October 04, 2010
Big, hard-fighting and some of the best table fare in the ocean, dolphin, or mahi-mahi, are in range of South Carolina's saltwater anglers now.
This big bull dolphin, caught by the author, put up a tremendous fight.
Photo courtesy of Bennett Kirkpatrick.
To most of the general public, the word dolphin automatically congers up the image of "Flipper" that was made popular by the motion picture industry. That type dolphin is a mammal. The dolphin that offshore saltwater anglers target is a beautifully colored fish that is delicious any way it is prepared. When dolphin are first removed from the water, they have dazzling hues of gold, pink, green and blue.
Dolphin have an average lifespan of no more than five years, and are a very fast-growing fish. Catches average 15 to 28 pounds but seldom exceed 33 pounds. They are fast swimmers, and can reach speeds of 50 knots. Jumping ability and exceptional flavor make them a top choice for many blue water anglers.
My most spectacular day of dolphin fishing that took place on a trip out of Edisto Beach many years ago comes to mind. John Good and I were fishing with Jim Young on the Fish Hawk. Following a 120-degree heading out of Edisto Beach will bring a boat to the continental shelf in roughly 65 miles, and the continental shelf was our destination that morning. The seas were relatively calm and the trip took around three hours. Currents had formed long lines of sargassum weed on the surface and baitfish were plentiful in the shade beneath. In addition to two outriggers, we trolled two flatlines off the stern. Our baits were Sea Witches tipped with ballyhoo.
Explosive topwater strikes were common as we skirted down the sides of the weeds. Quite often, we would have two and three dolphin on at a time -- the action was intense! It didn't take long before our cooler was about full. Action that fast doesn't take long to take the sap out of fishermen. I called out to Jim, "Let's catch one more, and head home."
We hadn't gone far when a huge dolphin struck at a bait and missed. Immediately, I flipped the lever on the 4/0 Penn reel to let line out. This allows the bait to settle momentarily and come back to life as the lever is closed. Most of the time, a dolphin will come back for a second try at the bait. He did but missed again. Without going into all the gory details, the fish finally hung the hook on his sixth try. Having let extra line out every time he missed, the lure was a long ways behind the boat. The bull jumped in a high arc when he realized that he was hooked. The stiff rod had a deep bend in it as I struggled to turn the fish. My arms ached as the muscles were swollen from a hard day's fishing.
Jim called back to me, "Do you want me to use the boat to let you get some line back?"
"Yes," I replied over my shoulder, "I'm tired!"
I reeled fast to take up the slack as Jim turned the boat in a wide arc. Even reeling fast, I was unable to keep slack out of the line. The giant came to the surface, and just lay there like he was sunning himself.
John said, "That fish doesn't know he's hooked. If I can get a gaff in him, do you want me to try?"
"By all means," I huffed, still reeling slowly to take up slack without getting the line tight. As the boat pulled alongside the bull, John stuck the gaff in the fish's back, and swung him on board. As soon as the fish hit the deck, the gaff came free, and the fish went wild! He was green as grass and his thrashing tail was smashing everything in his way. The first thing to go was a 48-quart drink cooler as drinks and ice scattered over the floor. We jumped up on the seat to keep from getting our legs broken.
You've heard of the proverbial "bull in a china shop"; this was what we had. John gaffed the fish a second time, and lifted it off the deck. The dolphin's tail was still vibrating back and forth like a paddle when it hit John in the stomach. The force of the lick pushed John all the way up to the driver's seat.
I opened the fish box, and scooped the fish into the top. The lid wouldn't close because over a foot of its tail was sticking out. The dolphin's tail was beating on the lid like a drum. About that time, John gasped a deep breath to get back what the bull had knocked out of him and he said, "I'll never make that mistake of gaffing a green fish again."
That's as good a policy now as it was then.
Dolphin love shade because there is precious little in the ocean that casts a shadow. Baitfish gather under anything that has a shadow, and dolphin take advantage of this tendency. Scrap lumber and other garbage you see floating in 100 feet of water or more will most likely be home for just a few large dolphin on up to hundreds of "peanuts" (2 to 5 pounds) as the small ones are called. Always check out anything floating on the water for dolphin under it. If you spot big fish under the trash, troll baits fairly close and they will rush out to strike them.
If "peanuts" are there, you might want to stop your boat an easy cast away, and break out spinning tackle spooled with 15- to 20-pound-test line. Cut ballyhoo into 2-inch pieces, and run a 5/0 hook through it. Use no leader when the hook is tied to the line. Sight-cast to a group of "peanuts"; they will charge the bait as it settles in the water. Set the hook only after you feel the tug of a fish on the line; it will automatically jump clear of the water, and swim fast away from the boat. The rest of the school will follow.
After fighting the hooked fish back to the boat, make no effort to land it. Leave it in the water as a decoy until another fish is hooked. When the school follows the hooked fish, land your decoy. Repeat this scenario until the fish get wise and stack up around the boat. Beating the water fast with the tip of your rod will simulate fish feeding. Quite often, this will put the fish back into a striking mood. Chumming with cut pieces of ballyhoo will work, too.
When you hook a fish while trolling, before bringing it aboard, first check the water behind the hooked fish to see if a second dolphin is following. If a second dolphin is behind the first, another bait put out in the vicinity will most often end with another hookup.
Ice fish down as soon as possible after one is boated; this will insure a fresh taste when the meat is cooked. Something else that will improve filleted dolphin is to cut away the dark red meat, as it tastes strong.
When trolling "blind" and a dolphin is hooked, reverse your course to see if other fish are in the vicinity. Trolling in a cloverleaf pattern will help locate loosely schooled fish. If your craft has electroni
cs that will allow you to hit the "man overboard" button, do so when you catch a fish; this will allow you to return to the exact spot the previous fish was caught.
If your boat doesn't have this feature, a homemade remedy can be substituted. Run the big end of a bamboo fishing pole through a Styrofoam boat float. Tie it off where the flag you attach to the small end of the pole will be 6 feet or more above the float. Attach a weight that is heavy enough to make the pole stand up straight when floated in the water. Put this floating flag out when a fish is hooked. Wind will move the float, but you can stay in the general vicinity using this method.
Another tip is to make sure your ballyhoo doesn't spin as it is trolled through the water; spinning baits drastically reduce strikes.
June and July are prime months to catch dolphin offshore in South Carolina. Head out to get into 100-foot or more depths, and look for trash floating on the water. The waters of the Gulf Stream vary in their offshore path. If you run into a bed of sargassum weed, by all means fish it. Use the tips in this story to help you get your limit of dolphin. Not only are these fish beautiful, they love to jump and their taste on the table is out of this world!