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Off-Duty Dolphin

Boards, birds and some of the other “little stuff” blue-water anglers look for in late summer.

The fruits of his labor: a big bull dolphin for Capt. Eric Hamilton. Above right, Willie Allen plays a schoolie. Opposite is a closeup look at the quarry.

Word around town was slow dolphin fishing. As I watched a four-pound schoolie arc through the air and land with a thud in the bow of our boat, I had to laugh.

The fish passed neatly as a soccer ball through the legs of Capt. Eric Hamilton, who turned and gave me a perplexed look.

“I've never seen that happen before,” he said, a white jig dangling from the tip of his rod.

The fish now flopping around on deck had been one of a pack racing for Hamilton's bucktail. The skipper cranked the spinning reel as fast as he could, and evidently, as happens with dolphin sometimes, the lead fish overshot its target.

Now the Provider in his infinite wisdom may have forgotten to equip these speedsters with brakes, but he did give them split-second reaction time, as well as decision-making ability ranking slightly above that of your average housefly.

Rather than head-butt a fiberglass wall, the fish simply tilted its pectoral fins and took off like a jet.

Willie Allen and I cheered when we saw the fish come aboard, but Hamilton remained sort of stunned. I think it dawned on him that had the trajectory been a few degrees higher he likely would have suffered an embarassing and potentially injurious below-the-belt collision with a fish.

Anyway, I tell this story to prove I wasn't exaggerating when I later told a friend that, reports to the contrary, fish were jumping in the boat.

It was September, typically a slow month on the blue water off South Florida. Sargassum weedlines, which anglers often associate with dolphin fishing, had been scarce for weeks. The good runs of early summer fish were a distant memory; at the same time, the fall kingfish and sailfish runs were a few months off yet.

But we weren't complaining. Hamilton, a dolphin specialist, knew there was more out there than just hordes of bonito. We just had to do some looking.

Before sunrise, we left Crandon Park on Key Biscayne on the optimistic side of the old glass-half-full-or-half-empty debate. We weren't going to bemoan the absence of miles-long weedlines; instead, we would focus on locating the omnipresent debris adrift on the Gulf Stream—the little stuff that inattentive fishermen sometimes miss. We would also keep our eyes peeled for sea birds, which often accompany the schools of dolphin that traditionally begin moving south sometime in early fall.

The kind of debris the dolphin fisherman looks for is basically the detritus of coastal civilization, washed into the sea and pulled along by the northbound current. Lots of it is marine in origin, such as wooden shipping pallets, sections of rope, migrant coconuts. Some of it defies easy explanation, like the red fireman's hat we found 20 miles off Fowey Light. This discovery was even more unusual in that Hamilton and Willie are both employed by the City of Miami Fire Department. They assured me that the barnacle-encrusted hat belonged to no one they knew.

Hat, plywood, cooler lid—basically, anything that casts a shadow in the water column eventually attracts some form of marine life. Triggerfish, flyingfish and small jacks seek refuge in the shadow, and feast on even smaller critters you and I don't see.

But not all debris is the same. Clean, fresh debris may not have had time to gather a following. It's the gnarly stuff you're looking for, like pieces of wood that seem to have started growing again, or items surrounded by bits of sargassum, perhaps indicating a nutrient-rich edge of changing currents and/or water temperatures.

I took note of how Hamilton evaluated each piece of flotsam he spotted from his console tower. The skipper didn't stop unless he saw, at the very least, a pod of baitfish—runners, triggerfish and the like. When Hamilton eased off the throttle of the Almost Paradise, Willie and I would pitch a live bait or jig into the area. More often than not, eagle-eyed Eric put us on fish. One particularly fishy sheet of plywood also held a pair of tripletail in its shade; after several casts, one of the prehistoric-looking fish finally gobbled a sardine with a hook in it.

After icing down a few dolphin, typical schoolies in the 3- to 8-pound range, we started to get more selective, saving valuable fishing time by bypassing the more numerous peanut-size specimens.

A pair of polarizing sunglasses can be an important accessory for this kind of offshore window-shopping. The characteristic neon blue-green flash of a dolphin is otherwise hard to see through the glare. Elevation helps, too. Crews on big sportfishing boats have known this for years, but even the few extra feet of a console tower on trailerable craft, such as Hamilton's 25-footer, gives a much better view. And ‘view' doesn't just mean distance from the boat. The higher you are, the deeper you can see, which means you won't miss that larger fish skulking in the shadow of a drifting board, for example.

Spend some time watching sea birds and you'll understand this principle. A high-soaring frigate bird, or man o' war bird, is often eyeballing fish well beneath the surface; when he's down low, he's chasing stuff right near the top.

On the subject of birds, it was about midday when we discovered a half-dozen terns and a single frigate circling some 15 miles offshore. Our first thought was dolphin. After figuring the direction of their movement, Hamilton sped around them and shut off the engine. Our plan was to drift live baits in the expectation that hungry dolphin would soon come our way. The birds, however, remained stationary. Whatever it was that had their interest was in no apparent hurry.

