As I dozed peacefully on the long trip offshore, the boat suddenly changed direction and tilted me back to reality. I stumbled out of the salon into the predawn gray where Capt. Jimmy Hillsman handed me a gallon bag full of bloody fish chunks. “Bait those hooks — we’ve got dolphin,” he ordered. In no time, Hillsman had bait chunks dangling off each short rigger and skipping from the flat lines. We slowly trolled the baits along a line of sargassum weed until the first dolphin rocketed into the air and snatched the fish chunk. In short order we were covered up, and the rest of the lines came tight to dancing dolphin. Before long, the box was filling up with bailers.
Dolphin are famous for lightning speed and fast direction changes. To catch them, an angler has to be even faster.
“Speed is the name of the game,” Hillsman explained once the chaos subsided and the box was half-full of 5- to 10-pound mahi. Dolphin are usually easy to catch, he said, once he finds them.
“We might get only a couple of shots at the fish each day,” he said, “so we have to make the most of each encounter.” As a result, Hillsman has become a student of efficiency. “It is almost a ‘feel’ thing,” he admits. “I’ve worked very hard to increase my speed and reduce errors.”
Gaffer dolphin first show up off Oregon Inlet in May, and by the end of the month, the fish are thick on the edge of the Gulf Stream. Hillsman defines a “gaffer” dolphin as any fish over 5 pounds that requires a gaff to land. “Bailers,” on the other hand, describe dolphin under 5 pounds, small enough to lift into the boat by grabbing the leader. As water temperatures cross into the upper 70s and pass 80 degrees, the gaffers move out and bailers move in. “We’ll catch bailers into September, even October,” Hillsman says, “but the best action is late summer.”
Tried and True
Try two methods to catch larger dolphin: Troll small, naked ballyhoo on 20-pound tackle, and pull larger ballyhoo and SeaWitch skirts with 50-pound gear. “The lighter rigs hook more fish, but the heavier tackle makes it easier to get the dolphin to the boat,” Hillsman says. The lighter tackle is more sporting, but when the name of the game is speed, Hillsman uses heavy gear.
“Getting to the fish first and staying on the weed line is the key to success,” he says. “If you spend too much time fighting fish, you might lose position.”
In the height of dolphin season, boats leave the dock in the dark and punch through Oregon Inlet just before dawn. “It’s a race to get to the break first,” Hillsman says. “Then turn east or west, and fish along the weed line or current edge.” The first boat to arrive has priority; latecomers either fall in behind, move several miles up the break, or continue offshore looking for another weed line. “Don’t jump right in front of a boat that is working a weed or current line,” he stresses. “That will lose friends real fast.”
Once a crew stakes its claim on a stretch of weed line, it must defend its position by moving along the line and working quickly. If the boat following behind you moves ahead, you give up your position. “That’s where the need for speed comes in,” Hillsman says.
To protect his position in the lineup, Hillman never takes the boat out of gear. When he’s fishing heavier 50-pound gear and SeaWitches, he muscles in dolphin while the boat moves ahead slowly. If the fish are finicky, he’ll switch to lighter 30-pound gear, and troll small ballyhoo on an unweighted hook. “I use a 12-foot leader of 80- to 130-pound monofilament attached to the main line with a snap swivel so I can switch out rigs and don’t have to waste time digging a hook out of the fish,” he says.
When Hillsman spots smaller dolphin darting in and out of the grass, he rigs up his bailing rods and trolls the chunks slowly along the weeds. “That way, when the school of dolphin moves in, you’re ready to bail them.”
As fish hit the trolled chunks, the rest of the crew jumps into action, dropping more chunk baits on medium-action boat rods. It doesn’t take long before everyone is hooked up, and Hillsman goes to work bailing dolphin. Standing in front of the open fish box, he lays out a bag of chum and bait, a short-handled dehooker, and his gaff.
With dolphin darting behind the boat grabbing pieces of chum and baited hooks, anglers line the gunwales, and Hillsman directs traffic and unhooks fish. As small dolphin come to the back of the boat, he swings it in, uses the dehooker to flip the fish in the box, rebaits the hook, and sends the angler back to the beginning of the line — fishing like a well-oiled machine.
All the while, the boat slowly bumps along the weed line. At one point, a huge dolphin streaks in and snatches a small ballyhoo from the long rigger. Hillsman gives instructions as one of the anglers works the fish to the boat. When the fish passes close, he puts bailing on hold and grabs the gaff. With the bull swimming slowly toward the boat, Hillsman grabs the leader and keeps the dolphin’s big head just below the surface. When the fish is within range, he reaches out and scoops it into the cockpit with his gaff.
With a limit of dolphin in the box, Hillsman cleans up his bailing gear and breaks out the trolling gear. As the latecomers arrive at the weed line, we head out in search of tuna, marlin and wahoo. With dozens of boats on the current breaks and weed lines off Oregon Inlet, speed and efficiency put you on the bite.