may be an appetizer of sorts.

Okay, you graduated long ago from bluegills and bobbers. You’re reading the Offshore Seminar, after all.

But, have you seen what I’ve seen? That is, schools of mahi-mahi or big loner sailfish seduced by the urgent thrashes of a baitfish, and mesmerized by a colorful float bobbing nearby?

I’m convinced that pegging a foam cork about four feet above a live bait is one of the best tactics for mixed-bag drift-fishing on the summer ocean.

The bobber offers some important benefits. For one, it keeps your bait near the surface. The resistance of the float provokes the baitfish into an erratic swimming pattern which broadcasts vulnerability. Two, it gives you a visual reference so that you can keep your lines organized and react to strikes.

On a very calm day, live baits hooked through the lips or back tend to swim down. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—predators swim down there, too, after all. But the trouble with a free-diving herring or blue runner is that you can’t really tell where the bait will end up. Baits may tangle with other lines, or swim under your boat. With a big arc of slack line, you might fail to notice a strike. Slow-trolling is one solution, but that limits you somewhat: You can’t bottom fish, and you can’t sit back and fully relax.

Drift-fishing in a strong wind, of course, will naturally straighten things out, as the baits are towed along behind the boat. But to drift-fish effectively when it’s calm, put out a bait or two under bobbers. Then, put a bait down deep with some lead.

Slotted foam corks are inexpensive. They usually come with plastic stoppers, but good luck keeping track of these accessories. I keep some sections of wooden dowel to peg the cork in place. Concave popping corks may be used, but for drift-fishing I prefer the 2 ½-inch oval models that come in a variety of bold colors. Another option is one of the “rattling cork” assemblies on the market, such as the Bomber Paradise Popper. These come with line-tie points at top and bottom, along with the added sound effects of brass and plastic beads clacking together.

Usually, I’m pegging the cork to a wind-on leader. If I’m fishing with 20-pound-test main line, I’ll add 6 to 10 feet of 40-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon. This gives a bit of a buffer against not only raspy jaws but also fins—a big dolphin or billfish whipping its tail against light line can wear it down after a time. The long leader also offers a sturdy lanyard for controlling the fish close to the boat when it’s time to gaff or release. Finishing the rig with about 6 inches of light single-strand wire is good insurance against kingfish or wahoo teeth.

When you’re fishing live baits under corks, always have a few spinning rods with jigs or bare hooks lined up for spot-casting. It’s not uncommon for a school of dolphin to zero-in on a bait-and-cork combo. Sometimes the bait gets consumed right away, but an especially hearty specimen might give predators a run for their money. There’s no “chum” on earth better than a fish chasing another fish: Any other fish in the area are going to burst into feeding mode immediately.

Recently, we boated a good haul of gaffer dolphin in just this scenario. Crew members pitched plastic-tail jigs to a gang of fish whose interest was apparently stimulated by a fat herring doing circles around a hot orange bobber. Even after one fish plucked the herring off the hook, the other fish stayed nearby.

That bobber seemed to offer the same kind of attraction as a bird or other chain teaser within a trolling spread. The dolphin saw not only a prey item (the live bait) but also a perceived secondary prey or possibly a competing predator. A live bait swimming alone on the surface (assuming it stays there) is attractive, but much more so with the addition of a bright bobber.

What about tying a small balloon to the line to achieve the same effect? You can do this, but in my view it’s better to select terminal gear that’s reusable, rather than contributing to the waste stream. The other thing is, a balloon attached to the leader seriously hinders casting. The oval float is aerodynamic. You can cast your bait where you want it, and reel it up quickly to reload. FS

First published Florida Sportsman June 2015

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