About the time I noticed the single purple-black fin above the water, I caught sight of a second sailfish free-jumping a few hundred feet away. No telling how many sails were jam-packed under those birds; I also won't say how many we caught. Suffice to say we had a fantastic strikes-to-catches ratio. In any case, it was interesting to find sailfish so far offshore—with the arrival of cold fronts in a few months, they would be pressing against the reef just a few miles off the beaches. For now, though, the sails, like the dolphin, were scouting the buffet line of forage that the Gulf Stream serves up. As anglers, we do well to adopt this brand of opportunism.

The vagaries of the Gulf Stream, in close one day, out far another, at times require a dolphin fisherman to be generous in his fuel expenditures. With his single diesel, Hamilton was generous indeed. We worked our way 25 miles out on our hunt for fish—very near to the limit of U.S. federal waters, beyond which you'd need a Bahamian cruising permit from the customs office on Bimini.

It was a long run, but more than worth it, as evidenced by the contents of our cooler at day's end.

We also returned with that special feeling of satisfaction that accompanies exploration of unfamiliar water. One of the neatest things about the Gulf Stream is that it is an ecosystem in constant flux, rolling up the coastline like film through a movie projector. Sailfish weren't the only predators we discovered lazing at the surface of the sargassum-flecked indigo water. At one point, we had a school of dolphin—the mammal sort—riding our bow wave. The animals would turn their heads and stare at us with that peculiar curling of the mouth that fishermen since time immemorial have interpreted as a smile.

When you hear the fishing is slow, often that's coming from boaters who didn't venture out of sight of shore. Two miles outside most South Florida inlets puts you in 100 feet of water, where often there's a strong northbound current and the beginnings of a weedline. But, if the water is green and sulky, you might head for the horizon and look for better conditions. Or, at the least, check with folks who've been out that week. The Internet offers a discreet route to some dockside eavesdropping. Check the weekend updates on, or any number of other sites.

Nowadays, there's not as much debate over blind-trolling versus running-and-gunning. Most folks abide by the second school of thought, though there's always some guy at the cleaning table whittling away at a 40-pound bull, jabbering about how he got it “right out front” on a trolled ballyhoo.

A smart dolphin angler looking for fish will be prepared for either tactic. Toss a wriggly live pilchard (or pinfish, or runner, or jig, or ballyhoo chunk, etcetera) to a school of dolphin under a piece of drifting debris and you'll almost certainly catch fish. If they're acting shy, you might troll a plastic chugger lure through the area at 8 knots or so, fast enough to kick up a bubble trail and generate some excitement.

A typical livebait or jigging rig consists of a 61/2- or 7-foot spinning rod and a quality saltwater reel spooled up with around 275 yards of 12- to 20-pound test. Dolphin aren't what you'd call toothy fish, but they can wear through straight mono. So add a few feet of leader, 40- to 80-pound test, and connect it to your main line with a swivel or a knot, such as a uni- to Bimini-twisted double line. Tie on a single 3/0 to 7/0 hook and you're in business.

Unless fish seem to be shying away, you may want to go with the heavier leader material. A recent phone conversation with a fisherman from Key West underscores, for me anyway, the reason.

Seems the angler's wife had pitched a dead ballyhoo to a herd of schoolie dolphin along a weedline and wound up connected to a 300-pound blue marlin. The leader (singlestrand wire, if I remember correctly) held fast for an hour-and-a-half against the fish of a lifetime. The main line, 20-pound test, eventually frayed and parted.

Those summertime sailfish, too, are notorious for stampeding out of a weedline to hit a dolphin bait. When push comes to shove, you'll want the heavier leader—preferably monofilament, as wire tends to kink—to stand up to that thrashing, abrasive bill.

Dolphin will hit virtually any kind of bait. Hamilton and other professional fishermen twirl 12-foot castnets nearly every day, filling wells with anything from pilchards (scaled sardines) to cigar minnows to blue runners. On my own boat, a 17-footer with a rather modest livewell, I load up only enough to catch dinner, using an 8-foot net or a No. 4 or 8 Haybusa sabiki rig (the ones with the little green beads in front of the gold hooks). Every South Florida port has its own bait spots, from range markers to offshore buoys, to inside grassflats, to freighters anchored offshore. A block of chum in a meshbag helps attract the baits.

Dead baits get dolphin riled up, too. Frozen squid, ballyhoo, sardines and others have a place in the caster's arsenal. If you've got enough, you can cut up chunks and chum the fish in close, where the action gets really frenzied.

After you've exhausted the dolphin prospects (hopefully leaving some to grow and reproduce), try dropping a 1- or 2-ounce white bucktail jig about 100 feet down and reeling it back up, fast, with exaggerated pumping of the rod. Hamilton gave it a shot at one board and hooked the tiniest wahoo any of us had ever seen. It was no more than 12 inches. Another piece of wood yielded a much larger fish of 16 inches. This one's teeth actually posed a threat to the length of singlestrand wire leader between jig and fishing line.

All joking aside, what you're really looking for is a whopper in the 30-pound-plus range, a tiger-striped beast stationed under the dolphin school. Big wahoo aren't what you'd call abundant, but they will make your day if they're around. A live bait fished deep on a downrigger or breakaway sinker is another good way to check for 'hoos. Deep-jigging just happens to be one of the most convenient ways to go about it—that is assuming one of those razor-mouthed horrors doesn't decide to make like a schoolie dolphin and come rocketing over the gunnel gnashing its triangular teeth at trouser level.

I've never seen that happen before, but you never know. FS

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