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September 21, 2007

The Slammer Pros

When you're out to catch the dolphin of a lifetime, who better to ask for advice than the hottest hands on the water?


BULLY FOR YOU: Brilliant coloration and wild airborne displays are why dolphin are called the perfect gamefish.
Photo: Tony Ludovico/Openwaterimages.com

MID-ATLANTIC
No dolphin is safe when Captain Dan Rooks hits the Mid-Atlantic weedlines.

Captain Dan Rooks

Home Team: Tuna Duck
Home Port: Hatteras Harbor, North Carolina
Experience: Captain since 1988
Killer Catch: Hooked a triple-landed two 60-pound cows, but lost a bull thought to be 90

Finding Fish
Locating a weedline is the key to finding Mid-Atlantic dolphin-which research indicates are among the biggest available anywhere. Luckily, finding sargassum weed in the summer is not hard, but finding the vegetation bunched up in long lines requires some special conditions. Captain Dan Rooks waits for the wind and the current to move in the same direction before looking for a weedline. "If the wind is blowing out of the southwest and the current is traveling to the northeast, the weed will gather on the current edge," he says. Otherwise, the weed will be scattered and trolling through it will be difficult.

Super Strategies
When the conditions are right, Rooks will troll from one weedline to another looking for dolphin. "Not all the weedlines have life under them," says Rooks. "Look in the water around the grass for anything living." Sometimes, he'll check eight or ten weedlines before he finds one that is alive with bait. When he spots a school of peanuts swimming in the grass, he tries to keep his boat running with the fish as they move down the weedline. "It's kind of tricky," he says. "But you have to keep the boat moving while letting the bait sink like it's not attached to anything." To accomplish this, he bumps the boat along the line in time with the moving school of fish while his anglers cast out chunks of bait and let them sink below the grass. Once he's had his fun with the bailers, Rooks will go looking for the gaffers. "To find bigger fish, move to deeper water and look for anything floating," he says. By the way, "anything" means exactly that: a log, a two-by-four, palettes or coconuts-whatever floats. Once Rooks locates a dolphin magnet, he'll first make a couple wide circles with his trolling spread. "Big dolphin aren't always tight to the structure," Rooks says. "Sometimes they're 50 yards away." Often, the biggest dolphin will come charging out of the cover followed by the schoolies.

Dolphin Arsenal
Pitcher: Rooks uses a Penn Longbeach rod and reel combo spooled with 30-pound mono topped off with 50 yards of 50-pound mono. A 7/0 dink-bait hook is tied directly to the topshot. He attaches an egg sinker one rod length from the hook by passing the leader through the hole twice (weight depends on conditions). "The egg sinker keeps the angler from accidentally reeling the dolphin right out of the water," Rooks explains.

Troll: Rooks catches big dolphin while trolling for the lineup of bluewater MVPs (wahoo, marlin and tuna) so his trolling gear consists of a mixture of 30s and 50s rigged for anything that comes along.

Spin: Just for fun, Rooks will take his trout rod along on a dolphin trip. "Light tackle can be very effective," he says. He'll use an eight-pound-test light-action spinning rod to tame wild peanuts. They sure pull harder than any trout.

Bait: "Sometimes the fish turn off of squid," Rooks says. "So we'll use fresh albacore or tuna belly-any kind of red meat. (Check area regulations before using tuna meat.) "When the dolphin get finicky, we'll even cut open a dolphin and use what the fish are feeding on-I've even used steamed shrimp that we had for dinner the night before. We get pretty creative with what we'll try at times."

Jigs: Most of the fish that dolphin pick from the weedlines are small-less than a few inches-and most of the dolphin Rooks catches from the weedline are similarly proportioned-less than a few pounds. So a 1⁄2-ounce jighead and soft-plastic tail help him match the hatch.

But not all of Rooks's weedline fish are small. In fact, his best bull ever came from a weedline relatively early in his career.

"Back then, I was working as a mate on a charter boat and we were fishing a tournament-pulling big baits looking for marlin." The crew came upon a massive weedline that was at least 30 yards wide and seemed to stretch on forever across the oily calm ocean.

"From out of nowhere, we watched three big dolphin greyhounding straight for our baits," he says. "We hooked all three of those fish, but the bull came in last. It ate a Spanish mackerel then came straight out of the water. I was looking him straight in the eye and he was still coming out of the water."

FEATHER DUSTED: No Alibi feathers crush big dolphin in the Mid-Atlantic states.

The skipper estimates the fish measured somewhere between six and seven feet long. "The big cow weighed 63 pounds, and the bull probably went 90, but I can't say for certain because we lost him."

Cook 'em up
"Simple is better" is Captain Rooks's modus operandi when it comes to cooking fresh dolphin. "Just marinate the fillets for a couple of hours in Italian dressing and throw them on a hot grill," he says. "Dolphin is a mild-tasting fish. Easy does it."

Rooks's Secret Weapon
When Rooks is trolling the weedlines for dolphin, he pulls small No Alibi feathers on a 7/0 dink-bait hook without a ballyhoo chaser. "Size is important," Rooks says, recommending a small 1⁄2- to one-ounce lure. The No Alibi can be pulled close to the grass to imitate weedline residents like flying fish, minnows or juvenile fish. "Some guys are also successful with daisy chains of five to six two-inch squid run a foot apart and trolled from the outrigger."

FLORIDA KEYS
To Islamorada Skipper Paul Ross, catching dolphin takes a systematic approach.

Captain Paul Ross

Home Team: Relentless Charters
Home Port: Islamorada, Florida
Experience: Lifelong resident of the Keys; 12 years as a skipper
Killer Catch: The 65-pound bull that won the 1997 Holiday Isle Dolphin Tournament

Finding Fish
Captain Paul Ross breaks down dolphin fishing into three categories: calm weather, medium wind and howling rough. He matches the tactics he uses to the conditions he faces.

On a calm day, Ross will start between 300 and 400 feet of water. "Stay shallow until at least 10 or 11 a.m. to give the birds time to find the fish, then run deep-to 1,000 feet," he says.

"Look for weeds or floating debris, but always return to the inshore waters later in the day to look for the birds." When the wind is blowing between 12 and 18 knots, Ross looks for dolphin in areas with a lot of depth variation, such as the 500- to 700-foot bottom off Islamorada, Tavernier, Marathon and Duck Key. When the wind is howling, Ross actually finds some of his best dolphin fishing. "The fish congregate on the current upwellings," he says. When small-craft advisories go up, yet the seas remain fishable, he concentrates his tactics around the Islamorada Hump, 409, East Hump or West Hump. However, the fish aren't always right on top of the structure. "The Gulf Stream does weird things," he says. "It can definitely fool you because sometimes the upwelling will be located as much as three or four miles away from the humps."

Super Strategies
On calm days, Ross pulls naked ballyhoo or slow-trolls live baits while searching the sky for working birds. He always keeps one live pitch-bait rigged on a 7/0 hook at the ready on a medium-heavy spinning rod. When he sees floating debris, he creeps up to it, kicking the boat in and out of gear. "Circle the target 60 yards out with the live baits," he says. "Put the spinning rods in the holders with the bails open and the anglers' fingers on the lines." When a fish hits, Ross instructs his angler to let go of the line, count to five, snap the bail closed and start cranking.

"Birds are the key to catching dolphin on a medium-wind day," he says. "Three to five birds working is a good sign of dolphin. More than that and they're probably over skipjacks or blackfin that are unapproachable." While he's searching for birds, Ross trolls Wide Range lures on flat lines up to 20 knots while he runs from one spot to another looking for signs of life. When approaching working birds or floating structure, he pulls the flat lines in close and drops the 'hoos from the outriggers.

On rough days, Ross prefers to pull rigged ballyhoo behind a softhead trolling lure.

"It keeps the waves from blowing out the ballyhoo," he says. Ross expects to find big dolphin with marlin and tuna, when the wind is pumping.

"Fish aren't picky on rough days," Ross says.Ironically, Ross's best dolphin came on a glass-calm day with absolutely no indication or tipoff that there might be dolphin working the area he was fishing.

Spying a group of birds working over a small slick not far from the beach, he pitched a naked ballyhoo and instantly hooked up with the fish of a lifetime.

That fish weighed a whopping 651⁄2 pounds and helped Ross win the 1997 Holiday Isle Dolphin Tournament.

Dolphin Arsenal
Trolling Gear (light winds): Shimano TLD two-speed 50s on flat lines pulling high-speed lures; Shimano TLD 25s on riggers.

Trolling Gear (heavy winds): Shimano TLD two-speed 50s on the outriggers; Shimano TLD 25s on flat lines.

Spinning Tackle: Daiwa BG 60 or BG 90 Reel, seven-foot Ugly Stik rod.

Live Bait: A live bait rigged on a 7/0 hook with no weight is one of the most effective (and fun) ways to catch dolphin. Ross starts the day catching bait. When he finds a piece of debris floating on the surface he also expects to find blue runners and baby jacks below it. "You can castnet them," he says. "But if the bait isn't bunched up, I use a Sabiki rig and six to eight ounces of lead."

THROW EM A BONE: Rapala plugs that mimic small bonito are killer on Keys dolphin.
SLICE OF LIFE: Start with a knife and end with a vacuum-sealer.
Photo: ScottKerrigan.com

To draw the bait out from under the flotsam, Ross dangles a bag of fresh chum from the side of the boat and lets the fish leave the structure and come to him. If you can't find live bait, try casting a whole ballyhoo that is hooked under the chin through the top of the skull.

Cook 'em up
Ross grills his bulls like he would a fine steak-and with just as much care-careful never to overcook. Keep in mind that dolphin flesh is generally mild tasting and a little bit of marinating goes a long way. Be careful not to overwhelm the natural flavor of the delicious flesh. He starts by marinating the fillets for 30 minutes in a mixture of equal parts Italian dressing and teriyaki sauce with a splash of olive oil. "Get the grill cookin' hot-like 500 degrees-with flames shooting six inches out of it and sear the fillets for two or three minutes on each side," he says. Turn the heat down to medium and cook only until the fillets are flaky.

Ross's Secret Weapon
Captain Ross is a firm believer in trying to match the hatch. Jetheads, Wide Range lures and Rapalas represent the small bonito, big blue runners and speedos that call Islamorada weedlines home. "They're chewing on a lot of baby fish in the spring," Ross says.

A Cut above the rest
Follow this six-step plan for perfect fillets.

Not only does Captain Devlin Roussel show his clients how to catch dolphin, he shows them how to clean the fish, too. Here's his method in six easy-to-follow steps.
1. Fillet the dolphin by running a sharp, stiff knife around the outside of the skin, then slicing the meat away from the fish's backbone. Impaling the dolphin's head on an inverted spike will help hold the fish still.
2. If you will be traveling with the meat, leave the skin on the fillet to keep the meat from turning to mush on the trip.
3. To remove the skin, lay the fillet skin-side down on a cleaning table and firmly grasp the tail end. Cleaning gloves, a rag or even pliers can help steady the fish.
4. Starting at the tail end of the dolphin, run a long, thin, flexible knife blade between the meat and the skin, keeping the blade at a 45-degree angle to the cleaning table.
5. Once the meat is free of the skin, turn the fillet over so that the skin-side is up and remove the dark meat that can be found around the tail and along the loin. It might have a slightly strong taste.
6. Serve fresh or vacuum-seal the fillets to prevent freezer burn. Sealed fillets can last up to a year in your freezer.

THE GULF
Some troll lures, others pitch baits. Captain Devlin Roussel prefers frogs.

Captain Devlin Roussel

Home Team: Reel Peace Charters
Home Port: Venice, Louisiana
Experience: Nine years as a charter-boat skipper
Killer Catch: Roussel was at the helm when his charter caught a 62-pound bull dolphin.

Finding Fish
"You've got to be able to see dolphin to catch them," says Captain Devlin Roussel. "So the best conditions for dolphin fishing are clear calm water and lots of sun. During the season, it's not a question of whether the dolphin are around, it's only a matter of seeing them around the oil rigs." For Roussel and the rest of the Venice, Louisiana, offshore fleet, dolphin season runs from late March through October with the height of the action in the middle of the summer, yet some of the biggest dolphin are caught in the heart of winter. "Every year, in December and January, some dolphin show and they're usually monsters-over 35 pounds," he says. "We had several over 50 this January." Dolphin range in warm waters between 75 and 87 degrees. They move offshore when the water temp gets too high.

Super Strategies
"We catch most of our dolphin while fishing for tuna," Roussel says. "But we know we can always run over to the rigs and pull some out of the legs." Whether gunning for tuna, marlin or dolphin, Roussel fishes with live bait. Usually, he slow-trolls his rigged baits up to a quarter-mile off the rig, but to target big dolphin he'll pull right up to the platform and make a pass on the upcurrent side of its supports. "When we see the dolphin come out after the live baits, we'll lead them away from the structure," he says.

AIR SHOW: A lit-up bull goes airborne. Gulf dolphin are typically found near gas rigs.
Photo: ScottKerrigan.com
FROGS FOR HOGS: Captain Devlin Roussel lures aggressive dolphin with a Scum Frog.
Photo: Manfred Koh

The fish will gather around his boat, seeming to use it for a place to hide. That's when he brings in the livies and throws the frogs.

Dolphin Arsenal
Trolling Gear: Roussel uses a Shimano Tiagra 16 spooled with 80-pound Spectra on a Cape Fear 5080 roller-guide rod. He adds 25 yards of 80-pound fluorocarbon to the braid.

Spinning: Fin Nor 20- to 30-pound-class rod matched to a Fin Nor Offshore 7500 reel filed with 65-pound Power Pro.

Glasses: The key to catching Gulf Coast dolphin is seeing the fish. Roussel wears Costa Del Mar's Fathoms with the WAVE 580 glass lenses.

Live Bait: Roussel rigs his live herring, hardtails, greenbacks or goggle-eyes on a 5/0 Mustad 39950 BL Demon hook tied directly to the 80-pound fluorocarbon coming off one of his trolling rods. If there is a lot of current, he'll hook the bait through the top of the mouth. Under normal conditions, he likes to hook the fish through the shoulders.

Cook 'em up
Roussel starts by crushing up a handful of tortillas. Next, he prepares a plate with some flour on it, an eggwash (2 eggs and a 1⁄4 can of beer), and another plate for the tortilla pieces. He then sprinkles some salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper on the fillets and dips them in flour before dipping the outside (skin side) into the eggwash and the tortilla pieces.

"Heat up some canola oil in a frying pan and saut¿ the fillets-first tortilla side down over a medium-high flame then flip until it is done."

To make a sauce, he removes the fish from the pan, pours off the excess oil and adds a little cider vinegar, red chili flakes and a dab of pineapple or mango jelly and cooks it until it turns into liquid. "It's fantastic."

Roussel's Secret Weapon
"Dolphin go crazy over a Scum Frog," Roussel says. "I once grabbed one off a charter client, rigged it on a 9/0 hook, cast it out and hooked up with a dolphin immediately. Put the frog right in front of the dolphin's nose. If the fish doesn't strike, crank the lure away quickly, then cast it back out."

WEST COAST
If you're a bait-rigging fan, Captain Mark Wisch has got the tactics for you.

Captain Mark Wisch

Home Team: Pacific Edge Tackle
Home Port: Huntington Beach, California
Experience: 44 years on the water; 15 years as a guide
Killer Catch: Solo-landed a green bull dolphin

Finding Fish
The Spanish term el ni¿o means "the child." In SoCal, it translates into good dolphin fishing as weather patterns bring warm ocean water to the coast. "Last year was a good year," says Wisch. "It was probably because it was a precursor to this year's El Ni¿o event." With water temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees, Wisch fished current breaks and free-floating kelp paddies. "In warm-water years, we'll find dolphin on almost every kelp paddy," he says. "West to southwest wind is our friendliest. A southeast wind changes everything. It breaks the edges and pushes the kelp all over." He suggests that skippers look for color changes. "Sometimes guys pass right by green water breaks," he says. "That's a mistake."

Super Strategies
When wisch comes across a temperature break or a color change, he trolls albacore feathers, small marlin jigs and six-inch Tuna Clones. "We favor brighter patterns like goatfish and bleeding mackerel," he says. With luck, he doesn't have to troll far before he finds a kelp paddy.

BULLHEADED: Though SoCal dolphin will fall for lures, live bait is much preferred.
Photo: Tony Pe¿a
MINI SKIRT: Small Tuna Clones are top producers for Left Coast bulls.

"We're fortunate to have offshore islands with kelp paddies. The wind blows the kelp off the island and the fish congregate around it." When he approaches this floating forest, Wisch pulls in the trolling gear and rigs up live sardines or mackerel. He stops the boat 100 yards upwind of the paddy and free-lines the live fish back into the vegetation. "Sometimes the dolphin are full and they won't eat a live bait, but they'll eat a chunk," he says. Wisch brings in the livies and cuts them into one-inch chunks before feeding them back out to the grass.

Dolphin Arsenal
Trolling Gear: Wisch opts for a Shimano Tiagra 16 spooled with 400 yards of 65-pound Spectra sporting a 100-yard topshot of 50-pound mono. A Calstar 700 ML rod is shortened two inches at the butt and wrapped with AFTCO light rollers with a graphite ferrule.

Shimano Torium 20 loaded with 50-pound Spectra on a 700 ML Calstar with ring guides. "Makes a great all-around kelp rod," Wisch says.

The Bait Tank: West Coast bluewater fishing is dependent on live bait, and Wisch is an expert at designing and installing bait tanks. "We have to pay attention to water flow to keep the bait oriented into the current and milling properly," he says. The water flow must carefully match the size and shape of the bait tank. "We build them from 12 gallons pushing 360 gph to 250-gallon wells powered with a Jacuzzi pump."

Live Bait: Wisch picks up a scoop of sardines at the bait barge on his way out of the harbor. He'll also stop and catch mackerel on a Sabiki rig. "Sometimes you can catch them right under the barge or pull Spanish mackerel from under the kelp paddies," he says. Wisch's live-bait rig consists of a 3/0 Owner Gorilla hook on three feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon. He hooks his live bait across the belly just in front of the pelvic fins. "If the hook is through the nose, it can turn back into the bait when the dolphin bites," he says. "But with a belly hook, that almost never happens." Belly-hooked baits usually swim down under a kelp paddy. "The one that goes down usually gets bit."

Cook 'em up
"The most basic way to cook dolphin is the best," says Wisch's wife Chris. "Just sprinkle each fillet with salt and pepper and saut¿ them in a skillet with some butter. When the fish is almost done remove the fillets from the pan, add a couple pats of butter, some sliced almonds and saut¿ until the nuts are golden brown. Pour in one shot of vermouth to a make a delectable dolphin sauce."

Wisch's Secret Weapon
Six-inch Tuna Clones and feathers are Mark Wisch's go-to lures for dolphin for one very simple reason: "The dolphin are feeding on three- to five-inch anchovies, Pacific saury and even baby wahoo," Wisch says. "Trolling lures that match what dolphin are feeding on is key." Wisch will troll lures tight to the kelp paddies. If fish show no interest, he'll switch to bait.

THE NAME GAME
Follow this handy reference guide to dolphinology.
Shakers: A dolphin you don't want to keep so you just shake off the hook. Paul Ross: "We found a school of shakers and every one of them was too small."

Flip-Flop: Dolphin that appear to be about the size and shape of a flip-flop.

Chicken: Small dolphin-so tender, people say they taste like chicken. Devlin Roussel: "That blue marlin just came up and ate a chicken we were reeling in."

Bailer: These are schoolie fish that blitz behind the boat and can be slung into the fishbox like hay with a pitchfork. Dan Rooks: "We just crank down and lift when bailers are schooled up behind the boat."

Hoisters: Between a bailer and a gaffer, a hoister is a dolphin you can take a couple of leader wraps on and swing aboard sans gaff. Captain Dan Rooks: "If you have a hoister on and he comes off, he was a gaffer."

Gaffer: A big dolphin that you had better stick a gaff into, or there's no chance you will ever get it to the fishbox without losing it.

Slammer: The biggest of the big. - R.B.

COLOR CODED:
Why are some dolphin blue and others neon-green and yellow? Like many things in nature, it doesn't happen by accident. Why do dolphin change color? What does it all mean? Dolphin expert Don Hammond, director of Cooperative Science Services LLC, explains the light show.